More Than You Know

On June 23, 2018, Samantha wrote, People always say “Make your characters feel pain!” In general I agree with this. Your character has to suffer throughout your story or it will be flat out boring…but how do you make his/her suffering unique? I’ve also heard that you should write about what you know, do you agree with this? And if you think that is good advice, do you have suggestions of how to stretch my knowledge and experiences to 1) sound unique/less boring and 2) not completely copy my life?

Lots of you flowed in to help.

Song4myKing: About pain. I think readers will care more about a character whose suffering seems in some way like their own, than about a character whose trouble is so far out there that they can’t really imagine it. If a character loses her best friend, it could strike a closer chord than if she is the only one in her town to survive a bombing. Not that you can’t use the bombing. But if you want the reader to care about the character’s loss and not just about her new plot challenges, you’ll have to narrow her grief down to one lost person at a time. Then make THAT person, and THAT pain become as real as possible.

Probably the key to making the character’s suffering unique is to make sure the people and things involved are 3D and unique. I talked about loss of a loved one as an example; that may be a common theme, but it becomes unique if the one gone and the one left are both well-rounded and their relationship was unique to them. Things like fears are the same way–if the character isn’t flat, and the fears have a believable basis, the suffering it causes will be just as interesting.

But whatever you do, don’t make the suffering random. Don’t kill the dog just to make the readers cry. They won’t. They’ll just be mad at you unless you have a very good reason. Think what in your story could naturally cause pain, then milk it for all it’s worth.

About writing what you know. I try not to write about things in the real world that I know nothing about. I probably will never write a story that has a public school as a major setting, because the school I went to was a very small church school. But I might sometime write about a homeschooler even though I was never homeschooled. I can more easily imagine what it would be like, because several of my siblings homeschooled for a year or two, and so did a number of my friends.

But notice I said “real world.” In the real world, someone will call your bluff if you really didn’t know what you were talking about. But in a made-up world, you are the creator, and you have the opportunity to get to know your world better than anyone else knows it.

And don’t forget that you CAN stretch your knowledge and experiences, even turning them into something a little different. I can’t really wrap my mind around the idea of losing my parents, but I did write a story that included that. I remembered the pain of losing my grandfather, and I put that pain into the story.

Christie V Powell: Well, suffering is tied to both fear and pain, so what does your character fear? What hurts them? That’ll be different for different people. Put me on a crowded dance floor with music so loud it hurts your ears–to some, that’s fun, but to me it would be suffering. I was watching a movie recently where a baby was rushed to the hospital. Everyone else enjoyed it, but I have experiences that made watching it painful. So experience will color the suffering too.

Real people are more complex than characters. Even if you were writing a memoir, your character self would not be a carbon copy. In some ways, all of your characters are based off of you and things you’ve experienced. My character Keita Sage is an introvert like me, but I also identify with antagonist Donovan’s desire take control and simplify government. Some of my real-life experiences got twisted into fiction: I once euthanized a baby chick that was born with fatal problems. It was a shocking, traumatizing experience. I twisted it into my first book, when Keita charges into battle and accidentally kills someone. In the final chapter, she discusses her complicated feelings about a gray character who did terrible things, yet she still cares for him as a person. It came straight from my feelings about one of my good friends from high school being arrested. You’re a unique human being. You’ve had different experiences than everyone else. That will come through.

In high fantasy, the whole world might be at stake. However, I just read and loved “The Losers Club” by Andrew Clements, and the only thing at stake is the main character’s summer vacation and maybe his friendship with a girl. It’s based on a realistic 6th grade bookworm. His character wasn’t really unique–he reminded me a lot of myself.

Maggie R.: So then, do you think that I can still get the reader to feel sad if it’s like ten people who die? Is it too many people do you think? Maybe I could give instances where they are each given a personality. What do you think?

Herolass: It depends on who the people are who die and how they die. If ten unnamed soldiers die in a battle I will not be too sad, but if those soldiers are all friends who died to save someone (e.g. the MC or another important character), I will be very sad.

Raina: I once heard somebody say that when writing tragedy, you should focus on the small things. Instead of writing about the horrors of war, write about a child’s burnt socks lying by the side of the road. If you want a good example, watch Les Miserables. A dozen people dying violently in a battle isn’t nearly as sad as the scene where Fantine gets arrested. (For me, at least.)

