The Plots Beneath the Plot

Kudos and congrats to all of you who ran the NaNoWriMo course! Yay! Please let us know about your victory.

And if any questions came up in the process, please ask.

Actually, I’m pretty desperate for questions. Somehow, my list is almost dry. The kind of questions that get my blog-post mind going are ones related to the big writing issues: character, plot, setting, tension–you know. I’d also welcome some craft questions, too, like about flow or sentences. Also publishing questions, which I don’t generally get into much, like working with an editor or an agent. And poetry!

On September 20, 2019, Erica wrote, Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. Any tips there?

Melissa Mead wrote back, I could use some tips on subplots myself.

Pretend the commas are money, and spend them as effectively as you can.

Back to Erica: Good idea! I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either.

Subplots first.

Erica, you might try–like the combining-two-sentences exercises–combining two of your short stories, which we can all use as a strategy and which will probably involve changes to both stories, especially to the characters. We’ll ask ourselves if our MC in one story can become a secondary character in another, if the plot lines can work together, and if the conflict is similar or can be made to be.

What’s a subplot anyway? I’d say it’s a little story that has its own conclusion while helping the main plot along to its bigger resolution.

Let’s look at some examples. With Wikipedia’s help, I just refreshed my memory about the movie Back to the Future (the first one). The main plot concerns Marty’s need to get back to his present time. The two subplots that jumped out at me were ensuring the success of the romance between his parents and keeping Doc from dying years later.

Both of these involve secondary characters: a younger Doc, and Marty’s parents when they were in high school. I won’t give away the resolution of Doc’s problem, but Marty’s parents have to fall in love or Marty won’t ever exist. Each one contributes to the ending of the movie.

Now let’s look at LOTR, which is loaded with subplots. The main plot centers around Frodo taking the ring to Mordor and saving the world. One subplot involves Aragorn becoming king. Another is Gandalf’s capture by Saruman. Yet another is Boromir’s tragedy. Each of these involves a secondary character. Except for Boromir’s subplot, they also take place away from Frodo, so a subplot can have a different setting from the main event. And they all contribute to Frodo’s quest.

A subplot can be separate in time as well as place. For instance, say there’s going to be a war, and our MC is going to lead one side, we could introduce subplots that take place even before our MC is born. But these subplots set up the conditions our MC faces.

To create our subplots, we can ask ourselves what our secondary characters want, just as we ask what our MC wants. Then we can give them desires that dovetail with our MC’s situation, by supporting or undermining it.

A great example of undermining comes in–you guessed it–Pride and Prejudice. I see three subplots here: Jane’s romance with Bingley, Charlotte Lucas’s urgent need to be married, and Lydia’s flirtation with Wickham. Lydia’s mess, a genuine subplot, causes the crisis that leads to the resolution of the main plot. If you haven’t read P&P, I haven’t given much away.

After we give our secondary characters desires, the next step is to develop incidents to bring the subplot to life. In P&P, Lydia’s subplot comes to fruition when she goes to Brighton, which the reader learns about through reports by other characters. At Bingley’s ball, which is important for Jane’s story, Elizabeth deals with happenings of her own.

To summarize:

∙ We can combine stories, subordinating one to another, to produce a subplot or more than one.

∙ Subplots can take place at different places or times from the main plot.

∙ Story arcs for secondary characters will produce subplots.

∙ Subplots need action and resolution, just like the main plot.

∙ Our subplots will intersect with the main plot, helping or hindering our MC from achieving her goals.

Onto commas and sentences.

Just saying, sentences with commas don’t have to be long: He ate, and she watched. Or, He ate, but she watched. These are two independent clauses connected by a conjunction. Five words. He ate is an independent clause, and so is she watched. Also, a list can produce a lot of commas, but the sentence can still be simple, as in: She ate a can of cranberry sauce, half a turkey, a mound of stuffing, a ladle of gravy, a big blob of mashed sweet potatoes, two brussel sprouts, one bite of salad, a quarter of a pumpkin pie, a wedge of apple crisp, and a handful of Tums. It’s all coming back to me.

On the subject of commas, I accuse Erica of being a comma-sentence-length hypochondriac. Let’s look again at her question and her response to Melissa Mead, with my notations:

Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? (No commas. Short sentence.) I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. (Four commas. Long sentence.) Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. (Three commas. Medium length.) Any tips there? (No commas. Short sentence.)

No run-on sentences.

And:

Good idea! (No commas. Short sentence.) I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. (No commas. Longish sentence.) I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either. (One comma. Medium length sentence.)

No run-on sentences.

There’s sentence variety in the sample. Most sentences begin differently. I see two questions and an exclamation. I conclude that the patient is  healthy. Unless Erica writes differently in her fiction, I don’t see a problem.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC and four other characters are traveling together–by train, spaceship, medieval caravan, horse, whatever. They’re all on a mission to warn their king or queen or democratically elected representative or benevolent dictator of a plot against the country’s independence. Their route is fraught with danger. Each of them has personal goals as well as the main mission. One wants to keep them from reaching their destination. Two fall in love. One is hiding an illness. Use these to create subplots. Write the story.

∙ At random, pick a few paragraphs from your WIP. Analyze them the way I just did. If a lot of sentences are short, combine them, not just by putting them together with and in between. Create dependent clauses. If too many start the same way, say with the or I, recast them. If many are long, cut them up. If many begin the same way, rearrange them. If the verb keeps being was or is, rewrite the sentence so that the verbs are more active.

∙ Mash together “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” Pick one to be the main story and the others to be subplots. I don’t know if this will be helpful, but I just noticed that all three involve heights. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Challenging Choices

First off, congrats to all of you who are starting the NaNoWriMo home stretch! How has it gone so far? How is it going now? If you like, post your answer in the voice of one of your characters and them paste it in your story, which will be fun for the rest of us. (I don’t want you to lose word count!)

On September 11, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, Question for you guys: When you have a lot of story ideas, how do you pick which one to develop?

As with the last post, a lot of discussion ensued.

Jenalyn Barton: Honestly, I pick whichever one excited me the most at the moment. Not the most sustainable approach (and likely the reason I have trouble finishing things), but it works for me.

Erica: Either all of them or none of them! Really, it depends on the time of year. I’ve been writing short stories to give my family as presents for a while now, so I often consider who would like what story. You might try something similar. (Also makes sure that I don’t just forget about it.)

future_famous_author: My friends, who read my stories, but have trouble keeping up, get really mad at me for starting a story and stopping only a couple pages in. I start a new story almost every day now. It’s a problem. I think that if you can find a story that you actually enjoy writing, then just force yourself to stick with it. It’s not everyday you find an idea that really holds your interest, and so you have to stick with them. It can be hard, and my brother and I have had many arguments about which is harder, basketball or writing, but you just have to remind yourself that it’s fun. I really struggle with this, too, and have yet to finish a novel in my six years of writing.

Writing Ballerina: I like the idea of giving them as presents! Thank you! Tell your brother that writing’s definitely harder.

Kit Kat Kitty: This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. My best advice would be to write everything down as soon as possible. Usually, what happens to me is that I’ll get an idea, think about it for a day, write a paragraph or two, and then start from scratch with another idea the next day. I think it’s because I don’t develop my ideas, so I don’t get really invested in them. If I had characters, names, faces, and some fragments of a world, it gives me something to focus on and be interested in.

So I’d recommend developing the first idea that comes to mind, and seeing where it takes you. If the idea is “What if people were once dragons?” Then write that down, and branch off from that. Stories are really just multiple ideas combined into one. (Though it’s a lot more complicated than that) So it could be, “What if some humans knew this, and wanted to become dragons again for evil purposes.” Then, it could turn into, “What if the hero had to figure out how to become a dragon first to stop them, but if they became a dragon, they wouldn’t know how to become human again, so they might have to leave their family and X love interest behind, even though their family means everything to them.”

Just stick with it, and try to focus on one thing. Write things down, and don’t be afraid to say: “This isn’t working for me.” and move onto another idea.

