Hep Cat

Before I start the post and because of a few recent questions that I loved, I’m happy to let you all know that I have a new book for kids coming out in October: Sparrows in the Wind. It’s a new take on the Greek myth of the Trojan War. Part One is told by Trojan princess Cassandra, who has the gift of prophecy and the curse of never being believed; Part Two is told by the Amazon princess Rin. A Greek chorus is spoken by three crows, Apollo’s sacred bird.

On February 8, 2021, Cara K wrote, My current W.I.P. is based in the 1950s, and I want to make sure that it is accurate to the time period. I have used many websites containing the ‘slang’ used back then, but I’m not sure if I’m using it correctly. Do you have any advice on how I can make my writing more accurate to the time period?

Two of you weighed in:

Katie W. wrote, There’s a series of three blog posts about historical fiction that might help, and if you know anyone who remembers the ’50’s, you could ask them. Or you could read books from that era, both fiction and nonfiction, to get a feel for the kinds of things they talked about and what their writing voices (and dialogue) sounded like.

Melissa Mead wrote, It’s a great way to get to know your relatives, if you have any from that era. You could also look for living history shows on YouTube. I just watched one that went “back in time” to the 1970s. Nothing like watching your childhood on a Past History show to make a person feel old.

Both Melissa Mead and Katie W. are recommending primary sources: interviews with people who were alive then (I was!), books, newspapers, magazines (including the ads), ancient television shows, etc. I just googled children’s books and YA books published during the decade. Treasures live in those books for contemporary writers!

If you do interview people who were alive in the ‘fifties, follow the proverb: Trust, but verify, especially if you’re talking to me. I’m vague about what was ‘fifties and what was ‘sixties. I’m not old enough to remember the ‘forties, but World War II was very alive in memory and popular culture when I was growing up.

Secondary sources can give us an overview. Who was president? What were the major current events for the year or years we’re writing about? How was the economy? On some bookshelf or other in our house is a coffee-table book that covers the whole twentieth century year by year, which I leaned on for my historical novel, Dave at Night, that’s set in 1926.

For A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, I researched fifteenth century Spain, and the problem was not enough information. Records (except of the Inquisition whose clerks were obsessive about getting it all down) were lost or not kept in the first place. There were no newspapers and no photographs; people didn’t confide in diaries.

If we’re writing about the ‘fifties, we have the opposite problem. There’s too much. We can be overwhelmed. We can become fascinated (the risk for me) and lose ourselves for hours or days in reading material we’ll never need. We have to know at least the ballpark of what we need to find out.

I just googled ‘fifties slang. I hadn’t ever heard of half of it, and of the bits I knew, I was surprised they aren’t still used by everyone. Except for hep cat. Nobody says that anymore. So, some may be regional. Or I could just be ignorant. But I’d say the takeaway is to be sparing with slang. See what you encounter most often in your reading and interviewing and stick with that. For example, in early drafts of Dave, I used the word great as today (unless it’s changed) people are likely to say awesome. A friend told me great was too contemporary. The term in the ‘twenties would have been swell. Gratefully, I made the change.

Technology often gives rise to terms that, while not slang, tend to die out when the technology changes. For example, televisions proliferated in the ‘fifties, but they were still fairly new and the connection wasn’t always great. Static was sometimes called snow. The antenna on top of the TV set was sometimes called rabbit ears. Remotes were decades in the future, and snow would make people heave themselves up from  their couches to move the ears around in hopes of improving the reception.

I bet there’s car technology that also yielded jargon of the decade.

And we need to remember that a lot changes from year to year. Language and outlook can change too.

When I was preparing to write Ceiling, I read a YA and a middle-grade book set in the Middle Ages: The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry (high school and up), and The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz (okay for elementary school kids). I thought they were terrific. When I worried about the historical accuracy of my book, I looked at the Afterwards in each of theirs. Both Berry and Gidwitz apologized for any mistakes they may have made.

I did the same. Mistakes are inevitable. We just try to make as few of them as possible.

Here are three prompts:

  • Here’s a link I found when I googled “1955 in history”: https://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1955.html. Pick something that happened then and write a short story of historical fiction. Or choose a different year.
  • Your MC sets her time machine for sixty years in the future. She’s packed the latest personal technology, hoping some of it will be useful. Her jacket is made of microfiber. Her watch is digital. And so on. She’s so excited she hasn’t slept in three days and concentration is a problem. By accident, she sets the machine on sixty years in the past and clicks Go. Write what happens.
  • Your MC spends a week in a medieval-fair reenactment and wakes up to find herself in thirteenth century England. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

    • Thank you you for your advice. I know it will help. And thanks Christie V Powell for your solidarity too.
      Can’t wait for your next book it sounds very interesting.
      ( : Maggie

  1. Hello! I posted my question on the last post, but it was the last comment so I’ll post it here.
    My question is kind of a reverse of Delyla’s from the last post. What is the best way to write short stories? And how can you come up with good plots for them? Whenever I try to write them I always want to add more and make things super complicated so they can play out later. I never feel like they’re full enough, and I can never come up with story lines where the problem will be resolved satisfyingly at the end. Does anyone have any advice?

