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Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

I had very vivid memories of Halloween and spookiness from when I was a kid.

The last night before I got my own room as a little girl, I recall lying in bed wide awake because I’d just learned about ghosts. It was particularly frightening because I believed ghosts came out on Halloween and the very next night I had to sleep all by myself in my new room.

The night after I watched Dracula for the first time, I envisioned bats fluttering in the shadowy corners of my room.

In fifth grade, when I went to my first spook house, my best friend at the time and I ran screaming right into a wall.

When I was fifteen, I went as a vampire to a different spook house and another friend nearly strangled me with my own cape because she was terrified of the werewolves we had to walk past.

Once I went on a double date with my brother to see the movie They. My date was my current husband. My husband and I spent most of the movie hiding beneath my jacket because the movie freaked us out so much. Although, for all I know, I was the only one scared out of my mind and my future husband was just being nice or not wanting his date to be hidden from sight the whole movie.

I had to be careful of what I read or watched because I scared easily. Actually, I still scare easily. But there is some horror I do enjoy despite the fear. Here are some of my favorites:

Dracula, the 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi. The movie has such style and is brilliant about implication. It was the first horror movie I watched all the way through and forms my platonic ideal of a vampire.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. I had such fun reading this book. Coupled with the 1931 movie, it formed in my mind how vampires ought to be. Of course, this was beofre Buffy and Spike, who will always be an awesome vampire.

Nearly anything by Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, I know this may be a little stereotypical, but Poe has such dark beauty in his language.

Signs starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, and Rory Culkin. Normally, I don’t get thrilled about most horror movies. Like I said, I hide under jackets and such. But this one was a lot of fun, even if it did keep me jumping at noises for three nights in a row.

Sleepy Hollow starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci. This one scared me half to death, especially as my guy friends decided it would be loads of fun to drive home with me down a creepy, wooded, winding road with the windows down after midnight. For that, it will ever stand out in my mind.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Even though horror easily freaks me out, it’s an element I enjoy in my fiction. Over the years, horror has slipped more and more into fantasy and science fiction, which allows me to get a good taste of it without having to remain in a state of constant paranoia about what might be under the bed.


What are some of your favorite horror movies or stories?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 11


Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we examine techniques a bestselling author uses to create a riveting story. Click here to catch up or review previous parts of this read.

Enjoy!

SPOILERS!

Part Two: On the Road

Chapter 11: Conversations with a Lawyer

Summary: At last, Claire is free of Castle Leoch. However, she’s still accompanied by Dougal, Jamie, a lawyer named Ned Gowan, and twenty-odd men-at-arms. Fortunately, the sizable guard isn’t for her benefit, but to protect the rents the men will collect.

On the road the first day, she talks with Mr. Gowan, a well educated solicitor from Edinburgh. He seems a pleasant enough man, one who, despite his age, still has a taste for adventure, and who takes no offense whatsoever that Claire doesn’t fall for his offer of a discrete advisor. Claire isn’t fool enough to think he won’t blab to Colum everything she says, and Mr. Gowan merely finds her grasping this amusing.

However, he explains much more of the backstory behind Colum, Dougal, and a little bit about Jamie. Colum appeared normal physically until he was eighteen, then, after a couple bad falls, was never the same again. Dougal had proved himself hotheaded and rash, and their sister had married Jamie’s father with some sort of scandal, which Gowan does not explain. Following much deliberation, after Colum’s and Dougal’s father passes away, the clan agrees to allow Colum as laird and Dougal as war chief. Though Mr. Gowan makes no claim to this scheme originating with him, it’s clear to Claire that his clever expertise secured Colum the lairdship despite his physical challenges.

Writer Comments: Had Gabaldon introduced all this backstory earlier, it would have come off as, at best, vaguely interesting. More likely, it would have seemed dull and tedious. However, as handled here, Gabaldon has spent chapters hinting at details and snagging reader interest. Here she delivers some satisfying details and drops in new intriguing tidbits. Essentially, Gabaldon understands that a reader must first care before an author can deliver backstory.

Summary: Over the next week, Claire accompanies Dougal as he collects rents from the MacKenzie tacksmen. At a less run down collection of hovels, Dougal buys the men who stay later ale and riles them up with a speech in Gaelic. In the midst of it, he rips Jamie’s shirt off to display the scars from when Jamie was beaten. Unwarned and angered by this, Jamie hastily leaves the tavern.

After this, men start contributing money, and Claire realizes that Dougal, and perhaps Colum, are Jacobites and wanting capital to fund a rebellion. At the end of the collections, Claire lets Dougal know that she disapproves of his methods. He finds it curious that she doesn’t object to him collecting money for a sovereign who challenges her own.

Writer Comments: Generally, I’ve liked Dougal, but I agree with Claire here. He can certainly be a jerk.

So why does this scene work? Every scene must have a source of tension and conflict. In this case, Gabaldon sets up conflict in previous chapters. Readers know by now that Jamie does not like people to see his back because all they’ll see when they look at him after that will be the scars, not him. Here, what Dougal does is a deep, personal violation. With our previous knowledge of Jamie, we know this and feel pain with him. In such a way, Gabaldon creates conflict: Jamie’s pain and reader desire for that pain to be relieved. That is what drives us onto the next scene and eventually the next chapter.

Beyond that, this scene has some great banter.