It’s also okay to be developing an idea and to write down as many ideas that come during that time. It’s about not letting the ideas float away, and really making them more than just a sentence or two. Ideas are, in a lot of cases, a dime a dozen. And if one doesn’t work (after you develop it, of course) then it’s okay to move on. Besides, if you at least write things down, you can come back to them later.

future_famous_author: A lot of times I end up writing down a page or two of a story and then starting a different one. I wish I would do that and then go back to the one I had before that. But, then, it’s better than having no ideas.

I love, love, love Kit Kat Kitty’s “what if people were once dragons” idea, whether or not it ever becomes a story. It’s so much fun to contemplate what that might have been like, the literal fire in the belly, the joy in flaming. And flying! The pleasure in terrifying other creatures who aren’t dragons.

And fun is wonderful. If it’s fun to try out lots of ideas, then that’s a fine thing to do. Relaxing and waiting for the one that will sustain us is okay. I think that one will come.

Early twentieth century novelist Thomas Mann once said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” If I were to try basketball, it would have to be in the under-five-feet-tall league, so I can’t compare the two, but for me (and for many but I don’t think all) writing a novel is super hard. I don’t know why that is–we know how to form words and sentences, and we know hundreds of good stories, and we understand story shape, but yowser!

So we can take comfort in the absolute fact that we’re rising to a challenge when we write.

As you know, I’ve recently started my next novel, which is based on Greek mythology, the prophetess Cassandra, the Trojan War, and the fall of Troy, plus the warlike Amazons who come to Troy’s aid. Before I started, I went through a process of considering which of my ideas to work on. Here’s what happened, which may help with your own process, too:

I’d like to write more books about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and I continue to read on the subject, but I haven’t yet found the right story thread.

The fairy tale “Aladdin” has interested me for years, and I wrote pages of notes about how I might approach it, but what stymied me is that Aladdin and the princess are married for most of the tale, which I think lessens the story’s appeal for young readers. I hope to figure out how to deal with that, but so far I haven’t. Maybe Disney has solved this, but I stay away from Disney movies because I don’t want their solutions to get into my consciousness and make me, unintentionally, use something of theirs.

The myth “Cupid and Psyche” and the related fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” fascinate and irritate me, which is usually a combination that gets me writing, but in this case, I’m stuck. In both, the heroine is made to think the owner of the castle is a monster, and her sisters and mother are made to appear jealous when they warn her against him. One source of irritation is because I think the sisters and mother are probably genuinely alarmed for her. They have every reason to believe she’s in danger, and they’ve gotten a bum rap for centuries!

The other source comes from the hero, and this is the one that has me stumped. The hero, who’s either in monster shape or is pretending to be a monster, is deliberately causing the girl he loves to be frightened, to make a choice for the sake of her family that she wouldn’t make otherwise, and even to see them let her make it. In my opinion, this guy is seriously flawed, and I haven’t yet figured out a way to forgive him and make him likable.

What I love about these stories is the wind that our heroine flies on, and the love story aspect.

As for, Cassandra and Troy, I hope I’ve thought of ways to work out the kinks, but I’m worried that I’ve chosen wrong. The fall of Troy and all that happens before it falls is tragic, and I have to thread my story through the misery.

The point of all this is that, even as a pantser, I think a lot about what I’m going to write before I jump in. I always fail to catch everything, but I try to anticipate the problems that will pop up along the way. So that’s the first strategy: even if we don’t outline, we think deeply about our story before we jump in–which may be hard. If you’re like me, you enjoy the writing, and planning is as unpleasant as standing on a mile-long line at the supermarket.

I wrote up to here on the train to New York City, and while I was walking in Central Park, this post walked with me, and I came up with the steps that I seem to follow from idea to story.

First, boing! the idea. Excitement about the idea, and turning it over and upside down and inside out in my mind. This is the necessary first step. The others can arrange themselves in whatever order works best for you.

Second, notes in the what-if stage that Kit Kat Kitty describes. More boing! moments as we discover what delights us and where our story might go.

Third, notes about characters who can carry our story, who will take it in the direction we want it to go. Like, with the dragon idea, would we want an arsonist as an MC? Maybe, maybe not. Do we want someone who’s afraid of heights? Afraid of getting angry? Angry all the time? The answer will depend somewhat on where the story is going.

Four (not everyone needs this one, but I do), a tentative ending, which involves knowing what the major story problem is and how it might be resolved, happily or not.

Last, notes about where to start.

Begin!

Going through these steps, I think, will get us to a story we can stick with, at least for a while.

After that comes patience, the virtue writers need most. Do basketball players need patience? Just wondering.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Let’s suppose the humans in a story used to be fairies, but somehow their wands were taken from them, and they need them again, or the MC does. Try the steps above and begin the story. If you like, keep going.

∙ Find a fairy tale or myth that both fascinates and annoys you. Follow the steps. If the first fairy tale turns out not to be story material, try another one. Keep going until you find one that leads you on to a beginning. Write the story.

∙ Using Erica’s method, think of a friend or a family member and the kind of story he would like. Follow the steps and write the story.

∙ Think of someone you know–friend, frenemy, or villain–and build your story about aspects of that person. Write the story.

The Beat Goes On

To all of you who are writing madly for NaNoWriMo, this post will keep! No need to interrupt your headlong rush. But if you do pause, I hope it’s helpful. May you fulfill your ambitions. May the wind be at your back.

Writing Cat Lover’s question below called forth a lot of discussion. I’m including all the comments, because, basically, they’re so good and useful. As you’ll see, Writing Ballerina asked for this post, and I have a little to add but not a whole lot.

On July 22, 2019, Writing Cat Lover wrote: I need help with my pace of my WIP. It’s always either too slow or too fast, and I never can seem to get it just right.

Here’s the discussion:

Future Famous Author: I have left this same comment (the one I am about to write) many times, and every time I sigh and think, “That’s not very helpful!” But it is, because some things just can’t be perfect–actually nothing can be–in the first draft.

So, my advice is to save things like pace for the second, third, or even fifteenth draft (does anyone ever get to the fifteenth draft? ) and fix it then. Are you the one who had the trouble with writing things that had no importance to the plot whatsoever? If not, I told her that it’s okay to write things that don’t need to be written, because they may end up important. And it’s okay to leave out description, because you can add and/or take anything away in later drafts!

Song4myKing: I agree with Future Famous Author that you shouldn’t worry too much in the first draft. But if you’re revising, there might be a few things you can do.

If a section feels too fast, like you’re clipping along, touching only the points of action without a breath, you might want to slow down to increase tension, or to savor the action. Sit back and imagine the whole scene, like a movie. Who all is around? Is it just the ones you’re concerned with at the moment, or are there others in the room? Where is the scene taking place? Indoors, outdoors? Can you see it in your mind’s eye? Will your readers see it? Can you feel it, smell it, hear it? Not just the words people are saying but the other sounds around them. Don’t include everything, of course, but picture it in your mind, so you can show a little of the richness of the scene to your readers. Choose details that will add to the feeling or action of the scene.

If a piece feels too slow, you’ll have to do the opposite. Cut out what isn’t necessary. If it’s a paragraph that’s necessary but slow, check every sentence to see if it’s needed or if it could be shortened. If it’s a chapter that’s slow, check every paragraph. If it’s a bigger section of the story, see if each scene is necessary. If each scene has something important, see if you can take what’s important from several and put all that punch into one scene.

Writing Ballerina: I think all these pacing comments in this and the last post’s comments warrant a post, Mrs. Levine.

Writing Ballerina: BTW, sorry if that sounded rude.

Not rude; helpful.

Erica: Does anyone else have problems changing the “magnification” of a story, so to speak? I tend to either try to show everything or tell everything, but I have trouble switching between the two. Any advice?

I just get tired of writing the story when nothing much is happening, but when I pick it back up, I feel compelled to keep writing about nothing. Neither I nor my readers particularly care about the plot of the (completely made-up) movie my character is watching, and yet I describe it. Time in my stories tends to pass slowly when nothing is happening, and way too fast when things are.

Writing Cat Lover: My story is waaayyy too slow, as in I focus too much on the details and no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to get the plot going. Well, with the last paragraph I actually tried to speed things up a bit but now it looks waaayyy too choppy and fast paced so that you can’t really catch whats happening.