    • I don’t usually write short stories, but I really liked Orson Scott Card’s article on the subject. It’s included in this collection: https://www.amazon.com/Writers-Digest-Handbook-Novel-Writing/dp/0898798310

      A short story has the same parts as a longer work (rising action, midpoint, climax, etc). I’m working on one right now, and I outlined it the same way as I would a longer work, just with fewer characters and fewer subplots. Also, how short are you talking? Anywhere from 100 to 10,000 words can be considered a short story.

    • If you want practice making stories (really) short, you might want to try writing flash fiction (less than 1000 words). I always struggled with starting stories and never finishing them. Flash fiction helped me to keep things simple so I could finally finish something. And if you want to try publishing a flash piece, I suggest submitting it to Havok Publishing. They have great editors that work with you to help you make the story the best it can be, and even if they reject it they still provide feedback. The story has to be in one of their daily genres (mystery, sci-fi, comedy, thriller, and fantasy) and it has to fit in a certain theme. All of this information and more is on their website under Submission Guidelines. Working with the editors has really helped me with my writing in general. If you want to read flash fiction to get a feel for it they have a story on their website every weekday.

    • Well, I’m very new to writing shorts myself, but my advice would be to keep it as simple as you can, and keep it focused. If you jump into an action scene, keep it in the action scene, tell the reader in short bursts of the MC’s thoughts, that kind of thing. For plots… hmm. I’d find a character’s desire, and then make her either find it or lose it, and maybe realize something quick along the ride. Good luck and hope this helps.

    • I have the same problem. Usually when I think of a short story idea I want to make it part of a developing novel plot instead.
      I’m no expert, but sometimes I start by writing everything I’m thinking and shortening it to fit a word limit of my choice. Hope this helps a bit!

  2. Ok! Thank you so much for the help!
    And I’d probably be writing short stories closer to 10,000 to start, since I feel it would give me more room to work.

    • Hey, rainwriter! I have a short story – it’s actually and novella, but it’s right on the edge – That I am working on revising, I don’t have an official title, but I’m calling it One Little Girl or In and Out, but it is only 10,416 words. My advice is, add the same amount of detail as you would and novel, but try to compress it a bit, if that makes sense. Also, I tend to stop at a very cliffhanger type moment, and move on to the short story’s sequel.

      I hope that’s helpful.

      -Delyla (Lyla)

  3. Also, Gail I saw that in your post about pro-logs, on January 2, 2013, that Kathryn Briggs asked:

    ‘Sorry, I forgot to add this to my last comment.
    ‘I was wondering if you could write a post on actually “starting,” about what you do as soon as you get an idea, then when you write notes, what notes you write, and how you start writing without hitting a big brick wall that stretches on forever?’

    I looked in the categories but couldn’t find it.
    Could you tell me were it is?

  4. I read the post about villains and the post about main characters. Can I write a story from four different points of view, with two of them being two of the villains?

    • You can have as many POV characters as you want! So long as each character has a distinct voice, the readers should be able to follow it. It helps if you follow a pattern, for example one/two/three chapters per narrator, but voice is what’s really important.

    • I recently read a book with about fifty POV’s. I don’t think there are rules, although that book was extremely confusing. I’d stick with a single digit number of POV’s myself, but I’m pretty sure it’s up to you. There’s no writers guild that sets down a bunch of writing restricitions. (Dang, now I want to write a story about a writer’s guild.) So, yeah, go for it!

  5. Dear Gail,
    Who is your editor, and would he or she edit my book when I am done with it? I am 12 years old. Were and how would I find your editor? I live in Bradenton, Florida. Will he or she be able to do anything down here in the next few years? Am I too far south? Do you have any advice about find a publisher? I am still planning out my novel, and will start it on April 1st, for Camp NaNoWriMo. Do I need to find a publisher and/or editor yet? Am I getting ahead of myself?
    I’m always worried about messing something up, and then I won’t be able to publish a novel like – I’ve always wanted – when the time comes.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Living in Florida isn’t a problem. It wouldn’t be a problem if you lived at the South Pole. But I think you are getting ahead of yourself. All first-time novelists have to finish their novels before looking for an agent (who will help edit your manuscript and find an editor for it). The editor will continue the editing process. I’d suggest you research publishing, which is complicated. It took me nine years to get a book accepted by a publisher, and I was forty-nine when that happened. You’re starting younger, which is good. Patience is the virtue a writer needs most.