Also, I tend to find that tragedy/death feels sadder when the reader/story has some “quiet time” for it to really sink in, instead of a big action scene where the reader’s (and characters’) adrenaline is probably rushing. If you look at Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, the ALL IS LOST moment is usually a big dramatic (and action-packed if you’re in one of the more action-oriented genres) scene where something major happens, while the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL moment is more internal conflict, where there’s not necessarily a lot going on outside but the MC is struggling inside.

Song4myKing; They might not all need to be named, and have personality shown, but if a few of them are in some poignant way, we’ll get it. We’ll understand that they were all people, not just pawns.

Wow! You guys are fabulous! I agree with everything!

As I’m thinking about this, I’m guessing that we can even make readers care about aggregates of lives lost–though I’ve never attempted it. I think the burnt socks at the side of the road is super effective, but we can also be cerebral about death statistics. One of the reasons, I think, that people continue to care about the Holocaust is the sheer enormity of Jewish deaths: six million. Statistics have power. We can compare the death toll to other death tolls. I haven’t done this, so I’m making up statistics: Jewish deaths in the Holocaust compared to deaths in our Civil War, compared to deaths from cholera, compared to deaths from malnutrition. (I don’t know how any of these would come out.) We might look at innovations by population and speculate how many advances all of humanity was deprived of by the losses. In real life, I have thought along these lines. Naturally, in our fiction, we would stack the deck–make comparisons that point up the magnitude of the tragedy. And then, to bring it all home, we can show the effects of realizing the seriousness of the event on our beloved MC.

Suppose our MC’s tribe loses a battle with the gnomes of Mount Pothinay, and only three out of a thousand soldiers survive. Our MC reacts with shock and deep depression. She thinks of the impact on the tribe going forward. She listens in on the survivors’ descriptions of the debacle. They supply the detail that everyone above talked about. We may not know any of these characters well–either the dead or the living–but their stories will affect our MC and through her, our readers.

Underlying all this, of course, is emotion. We have to connect the deaths of the few or the many with a feeling response. If we set it up right, we can do it. Writers have super powers!

On to writing what we know or what we didn’t (past tense) know. As I’ve said here, my WIP is a historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I knew little when I started. Many learned tomes later, I’m, if not an expert, at least a knowledgeable amateur, and, finally, I’m starting to feel comfortable moving around in this long-ago world, which may be more different from our own than any of the fantasy universes I’ve created, not withstanding dragons, fairies, and elves. For example, cities had their own fueros, charters of rights granted by the monarch. But the king (and occasionally the queen) could–and did–change his mind any old time. If a subject didn’t like something, he could appeal to the king, and the king might act in his favor. But when another objection came along, he might reverse himself. A subject could depend on nothing! For most of the medieval period, the Jews had their own courts, but if a Jew was unhappy about a judgment, he could move on to the Christian courts and hope for a better outcome. I’ve never thought about introducing such chaos–but I might in a future fantasy, because, in addition to writing what we know, we can write what we’ve learned.

My book, The Wish, is set in the eighth grade. When I wrote it, junior high (no middle schools then) was decades in the past, and, due to a special program in New York City at the time, I skipped eighth grade. So I spent a day with an eighth grade class and talked to the kids. When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed the help of my shy friends to get Addie right, since I’m an extrovert–but being an extrovert didn’t stop me from writing her.

We may have to step outside ourselves to write what we don’t know, but plenty of resources are available. For this historical novel, in addition to reading academic books, I’ve googled countless things. I had a long phone conversation about boats with an expert at the South Street Seaport in New York City. I’ve reached out to scholars specializing in the Middle Ages on the Iberian Peninsula. No one has been unwilling to help.

(For any of you who are using Wikipedia for research, I’ve found the references at the bottom of the article to be enormously helpful. Some link to other online resources and some to books that go into the topic, whatever it is, in geeky depth.)

One of the charms of writing what we don’t know is that we build bridges to what we do. In the case of the expulsion of the Jews, not all the discoveries have been happy. Prejudice then and prejudice now, if not exactly the same, resemble each other.

I encourage writers to write what we don’t know. We get bigger.

And I don’t want you readers of this blog to limit your ambitions. Whatever you want to do in your writing, I say, go for it!

In the case of writing about the late fifteenth century, I can’t get it entirely right, and not merely because records are spotty. For one thing, I don’t have twenty years for this one book, the time it would take to truly know the period. For another, the way events unfolded then has convinced me that people at the time were in some respects fundamentally different from twenty-first century humanity: the sense of self was less individuated; the stories folks tell themselves about their lives has changed; and the relation of self to society has shifted. I’m hoping to write characters who aren’t exactly like us, just dressed up in gowns or doublets and hose. But if I manage to represent them as they would recognize themselves, they may not be comprehensible to modern readers. I’m looking for a middle ground. We can’t entirely get away from what we know.