Dougal stood up and stretched, looking moderately satisfied, looking like a cat that has dined at least on milk, if not cream. He weighed the smaller pouch, and tossed it back to Ned Gowan for safekeeping. 
“Aye, well enough,” he remarked. “Canna expect a great deal from such a small place. But manage enough of the same, and it will be a respectable sum.” 
“ ‘Respectable’ is not quite the word I’d use,” I said, rising stiffly from my lurking place. 
Dougal turned, as though noticing me for the first time. 
“No?” he said, mouth curling in amusement. “Why not? Have ye an objection to loyal subjects contributing their mite in support of their sovereign?” 
“None,” I said, meeting his stare. “No matter which sovereign it is. It’s your collection methods I don’t care for.” 
Dougal studied me carefully, as though my features might tell him something. “No matter which sovereign it is?” he repeated softly. “I thought you had no Gaelic.” 
“I haven’t,” I said shortly. “But I’ve the sense I was born with, and two ears in good working order. And whatever ‘King George’s health’ may be in Gaelic, I doubt very much that it sounds like ‘Bragh Stuart.’ “ 
He tossed back his head and laughed. “That it doesna,” he agreed. “I’d tell ye the proper Gaelic for your liege lord and ruler, but it isna a word suitable for the lips of a lady, Sassenach or no.” 
Stooping, he plucked the balled-up shirt out of the ashes of the hearth and shook the worst of the shoot off it. 
“Since ye dinna care for my methods, perhaps ye’d wish to remedy them,” he suggested, thrusting the ruined shirt into my hands. “Get a needle from the lady of the house and mend it.” 
“Mend it yourself!” I shoved it back into his arms and turned to leave. 
“Suit yourself,” Dougal said pleasantly from behind me. “Jamie can mend his own shirt, then, if you’re not disposed to help.” 
I stopped, then turned reluctantly, hand out. -- page 154

Good banter is a joy to read. It can take work to construct or can come to a writer naturally. In either case, the finished product should flow seamlessly. It’s best to have a beta reader or critique partner go over scenes like this to ensure the banter achieves the desired impact.

Summary: That night, unable to sleep in the stifling, smelly, noisy cottage she’s given to bed down in, Claire slips out for fresh, cool air and a better bed on the ground. As she snuggles into her nest, she overhears Dougal and Jamie arguing. Dougal dismisses Jamie’s objections to the use of his back and insists that, since Jamie swore obedience to Colum as long as he’s on MacKenzie land, Dougal can tell Jamie to do whatever he wants.

After the argument, Jamie sits popping his knuckles in fury. He tells Claire that he knows she’s there and to come out if she wants. She does, and advises him to hit something to make himself feel better. He punches a cherry tree and finds a resulting ease to his frustrations.

Claire asks if he really intends to let Dougal use him like that, to which Jamie answers, “For now.” -- page 159

Writer Comments: Take a look at Jamie’s last line, which is also the last line of this scene: “For now.” These two words possess no inherent power of their own. They’re rather innocuous and plain. However, in this context, they gain force and ominousness.

How? They stand in contrast to Jamie’s oath. Within themselves, they imply contrast and conflict. Jamie is kin to Dougal. The MacKenzies are providing Jamie with shelter and protection. Jamie has more advantages fighting against the current English rule. Yet these two words suggest at some point he may turn his back against all that. Such an inner struggle and such implied future conflict creates tension, and that makes “For now” the perfect, powerful scene ending phrase. Never neglect context when it comes to word choice.

Summary: After several nights of Dougal using Jamie to help gather money for a rebellion, someone goes too far. A man makes a snide comment in Gaelic, a language Claire is starting to get hints of meaning in. Jamie launches himself at the men, and a brawl ensues, three against Jamie. The other men lay bets on who will win, and when Claire suggests someone should help Jamie, she’s met with confusion. Apparently, three against one berzerking, large warrior is considered fair odds.

Eventually, Jamie claims the upper hand and wins, but he’s much the worse for wear. Claire patches him up. Despite many bruises, two loosened teeth, a swollen nose, and numerous other injuries, Jamie is cheerful and relaxed for the first time since Dougal started using him.

As Claire finishes patching him up, Murtagh, one of the other men with Dougal, comes in to deliver Jamie’s share of the winnings. He tells Jamie, and the two have a mysterious conversation.

A glance passed between the two men, with a message I didn’t understand. Jamie blew his breath out softly through his teeth, nodding slowly to himself. 
“When?” he asked. 
“A week. Ten days, perhaps. Near a place called Lag Cruime. You’ll know it?” 
Jamie nodded again, looking more content than I’d seen him in some time. “I know it.” -- page 163

Writer Comments: The plot thickens, literally apparently. Claire intends to flee back home. Dougal is plotting to help raise a rebellion that Colum may or may not support. Jamie has a mysterious past and a rivalry with Captain Randal. And now, a scheme appears to be brewing behind Dougal’s back that involves Jamie and at least one other man. It’s enough to provide a nicely complicated intrigue.

No matter the genre, novels should have multiple things unraveling at once. The protagonist isn’t the only character making decisions and impacting the plot, and life isn’t so simple as to provide only one or two complications at a time. Fiction should include a variety of complications and subplots. The trick is to tie them all together in the climax and to have them impact each other along the way.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.