    • I know HarperCollins publishes her book, and she at least used to have an editor named Rosemary, if that helps. Although from what I know of publishers, which is rather meager knowledge, if you’ve never sent a manuscript to them before, it might be assigned to whichever editor doesn’t have too much on their hands. But I only know what I’ve read, and what I’ve read isn’t necessarily right.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I was writing it when you posted. Rosemary is my editor. She’s very senior and isn’t acquiring many new writers these days. Generally, submissions to large publishing houses come from agents rather than writers. Writers submit to agents, and that starts things going.

    • Miss Maddox says:

      I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, but there’s a podcast that I love called The Happy Writer that’s hosted by Marissa Meyer (who is a best-selling YA author). On one episode, she had her agent, Jill Grinberg, come on, and she talks a lot about the querying process, the job of an agent, etc. It was really interesting, and I learned a lot. You might find that helpful. You can listen to the podcast on most services, I think – I listen to it on Google Podcasts.

      If you search for information about the publishing process, you’ll also probably find a lot. I’ve even read articles that are specifically about publishing when you’re still a kid, so that might interest you as a place to start.

    • Chiming in as the independent publishing person. If you end up deciding to publish independently, you still write the book first. Then you hire your own editor, which requires some research and a decent chunk of money (no one will stop you from skipping this step and doing it all yourself, but it’s a bad idea unless you have a lot of experience/grammatical knowledge, plus at least three really good beta readers). Location doesn’t matter, because most communication is online.

      I wanted to publish a book since I was younger than you, and ended up doing it when I was 28. Right now, you might be best off gaining experience (write a whole lot, every chance you get!) and studying (awesome job checking out this blog and asking questions!). Patience doesn’t mean just sitting and waiting–it also means learning and growing and putting in the work. It sounds like you’re on the right track!

  6. Miss Maddox says:

    I need help. I’ve been stuck on the same scene in my story for several months now (though I’ve been writing other stuff in between), and I don’t know why. I know what I want to happen in this scene, but I’ve just been sort of freezing up lately when I go to write it. I love the characters, the setting, everything that happens in the scene, everything that happens after the scene… But I’m still stuck. I’m a really bad perfectionist, but this feels worse than normal – I just can’t seem to like whatever I write on this scene. Does anyone have any ideas about what the problem might be or how I could approach this from a different perspective? To give you some more context, it’s a middle-grade fantasy story about a prince who has run away from home, and in this scene he’s at a magical inn/tavern with his new friend and her grandmother (who runs the inn). It’s a really fun scene, and I really want to finally write it! Any help would be greatly appreciated. 🙂

    • If you’re struggling with perfectionism, you might want to try writing something else first, something that you don’t have so much expectations for. Maybe a free write or brainstorm session? Maybe try pen and paper in stream-of conscious style?
      Conversely, you could imagine the scene you want in your mind, picturing how it will go. I’ve only done that for a few pivotal scenes. Once I managed to get them started, they just flowed.
      You can try going on a walk, or some other physical activity, while mulling over that particular scene. I do that when I’m stuck, and often the words start flowing and I have to rush back to the computer to get them down!

  7. Sometimes a scene can fall flat because there is either too much description, and not enough action, or not enough description and too much thinking, or too much action. Try thinking about how this is going to help the story, and role the new characters are going to have. What if the grandmother is secretly working for the palace, or gives in to greed of a reward asking for the prince, or maybe she’s been longing for years to have a royal within her grasp. Or alternately, what if in younger days she was a member of a super-secret clan and she hosts meetings within the tavern. Or she could be an expert potioneer, and she drugs soldiers who are hunting for the prince. You can slip a few clues in there without giving everything away at once, and your scene might perk up a bit.
    Example, let’s say she’s an expert potioneer and knows a few charms too, and maybe doesn’t like the soldiers very much. Maybe we can have an innocent looking plant in the corner, but the prince (who watched the herbalist for ages) recognizes as witherwort, a plant that causes delayed loss of energy, and diminished abilty. Maybe a soldier comes in and is rude, and the prince, from his hidden vantage point, sees the grandmother slip him some in his tea. Then he can either confront the grandmother or hide his suspicions. Maybe later in the book, he hides in the tavern and the grandmother drugs some bounty hunters come to take him back to the palace.
    And the friend poses possibilities too. Maybe she could be learning potions and charms from her grandmother, and later they get stranded, and one of her potions accidently has a very wrong effect on the prince. You can say she had a cauldron bubbling during the interview, and the grandmother frequently breaks off to correct her brewing.
    Stuff like that. That was a very long way of saying: make it relate to the rest of the story, and not just by introducing some main characters. Establish questions, and strengths, and weaknesses, and have lots of fun along the way. Hope this helps!