Katie W.: Basically, I have the big, important stuff written, but I don’t have anything building up and down from them. It’s boring life, boring life, EXCITING PART, boring life, boring life, EXCITING PART, etc. They don’t lurch from disaster to disaster, but there’s really nothing to hold the tension between the major plot points.” Not exactly pacing, but similar. You know those tension graphs teachers use to show the five parts of a plot, with the smooth rise and fall? If I drew one of those for my story, it would look like a comb. Up and down and up and down and up and down instead of that smooth, gradual curve.

Writing Ballerina: I think I’ve mentioned this book before (and maybe this particular section) but STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE by Steven James has a great take on building tension:

“A story isn’t about something ELSE going wrong, it’s about something WORSE going wrong…. We intensify the struggles rather than just compounding them. [There are] three struggles — internal, external, and interpersonal [conflict with other people.] — [they] will all continue to deepen as the story progresses. Typically, they’ll reach their darkest moments right before the climactic encounter with the… forces that are hindering the protagonist from getting what he desires most.”

I like this point: “Since things must continually get worse for the protagonist, characters actually descend through difficulties and pain into transformation. They don’t slowly ascend into change.”

Back to the graph (paraphrasing here), all that stuff about rising action is baloney. At least most of it. Rather than rising ACTION, you need rising TENSION. “Action does not equal tension…. Simply making more things happen doesn’t ensure the readers will be interested, but tightening the tension from unmet desire does….

“Think of the climax of a suspense novel. Flashlight in hand, the detective slowly descends the stairs into the serial killer’s basement lair. Readers know what the detective does not — the killer is lying in wait for him deep in the recessed shadows of the next room. The author milks the scene: Step by step the detective slowly and cautiously makes his way down the stairs as readers’ hearts pound in anticipation of the climactic encounter that’s about to ensue. He angles the narrow flashlight beam into the darkness. Reaches the last step. And begins to search for the killer.

“Is this rising action? Hardly. In fact, a man walking slowly down a set of stairs might be the least amount of action for the last fifty pages — but it can be part of the climactic scene of a book because of escalating tension.”

Before I write the whole book down in this comment (it’s that good — go borrow it from your library!!) I would like to mention another very important and (I think) profound observation he made:

“Repetition undermines escalation.

“Every murder you include decreases the impact that each subsequent murder will have on readers. Every explosion, shootout, [and] argument… means less and less to readers because repetition short-circuits that crucial escalation that moves stories forward. The value something has is directly proportional to the amount of pain it causes when it’s lost.”

I agree with Future Famous Author and Song4MyKing that a lot of our pacing problems can be cleaned up in revision. Throughout, though, whether in revision or in writing our first draft, our guiding principal should be our MC. Everything–everything!–should impact her. Fundamentally, our pacing hangs on this, and, in my opinion, if we keep it in mind, our pacing problems will ease up. Something–major or minor–should always be at stake for her.

She doesn’t have to suffer every second. We can give her breaks, for which our readers will thank us, but the main problem still has to loom.

We may have skipped our MC’s experience in the rush of events. To take the example of the detective descending the stairs to the villain’s lair while she’s blissfully unaware that he’s there. What’s going through her head? She’s relaxed because she thinks she’s safe. Maybe we show her thinking that she needs to buy milk on her way home. Maybe she clunks down the stairs because she believes she can. Maybe she whistles or sings a song her daughter loves. The reader is twisting in agony, mentally screaming, Wake up! Be alert, you fool! We can even throw in a clue about the villain’s presence and have her fail to notice it. These are all extra words, but–Aaa!

As we revise and as we write our first draft, we should be aware of the inner life of our MC. Whether we’re writing in first person or third, even omniscient third, the reader needs to know what our MC is thinking and feeling as events occur–and almost nothing should happen in our story that she doesn’t care about, that doesn’t affect her in some way. If it doesn’t and we’re revising, we have to consider the dustbin.

I don’t mean things can’t happen to secondary characters or that we can’t have subplots, but everything needs to fold back in. The secondary characters have to be important to our MC. Their success or failure will be significant for her.

In the subplot, if she’s absent from the scene, the main secondary will stand in for her, and everything has to affect him–a miniature version of the approach we take to the overarching plot.

If, as we’re revising, we think, Huh, how did she get there? or, Why or how did that happen?, we can assume that we skipped some steps, and we can consider what’s needed to fill in. A critique group or beta readers can help identify these gaps.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a novel that I haven’t cut at least a hundred pages from, more for most. In fact, chopping is what I do most in revision.

We can tighten with tiny changes that have a cumulative effect as we keep going. Need that clause, really? Cut! I’m saying this twice in different ways? One has to go. Cut! Very is a very (hah!) suspect word. If unnecessary, cut! Our adjectives and adverbs should always be scrutinized, especially ones that minimize, like slightly and a little. And we want to use the most powerful verbs we can find. Race is generally better than walk fast. When we snip and snip, our pace will pick up, and, as an added benefit, our prose will become more elegant. We’ll be worshiped by our copy editors. Strunk & White (you should all know Strunk & White!) will smile in their graves.

We ask ourselves if the reader already knows this about this character. If yes, cut! Is this entire plot twist necessary? If no, cut!

I do most of the trimming myself and cut much more than my editor asks me to, but she’s ruthless, too. Fairest in particular would have been a much longer, slower, more meandering book if she hadn’t come in brandishing her butcher’s knife. I don’t mean she did the carving herself, but she wasn’t shy about saying that this chapter and that should go.

Sometimes it hurts to excise bits I love, and in the process I eliminate what took months to write, but the result is a better book, and I have to do it. And I save everything I cut.

Here are three prompts:

∙ I may have used a prompt like this before. You may ardently disagree with me on this, but I’m not a fan of Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass, because I don’t think Alice is invested enough in what happens to her. She grows. Oh, she thinks, that’s interesting. She shrinks. Interesting, too. She may not like the changes or the things she witnesses, but she never suffers deeply. Nothing threatens her at her core. Let’s change that. Let’s say her beloved older brother disappears. Last seen, he was tying a note to the White Rabbit’s left back leg. Alice is convinced that finding him depends on the contents of that note. She has to reach the White Rabbit. Use events in Alice in Wonderland as plot points in her effort to save her brother. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ As an experiment, put a movie in your story, as Erica does. If there are no movies in your world, make it a book or a saga in an oral tradition. Describe the plot. Link it very subtly to your plot, a discovery for readers to make or not make. When you finish your current draft, you’ll know whether to toss it, keep it, expand or condense it.

∙ The eensy-weensy spider has it tough, climbing the waterspout. Give him a reason to need to get up there. Make him a thinking and feeling being, and write his story. Introduce other characters, spider or otherwise, including a villain. Make it a cliff–or waterspout–hanger.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Happy Birthday, Blog!

In case you guys are interested, it’s roughly the tenth anniversary of the blog. My first post is dated May 13, 2009, so I’m off by a few months. Happy birthday, blog! You’re a tween! Today’s question appears on single-spaced page 227 of my list, which is long enough to be a novel of about 400 pages. Pretty cool. Yay, us!

Before I start, I want to let you know that, here on the website, way in advance of publication, I’ve posted the first chapter of A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, a description, the flap copy, and a bibliography of the books that were most important in my research. Please take a look!

Now, here we go.

On June 19, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I do need suggestions on how to write an army attack.

Two of you weighed in.

Emma: I’m going to have to write one of those eventually as well, and I have no idea how. I think the battle scenes in the Chronicles of Narnia are really interesting to think about from a writer’s standpoint, because C. S. Lewis never really explained them in much detail; while in the Lord of the Rings, armies and battles seemed to be more of the highlights of the books. I suppose that’s mostly the age difference in the audiences, but still, it’s interesting how different they are.

Ainsley: Another book series with great battle scenes is The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, the last book especially. They’re also really good books in general.

These suggestions are great. I agree about reading books with battle scenes, not just fantasy books but also literary fiction. The two that come to my mind are classics: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque about World War I, and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller about World War II.

On the nonfiction side, an interesting book is War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges (high school and up).

Some of you may know veterans who are willing to describe their experiences. Even if you’re writing fantasy or historical fiction, they can tell you how it felt to be fighting.