This extends to all kinds of writing. My shy Addie is unlikely to reflect everyone’s experiences of being shy. Whether we write what we know or what we learn, our words won’t precisely match what our readers know. This is all to the good. How dull it would be otherwise!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Take the defeat against the gnomes of Mount Pothinay when only three out of a thousand survive. 997 people have been killed. Resist the urge to make any of them individuals. Write a scene, and make the reader sad.

∙ Research a historical defeat. Make yourself care, and then, using your research, write a scene and make the reader care. For this, Wikipedia and Google are your friends, but you can also interview people you know who may be veterans or may have been in any kind of physical fight.

∙ Take a tall tale or a myth about an out-size individual. Make that person believable. Adapt the story. Write it all or a scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Enhancing experience

February 19, 2011, Alice wrote, you have any ideas for writing realistically about a cross-country road trip when you’ve never actually taken one yourself, and you can’t go on one because your whole summer is completely booked?

Alice’s question applies to any writing outside one’s first-hand experience. When you read this, I hope you’ll apply my ideas to your own stories.

First off, Alice, you know a lot about road trips even if you’ve never crossed the nation on one. And even if you had, you’d have only one experience, which might not be enough. You need those shorter trips to draw on, all your experience of car trips.

You can start with your knowledge of humans in cars then move onto your characters. Any story needs conflict, and the cramped space in an automobile, where personalities can’t help but rub up against one another, is perfect.

We all have different driving styles and different styles of being a passenger. If the driving is shared, that can be a source of trouble. And the radio! Or CD player or iPod. What kind of music to listen to? Who prefers news or a recorded book? Open window? Closed window? How high to crank the heat or the air-conditioner? Who pays for gas? Who sits in front? Anybody gets carsick? Conflict galore. As well as opportunities to make peace. The emotional ride can be bumpy!

And what about the car itself, inside and out? Are soda cans rattling around on the floor? Does the car smell like the family dog? Or does it still have a new-car smell after seven years? Is it in good repair? Is it a junker? Does it have a spare tire? Jumper cables? Whose car is it?

My parents loved and respected each other – ordinarily – but they were at their worst in the car. We lived in New York City, where a car and a driver’s license aren’t necessary. My father didn’t get either one until he was in his early forties, and my mother didn’t get hers until the last year of her life, after my dad had died.

My father’s late start and his diffidence combined with my mother’s nervousness and her inability to tell her left from her right (this was long before GPS) made every excursion an expedition into the unknown. If we (my parents, my sister, and I) had set off across country from northern Manhattan where we lived, we might well have driven three thousand miles and wound up in the Bronx, five miles from home.

We played word games in the car and sang car songs. What stands out in memory, however, is the mounting tension. We inevitably got lost, and my parents each blamed the other. Then, at the end of the trip, we had to go home, and it happened all over again.

What I’ve described applies to ordinary trips, and this is a magic ice cream truck (a lovely idea). Still. How does the truck look? Smell? Does Sam the ice-cream man keep the driver’s cab clean? Has the engine had its latest inspection? How high are the driver and passenger from the road? Is the truck noisy? How does it feel different from being in a car? And of course there’s the magic part.

What sort of driver is Sam? Does he love to tell stories and forget to watch the road? Or does he demand silence so he can concentrate? Does he tailgate? Drive too fast? Too slow?

What kind of passenger is the girl, whom I’m calling Honey? Relaxed? Or nervous? Chatty? Silent?

What time of year is the trip? What sort of weather might they encounter?

All this – the characters, the car or truck – are available to the writer before the engine has even turned over. And you don’t have to know the slightest thing about cross-country trips to write this part.

For the cross-country aspect, there’s lots you can do. You should certainly consult a map to plot the truck’s course. Get online directions for the recommended route and alternate routes. Find tourist attractions along the way. Explore the topography. Pretend you were planning the trip for yourself. Decide if Sam and Honey want to go through cities or skirt them. Are they going to stay in motels or camp out? Can they live in the truck? If so, where are the recreational vehicle camps? Research traveling in an RV if that’s going to be their choice.

Before starting this post I googled “worst car trip.” I was thinking conflict again. Lots of items popped up. I read only one, so I don’t know what’s out there. You can google “cross-country road trip” and see what you find.