    • Miss Maddox says:

      It’s funny you should mention bounty hunters… My villain is a bounty hunter! Thanks for the advice. This definitely helps. I know that while they’re at the inn I’m going to set up a lot of the friend’s abilities, which will come in handy later on. Maybe I need to have some more of that in this scene! Thanks again!

  8. I was working on some background information for my WIP and realized that I have no idea how my nice, shy, quiet MC with a protective streak ended up in a years-long feud with the vain, snobbish antagonist who’s determined to be the most popular girl in their school. Maybe I just need to flesh out the antagonist more, or maybe I need to learn more about how school social systems work (I was homeschooled), but either way, I’m stuck.

    • Hi Katie! I’m homeschooled and in 6th grade, and have the same problem, but I write fantasy and tend to set it in a fictional place, were I make the rules. When I do need help with setting up a school in this world, I ask my cousin – who is also in 6th grade and 12 too – and he is a lot of help. I suggest asking someone you know who went to school, or, better yet, someone in the same grade as your MC.

    • I was a nice, shy, quiet girl, and there were a couple of girls in middle school that I clashed with. It wasn’t a years long feud because middle school is only three years long (sometimes only two), and when our classes changed each year, the school was big enough that we weren’t always sharing a class. I think a years-long feud would be more likely to happen in a small school/town.

      I’m bringing up some examples that I remember. I’m not condoning the behavior of either party.

      So, the other girls started it. I remember thinking of myself as a mirror–my opinions for others was based on how they treated me first. There was one leader, and she had three cronies. She would whisper and spread gossip about me, shriek “eew!” when I accidentally got too close, excluding me from group projects, getting other students to dislike me too, things like that. I got gum stuck in my hair once and was convinced that someone in my PE class had thrown it when I jogged by, but I couldn’t prove it.
      And in return, my friends and I had nicknames for her and her cronies that made fun of their names. We drew mean pictures based on those nicknames and shared them with each other. We felt like we were doing it to get back, and that it wasn’t nearly as bad as what she was doing to us.
      So if your antagonist is outright bullying her, there would definitely be some animosity on both sides.

      • I’m not sure why I was the target. Maybe because I was quiet and awkward and unlikely to fight back, except passive-aggressively. Maybe because I had unruly curls that made my hair look always messy. Or because I did “weird” things like carry around notebooks and scribble stories in them every chance I got. Or because my dad was a teacher at the school? Who knows.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          Thank you, Christie, for the real-life example! I was a child so long ago that my school experience was different. Back then there was no mainstreaming. Children were placed in classes based on IQ tests, and we traveled together from grade to grade, meaning we knew each other forever, and had seen one another in every kind of embarrassment, which made us kind. However, I was bullied outside of school for being overweight, and I was a cry baby, which made it worse. I could have used a protective friend! On the other hand, in summer camp one year, I joined the mean clique to ostracize a perfectly nice girl. If I were put on trial, I would be on the wrong side of history on that one.

    • Great examples! They’re dragons at boarding school, so I’ll have to do a bit of modifying, but you’ve given me some ideas for how to make the feud seem realistic. I’m just stuck on the motivations behind the whole mess.

      • I like looking at the enneagram system for motivations, especially for villains. There are nine types and each has a basic fear and desire. So you can choose from: (1) wanting to be Good/afraid of being Bad. (2) Wanting to be loved/fearing rejection. (3) Wanting to be important/fearing worthlessness. (4) Wanting to be recognized/fearing being insignificant. (5) Wanting to be an expert/fearing being incompetent (6) Wanting security/fearing losing your way. (7) Wanting to enjoy life/fearing missing out. (8) wanting independence/fearing being controlled. (9) Wanting inner peace/fearing conflict. Then you’d want to think about what happened in this person’s backstory to make them feel that way. My current villain is an 8, fearing being controlled, because she has been controlled in the past, and so now she’s out to eliminate any threat who could destroy her again… including the main character’s family, who has the same abilities as the villain’s abuser.