And some of you may be vets, so you know.

I had to think about battles and war when I wrote The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and I was worried. How could I show the movement of large forces when I was writing in first person?

I haven’t read any Lloyd Alexander, and I don’t remember much of The Chronicles of Narnia, but I do remember LOTR pretty well, and my recollection is that the many battles and skirmishes in the trilogy are told from a limited third-person POV, generally in the voice of the least elevated character present, so that if, for example, both Frodo and Aragorn are there, Frodo tells what’s going on. If only Samwise and Frodo are in the scene, the POV belongs to Sam. The wide perspective is sacrificed for the particular, but it works, and readers like me care more about the POV character than we do about battalions of anonymous combatants. I don’t know how I would have coped if Sam in particular had bit the dust!

So that was the approach I took in Lost Kingdom. Everything is seen and related through the eyes of MC Perry, though sometimes she gets reports from other characters, who also can tell only what they’ve experienced or have been told. Willem, her romantic interest, describes his first engagement in detail. At one point she and Willem climb a sentry tower and oversee the massing of two armies, which is the closest I come to movements of large forces. Later, Perry travels across the kingdom and glimpses conflict along the way.

In my opinion, the up-close perspective is the way to go for most battles. The reader will enter the scene better through a character he cares about. That way we can bring in detail–the sounds, the smells, the sights–that will infuse it with life. If our POV character is in the thick of it, we may have to bring in serious elements–screams, blood, injury, death, loss of a loved one–so we need to be prepared to deal with all that. We also have to experience it all through our MCs. How do they experience war? Are they entirely taken over by adrenaline? Or ruled by a strange calm? Does it seem like a dream? Or something else.

But there may be moments when we want to pull back and see a bigger picture. We can write from an omniscient third-person POV for this. Then we can zoom into a character to show the fight close up and then out again for the larger perspective. Omniscient third, in my opinion, is the most powerful perspective.

If we’re writing fantasy, our MC can fly over the war on a dragon’s back. She can have magical help, like a magic spyglass that can see the distant battle. She can speak the language of animals, who can be her scouts and spies.

If our story is modern, we can use technology. Our MC can be communicating with a command center. Or she may be able to fly above the fray–or drones with cameras can reveal what’s going on. In breaks in the fighting, she can get reports from the news online. She can interview eyewitnesses.

If we’re writing medieval’ish fantasy, we can find tons online: fencing lessons; ancient weapons; war machines and how they worked; analyses of historic battles and sieges–battles on land and battles at sea. These are fascinating.

We have to decide how gory we want to be, how close up we want to get. I’d suggest that we be sparing. There can be tragedy and horror overload. By even the third terrible injury or death, the reader may be dulled.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC Samara is in the infantry, marching to war in the middle of a battalion of six hundred foot soldiers. The battle will begin at any moment. Somewhere in the horde is her sister, also a soldier. Her sister has an enchanted sword, and she has an enchanted shield, but neither one has power without the other. Write her attempt to find her sister just as fighting breaks out.

∙ This time Samara is in a tent. Imagine mid-19th century warfare with or without magic. She commands an army that’s outnumbered on the field. Scouts bring her reports; maps are spread across a table; she hasn’t slept in days. Her trusted assistant stands at her side–except that her trust in him is misplaced, because he’s sold his country out to the enemy. Write the scene, and clue the reader in that he’s a villain. Decide whether or not Samara sniffs out his treachery.

∙ In her first battle, Samara’s best friend, who’s fighting next to her, is seriously wounded. Samara wants to help her friend, but she’s beset on every side and her squadron is falling back. Write the scene and don’t skimp on the gore.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Actions Speak Louder Than Anything Else

On June 8, 2019, Hazel B. wrote, How do you make a character feel believable? Once you know how to make a person likable or unlikable, how do you make her real? When I’m writing, I usually pick an outward trait to start out with, such as shy or bossy. But not everyone is always bossy, and not everyone is always shy. I’m actually a combination of both. How do you make the character consistent, relatable, and believable?

Writing Ballerina and Christie V Powell responded.

Writing Ballerina: I usually don’t worry about that too much until I’m done the first draft. Then I take one character, comb through, and make everything consistent. I also like to run my characters through personality tests so I can get a better feel for them.
https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test is my favourite — free and very in-depth.

Keep in mind that the characters your MC (I’m assuming you’re talking about the MC, but this will work for any character) is around will affect how they act. When I’m with my closest friends I can be super hyper and silly but when I’m with other people I’m usually more reserved.

Christie V Powell: Enneagram is my favorite system, similar to 16 personalities. The free test is here: https://www.eclecticenergies.com/enneagram/test.

One thing I’ve been doing lately with a couple of writing friends is role-play. We take turns asking a question each week, and choose which characters will answer. Then we answer as if we were the characters. It can be a lot of fun, as well as good practice to get inside the characters’ heads. Recent questions we’ve done include: What do you do to relax? Are you a night owl or early bird? What’s a skill you don’t have but would like to learn? Some of the questions also are addressed to certain characters. We might say: To the main character’s best friend, or To the character last in alphabetical order, or To the youngest main character.

I agree with Writing Ballerina that consistency is paramount. I hate it when a character who, say, is edgy and irritable inexplicably turns calm and jovial. Character growth has to be earned, and the reader needs to understand it.

Having said that, I also agree that characters, like people, are different in different environments. Our edgy dude can be relaxed in the company of his great-aunt Susie, as long as the reader understands that she has this effect on him.

I love the role-play idea! What fun! I love it both for the writing assist and for the comradeship. Writing is lonely and hard. Writer friends understand like nobody else. And what a great way to bring in the unexpected, and the unexpected and surprising are a terrific way to create layered characters who feel real.

I’m thinking a lot about this right now, as I write the beginning of my next book, based on Greek mythology, specifically Cassandra and the fall of Troy. Cassandra, daughter of King Priam, is given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but he curses it soon after by making no one believe her. After the curse, people, especially her father, consider her prophecies rants and believe she’s mad. I’m thinking about what it would be like both to see the future and to be considered crazy. What’s the thought process of someone who can look ahead? Who can see her own death? Does she look ahead constantly, compulsively, or does she avoid it? Does she keep trying to convince people, or does she give up? Turn inward?

I ask these questions because I find my characters in their actions. She’s a different character if she keeps returning to what brings her pain than if she distracts herself. I don’t think she’s going to be my major MC, but she’s going to be second in importance.

Characters’ characters affect our plot. An extrovert named Margie, for example, may make different decisions from a shy person, named Violet, nicknamed Shrinking. For example, Shrinking may stay home instead of going to the castle ball and may therefore be present when an intruder comes through a window. Margie goes to the party and witnesses the prime minister tip a vial of liquid into the king’s cream of mushroom soup. Each spins the plot in a different direction.

Our characters become increasingly real and layered as they make more and more decisions. Does Shrinking hide in the cellar, or run to the gallery where armor and swords are kept, or run to the head housekeeper for assistance, or appeal to her fairy godmother? Depending on her choice, other decisions have to follow, decisions that use other of her qualities, which we discover as we go along.

For example, suppose Shrinking is, to take another of Hazel B.’s examples, also bossy, so she runs to the head housekeeper and, in a trembling voice, orders her to deal with the intruder. But the head housekeeper says police actions aren’t in her job description and refuses. Well, what does Shrinking do next? We can make a list!

∙ Fires the housekeeper.

∙ Grabs the housekeeper’s hand and says, “Then we have to get to safety. Come!” (She’s still bossy.)

∙ Shrinking is shy, but she’s brave. It dawns on her that the intruder doesn’t expect terrifying small talk, and introversion doesn’t come into this. She takes a poker from the fireplace and a carving knife from the kitchen and starts searching.

∙ Sits on a stool and weeps uncontrollably. Her birthday is in a week, and her beloved father always gives the best presents, and now the intruder is going to kill her and she’ll never find out what the gifts are.

And so on. With each decision and action, we learn more about Shrinking and she becomes more real. We haven’t made her less believable–though not everything on our list has to be believable. In lists we’re encouraged to get wild.