To see other books I’ve broken down for writing tips, click here.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Perspective: Angels in the Darkness

I mentioned recently that I was reading Angels in the Darkness by Lisa Farringer Parker, and I can now say with some disappointment that I have finished it. I wish the story could have gone on longer so I didn’t have to leave it so soon. Overall, the book was highly enjoyable and riveting. I’ll post an official review on GoodReads later, but for now, I’d like to use the book to examine the use of perspective in fiction.

The protagonist of Angels in the Darkness is Jutta Bolle, the daughter of a prominent Germany family in Berlin. She was born a few years before the Nazis rose to power, and the book follows her experiences under Nazi oppression, through World War II, and into the postwar years where fear of the Russians became commonplace. Jutta’s perspective of this period of history is what gives the book its power.

Let’s take a closer look at Jutta as the lens through which this time period is revealed going from broad to narrow. Put aside for the moment that Angels in the Darkness is a true story and not simply a fictional tale that would allow an author to invent any protagonist he wished. In actuality, the perspective of the viewpoint character is equally important in books based on true stories or purely invented.

-- First, Jutta is German during a time when Germany is considered the villain. This instantly creates a perspective contrary to what’s normally expected. Most books focus on the heroic side of a conflict when it comes to selecting characters. The advantage to a protagonist on the “wrong side” is that it instantly creates conflict. Jutta is one of the group subjugating others, yet she is the hero.

-- Beyond being a German, Jutta is a child for most of the story. A child’s perspective adds a unique twist, especially in a situation dominated by adults and involving events most children would struggle to grasp. However, as Jutta’s child’s perspective allows her to retain some innocence, even as her country falls to darkness, it helps keep her heroic and encourages reader sympathy.

-- Next, Jutta is a girl. In some cases, particularly modern ones, this may not seem that significant. However, in 1930s and ‘40s Germany, it’s a very important distinction. It means that Jutta is not trained for war from an early age like her male peers. It means that we are able to see the daily struggles in Germany rather than turning to the battlefields. Expectations for German girls during the period were quite different from German boys.

-- Zooming in even closer, we see that Jutta is the daughter of unique parents. Her specific family means that, at least at first, she has wealth. Her house is in a high class neighborhood, and some of her neighbors are high ranked members of the Nazi Party. However, her parents despise the Nazis and Hitler. Despite the risk, her mother plays banned music on her piano. When Jews start disappearing, her mother helps a friend who is Jewish to escape the country before it’s too late. Her parents go out of their way to avoid Jutta being forced to take part in the Hitler Youth. And perhaps most significantly, her parents speak openly within their own house about Hitler and how he’s destroying their country, about the wrongs committed, and about how they cannot stand it. This means that, from a young age, Jutta had a good foundation from which to see through the Nazi propaganda.

-- Lastly, Jutta loves America. She chooses to learn English in school. She reads American novels, at least the ones she can sneak past her mother’s notice. She enjoyed waving to American Olympians as they drove past her neighborhood when the Olympics came to Berlin. Her love of America puts her at odds with many of her countrymen.

So let’s put all that together. Jutta Bolle, the protagonist of Angels in the Darkness, is a German during World War II, a child, a girl, the daughter of anti-Nazi parents, and a lover of America. All that together gives the story a unique and captivating lens. And that’s just scratching the surface. There are tons of stories about World War II Germany, but what makes each interesting is their unique perspective.

Now, apply that to any other genre of fiction or time period. One of the biggest elements that makes a story interesting is the unique perspective of its characters, especially the protagonist. There are tons of fantasy stories involving kings. What makes this one unique? There are oodles of mysteries involving a detective. Why is this detective captivating to read about? There are countless romances involving Scotsmen. What makes this particular Scotsman distinct from his peers?

As you can see, perspective is essential to creating unique and interesting stories. What makes the protagonist in your story special? Look layer by layer into the character’s life to identify that special quality. What is his social standing? Where does she live? Who is his family? What is her political perspective? What is his personality? What unique traditions did she inherit from her family? This list goes on and on.

Everything about a person’s life modifies their perspective. In the case of a character in a book, everything in that character’s background and current existence composes the perspective through which a reader will enjoy a story. An author doesn’t need to tell the reader all of it, nor should he, but those elements should influence how the viewpoint character relates a particular tale to the audience.

What about you? What other qualities or dimensions help define a protagonist’s, or any other character’s, unique perspective?


Be sure to swing back by on Monday for the next chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and more writing tips.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabladon: Read, Chapter 10


Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we examine a great story for insights into how to write a successful novel. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.

Enjoy!

SPOILERS!

Chapter 10: The Oath-taking

Summary: Having hidden away food and supplies, Claire finally decides it’s time to make her escape. She’s hoping that, with most of the MacKenzie men drunk because of the Gathering, her chances will be good.

However, while sneaking into the stable to steal a horse, she trips over something on the floor. That something turns out to be Jamie, who’s hiding from the MacKenzies because he has no intention of swearing an oath to Colum and thus forsaking his own clan.

While he dusts Claire off from her tumble into the hay, he admonishes her for her foolish decision to escape that night when Colum has guards all over the place. Instead, he escorts her back to the castle. But before they reach the safety of the indoors, several men spring upon them. One grabs Claire and two wrestle Jamie into submission. As it turns out, they don’t intend to give Jamie the option of avoiding the oath.

They haul the two off to another room where Jamie is forced to don MacKenzie garments. He tells Claire to go, and she does. Except, rather than slip off completely, she sneaks into the minstrel’s gallery to spy out how things go.

