Villains, From the Villain’s Point of View

What is a villain?

As writers, we know the answer to this (or we should, anyway):  a ‘villain’ is an antagonist. They’re the person standing between your protagonist and what they want. Almost every genre has them.

The question is, are those antagonists really villains? How do you think the poor Wicked Witch of the West felt to have some strange, rude girl crossing her lands and killing her pet flying monkeys?! How did she get to be the Wicked Witch of the West, anyway? Who made up that rule? What if she wanted to be a shoe designer instead? Well, sadly, I’m not the first to consider those questions – Gregory Maguire beat me to it by several years, and the result was Wicked:  The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. 

It is, as author Anna-Marie McLemore points out, all about the point of view.

Yesterday, I attended the Nimrod Writers’ Conference at the University of Tulsa. One of the sessions I attended was by McLemore’s “Unpossessed:  Reconsidering the Demonized in YA and Speculative Fiction.”

This was one of those great sessions that makes you think about things in a new way, that makes you reconsider tropes and villains. Even if you already subscribe to the notion that ‘every villain is the hero of their own story’ (and you SHOULD subscribe to this notion, because it’s true!), a lot of what McLemore said made me look at this in a slightly new way.

First, she said, we need to consider who is a villain? Who decides that? In history, villains are your opposition. The Brutus to your Caesar. The Jefferson to your Hamilton. The Al Capone to your Elliot Ness. The Donald Trump to your Constitution. Need I go on?

McLemore writes stories based in fairy tales, and in fairy tales, who is always the villain? Well, think about it this way:  who is the villain not? The villain, in a fairy tale, is never the young pretty princess, is it? It’s never Snow White, or Cinderella. Nope. Why? Because the villain is always the old ugly woman. But when that young pretty princess is no long young, or pretty, she disappears from the story . . . or maybe, just maybe, ends up the villain, the Wicked Queen, in someone else’s fairy tale.

Let’s take the example of Snow White. Imagine if Snow White got old. Imagine if some other young, pretty princess – let’s call her Silly Sally – came along and decided to ruin Snow White’s quiet existence with Prince Charming. Snow White might go all rogue on Silly Sally’s ass, right? Right. But is she the villain? Well, for Sally she is. IF it’s Sally’s story. Which brings me to my next point:

So not only do you need to ask yourself who is the villain, but you also need to ask, whose story is this? McLemore used the example of Jane Eyre to discuss this idea. Obviously, the heroine of Jane Eyre is Jane Eyre. No mystery there. She gets her happy ending; she marries Rochester, so Rochester gets his happy ending, too. Who doesn’t get a happy ending? Poor Mrs. Rochester, locked away in that attic for years and years before committing suicide. But. Does Rochester deserve that happy ending? Do we know – do we really know – what happened after that? How did Mrs. Rochester end up in that attic? Did Rochester drive her insane? Will he do the same to Jane? What if that ending is just the prelude to a horror novel? (Obviously, Mrs. Rochester did get her own novel, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which makes that her novel. And in her point of view, wouldn’t Jane be the interloper, trying to steal her man?)

The last point may be the most important:  The villain of a story is often an inconvenient character. Not inconvenient for the author – though sometimes that is the case – but for the culture and society of the book, and for the other characters. They tend to challenge the world and its norms and laws. They tend to revel in rebelling against society. At the very least, they are standing in the way of what someone else wants. Their rebellion might be about race, ethnicity, gender, or anything else they find important. They might be engaged in illegal activities that, for whatever reason, society has driven them into. (Or it could literally be almost all of the above, like my rumrunner, Nicky.) They might be gay in a world where that is illegal. They might be an outspoken woman, fighting for feminism in 18th century America (the heroine of my new work-in-progress, Sarah, does precisely this; her argument is that if we’re going to be asked to fight for liberty from Britain, what are the women going to get out of it? She is incredibly inconvenient!).

Truthfully? The worlds wants this character to be convenient. The world wants them to slot into their rightful little place. The world wants them, really wants them, to do what they’re supposed to do, without complaint. But this character simply cannot do it. It might be just who they are (Alex in Red, White, and Royal Blue – he can’t help that he’s bi and in love with the Prince of England, but that is sure inconvenient!). It might be that they’re fighting against injustice in the world (Harriet Tubman), or fighting for a Great Cause that isn’t popular at the moment.

But this is where point of view comes in . . . and villains are all about point of view.

As readers and writers, we have to ask ourselves:  when a character is demonized, who is making that choice? Is it society? The hero? Who finds the villain inconvenient? Does the villain find the hero equally inconvenient? If so, why? You’re writing about this person, after all. You should know them as well as you know the hero. Why does your villain – your antagonist – do the things he does? What drives him or her? Remember, in a good story, your protagonist is just as much a villain to your antagonist, as your antagonist is to your protagonist.