Option two and three will contribute to her likability and relatability, because both combine two factors: Shrinking is behaving admirably, and she’s flawed, being both shy and bossy. Most readers want a flawed MC, because we’re all flawed ourselves.

Options one and four will make her harder to relate to without other factors. In them, on the face of it, she’s flawed and not admirable. We can deal with this, of course, in lots of ways. Here’s one: We may have set up the story so that the housekeeper is the real villain, and she’s drawn Shrinking into her orbit for just this moment, because she’s in cahoots with the intruder. Readers who already feel connected to Shrinking will be on her side and scared for her. Or we can make her behave well with other characters, but the housekeeper just pushes all her buttons, and they’re alone together in the mansion.

I generally don’t know my characters well when I start writing. They reveal themselves as I cook up actions for them. When I start a book I don’t generally use a character questionnaire, but I may fill one out as I keep going, to generate ideas for my list about what one of them should do next.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Add six more possibilities to my list above for a grand total of ten.

∙ Pick one of mine or one of yours and write the story.

∙ List what extrovert Margie might do when she sees the prime minister mess with the king’s soup.

∙ Pick one option and write Margie’s story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The End of Everything

First off, a bookseller who’s a friend just sent me this link, which I believe most of you are too old for, but you may know kids who qualify and would do a bang-up job on:
https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/tundra-true-story-contest?ref=PRH997D100A32&utm_source=Tundra_Books&utm_medium=Advertising&utm_content=Email&utm_term=&utm_campaign=Based_on_a_True_Story_Contest_Tundra_Books_-_PW

On May 23, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I’m almost done with the first draft of my story!! This is really exciting, but it’s going kinda slow because I don’t know how to end it. Eventually, I’ll run out of plot points and not know what to do so I’ll abruptly stop and leave it for days trying to come up with how to resolve it in a smooth transition.
Does anyone have any tips on how to transition out?

Three of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: Congratulations!

Transition, or ending? Transition implies that you’re going on to something else.

Some of the most effective endings tie back to the beginning somehow. Ex, Lord of the Rings takes us back to the Shire. Camelot ends with King Arthur giving hope to a young boy as idealistic as he once was, even though up to that point, his own hope had been fading, and restoring some of his own hope in the process.

Christie V Powell: Have you looked at plot structure? Studying the “beats” that make up a story might help you. I like K. M. Weiland’s (her blog is called Helping Writers Become Authors), or you can see if your library has the book Save the Cat or the book by Lisa Cron (Story Genius? Is that the title?). All three have a similar system for breaking a story down into parts, including the ending.

Writing Ballerina: Okay, so my brain was dead when I asked this question and I worded it terribly so here we go again.

How do you end something satisfactorily? I want the reader to turn the last page, thump the book closed, sigh, and say, “That was a good book. I loved the ending.”

I want to do this right, so I’m not going to rush the ending like I’ve done so many times, but it’s not as easy as it seems. I’ve basically run out of plot points now, but it seems too abrupt to end here. Plus, one of the characters is really not pleased with a new outcome, even though it solved one of his biggest problems, so I need to fix that somehow so everyone’s happy when I end it.

What I meant by “transition” is a smooth ending with pacing that makes sense. Not just like “oh look no more plot points the end bye all thanks for reading.” I don’t want it to be like I slammed a wall in front of the characters with THE END spray-painted on it.

Katie W.: I can’t help, but I have EXACTLY the same problem. The only advice I can give is: give it AN ending, then let it sit until you find the right one. And, lest you think I’m oversimplifying here, it took me about nine months to find the right final line for one of my stories. (And that was after I spent three months cutting it from seventeen pages to ten.) Sometimes I find the right ending immediately, other times, like I said, it takes a while.

One of the first things I was told when I started my long apprenticeship to become a kids’ book writer was: Get out quick once my story’s main problem is resolved, because the reader will become bored as soon as there’s nothing left to worry about. I keep that advice in mind even when I write epilogues, as I often do. Readers sometimes ask me about the future of this character or that, and generally I don’t know the answer. After I type The End, they’re on their own.

So I’m not opposed to an abrupt ending, as long as the main conflict feels complete–

–which suggests what may (or may not) be Writing Ballerina’s difficulty. Possibly the conflicts in her story–or in ours–are too even, and the reader doesn’t know which one to care most about.

If so, when we revise, we can focus on that. We can make some of the other conflicts contingent on the main one–when it’s resolved, the others will become more manageable. Or we can resolve the lesser issues earlier in our story. We can increase the other characters’ emotional investment in our MC. We can expand and intensify our MC’s thoughts, feelings, and voice in our narrative, to make our readers care about her far more than about the others. When she’s settled, they’ll be satisfied. Then, if we’re me, we can write an epilogue to mop up the loose ends. An example of this approach is my beloved Pride and Prejudice. In the last chapter, Austen delivers the fate of all the minor characters, which is nice, but I don’t really care. I’m ecstatic that Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy are together at last. Sorry, Jane and Bingley, it doesn’t matter to me if you have an ugly divorce in a year. Sorry, Jane Austen!

But this may not be the problem. If not, one approach is Melissa Mead’s suggestion of a circular story shape in which the location of the beginning and the end are the same. I find this shape cozy and comforting, if the ending is happy. If the ending is tragic, a circular story can punch up the bleakness, another desirable result. A long time ago in the life of the blog, I wrote a post on circular stories. If you’re interested, you can look it up.

Along the same lines, if we focus on what our MC wants, we’ll achieve a satisfying ending when she gets it for a happy ending, or when she irrevocably fails to get it, for a sad one. Our MC and our readers don’t even have to know what the MC wants; only we have to know, and the reader will be satisfied. In my first historical novel, Dave at Night, Dave doesn’t know that he wants safety and a home most, and I don’t think the reader does, either. He believes he wants something returned to him, but that’s just a side issue. When I make him safe and contented in his sub-optimal-but-adequate home, he and the reader are happy.

I’m a pantser, so I don’t use a beat system, but I have nothing against it. I’d recommend following Christie V Powell’s suggestions to see if they work for you.

I’m thinking of books (that I remember well enough to discuss) with successful endings, and sometimes two themes need to be tied together to make the ending work. I’d say that both Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery and Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier fall into this category. Anne of Green Gables ends satisfyingly when both her relationship with Gilbert is straightened out and her near-term future is decided. Rebecca ends in its bittersweet way when the mystery is resolved and the MC finally understands herself and her relationship with her husband.

I love the shape of a quest. If I can frame my story as a quest, whether my MC or my reader sees it that way, I have an easier time with the ending when I get there. Obviously, Ella is on a quest to overcome her curse, and Addie of The Two Princesses of Bamarre is on a quest to cure her sister of the Gray Death, but less obviously, Aza in Fairest is questing to feel comfortable about herself, or Wilma in The Wish is questing for acceptance just as she is. If we can see our story as a quest, the ending is likely to fall into place.

Greek myths often conclude only at the end of the MC’s life or her ascent into immortality, and that strategy, too, provides a sense of completion, although often not a happy one. A modern example of this that works beautifully is– *spoiler alert*–the TV series Six Feet Under (high school and up).

Fairy tales generally end with the vanquishing of the villain even more than with the success of the romance. Think of “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” In “Snow White” the prince kisses her before the evil queen gets her just desserts, and the classic Grimm tale ends with the queen dancing to death. We can adapt this destroy-the-villain approach for our purposes if everything else is resolved before then, but no one will be safe until the villain croaks or is permanently put away.

Mysteries, by contrast, often continue beyond the solution of the puzzle, with a beat about the detective and the state of her life going forward. In a series that state may not be happy, which leaves the reader both satisfied and wanting more.

The big takeaway is to be absolutely solid about what our story’s problem is, because in it is our satisfying ending.

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’m not sure how satisfying the ending of “Little Red Riding Hood” is, in the version in which Red and Grandma are saved by the hunter. What lesson has Red learned? Is it the right lesson? That she needs to be cautious, and if she isn’t, she has to wait to be rescued? Write the scenes that follow the rescue and give a fuller and better resolution to the three of them.