Writer Comments: For this particular scene, aside from the fact of noting that Claire and Jamie are apparently incapable of disentangling their fates, I want to take a look at clues authors drop for their readers.

The biggest one in this scene is when Jamie mentions his clan’s motto to Claire, Je suis prest, which means “I am ready.” He shares this tidbit, drawing a comparison to the MacKenzie motto, Luceo non uro, which means “I shine not burn.” Naturally, you’d either have to be highly versed in Scottish clans or fortunate enough to happen to know these two mottos to identify Jamie’s clan. But if you’re not so endowed, Gabaldon gives a proactive reader all they need to solve the mystery of Jamie’s true birth. I happened to look up the clan that bears that motto: Fraser of Lovat.

But there’s an additional dimension relayed in this scene. Repeatedly, the men who accost Jamie refer to him as the laird’s nephew. Until now, Jamie’s exact relationship to Colum had been unclear. Now, we know it with much greater clarity. Jamie isn’t just some poor fellow Scot Colum decided to extend charity to; he’s family. However, at no point does Gabaldon explain this. At no point does Claire analyze it. Rather, Gabaldon slips it in and lets her readers do the work. In actuality, this is a great compliment to her readers because Gabaldon declares via her lack of having to explain that she trusts we’re smart enough to put the puzzle together.

Summary: Claire finds the gallery already filled with the women of the castle who have gathered to watch the ceremony. At the oath-taking, Dougal and Colum are clearly surprised by Jamie’s apparent willingness to participate, and Colum looks less than happy about it. However, when it comes to Jamie’s turn, unlike the other men who drop to a knee and swear, Jamie remains upright and promises friendship and goodwill. He promises obedience while on MacKenzie lands too. Claire half expects him to get knifed for breaking the trend, but Colum accepts Jamie’s words. As a result, the tension in the hall drops dramatically.

After the ceremony, the women sneak off. The men are so drunk, it isn’t safe for women to wander the halls. However, Claire can’t quite remember how to get back to her room from that part of the castle. A group of men come after her, and Dougal rescues her. However, he exacts a price before releasing her, a kiss.

Writer Comments: There’s something noble to be said for how Jamie handled the oath-taking. Him becoming a MacKenzie, especially when he didn’t want to, would have weakened him. There are of course instances where joining his uncle’s clan might have seemed appropriate, but not this time. But Jamie holding true to himself makes him all the more heroic.

Summary: The next day, the men go hunting a boar in the mist shrouded woods. Claire is called to the hunting party to tend a wounded man. While helping him, she hears another cry out and rushes to his aid.

She finds the man bleeding out through a leg wound, which she quickly tourniquets. Dougal holds the man, trying to soothe him while Claire finishes her inspection. Next, she spots a stomach wound, the man’s intestines pierced. It’s a wound the man has no hope of surviving.

Dougal looks up at her a mouths a question, wondering if the man will live. Claire shakes her head, so Dougal unties the tourniquet, providing the man a much cleaner and quicker death than that which he’d face if Claire staunched the bleeding and let the stomach wound fester and kill him slowly and painfully.

They carry the body of the man and the boar which Dougal kills back to the castle. Dougal catches Claire before she slips off to tend her first patient. He states that she’s seen men die by violence before, his tone accusing. She admits that she has, many of them.

Writer Comments: This scene is quite sad. The emotion and the presence of death keeps the tension high, but it’s the twist at the end that makes it interesting. Dougal’s realiztion that Claire has much experience with men dying by violence is a twist, a hook at the end. You will generally see advice that every chapter should end with a twist or bit of intrigue to pull readers into the next chapter. But this doesn’t just count for chapters. A writer should aim for this with every scene.

Further, the pairing of this scene with the previous scene highlights Dougal. I do not know Gabaldon’s ultimate plans for Dougal, but he’s clearly going to have an interesting relationship with Claire. First he kisses her, then he helps her send a man off to his death in the most merciful way available. In a way, it’s an intimate scene, though a ghastly one. It makes me curious about Dougal and makes him a far more interesting character. While Jamie is clearly the love interest, Gabaldon obviously realizes a crucial fact about supporting characters: they to must be fascinating and deep. Otherwise, they cannot be believable.

Summary: The next day is the games. They keep Claire extremely busy with injured person after injured person coming to her surgery for treatment. At long last, the games end and she’s able to step outside for fresh air. She goes to the stables, thinking to apologize once more to Jamie for getting him involved in the oath-taking and to find herself some nonhuman, nonbleeding company for a while. On the way, she contemplates a new plan of escape.

However, in the stables she finds Jamie and Dougal talking. When she tries to retreat, apologizing for interrupting, Dougal insists she stay. He explains that, in two days time, he’ll be leaving, and he intends to take Jamie and Claire with him. They’ll go as far as Fort William, in addition to handling general business amongst the clan members that could not make the Gathering. At Fort William, Dougal says they might find aid in helping Claire get to her family in France. She knows this is a veiled excuse to use the fort’s resources to help the MacKenzie identify who she really is. However, as the journey will get her safely much closer to the standing stones, she readily accepts.

Writer Comments: So Claire is about to embark on a journey with the two men who can most readily complicate her life, aside from Colum. She’s wary of Dougal after his forced kiss. While Jamie is clearly a friend, there are already suggestions from others that they’re together.

