The Derring in the Do

Thanks for all the title help with my forthcoming novels about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain! I’m putting together a list of possibilities for my editor, and I’ll let you know the result, but it’s not too late. If title inspiration strikes, please let me know.

On October 10, 2018, Superb♥Girl wrote, I have an idea for a story that has multiple themes: story-within-a-story; fish out of water; contemporary magic, etc. Something that is extremely important to the story is the sort of swashbuckling element I want to give it. But the thing is, I’ve never really attempted to write anything action/adventure-y before, and I’m worried about it feeling blank. I don’t want to write action/adventure for action/adventure’s sake, but I want it to be important to the emotional aspect and the overall plot. I also want to give it sort of an old-timey feel, like romanticizing it with kindheartedness and chivalry. So, long story short (writing pun), does anyone have any tips for action-type themes?

Angie wrote back, I think that one way you can add the swashbuckling/action element without it feeling like it’s there “just because” is to link it to some fundamental aspect of your MC’s personality or past. (Perhaps her(?) father passed down a fencing foil and your MC learns about a secret life of danger that her father led, and this affects her own path and choices.)

For example, in The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya brought the swashbuckle to the story, and it was inextricably linked to his heart and character, as he needed it to avenge his father – his life goal. In The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnon was determined to prove himself, and that manifested in daredevil, swashbuckling antics.

In my own WIP, my MC feels that she doesn’t have any particular talent or outstanding cleverness, but she finds her place in protecting her friends because she is strong and quickly learns various defensive fighting skills.

If you can find the way that the swashbuckling, chivalry, and action is a part of your MC, I think you have every reason to include it!

And Poppie wrote, Superb♥Girl: I think you could have a lot of fun with that swashbuckling, action-adventure type of story! To help answer your question, let’s take a look at this quote from the film The Princess Bride: “Does it have sports in it?”

“Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…”

That movie is very swashbuckling, and when in doubt, you can look at the quote and see what elements you could apply to your story. As an example, you would have to have some close-combat dueling in this type of story. Perhaps your hero gets into a fight with a criminal gang or his arch nemesis. He could use a sword, or martial arts, or magic (there’s the “fencing, fighting” element to it). It could also apply to your hero’s character. You mentioned a fish-out-of-water theme? Perhaps he comes from a city that promotes deeds of daring, and the city he currently lives in values quiet meditation above all else (there’s a little world-building in that as well).

Something else that I highly recommend is reading books and watching movies in that genre to give you an extra feel to the world.

Great answers!

I’m with Poppie that reading and watching the sort of books and movies in this genre will help. Specifically, you might try reading some contemporaneous Arthurian material. Here are two links to the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which dates from the fifteenth century: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/sggk_neilson.pdf and https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/weston-sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight. There is a little hanky-panky going on, so maybe high school and up. And here’s a link to the discussion on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Gawain_and_the_Green_Knight#Synopsis.

A great read for charm and swashbuckle is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court–one of my all-time favorites. Another I love is The Once and Future King by T. H. White, a marvel of beautiful writing, among other things. Both, I think, are great for upper elementary and up–worthwhile no matter how old you are.

Twain’s novel was published in 1889 and White’s in 1958. If we’re going for old-timey, it helps to look at work that was created in an earlier period–another reason to turn to contemporaneous sources. Being aware and a little–unless we’re really studying a period knowledgeable will give us options and will help with our world-building. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves: How did people spend their days during the period? What were gender roles? Table manners? Diet? How did people regard children? How did they regard themselves? Did the idea of self differ between a lord, a merchant, a carpenter, a peasant? Did the idea of self differ between a lord and his lady, a peasant and his wife? I don’t think we’re going to find the self question resolved explicitly anywhere, but we can get hints. Then we decide what we want to keep and what we want to discard, using the complexity of what we learned. For example, we may decide to craft our MC in a contemporary mold for the sake of relatability, but we may make the lord of the castle pre-modern in his approach to everything.