∙ In Pride and Prejudice, headstrong and flighty Lydia marries unprincipled Wickham. Write a sequel about their daughter, whose immediate family is penniless and whose more distant relatives have the money to help, but their help comes with conditions. You may have to read or reread P&P to do this, but what’s wrong with that? Extra credit if you recreate Austen’s voice and world.

∙ In Greek mythology, Helen is as passive as any fairy tale heroine. She’s married, and Paris carries her off. Eventually, he dies, and Helen is given to someone else. Troy falls, and her husband takes her back. Really! If you don’t know the story, you can read summaries online, starting with the Judgment of Paris, continuing with the Iliad, and ending with the fall of Troy. Write Helen’s story, and give her agency, which will probably mean changing the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Historic! Finale!

Before I start, I want to let you know that I’ll be at an event for Books of Wonder in New York City on September 22nd between 3:00 and 5:00 pm at 10 Columbus Circle, 3rd floor. There will be a fee for this one, but I’ll have lots of time to chat. As always, I’d love to see you there. Click here for details: https://booksofwonder.com/blogs/upcoming/tea-and-tales-at-bluebird-london-nyc.

Here’s the final installment about writing historical fiction. I’ll be jumping around to pick up the bits that weren’t in the last two posts.

Why write fiction rather than nonfiction, in which we can say directly what happened? Nonfiction is worth considering, especially if we’re writing for children. In nonfiction for adults, the author will be expected to be an actual historian specializing in the period, but for children, the expectation will be different though also demanding: that the author be a thorough researcher and a good writer. It’s an interesting challenge, to write an accessible, interesting history. The writer has to make hard decisions about balance and what to include and what to leave out. When I was starting out as a writer wannabe, I attended a lecture by Jean Fritz, notable writer of history and biography for children, who said that we learn best through being surprised. This stuck with me because it rang true. Can we build into our nonfiction account the kind of surprises that will make our narrative memorable? Can we tell the history in a lively way?

If we’re writing fiction, how much latitude do we have to bend the facts? How faithful must we be? In my first historical novel, Dave at Night, I included a painting that was actually painted a year after the events in the book take place–but I revealed the discrepancy in my Afterword. I think that in historical fiction, though not so much in historical fantasy, we need to stick strictly to the truth unless we have an important reason to stray (as I felt I did in Dave at Night), and then we have to let the reader in on our untruths in an Afterword. We kids’ book writers have an obligation to children to get it right.

How do we treat real life historical figures? In Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926, I didn’t give any dialogue to historical figures, who could appear in scenes, but at a distance. I did invent characters who stood in for real people, but I changed their names. Then I felt free to let them talk. But in A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which takes place near the end of the fifteenth century, I did put words in the mouths of King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, Princess Isabella, the duke of Medinaceli, and Columbus. My reasoning was that we know a lot of what was said by public figures in 1926 and very little from the late 1400s, so I felt safe in the second case. You may decide differently.

We can’t really know what people were like way back when. There were even differences between almost a hundred years ago and today, but when I wrote Dave at Night, I knew and had known many people who were alive back then, including my father, whose childhood the book is based on. I wasn’t just guessing. But for the fifteenth century, I was. We have another decision to make here. Do we want our characters to be twenty-first century personalities in period costume? Or do we want, as much as we can (because, ultimately, this is impossible to do entirely), to create characters who belong in their temporally distant world? There are arguments on both sides. Characters with current attitudes and understandings will be easier for a reader to enter and relate to. But characters who belong to their time will take the reader on a deeper journey–you can see what I prefer, though both choices are valid. My MCs are generally strong and independent, but in Loma, the MC of Ceiling, I wanted a girl of her time. She’s put in situations that force her to think for herself, but when inspiration strikes, she never takes credit for it; she says God sent it or her dead grandmother or her absent grandfather. Taking credit would be beyond the way she regards herself, beyond what I believe a girl back then would think.

In one way, writing historical fiction may be easier than writing other genres, especially for writers, like me, who are plot challenged. If we choose a time of conflict, events can structure our plot. This worked when I was writing about the expulsion of the Jews but not for my more personal orphan story, Dave at Night. In my expulsion story, events laid out the rising and falling action.

How long ago is our time period? What’s known about these events? The further in the past, the less is likely to be known. Likewise, the less famous the events, the less likely they are to be known in detail. If there are gaps in knowledge, we have some freedom to color in the empty spaces, but our plot still has to be possible in context. This doesn’t come into my book, but, as an example, between six hundred and two thousand of children of the Jews who went to Portugal after the expulsion were enslaved, baptized against their will and the will of their parents, and sent by ship to an island off the African coast to plant and harvest sugar cane. Little is known of what happened to them, so a novelist who wants to take on this saga will have some freedom to invent–but will still have to stay true to the period.

What are the known biases held by historians about a period? I recently read a historian refer to certain other historians of Jewish life in medieval Spain as belonging to the “lachrymose school,” basically the crybaby school, weeping over the tribulations of the Jews. I understood what he meant, having read some of these scholars, but I wondered if he belonged to the stiff-upper-lip, take-it-on-the-chin school. What biases are held by most people?

Whose history does a writer have the right to address? Do you have to be Jewish, for instance, to write fiction about Jewish history? I don’t think so. A wonderful example is the holocaust novel Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally, an Australian Christian. What are the ethics? (This is just food for thought.)

Is the writer of historical fiction entitled to an opinion? Should we slant it? Can we avoid slanting it? More food for thought.

This has been fun to write about, though a little deeper in the weeds than usual, but I’ve reached the end of my workshop notes, just in time for three prompts:

∙ Back to the Salem witch trials. According to Wikipedia, “Overall, the Puritan belief and prevailing New England culture was that women were inherently sinful and more susceptible to damnation than men were. Throughout their daily lives, Puritans, especially Puritan women, actively attempted to thwart attempts by the Devil to overtake them and their souls. Indeed, Puritans held the belief that men and women were equal in the eyes of God, but not in the eyes of the Devil. Women’s souls were seen as unprotected in their weak and vulnerable bodies.” Your MC, a seventeen-year-old female servant, believes that this is true. When rumors begin to circulate that she’s a witch, she thinks they may be true. Write a scene in which she tries to discover whether or not she’s a witch.

∙ Introduce fantasy into the world of the witch trials. Mischievous imps, who mean no good, do whatever they can to keep the witch accusations going. Your MC discovers them and tries to stop them, which makes her their target. Write what happens–a scene or an entire story.

∙ In ancient Athens, girls and women spent most of their lives at home, going out only for religious festivals. In ancient Sparta, girls were trained to be athletes, just as much as boys were, and they were outside often. Imagine that a girl of Sparta moves with her family to Athens, and that a girl of Athens moves with her family to Sparta. Write a scene in the first week for each of them in their new environment.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Historic! Part 2

Here’s the next installment about writing historical fiction, based on my workshop in July at Keystone college. I’ll be jumping all over the place to pick up the points I didn’t cover last time.

If possible, we should read writing from the period we’re writing about. When I wrote my historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926 and features, among other things, the Harlem Renaissance, I read poems and one contemporaneous novel, Home to Harlem by Claude McKay. For A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, I read The Expulsion Chronicles compiled by David Rafael, a book of contemporary accounts written by both Christians and Jews.

Home to Harlem gave me details and the perspective of people in 1926. The Expulsion Chronicles is light on details, but it gave me an idea of how events were understood by people of the time.

Historians are nice! As I researched, I longed to speak to people, or email them, who could tell me if I was getting things right. I reached out to at least half a dozen historians. The only one who failed to help me was David Rafael, who was very ill. One historian, Jane Gerber, whom I mentioned in the last post, became my mentor for the project. She guided my reading, corrected or confirmed my ideas, and even annotated my manuscript. I think the historians were glad to help. If we get the history right, we bring their field to life.

But we can’t rely of their help. We have to educate ourselves, because the focus of most historians is narrow. The writer of historical fiction has to see the big picture. For example, a historian I consulted innocently steered me wrong about something, because his expertise was in the twelfth century, and I was writing about the fifteenth. Things had changed. I had to know enough to realize that he was wrong.