Also, I’d suggest you ask people you know about their cross-country and long-distance car trips. Here’s a wacky idea: Listen to “Car Talk,” a weekly car-repair program on National Public Radio. You can stream it online. The program is more than car-repair; it’s funny, and you may hear a wealth of material that you can fictionalize.

Readers of the blog, you can help Alice by posting reminiscences of long road trips that you’re willing to share.

Of course, the danger of research is not knowing when to stop. We fall in love with all the discoveries we’re making. You may want to stay in road-trip-research land forever and never progress to the rougher terrain of writing land. So I’d suggest that you research enough to get you started. Then, if Sam and Honey are riding through the Sonoran desert, for example, and you need to know what the landscape looks like, return to the research phase until you’re ready to continue. When you began you might not have known that they would detour into the desert. You certainly wouldn’t have known they’d decide to go to a fancy restaurant for dinner and you have to learn about Southwest cuisine.

When I wrote my historical novel, Dave at Night, I started with general research about New York City in the 1920s, especially about Harlem and the Lower East Side. Then I started writing. Dave’s father dies at the beginning of the book, the first page. A little further on I needed to know what route the hearse would take to the cemetery in 1926. Back to research. Later on, Dave is on the street outside a Harlem rent party in 1926. (A rent party was held when a tenant couldn’t pay the rent. She’d hold a party, serve food, bring in jazz musicians, and collect a small admission fee, which would bring in enough to cover the rent.) These parties were egalitarian affairs. Poor folk and rich attended. I wondered what kind of cars might have been parked at the curb near where Dave stood. This led me to reading about classic cars and interviewing a classic car expert.

Even when I’m writing fantasy, I research. For example, in For Biddle’s Sake, one of my Princess Tales, the fairy Bombina loves to turn people and things into toads, so I researched toads. I used little of what I learned, but knowledge made me more confident. In A Tale of Two Castles (out soon!) one of the major characters is a dragon. To describe him I googled images of dragons, but I wasn’t satisfied, so I looked at Komodo dragons (online, not in person), and that’s what I described, except for the wings, which I made up. Research helps with detail, and, as we all know, detail brings stories to life.

Naturally these prompts revolve around car trips. Perry is invited to vacation with his best friend Letty Pewer and her parents. They are traveling from Minnesota to Florida for a winter week in the sun. Below are some possibilities to fool around with. Pick as many as you like or make up your own or do a combo of mine and yours.

•    Letty’s father is peculiar. You decide how.

•    Letty’s mom is a dangerous driver. You decide how.

•    Letty’s younger brother and older sister are coming along. They don’t get along with Letty and dislike Perry.

•    The car is older than Perry. The radio doesn’t work. There is no iPod, no CD player.

•    The Pewers are economizing and haven’t bought a GPS. Good old maps are good enough for them. They plan to camp out and save on motel costs as soon as they reach warm enough weather.

•    The car is bewitched – not in a good way.

•    This is the snowiest winter in the history of  Minnesota and surrounding states.

•    The scenic route will take the family and Perry through an old mining town. Unbeknownst to the authorities, one of the abandoned mines is now occupied by squatters who may be dangerous.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Fantastical research

Important blog note: If you go back to earlier postings – as I hope you do – please don’t post your comments or questions there.  I don’t check and may never see what you wrote.  Even if what you have to say concerns an old post, please add your comments to the most current one, where I’ll be sure to read it and so will the other writers who frequent the blog.

On March 17, 2010 April wrote, It sounds like you rely primarily on books for research, with online searching as a supplement or back up. Is this just your preference? Or do you think the kind of information you’re looking for is more trustworthy in a book? Or perhaps another reason?

And Priyanka wrote, April- my answer to you for that is that material you find in a cloth-bound book, which took a lot of time to edit and compile, is most probably more reliable than the majority of websites on the web, which probably got their own information from a book! (Take a look at the bibliography sections on well-written Wikipedia articles, they often have an extensive list of books.)

There are some exceptions for research online! I would trust anything I find in JSTOR or an online database such as EBSCO. I’m not sure how easily accessible those are for everyone, but high schools and universities usually have subscriptions to them, as do some public libraries. All it requires is a little searching! 🙂
I’m not an expert on research, so please keep my non-expertise in mind as you read.  I also don’t have access to university databases or live near a big public library, so I’ve never used the online databases Priyanka cites.  I do google the topics that interest me, and I use Wikipedia a lot, but the online sources that I find mostly give overviews.  When I want more depth, I read books.