An author must always devise new means to increase tension, especially tension that builds on what has already been established in the story. Gabaldon does this well here. She’s setting up to draw together several threads of tension: Jamie, Dougal, the nearness of Claire’s potential escape, the MacKenzie quest to discover her real identity, and perhaps a certain British officer ancestor of her husband’s. Gabaldon introduced all these elements earlier, so that weave seamlessly together and already have reader investment.

This is also the conclusion of Part Two. While many books do not utilize breaking a story into parts like this, if a story does, Gabaldon’s example is a good one. She determines part breaks based on a significant shift in the story.


Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Importance of Knowing the Genre

Right now, I am reading a wonderful book called Angels in the Darkness: A Family Triumph over Hitler and World War II Berlin: 1935-1949 by Lisa Farringer Parker. It’s a true story of the hardships and victories of Jutta Bolle and her family as they struggle to stay alive through the rise of Hitler, the war, and the Russian occupation. It’s an excellent read, but if I didn’t know it was based on a true story and, thus, written much like a diary, my authorial temptation to examine every book for good plot structure and other elements might get in the way of savoring this read.

Genre plays a crucial role for both readers and writers. Simply knowing the genre of a story can alter a reader’s experience. A reader who usually enjoys romance might be greatly disappointed in a book like The Soldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy, which has a romance and a good one at that, but which does not adhere to romance genre expectations. Regardless, it’s still a great read.

Each genre comes with expectations and tropes. Some genres must adhere to certain characteristics to qualify as that genre: romances must have happy endings, fantasy must have something outside our reality. Some genres are expected to following a strong plot structure and others, like literary fiction, are given more leeway. Regardless, all genres come with reader expectations that influence their experience and enjoyment of a story.

Thus, as a reader, it’s helpful to know the genre of the book you pick up. Often this isn’t a challenge at all as you’ve gone to a specific spot in the bookstore to find your latest read. But sometimes, if you get the book another way, say from a friend, the genre is not always immediately clear. If you have a strong preference for certain genres and their tropes, it can save you grief to know whether or not the book you’re about to read fits your expectations.

Conversely, writers must keep genre in mind because of how it influences readers’ experiences and purchasing choices. It also is a necessary tool for booksellers and publishers to be able to organize stories. The first things agents and editors want to know in a query is usually genre and word count.

Now, I know some writers may hiss in derision at the notion of allowing genre to have such power and influence. After all, aren’t we all supposed to write a story as it is rather than trying to make it fit a mold? Yes, in many ways that’s true, and I highly recommend that approach while writing the first draft. However, genre is an inescapable dimension of the publishing industry. When it comes to consecutive drafts, querying publishers or preparing a book for self-publishing, and marketing that book, genre is essential. It is one of the first things a reader usually wants to know about a book.

Be aware of genre, how it influences you as a reader, and how it impacts stories as a writer. It’s much like grammar, an inescapable element of modern fiction, but once you understand the rules, you can then knowingly and wisely break them, fully aware of the potential impact.


Be sure to swing back by on Monday for the next chapter of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and more writing tips.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 9


Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here we enjoy a great book and examine the techniques Gabaldon uses to improve our own writing.

To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.

Enjoy!

SPOILERS!

Chapter 9: The Gathering

Summary: Castle Leoch, and with them Claire, prepare for the coming Gathering, an important event of which Claire is still largely ignorant. However, she helps other castle girls pick cherries and apricots in preparation to feed so many. She works in the garden, sometimes in the kitchen, and, when needed, as castle doctor.

On her first expedition into the orchards, she asks one of the girls she has become friendly with how many come to the Gatherings. The girl isn’t certain, but she figures it’ll be more than the ten score men that came the last time Leoch hosted a Gathering, plus their families.

Claire frequents the stables and the impromptu fair set up for the event in hopes of catching a horse and a chance to escape.

Writer Comments: This scene accomplishes two primary functions: scene setting and the passage of time. Let’s look at those separately.

Scene Setting:

The Gathering is clearing an important even in the story, and based on the fact that the next section of the book follows it, I’m assuming it will be a significant turning point for Claire. Thus, Gabaldon needs to establish a shift in setting. No, Leoch isn’t going anywhere, at least not at this point in history, but the castle undergoes a change in atmosphere, inhabitants, and focus. Establishing this through a brief scene like this builds anticipation for the coming big event and helps establish the look, feel, scent, taste, and atmosphere readers will need to fully experience the coming events.

To accomplish this, Gabaldon provides rich, textured exposition. She utilizes all five senses heavily, and this keeps the scene from being boring. She talks of sweet cherries and apricots, both of which I can almost taste while I read. She mentions smoke, which I can smell. She talks of wet leaves in misty morning, which I can feel on my skin. Claire has a brief conversation with a girl at the orchard, providing sound. Activity is described from work in the garden, preparing meat, carting in ale and flour, picking fruit. All this provides a sense of motion, which also safeguards against dullness.

The Passage of Time:

No author should write everything that happens during the course of a story. That would make the narrative drag on in long boring stretches. By the time a reader reached an interesting part, assuming he were patient enough to get that far, his brain would be so dulled that the impact and excitement of the interesting scene would lose its power. This necessitates the skipping or summarizing of time and information at strategic points in a story. This is when “telling” has its uses.

In this instance, Gabaldon quickly summarizes how Claire passes her days. Since it’s brief, she doesn’t risk becoming boring. Then she utilizes a technique that helps with the scene setting I mentioned above: motion.