Also, for movies, you might check out the oldies of the 1940s and 1950s that starred Errol Flynn, who could swash and buckle better than anybody.

One way to get the action/adventure going is to make the scale big. My two books that fall most into the adventure category are my Bamarre books, The Two Princesses of Bamarre and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Addie, the MC of Two Princesses, is on a quest to find a cure for the Gray Death, which kills many every year. Perry, the MC of Lost Kingdom, is charged with freeing the Bamarre people from the oppressive Lakti.

The dangers in an adventure are real and physical. Addie has to face down monsters and for a while is held in a dragon’s lair by a dragon who intends to kill her. Perry rescues children from a battlefield and is hunted by the wily and determined Lord Tove.

This doesn’t mean there can’t also be emotional and psychological struggles, too. Addie has to fight her shyness and timidity. Her father is a basket case of emotional frigidity and indecision. Perry is unbending and almost universally disliked. Her mother is cold and judgmental even though she loves Perry.

But contrast this with my contemporary novel, The Wish, in which what’s at stake is popularity. Popularity is super important to MC Wilma, and I think it becomes important to the reader, too, but it’s all played out on a small stage.

We can use tone to make our action/adventure work. Though every rule can be broken, and I don’t want to get very prescriptive, in general, I think action/adventure stories don’t take themselves too seriously. Princess Bride, cited by both Angie and Poppie, is lighthearted. Hamlet has swordplay, too, but I wouldn’t call it an action play or an adventure. In fact, it might be called a stalled-action play, and the tone is very dark. Just saying, there’s neither swash nor buckle in making your girlfriend psychotic or killing an old man. I don’t mean that an adventure story can’t be serious, but there’s a difference between serious and depressing.

In Hamlet, the villains may be Claudius (the evil uncle) and Gertrude (AKA Mom to Hamlet), but they’re not actively opposing Hamlet, the MC. They’re more like the murderers in a mystery, trying to avoid discovery. However, generally in an action/adventure, there is an antagonist–human, fantasy creature, alien, natural force (like a fire)–that the MC has to deal with. So when we build our action/adventure, we can think about an antagonist.

I’m with Angie that we need to consider the character of our MC. She doesn’t have to be a derring-do sort at the outset, but she has to have that quality buried somewhere in her. When she’s pushed against the wall and all her old, pacific tactics fail, she needs to be able to pull out the audacity she didn’t even know she had. Or she can be a tough fighter from the start, but she can’t be unbeatable, or the tension will collapse.

As for old-timey feel, I’d use standard language if the story isn’t contemporary and stay away from words like nerd, geek, rad, and others that you know better than I do. But I wouldn’t attempt terms that aren’t in current use, like prithee or dost, and I’d stick to modern spelling–unless you have a Ph. D. in Elizabethan English and can get it exactly right. Having said that, it would be interesting to try thou and thee as the only deviation from standard English.

Let’s summarize strategies, keeping in mind that every rule can be broken if the result works:

∙ Look at books, movies, and TV shows that exemplify the qualities we’re looking for. Think about what we can take from them and use.

∙ Make the scale big and the stakes high.

∙ The most important risks should be physical and real (not emotional).

∙ The MC should have potential as a swashbuckler.

∙ The overall tone, the feeling that the reader is left with, shouldn’t be depressing.

∙ There needs to be a tangible, external antagonist.

∙ The language in a not-contemporary adventure story should be standard English rather than colloquial.

And here are three prompts:

∙ Just saying, the expression “chivalry is not dead” is modern, so chivalry does still live. Write a chivalric, action story set in a climbing gym.

∙ This may seem like sacrilege, but take The Diary of Anne Frank and change it from memoir to fantasy fiction by introducing one or more of these, or any other bit of magic: a dragon, a wizard, a fairy, a sword with magical properties, a flying horse, a cloak of invisibility. If you like, give it a happy ending. (Remember that the Diary is still copyright protected, and whatever you write can’t be published without the permission of the estate.)