As you guys probably know, most of my novels are fantasies.  Ever, for example, is set in a made-up version of ancient Mesopotamia.  To help me write it, I read two books about the period and visited the ancient Mesopotamian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  I also read Mesopotamian myths and reread the Greek myths.  I read the bible as well, which, among other things, contains information about ancient daily life.

But my purpose wasn’t accuracy, it was flavor and detail.  I didn’t mention Mesopotamia in the novel; the city of Hyte and the kingdom of Akka, where the action takes place, never existed.  If I used a detail from an online source that was wrong, it didn’t matter.

It helps me to have specific information when I write, even if the information is riddled with inaccuracies.  Reading that the houses of the period were made of baked mud helped me picture them (I’m pretty sure this detail is true).  I read about the layout of rooms, and that helped too.  If I’d discovered that these layouts were inaccurate, I would have tried to find out what was correct, but then if the correction didn’t suit my story needs, I would have gone back to what I knew to be wrong.  I make no claims of historical verity, and I hope no teacher has made Ever part of a curriculum of the ancient world.

An aside:  I found an online dictionary of ancient Sumerian and used it to invent names, places, and a few words.  But I worried that I might have accidentally created words that exist in modern Arabic or Farsi, and I couldn’t tell if the words happened to be offensive.  My publisher found a speaker of both languages to look at my inventions.  Turned out that a couple were real words, but nothing bad.

Another aside:  I discovered, online again, numbers as they would have been written in cuneiform.  So, above the ordinary Arabic numerals at the beginning of each chapter are the same numbers in cuneiform.  If you look, you can learn to write cuneiform numbers up to sixty-nine (the number of chapters in the book)!  I love that.

My fairy tale books from Ella Enchanted through Fairest are not set in any time period more specific than pre-industrial.  I did little research.  I looked at costume books, especially for Fairest, but I roamed from century to century to find gowns that fit what I wanted.  (Some of the fashions were completely ridiculous, which suited my story.  For a hoot, take a look at an illustrated fashion history book.)  For Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, I researched armor, but not extensively.

I have gotten letters from children, thanking me for teaching them about the middle ages through my books.  When I read these letters, I shudder and feel guilty.  So for A Tale of Two Castles, which April named on the blog, I did read two books about medieval daily life, and I referred constantly to a children’s book, Castle by David Macaulay, about castle architecture.  If kids write to me about the middle ages in that book I’ll feel a little better, although I still made things up.

Children’s nonfiction is a great source for gaining nontechnical understanding of a complex subject.  In For Biddle’s Sake a fairy turns characters into frogs, and I read two children’s books about frogs.  They told me everything I needed.

It’s important to note that although I’m writing from a European fairytale tradition, there is no Europe in my books.  My fairytale novels take place nowhere on planet earth.  Even though I researched frogs, if I’d wanted to give them wings or make each of them as big as tyrannosaurus rex, I could have.  If you do set your story in a real time and place, then I think you need to be accurate.  For example, suppose your fantasy takes place in sixteenth century France, even if you have dragons dotting the landscape, you need to be true in other respects to the place and time.

When I wrote my non-fantasy, realistic historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in New York City in 1926, I did extensive research and tried to get everything right.  I read several books about the period as well as poetry and a novel written at the time.  I spent days going through the photo collection at the main branch of the New York Public Library, looked at street plans of the time, visited the Tenement House Museum and spoke to the curator, visited the New York City Transit Museum and talked to an expert on mass transit during the era.  And much more.  Best of all, I had two friends with excellent memories who were alive at the time.  If you’re writing about a period that’s within living memory of your parents or grandparents or of people you can contact, talk to them.  They will give you details and a flavor of the time that you can’t get any other way.  But then fact-check their information.  When I was little, for example, I remember telephones being only black.  I would guess that they began to be produced in colors in the mid to late 1960s, but the change may have begun earlier.  Dates in memory are often slippery.

These prompts involve research.  If you want to surround them with a story, so much the better.

•    Some emergency has arisen during the night.  Your seventeenth or eighteenth-century daughter of a duke has to dress in a hurry.  Write about her getting dressed with as much historical accuracy about her clothing as you can find.  Remember, she is rushing.

•    Describe five minutes of a medieval feast with as much historical accuracy as you can.

•    A young squire (or female equivalent) is polishing his lord’s armor and decides to try everything on.  Once he’s outfitted, he mounts his lord’s charger, just as someone unexpected (you pick) enters the stable.  Write the whole scene, including what happens next.
Have fun, and save what you write!