Motion automatically carries with it the passage of time. It’s a basic rule of the universe. The fourth dimension is time. If something moves, we understand time to have passed. So by describing various activities in progress, Gabaldon automatically creates a sense of time’s passage.

Yet she does not linger on details. She includes rich verbs, nouns, and carefully chosen adjectives to provide texture and interest. Because she employs such vivid language, even when she “tells” what’s happening, it seems more like “showing.” The combination of vividness and motion creates the sense of action playing out before the reader and thus being “shown.” This is really when the two concepts of show and tell blend in a productive way.

So when a writer needs to summarize and show the passage of time, employing textured, colorful language, motion, and being brief can keep transition scenes like this interesting and effective.

Summary: On another fruit collecting expedition, Claire spots a useful mushroom and begins collecting it. However, a woman name Geillis Duncan, stops her, claiming the mushrooms are poisonous. Claire explains she knows this, but that the mushrooms are good for stopping bleeding once dried and applied topically.

This initiates the beginnings of a friendship. Geillis, a wealth of knowledge concerning herbs and healing herself, shows Claire places where certain herbs and mushrooms grow. She’s cynical but cheerful, and though she frequently teases Claire, Claire finds her a pleasant companion.

But Geillis isn’t just a purveyor of medicinal lore. She’s a gossip as well. One of the juicy tidbits she shares with Claire is the belief that Colum’s son is not actually his. She and many others claim the boy’s actual father is none other than Jamie MacTavish.

Writer Comments: Geillis is fun to read. She adds an energy to the page that no other character thus far has managed. She must have been fun to write as well. In fact, that’s the secret to making characters fun to read. They first have to be enjoyable to write.

Beyond that, Geillis provides another mouthpiece for sharing information with readers. Whether Jamie is really the boy’s father or not, it’s clearly an important belief Gabaldon must get across. I presume it will come into play for Claire later on. Regardless, as before, we have another minor character providing key information, but she isn’t just a talking head. She has personality and provides more to the story than mere knowledge and rumor. She clearly offers Claire the possibility of friendship and a peer. In a world where she’s very much the outsider, such might become precious to Claire. At the very least, it’s a need all readers can understand. We get the idea of loneliness and the need to fill out lives with those we enjoy.

But notice that Gabaldon does not spend pages and pages examining Claire’s loneliness. I believe she has only used the word alone, or some variant, once. A character does not need to philosophize about his inner working for an author to imply their existence. Emotions and mental states can be demonstrated in all sorts of indirect and powerful, though sometimes subtle, ways. Claire is constantly reminded of her alienness to this world. She’s cheerful about her predicament and naturally leans toward optimism, which means she’s unlikely to brood or monologue about her troubles. But Gabaldon uses situations and the contrast between Claire and this new world to demonstrate her inner emotions. She uses action in how Claire interacts with the people of Castle Leoch to reveal inner conflict. Only occasionally does she resort to exposition to explain Claire. Remember that navel gazing is not a requirement for revealing a character’s inner struggle.

Now, let’s take a step sideways to Jamie. Why does Gabaldon reveal this gossip about him now? It accomplishes a whole score of things, but they all come down to two things: they add conflict and they give Jamie greater value in the stakes of the story and in the other characters’ eyes.

Like in gardening, conflict must be planted like seeds before it can grow and reach satisfying maturity. And like a seedling or older plant, an author must water conflict by adding to it, by revealing more dimensions of it, and by increasing the stakes of the story, thus the value of what that conflict threatens or impacts. As to the exact conflict Gabaldon has in mind, I don’t know, but the mere possibility of Jamie being the father of the laird’s heir is enough to make it interesting. It’s enough to create delicious complications for other conflicts as well, such as the romance Gabaldon is clearly implying will develop between Claire and Jamie. Such as the relationship between Colum and Jamie, perhaps even between Dougal and Jamie. The possibilities are endless.

Summary: When Claire returns to the orchard, Magdalen, another women she’s friendly with, is waiting for her in some state of fright for what happened to her. Magdalen lets slip that Colum has given orders that Claire be watched, but Claire already suspected this.

The next day, a surge of food poisoning strikes the castle, and Claire is too busy tending the sick and tracking down the source of the bad food to go picking fruit. She finally discovers that a bad cow carcass is the result of all the trouble. While laying into the man in charge of meat preservation, Dougal finds her and invites her to accompany him into the village. He has business to handle, and she needs certain herbs for the sick, which she should be able to procure from Geillis. Claire jumps at the chance to escape the castle, even for just a little while.

Writer Comments: I have to wonder if Dougal and Colum are testing Claire by allowing her to ride into the village. Will she try to run away or not? But then, this is yet another small step or escalation in the subtle conflict between Claire and the MacKenzies. Even if Gabaldon doesn’t intend to pique my suspicions in this manner, setting up that conflict earlier allow them fertile ground, and that’s what helps generate interest in the story.

Too, by starting this section, barely a page long, with Magdalen slipping about Colum having Claire watched and ending it with this offer from Dougal, Gabaldon naturally pairs the two. Again, whether on purpose or by following her subconscious muse, the result is engaging and deft.

Summary: Geillie is delighted to have Claire visit and quickly whisks her off to the stillroom to help prepare herbs. While there, a commotion outside draws Claire’s attention. A tanner’s boy has been accused of thievery, and the priest and a good crowd bring him to Geillie’s husband for judgment.