And historians have biases, which we have to know enough to be able to recognize. (This may sound intimidating, and I suppose it is. Historical fiction isn’t for the fainthearted.) For example, many of the books I read were written by historians of Jewish history, but I also read a biography of Queen Isabella, which gave me a different perspective on events. In the books on Jewish history the Jews played a larger role in what happened than they did in the biography–I don’t know enough to say which is more accurate, only that the two perspectives were useful.

A neat trick to know about is Google advanced search. If we’re having trouble finding the information we need, advanced search can help. Just type in “advanced search” and you’ll see what you need to do.

If we’re not sure whether a word represents a concept that didn’t exist at the time of our story, we can look at the word’s etymology in a dictionary.

There is a big annual medieval history conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I didn’t know about it until Ceiling was finished, but I went this year, because I’ve become fascinated with the period. So there are likely to be conferences we can attend to help educate ourselves and to meet enthusiastic historians. (This is expensive.)

For detail, we should go wide for whatever we can find on popular culture–fashion books, cookbooks, magazines. For food, I used a cookbook based on documents from the Spanish Inquisition, because people would be turned in for following Jewish dietary laws. In using the cookbook, I had to be aware of which foods came from the New World and not include them.

Briefly, I hired an assistant, which some of you may be able to afford to do. For me, it didn’t work out. I wanted to see the source material myself, and, frankly, I was afraid that the assistant might miss something useful or critical. But other people do use assistants, and that’s an option.

In the last post, I mentioned my timidity. I was so afraid of getting things wrong that sometimes I was frozen. A beta reader advised me to “be a novelist,” and I had to accept that I couldn’t learn everything. There’s an Afterword in Ceiling. Before I wrote it, I looked at Afterwords in other historical novels, and every one had an apology to the reader and to the past for all the errors in the book. Without a time machine, there are bound to be mistakes. We do our best.

We have to make a choice about scope–large or small. I could have written about, for example, a butcher’s daughter in a village and how her life was shaped by the worsening climate for Jews. That would have been a small-scale approach, and it would have been a fine way to go. But I chose to go big and put my MC in a prominent family, so that she can be on the spot for the major events of the day.

We fantasy writers know this already from seamlessly introducing our world building. Just as in fantasy, we should avoid info dumps.

On a one-to-ten scale of organized people, I’m about a five. A ten would have an easier time writing historical fiction. Sigh.

I wish I’d summarized my reading as I did it. Next time I will.

If we own a book, I recommend writing in the margins, which will make important parts pop out when we go back. If this is sacrilege for you, of course don’t do it. Use post-its.

We can’t expect to know everything or understand right away. One of the books I read about the expulsion was all about who owed how much to whom, who paid how much for something when a family had to leave. At first I thought, This is so dry! What about the emotion, the tragedy? But later, after I’d read more, I understood two things: first, that the tragedy was locked into the accounting, because people were grossly underpaid for their belongings when they had to leave. Not just fortunes were lost, but people arrived at the borders without funds to pay the exit duties. Then they had either to convert or to be executed. Second, I realized that there wasn’t much in the way of records. People didn’t keep diaries. The accounting records were kept and preserved. The historian assembled the big picture out of these little data points.

We have to watch out for our assumptions. For instance, I assumed that banking was primitive in the Middle Ages, but it was surprisingly sophisticated.

I think I have one more post on this, or maybe half a post, so I’ll stop here.

∙ Your MC, an archaeologist and amateur detective, reads this article: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-murder/cold-case-scientists-encounter-prehistoric-murder-mystery-idUSKBN0OC2GD20150527 and is fascinated. (I just noticed that this link and the one below begin with a photo of a skull. Beware!) Conveniently, the time machine has just been invented, although it may be used only for approved projects. Her application is approved, and she’s off, into the very distant past to investigate a murder among an entirely different branch of the homo sapiens tree. Write the scene of her arrival and keep going.

∙ I happened across this very interesting article about a medieval victim of leprosy: https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/26/health/leprosy-medieval-pilgrim-skeleton-study/index.html. You may want to do a little more research–or not. After you read the article, make this young man your MC and have him fall in love. Or his love interest can be your MC. Write a scene or their whole tragic tale, unless you can find a way to a happy ending.

∙ Your MC lives in Salem, Massachusetts, when the witch accusations begin to fly. She’s friends with the chief accusers and realizes with horror that they’re beginning to hint that her beloved aunt–who unwisely tends to say whatever she thinks–is a witch. Your MC wants to save her aunt. Read up a little on the Salem witch trials and write a scene or the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Historic!

Last month I gave a workshop, really a talk, on writing historical fiction at a conference at Keystone College, which I mentioned here. The conference was expensive-ish, and I suspect that few of you live near Scranton, PA, so, in a departure from the ordinary, I’m putting my workshop into a blog post–or two or three. There will still be prompts!

My forthcoming historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells is my second historical novel. Dave at Night, which came out in the late 1990s, is the first. And lately I’ve done a little historical research for some of my fantasies. Most are vaguely medieval, though Ever is vaguely Mesopotamian.

Ceiling is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and it was the most exciting writing experience I’ve ever had, because I learned so much. The world of the late Middle Ages is in many ways vastly different from our own–and in some ways just like it. Different, for one thing, because so little science was known, and people came up with bizarre explanations for occurrences like disease. Similar because, among other things, money was at the root of most evil.

We can use history in our fantasies, too, as much history or as little as we like. Even in fantasies, historical research is great for surprising details. If we’re writing fantasy that’s only tangentially historical, we don’t need much in the way of resources. A book on daily life during the period (not hard to find), a book or websites on fashions of the time, an online encyclopedia, and general online searches for whatever comes up, will probably be enough–and we’ll still find surprises that will light up our writing.

But if we’re writing historical fantasy or speculative fiction that takes place at a particular time on actual planet Earth, or if we’re writing realistic historical fiction, we need more. And we need to understand that the project will call for a substantial time commitment. Unless we’re already steeped in our period, it will take us a while even to discover what we don’t know. The process will be enormously rewarding, but we should take a deep breath before jumping in.

The good news is that there’s lots of help and we don’t have to be historians to do this.

We’ll start with a survey book. The book that most directed my research for Ceiling was The Jews of Spain, a History of the Sephardic Experience by Jane S. Gerber, which covers the history of Jews on the Iberian peninsula from Roman times to the expulsion, and their history after they were kicked out, into the 20th century. If we don’t know what our plot will be, we’re looking for times of conflict and for interesting people.

Daily life books will be useful at the beginning and as we continue. Dummy or Idiot Guides can make the difficult simple-ish. Since I’m not religious and had little religious education, I relied on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Judaism. I also attended a service at our local synagogue and asked the rabbi some questions.

When we have an idea for our story and a sense of the times, we can move from the general to the particular. A danger at the beginning and all the way through is that we may get so immersed in our research–it’s so fascinating and writing is so hard!–that we can’t stop. We have to remember to write.

Here’s something I wish I did from the start of my research: write a timeline of events, citing sources and page numbers. I spent unnecessary hours hunting for facts I knew but couldn’t remember precisely. If I’d been more organized at the beginning, I would have saved time.

Our survey book’s bibliography and footnotes will help us continue our research, likewise the bibliographies and footnotes of any encyclopedia articles or book we consult. A nice discovery I made is that some of the citations on Wikipedia can be clicked on, and we can read scholarly research for free. I think this is how I found an undergraduate thesis about caravels, 15th century sailing ships, that the author had posted online.

Since I was writing about Spain, I found it helpful to use the Spanish version of Wikipedia and the online translator, even though the translations were sometimes obviously off the mark–and funny. But mostly, they were good enough. If my story moved to a particular town in Spain, for example, the Spanish Wikipedia had a lot more information and more pictures than the English version.

We can also use an online translator to email people in other countries for information. Museums and tourist destinations, for example, are likely to have email addresses, and we can reach out, politely in their language, to staff for more information. Then we can translate the answers. Knowing that my manufactured communication might not be perfect, I always included my English original.

I didn’t travel to Spain, so I relied on online images to bring my story to life. In fact, the hardest part of writing the book was my timidity. I didn’t want to get the details wrong. For example, what was it like to stand on a medieval wharf? How do I find out?