      • The feud could start with an accident, say one of the dragons burning someone else’s homework or something by accident, and then it could spiral from there, especially if the accident causing dragon was grumpy or unsocial and generally not really liked outside her social group. Or it could start with rejected friendship, like in Harry Potter when Draco malfoy proposes friendship, but Harry knows he only wants to be friends because he (harry) is famous. The rejection starts a feud that then grows, getting more fuel along the way. Hope this helps!

  9. I’m trying to revise a story and I don’t know where to start. I’ve gotten a lot of conflicting advice on where I should start, such as start on the biggest revisions or work your way up to larger revisions. I haven’t had to revise anything this big before, so does anyone have advice?

    • I would suggest trying out different styles, and don’t overly worry about which style you use as long as it gets done. I’ve had times where I just started at the beginning and rewrote it paragraph by paragraph. These days, I’m more likely to make order changes–mixing around scenes and seeing what order works best.
      One tip: save a copy of your current work every time you’re about to make big changes. That way you can go back at what you had before if you don’t like the change–or if you end up needing the old version for a new scene or story.

    • I revise the same way I write; beginning to end. Of course, this does absolutely nothing to eliminate mid-story epiphanies that force you to rewrite the beginning for the eleven hundredth time, but it helps me make sure the start and end line up properly.

    • Well, for starters, do what works best for you. Everyone has their own unique styles of writing and revising, and no one is going to critisize your method. However, here’s my method, in case you want to use it as a baseline for yours.
      First, I reread my story, making note of the major plot twists, the style I wrote in, and any scenes I feel slow down the story. I don’t edit here unless I see a spelling or a grammer error. I write down any plot changes I want to make in a separate document, my revision notes.
      Second, I write down everything I want to do in my revision notes. I read through all my notes and write down everything I need or might need for revision. I think of it as making a map.
      Third, I copy my story into a new document, revision draft two. I add all the major plot changes and delete any major scenes. Then I read the new draft and streamline it, deleting small scenes that don’t align anymore or changing them. Then, if I’m happy, I start the next step. If I want to do more tinkering, I make revision draft three. and keep changing it. At some point I might totally rewrite it. Once I’m happy with it, I move on.
      Fourth, I read the final draft very slowly. I look at each sentence, or maybe each paragraph if I’m rushed, and try to make it bigger, more powerful, less flat. I search for synonyms, metaphors, similes. I split paragraphs in two, proofread like crazy, and streamline all the scenes. I trim off rough bits and add polish. I think of it like polishing a precious stone, shining it up so it’ll look good when people see it.
      Fifth, I do one last reread in case I missed anything, and also to take pride in what I did. I smile over good dialogue and kind of give myself a little nod. Then finally, it’s ready for whatever I want to do with it, if I want to do anything with it. So far, that has consisted of entering contests, but I hope I’ll finish a book soon so I can at least try.

      So that’s my method. You may like it, you may not. Keep in mind that it sounds much easier than it actually is. Also keep in mind that no method is the one right way. If there was a simple process to writing books, everyone would do it. (Ok, maybe not everyone.) And books would be a lot less good. So tinker up whatever method you want to use until until it fits right for you. So best of luck to you!

  10. Katie W.
    Your story about dragons at boarding school sounds a lot like Wings of Fire by Tui t. Sutherland. I hope I get to read it some day! Has anyone else read those books?

    • It’s one of my favorite series! I’m trying really hard not to copy it, but sometimes I have to stop and think “Is this too similar?” Especially with the tone. At first, I tried to keep the dragons from using contractions (to show their formalized, rule-oriented society), but it’s a lot harder than you’d think (I’ve used five in this comment so far) and sounds really weird sometimes. And as soon as the contractions showed up, the dialogue could practically be cut and pasted from a WoF novel (not like I would ever do such a thing). I’m sure I’ll figure something out eventually.

  11. I’ve only heard of a few people who read those books too! (My cousin, my best friend, this is going to sound weird, the couple who bought my family’s mini van’s son.) Have you read them all? I have read 1-14 and the two companions.

    • Every single one of them, and I’m counting the days until April 5 (Book 15’s release date). My mom and sister love them, too, but you’re right. Not many people seem to have heard of it.

    • I’m surprised not many people have heard of them. They are very popular at my kids’ school–especially the graphic novels. My boys love the graphic novels and my daughter, who’s a little older–has read at least the first couple cycles. I read the first 6.

  12. I’ve only met a few other people who’ve read those! (My cousin, my best friend . . . .) How many of them have you read? I’ve read 1 – 14 and the 2 companions.

  13. Oops. I didn’t mean to leave two comments. My computer has been acting funny today. Maybe it because it older than I am . . . .

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.