∙ Pick a scene from Hamlet and write an action spoof of it. Make the ghost, if he’s in the scene, play a more active role. Think funny. Hamlet, in my opinion, is over the top, ripe for a takedown.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I don’t know if this is super relevant, but I think one good example of a character who doesn’t look daring from the outset, but finds it buried somewhere in them is Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit – another great adventure story 🙂

  2. I am very interested in Ms Levine’s newest WIP.
    I am writing (and re-writing) a historical fiction story which takes place in Indiana in 1959 and 1960. My main character is unhappy to find out her parents and grandmother have been keeping a “Family Secret” from her. The mystery involves her deceased grandfather. Any adult reading the book will guess the secret early, but readers in middle grade will not recognize the name of an obscure author named Leon David Hirsch. So you can see why I am interested in your research and your final book with such an intriguing plot. Solving the mystery for my MC is difficult because there is no Internet available to her. The clues to the family secret are discovered by listening to family conversations and reading hidden letters Deborah finds. Any suggestions will be gratefully accepted.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I do see books by Leon David Hirsch on a Google search, but I’m sorry to say I don’t know who he was. And I’m not sure what your question (or questions) is. Can you say more?

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Since Beth Schmelzer didn’t write back, I’m adding her question to my list as a general one about writing and researching a historical novel.

      • Beth Schmelzer says:

        Leon David Hirsch was my grandfather. He wrote one long political novel in 1918 and a short mystery paperback published in 1946. That’s why I said he was obscure. The mystery in my novel is Why does no one talk about the grandfather? I thought you might recognize that his name is Jewish. The MC in my novel is growing up in Indiana in the 1950’s; she only knows Christians (WASP s and some Catholics). My real question which can only be answered as fiction: Why would family hide the fact that the grandfather was Jewish? I thought you would be interested in this question. Sorry to be so obtuse with dropping my grandfather ‘s name. Deborah thinks it sounds important, but she doesn’t know why!

    • I like to make a list of all of the scenes, describing them in just a few words, then organize those descriptions into chapters. It helps me see at a glance what needs rearranged and what scenes I still need to write.

    • Congrats on finishing the first draft!
      I’m like Melissa Mead in that I like to let it sit for a bit and re-read it with fresh eyes. My first drafts often turn out more like just the plot line and not a whole lot else, so I start with reading it over and adding some more detail, description, backstory, etc.
      In a draft that I spent a year editing (I know, yikes!), there was one scene that I just couldn’t get right. I tried it one way, let it sit, then tried it another way, let it sit, until I was happy with it. Sometimes trial and error is the best way to get a scene right :).
      Once you’re happy with your edits, let your friends and family read it and ask for constructive criticism.
      Hope this is helpful! 🙂

  3. We read Ella Enchanted out loud in the car during holiday travels, and the first half of Ogre Enchanted on the way back. I may or may not admit to how hard I laughed hearing my husband try to speak in an ayorthian accent (and all of the other languages).

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m so glad! You know ELLA was my first published book, right? This was after nine years of rejections for other work. I never thought anyone would read the languages out loud, or I might have made them pronounceable!

      • Ella Enchanted is one of my favorite books to read, re-read and reference in my own children ‘s writing. (My characters love Ella!) It is so well- written that I am surprised it was your first published book.
        Although fantasy is not my first choice to read, I love Cinderella stories which I teach for storytelling units (volunteer now, but I am a retired librarian.) For those of you looking for great mentor texts, I recommend a few of my Jan. books: “Sweep ” by Auxier, “My Father’s Words” by MacLachlan, and “Wish” by Barbara O’Connell. Just reading Rhodes’ “Towers Falling” to rec. to a young reader whose birthday is 9/11. All of these titles are excellent. I also love CM Surrisi’s mysteries (just nominated for an Agatha for Best Children’s!!

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