Claire inquires after what’s likely to happen. Geillie tells her it depends on her husband’s mood. If he’s in good spirits, the boy will probably merely receive a whipping. If he’s not feeling well, he might order the lad’s ear or hand cut off. Claire is appalled. She asks Geillie to interfere on the boy’s behalf and ask her husband for mercy. At first, Geillie finds this peculiar, but she promises to do her best as Claire is a friend.

Claire waits in the stillroom, pounding rosemary and in great anxiety over the situation. She recognizes that, if she were to get directly involved as an outsider, she would probably make the situation far worse. However, Geillie does not disappoint. When she returns, she tells Claire about how dramatic she was, the image of matronly concern for the boy, and how she convinced her husband to show leniency. Rather than a whipping or losing an appendage,the boy will merely have his ear nailed to the pillory and be required to stay there for an hour. This hardly seems lenient to Claire, but she tries to make her peace with it.

As dusk draws near, Jamie comes to fetch her back to the castle. Geillie sends a whole chest of herbs with them. However, before mounting the horses, Claire finds out that the reason the boy is still at the pillory is because he hasn’t yet mustered the courage to jerk the nail from his ear, a gruesome task he must accomplish alone.

Quietly, so as not to draw anyone’s notice, she asks Jamie to pull the nail for the boy. Jamie’s up for the mischief but asks her to create a distraction so no one will suspect he interfered.

Together, they come to the lad to inspect his ear and give advise on his predicament. Jamie offers to jerk the boy’s head for him so the nail will rip out the side of his ear, but the boy is terrified at the suggestion. At this cue, Claire pretends to grow dizzy. She intentionally steps on the toes of the person behind her, stumbles, grabs people to keep her balance, and then, pretending a final swoon into unconsciousness, pitching headfirst off the pillory, taking a girl with her.

The crowd turns to her aid, giving Jamie time to surreptitiously pull the nail from the pillory and the boy’s ear. Claire is borne back to Geillie’s house and plied with drinks, blankets, and sympathy. At last, Jamie insists they must leave and carries her out.

They ride back to the castle, and Claire thanks him for his help and insists that, when she originally asked, she had no notion it might put him in danger. He shrugs off her concern and insists that he wasn’t about to be less bold than a Sassenach woman. And with all this, Claire sense a deeper friendship forming between them.

Writer Comments: First, let me say, “Ouch!” A nail through the ear! While I understand it rather trifling compared to many historical punishments, it’s still enough to make one cringe. I’m sure many other readers did the same at this point in the novel, giving testimony to the fact that Gabaldon is good at making her readers feel what the characters feel.

Hurrying past that uncomfortable incident, however, take a look at the pages dedicated to Claire and Jamie’s interactions. Whenever the two of them get together on the page, there’s definitely chemistry. They certainly have a propensity for mischief, which makes them more fun, but there’s a certain something in the way Gabaldon writes them that gives scenes energy and interest. I cannot point out quite how she manages this except to say it’s all in the characters themselves. Just like in a movie, the audience can tell if characters have chemistry or not. Just because an author invents two people does not mean they’ll work well together.

Before I go into two specific passages that highlight crucial points of the seen, note how Gabaldon is taking Jamie and Claire’s relationship to a new level. They are by no means romantically involved at this point, though other characters have implied that they might be. However, this seen solidifies affection, trust, and a kindredness between them. That alone drives them closer.

Now, to those two passages. The first occurs shortly after Claire arrives in the village with Dougal:

In fact, I had amused myself on the ride to the smithy by imagining an aerial view of the village as a representation of a skeletal forearm and hand; the High Street was the radius, along which lay the shops and businesses and residences of the more well-to-do. St. Margaret’s Lane was the ulna, a narrower street running parallel with the High, tenanted by smithy, tannery, and less genteel artisans and businesses. The village square (which,  like all village squares I had ever seen, was not square at all, but roughly oblong) formed the carpals and metacarpals of the hand, while the several lines of cottages made up the phalangeal joints of the fingers. -- page 121

This is a fantastic example of an extended simile. It works so well because it’s original and it fits Claire perfectly as someone who often thinks in medicinal terms. When choosing similes and metaphors, ensure they fit the voice of your point-of-view character and go for original. Too many cliches are made with old, threadbare similes and metaphors.

Now, take a look at the second quote. This second is from when Claire stands at the window watching the crowd, waiting to see how successful Geillie will be in getting mercy for the tanner’s boy.

Looking down at the assembly, standing patiently in the drizzle awaiting a verdict; I suddenly had a vivid understanding of something. Like so many, I had heard, appalled, the reports that trickled out of postwar Germany; the stories of deportations and mass murder, of concentration camps and burnings. And like so many others had done, and would do so, for many years to come, I had asked myself, “How could the people let it happen? They must have known, must have seen the trucks, the coming and going, the fences and smoke. How could they stand by and do nothing?” Well, now I knew. 
The stakes were not even life or death in this case. And Colum’s patronage would likely prevent any physical attack on me. But my hands grew clammy around the porcelain bowl as I thought of myself stepping out, alone and powerless, to confront that mob of solid and virtuous citizens, avid for the excitement of punishment and blood to alleviate the tedium of existence. 
People are gregarious by necessity. Since the days of the first cave dwellers, humans--hairless, weak, and helpless save for cunning--have survived by joining together in groups; knowing, as so many edible creatures have found, that there is protection in numbers. And that knowledge, bred in the bone, is what lies behind mob rule. Because to step outside the group, let alone to stand against it, was for uncounted thousands of years death to the creature who dared it. To stand against a crowd would take something more than ordinary courage; something that went beyond human instinct. And I feared I did not have it, and fearing, was ashamed. -- page 123

