Next week I’ll be in poetry school. Honest! I’ll be a non-MFA candidate in a poetry MFA program, sort of a guest, but I’ll be doing almost everything everyone else does. I don’t know if I’ll have time to post to the blog. If not, I’ll be back the following week, so please don’t desert me for another writing blog!
I’m going to answer two questions today, because I don’t have enough to say about either for a full post.
First, on May 26, 2010, F wrote, I always assumed most of the things I read in books – about a certain machine, or a process – are true, unless it’s obvious they can’t be. Do you think books have a duty to be correct in the facts they present?
F’s question followed my post of that day called “Fantastical Research,” and you may want to refer back to that post before or after you read this one.
I certainly think nonfiction has a duty to be accurate. Absolutely. Period. Of course, writers make mistakes, and even fact-checkers make mistakes, and I don’t think a jail sentence is warranted for a mistake. Still, errors in nonfiction are unfortunate. The lay reader is not going to be able to tell and will be left with an incorrect idea of the subject.
But, F, if you’re asking about fiction, I’m not sure. I also tend to believe the technical stuff in books. I used to enjoy Dick Francis’s mysteries more for the horse and racing information than for the mysteries. Same for Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, which offer insights into Native American life. Neither of them may have been strictly accurate, and who am I to know?
For as long as it lasted, I delighted in the television series, Boston Legal (adult content), but I often doubted that real-life lawyers would behave in court the way these crazy attorneys did. I’d say to my husband (also not a lawyer), “Can they do that?” If I asked the question, part of me did believe and part didn’t.
When I wrote my historical novel, Dave at Night, I tried to get my facts right, which involved extensive research, and so far no one has brought any errors to my attention. I used fictional stand-ins for real people and gave these stand-ins names similar to the actual monikers. For example, I changed the name of the heiress A’lelia Walker to Odelia Packer. Then I felt free to make Odelia say the words I gave her, whereas I never would have invented dialogue for A’lelia Walker. Also, I made up the orphanage and called it by a different name from the real orphanage my father grew up in. However, if I’d written a nonfiction history of an orphan living on the outskirts of Harlem in the 1920s, my research would have been more exhaustive.
The heroine of Ever is a talented weaver. Lucky for me, my copy editor knew something about weaving and advised me that I hadn’t gotten the details right. I had to go back and become more informed, because she definitely believed I had a duty to truth. However, I had another alternative: I might have tipped the reader off that this was a different kind of weaving, Hyte weaving, unlike any other sort. Then I could have launched into anything: looms shaped like ice cream cones, Hyte hyena-sheep whose wool is barbed and holds together on contact. The reader would understand that he wouldn’t find a rug woven in Hyte fashion in his local carpet store.
One way to clue the reader in that what’s coming is fanciful is to exaggerate, so here’s a prompt: Your main character is a carpenter who is building a cabinet for a king. Whenever His Majesty opens a drawer he will find something useful for his rule. When no one is looking, the shelves will refill themselves with new items relating to his realm. Show the carpenter going about her work. Invent the tools she uses to create the cabinet and to infuse it with magic.
Second question. On July 22, 2010, Rose wrote, What about the portrayal of parents in kids and YA lit today? I’ve read some about it on other blogs and . . . is it really necessary for the plot to have parents that aren’t there or don’t care? Just wondering what people think about this.
Dead parents are everywhere in children’s books. To name just a few: Oliver Twist, Anne of Anne of Green Gables, and Harry Potter are all orphans. My Dave in Dave at Night is one. Ella from Ella Enchanted and Addie and Meryl from The Two Princesses of Bamarre all have dead mothers and useless fathers. Aza in Fairest was abandoned by her parents.
In The Wish, Wilma’s parents are divorced. Her mother is fine and caring, but she isn’t there when the trouble happens. Which is the idea. Get the parents out of the way so the children can take center stage.
Remember the deus ex machina (god of the machine) of Greek theater? If you don’t, in Greek tragedy, a crane would lower an actor portraying a god onto the stage to save the characters from an impossible situation. Nowadays, we don’t want parents to be the deus ex machina. In traditional fairy tales the fairy is often the deus ex machina, and in contemporary revamps we don’t let the fairy fix everything either.
Sometimes the parents are the problem or part of it. In Joan Abelove’s Saying It Out Loud (middle school and up), Mindy’s mother has a brain tumor and her father is clueless about how to support his daughter through this crisis. Something similar happens in Karen Hesse’s Newbery winner Out of the Dust after Billie Jo’s mother dies. In The Birthday Room by Kevin Henkes, even though the parents are terrific, they give their son a gift that sets off the book’s major conflict.
A friend wrote a thesis about how mothers have been vilified (vilify, a great word – look it up if you need to) in children’s literature, which made me think guiltily of the stepmother in Dave at Night. When my pal discussed her paper with me I was writing Ever, and I was about to make Kezi’s mother the major villain. After we talked, I decided to go another way. So the parents do not have to be dead or uncaring; they just mustn’t solve the main character’s problems.
In fairy tales the mother is sometimes the chief baddie. Think of the mothers in “Hansel and Gretel” and “Toads and Diamonds” or the evil stepmother in “Cinderella.” (Sisters often don’t fare much better than mothers. Consider the sisters in “Beauty and the Beast” and “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”) Here’s a prompt along these lines: Write a version of a bad-mother fairy tale in which the mother is actually terrific, but the heroine still has to endure the same sort of troubles she goes through in the original tale. A fascinating example of this is Donna Jo Napoli’s take on “Rapunzel” in her novel, Zel.
Have fun, and save what you write!