Turns out Reddit has a handy Ask-a-Historian group. We can type in our question, and it will be screened by people who monitor what comes in. If approved, our question will be opened up to the Reddit universe of volunteer historians, and if someone is interested, it will be answered. My first question (I don’t remember what it was) was never answered, but my second was. This very kind historian not only wrote back, but he also sent me links to reproductions of paintings and murals from the period–of wharfs. The pictures made it possible for me to write two scenes. If you try Ask-a-Historian, don’t mention that you’re working on a novel. Questions from novelists are regarded as frivolous!

Old crafts, as you may know, live on on YouTube. In one of my fantasies I needed to know how to card wool, and I found a demonstration on YouTube. In this regard, we historical fantasy and fiction writers are lucky to live in the age of the internet.

More to come! Here are three prompts:

∙ In a world that’s loosely based on ancient Egypt, the king’s beloved cat Tuttie has died, and the king decides that it should be mummified and buried in style, along with a human, your MC, who will be ceremonially sacrificed so she can care for it in the afterlife. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ On November 9, 1965 most of New York City experienced a power outage, a blackout. At the time I was in college, but I was home with a newly broken ankle–with an enormous cast and crutches. Read about the blackout online. Your MC, who, like me, is on crutches, gets a phone call (mostly, phone service wasn’t disrupted) from a friend in distress, who lives half the city away. Your MC has to go to her friend. Using as much period detail as you can, write her trek across the city in the dark. Decide if she makes it or not. Remember: no cell phones back then, but there were phone booths–and a fifty-fifty chance that the phone would work.

∙ Research a historic battle. Can be during our Civil War, World War I, the Spanish conquest of Granada in 1492–or any one you pick. At a critical moment, a dragon lands on the battlefield. You decide what kind of dragon. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what your write!

Sh! Intrigue…

On May 20, 2019, Katie W. wrote, Any tips on writing a political conspiracy? In (one of) my WIPs, the queen is a commoner from the poorest part of the country, and the nobles want to get rid of her so the king will remarry. They try enlisting a dragon to steal the crown princess (creating a Rumpelstiltskin retelling), and eventually they poison the king and drive out the king and princess, but I have no idea what goes in the middle. 

Christie V Powell had questions and suggestions: Hmm… what’s the POV? Is it the queen? Your explanation here focuses more on the nobles, so is the main character(s) a noble? If so, you can list out the steps that they will have to take to reach the queen (step 1: find dragon. Step 2: convince dragon to help… etc.). If it’s the queen, you can use the same list, but then brainstorm how she finds out about it, how much she finds out about it, and how this impacts her character. What does she want? Is she happy being queen, or does she find herself missing a simpler life? That will impact how she reacts to the conspiracy.

Here’s an example of how you might plot it out using a list: Step 1: find dragon. What queen knows: some people don’t like her, but not what they plan to do about it. How that affects queen: frustrated because she’s doing her best to be a good ruler. Step 2: convince dragon to help. What queen knows: glimpses a dragon in the distance but assumes it is wild. How that affects queen: annoyed that yet another (apparently separate) problem has emerged…

Katie W. answered, Actually, it’s from Rumpelstiltskin’s perspective. I wrote a short story of the kidnapping attempt alternating between his perspective and the dragon’s. So I have a pretty good idea how that part is going to play out. What I’m stuck on is what happens after the attempt fails. The nobles don’t give up, but what do they try next? Something happens during the fifteen years between the kidnapping attempt and the king’s death, but I have no idea what it should be.

I agree with Christie V Powell that POV is important here and whenever we’re dealing with a conspiracy, because conspiracy means secrets, and how does the POV character find out what’s going on? (Of course, POV is important in every story.)

Conspiracy is wonderful, because it brings in an obstacle for our MC and the characters the reader is rooting for. So we don’t want to make the secrets easy for Rumpelstiltskin or the royals to penetrate, and we don’t want to make them impossible. We need to start thinking about Rumpelstiltskin’s powers and also the kinds of access to information that the royals have, like their spy network, and who’s loyal and who isn’t. We’ll have to work out a lot about the royals, too. How vulnerable is the king? The queen? The princess? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

In my opinion, it’s nice to give our villains, in this case the conspiring nobles, complexity. What’s their side of the story? Is there one particular noble who leads the pack, someone we can focus on? Is there anything in the king’s rule that’s genuinely problematic? Does the queen have a role in the kingdom’s woes? And what’s good about their rule? What positive contributions have they made? How is the queen a good monarch? How can we reveal all this? Is there a council? A parliament? Does the king have advisers? Does he hear from his subjects? Is Rumpelstiltskin himself at court, so it’s easy for him to observe?

Obviously, I’ve learned a lot about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain lately. My sympathies, of course, are with the Jews, but I’ve made discoveries about the monarchs, too, and the reasons they believed the expulsion was right. For example, the Jews, by their presence and because of popular opinion against them (made worse by some clerics), caused unrest among the majority Christian population. Another example: the monarchs thought that almost all the Jews would convert (roughly half actually did), and they believed their souls would be saved.

Political upheavals don’t come out of nowhere. Maybe the nobles believe that commoners are inferior by nature and unfit to rule. If the queen wears a gown that to them seems unsuitable, for instance, they regard her fashion choice as emblematic of the wrongness of a commoner in such an elevated position. If the king issues a decree they disagree with, they regard it as an example of her bad influence. We want to show all this.

So what else will fill in Katie W.’s middle? Here are two strategies, and both can be used in the same story.

The first is along the lines suggested by Christie V Powell: What’s the desired outcome, and what are the steps to achieving it and the obstacles along the way?

The second concerns the characters. Who is Rumpelstiltskin? Why does he care about the kingdom, the monarchs, the nobility? Does he have another story that dovetails with this one? His story will fill in the middle and carry the story to the end.

Fifteen years are a lot. Maybe Rumpelstiltskin is a young gnome at the beginning and he has to grow up a bit before he can take on this challenge. Some of the middle can go to his growth: the challenges he faces, the conclusions he draws, and how both make him the right–or wrong–gnome for this job.

Let’s assume that he’s an outcast, as the fairy tale suggests, but he craves acceptance and understanding. In his eagerness to help, he makes mistakes, which reinforce the reasons that he’s ostracized. Also, his attempts to help, even when he does nothing wrong, are misinterpreted. If the reader cares about him, his progress toward acceptance will be the most important thread, and his success or failure will determine whether the ending is happy or sad.

Say he makes the safety of the king and queen his top priority. Then he’s spending a lot of the fifteen years infiltrating the nobles, finding out what they’re up to, foiling their attempts. Might he find himself at one point sympathizing with them? And then shifting back. Does he want the dragon to succeed, or does he want to save the family himself, unaided? How does he feel about dragons?

Say he meets the princess and she’s kind to him. What are the consequences of that? Or she might be cruel, and he’s still trying to save her miserable life.

Or the king is cruel.

Or just by watching these humans, he forms opinions of all of them, from the royal family to the nobles to the people in the queen’s hometown to the dragon. How does all that influence his actions?

The same goes for the other characters. What do they want? How do their goals intersect with Rumpelstiltskin’s?

Going back to what I said before, that fifteen years is a big chunk of time to cover–it’s hard to make so much time tight. If we can’t shorten the time span, we can use telling to get the reader through. In a paragraph or a page or two, we can summarize the years, stopping now and then to show the most important moments. When we’re up to date, we return to showing and start the play-by-play action again.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Rumpelstiltskin, held in contempt by everyone, knows he’s a good gnome. His goal is to be one of the king’s councilors in the Kingdom of the Peaceful Valley, where there are more disputes than there are water droplets in the River of Harmony, which runs through the kingdom. Write his first attempt to interest the king in his qualifications and his virtues. If you like, keep going to write the whole story.

∙ The dragon, who happens to be a genius at playing parties against one another, attends a castle ball and mingles (he’s quite a dancer!), sowing resentment and mistrust among the nobility. Write the scene.

∙ The princess, who cares most about her mom and who recently heard about the circumstances of mom’s marriage to daddy, the king ( the whole turn-straw-into-gold-or-be-executed thing). The princess loves her father, too, but thinks he needs a lesson in empathy. Write how she delivers the lesson and how it goes.

Have fun, and save what you write!