What a powerful passage. This is an example of where internal narration is the best choice. This has emotion and impact. Yes, it uses the tools of exposition and “telling,” but it’s far from boring. In fact, conflict overflows from this passage, and that conflict draws us in. The dilemma Claire faces is universal. We all know the fear of contradicting the crowd. But Gabaldon heightens the conflict by placing it on the same stage as one of the greatest atrocities of the modern era, the Holocaust. This works because it’s something Claire would known and understand and because it’s something reader know.

But look at the last lines:

To stand against a crowd would take something more than ordinary courage; something that went beyond human instinct. And I feared I did not have it, and fearing, was ashamed. -- page 123

This is the crux of the conflict as well as the apex of this particular character revelation. Even though Claire believes she should possess the quality to stand against a mob to fight for what she believes is right, she comes to the realization that she does not have that quality. She is ashamed. I don’t know about you, but I can very much understand this. I’ve felt shame for not being able to find the courage to do what I know is right, and sometimes that type of shame can haunt a person. This is also a conflict.

So Claire has multiple conflicts occurring at once. The conflict of the boy’s fate. The conflict of her desires against the crowd’s. The conflict that comes from realizing she hasn’t the strength of character she hoped. Three conflicts in such a short space help make this passage rich and dense.


Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

To see other books I've broken down for writing tips, click here.

Friday, October 10, 2014

How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo

November is famous among writers as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the month in which writers attempt to write a novel, from beginning to end, in 30 days. Technically, the official rules state 50,000 words counts as finishing, but the concept is more important behind NaNoWriMo than the precise word count, at least in my opinion. But October is also important for writers, especially those participating in NaNoWriMo.

Why?

Because October is the month to make sure enough preparation and prewriting is finished so tackling that full novel is less daunting. But when you’re not allowed to begin that first draft until the clock hits midnight on November 1st, what can you get away with preparing for NaNoWriMo?

Here are a few ideas:

Character Creation:

Go ahead and figure out who your protagonist and antagonist are. Decide their names, backstories, motivations, goals, and quirks. Do the same for supporting characters. When you get into your first draft, you can fine tune these characters, but you’ll save yourself loads of time if you don’t have to figure out the perfect name in November when you should be pounding away at the keyboard and scratching nonstop on paper.

Create the Setting:

Settings are crucial to fiction. They can be as dynamic as a character in the story or simply add texture and nuance for the plot and character growth. When it comes to prewriting the setting, let loose with your creativity and enjoy it. Make maps. Surround yourself with pictures from the real world locale or, if creating your own setting, find a similar real world locale. (I did this when writing a story set on the Rhine River, which is gorgeous.) Write descriptions. Jot notes about history, culture, food, mindsets, whatever you can think up. Read books on the locale or write your own if it’s entirely fictional. But above all else, make sure to figure out how your setting and characters impact each other, for that dynamic will add depth to your story come November.

Outline:

Yes, among everything else I’m mentioning here, I know this one can be a challenge for pantsers (a writer who figures out the story by the seat of their pants) like me. At the very least, I recommend deciding your story’s inciting incident (the event that starts the tale on its irreversible journey), the midpoint (the place, approximately 50% of the way through the story where things take a sharp turn), and the climax (how the story is resolved). I also encourage you to figure out major turning points between these three main points. Have some idea of the direction your story will, or at least might, go will save you time and frustration in November.

However, if you’re a plotter (a writer who enjoys planning out a story before composing it), this step should be no problem. The main thing to remember is that you are allowed to outline and plot before November 1st. Take advantage of the time.

Decide on Conflict:

Conflict is the glue that holds a story together. It’s what makes fiction engaging. While a lot of conflict will arise as you write that first draft, you can and should begin determining what the story’s primary conflicts will be now. What is the conflict that pits the protagonist and antagonist against each other? Why is that conflict important to each of them? How does the conflict impact the setting and other characters? What can make that conflict matter more and become more personal to hero and villain? Just answering these questions can take you most of the way to forming a good, basic outline.

Knock Non-Writing Responsibilities Out Now:

While none of us can avoid the need to prepare and eat food, take care of our families, go to work, go grocery shopping, or handle other daily tasks and responsibilities, there are ways to give ourselves more writing time. Knock off as many things on your To-Do list as possible. For the things you’ve been procrastinating on, get them out of the way now. If you have to figure out who’s bringing what to Thanksgiving dinner, go ahead and iron it out. Your relatives may think you’re a tad crazy, but that’s just part of the writing lifestyle. If you need to get the car’s tires rotated or pick up snow tires, do it in October. If you have a blog, write up all of November’s posts now. Don’t have that stuff hanging over your head in November, all ready to make you feel guilty for writing or to give you excuses to procrastinate on your novel. With as few non-writing to-dos on your mind, you’ll be able to focus much better and be far more productive.


These are just a few ideas to help you prepare for NaNoWriMo. If you have others, please share them in the comments section.