You may have heard the saying ‘history is written by the winners.’ That, to an extent, is true. When you win, you get to tell the story however you want. You get to demonize the enemy. You get to make it all up. So . . . when it comes to the villain, who tells their story?

Or . . . is this the villain’s story?

Are they not the villain after all? Are they, in fact, the hero of their own story? Are you sure you’re telling the right story, with the right hero?

It’s all about the point of view.

 

 

 

 

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“Can This Story Be Told?” The limits – and frustrations – of historical research

“It’s not a case of should this story be told; it’s a case of can this story be told?” – David Grann, 2017.

This quote, more than any other, was my takeaway from seeing David Grann two years ago on a nationwide tour for his new book, Killers of the Flower Moon. This book details a little-known aspect of history:  the murders of several wealthy and prominent Osage people during the 1910s and 20s, murders committed by the whites who were supposed to be working in the best interests of the very Osage men and women (and children) they killed. It’s a gripping story, and I reviewed the book here https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/killers-of-the-flower-moon-a-review/ (along with the experience of being able to see author David Grann talk about it).

But since then, the thing I’ve heard over and over, on countless Facebook pages and discussion groups, is this:  why were’t we taught this in school? 

Well, as a history teacher, I can tell you that one reason is that we have too much ground to cover in class. In an Oklahoma history class? Sure, this should be discussed. In a general survey of US History, however, it’s impossible to cover everything. We want to. As teachers, we want to so much, because it’s these kinds of stories that pique our students’ interest, keep them listening, and might even convince them that history isn’t so bad. The best we can sometimes do, however, is mention them in passing, in support of some other Big Important Topic we have to cover. Then, if students are interested, we can discuss it in more detail, either during class (yes, I will sometimes jettison other things to talk about smaller, but equally important, topics), or after class.

But there’s more to it. As historians studying the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 know, the truth can be buried. It can be buried so deeply, so thoroughly, that bringing it to light is a miraculous thing – if it can be done at all. When people want the truth to be buried, it’s easy to make it happen. Particularly if they are the people in power. And believe me, the people who committed the Osage murders had a reason to bury that truth. So did the perpetrators of the Tulsa Race Riots. But bringing it to light can be done – if the story is there. 

And that’s the question I face now.

As David Grann said, for him, it was never a case of should the story be told; rather, could he tell it? Did the evidence exist? It’s one thing to know something happened; proving it, telling that story, is another. One is easy; the other is not.

Grann was both lucky and good. He walked into the right museum, asked the right questions. He’s a good journalist; he followed his instincts. But he was also lucky – because in this case, the evidence was there. It wasn’t gone, just buried. It was just that no one else had ever asked the questions, followed the leads, gone to the lengths he did to find the truth. No one else had picked up the scattered remnants of this story and pulled them together into a coherent narrative.

But what do you do when, in fact, the truth is gone? Or, at least, you suspect it is?

Right now, I’m simultaneously reading Ron Chernow’s Washington and Alexander Hamilton (my second time). In these books, Chernow is upfront about what we do and don’t know about these men and their lives. We are lucky that Eliza Hamilton made it her life’s mission to collect every document Hamilton ever wrote, to gather as many stories about him as possible, to document his life so thoroughly, that historians have been able to mine that rich lode of information for two centuries. But even then . . . we don’t know the whole story. We don’t know what she burned. What was lost by other people. Likewise, Martha Washington burned most of the letters she and George Washington wrote to each other. What did these two have to say to each other? What insights into their marriage did they provide? What would Washington have told her in confidence that he’d not have told anyone else? We’ll never know. (Soapbox:  STOP BURNING LETTERS, LADIES! WE NED THEM!)

I’m absolutely in awe of the work Chernow did on both of these biographies. His task was downright herculean. From Washington’s diaries, to Hamilton’s letters, to the recollections of Jefferson and Madison and the diaries of others who knew them, he is able to sort and sift through it all to provide us with masterful biographies of both men that also give us insight into all of those around them. The treasury of information is almost bottomless. Like Grann, the story could be told. He had the information. Documents measured not by number of boxes, but by linear feet.

But . . . what if neither Chernow nor Grann had had that?

Historians don’t refuse to tell stories because we don’t care. Ask any historian – we care about everything! But we have to pick and choose our battles. And sometimes – as with the Tulsa Race Riot – the evidence doesn’t come to light for decades. The stories might exist – but the evidence might not. Without evidence, it isn’t history. It’s an anecdote. The problem is, how far do you dig before you accept that the evidence isn’t there? How much evidence is enough – or not enough? Can you tell the story right, if you’re missing key elements?

That is where I am now.

For ten years, I’ve been chasing the ghost of a story. I am, without a doubt, the world’s leading expert on George Kimmel. I’ve spent years tracking down every single court case. All the appeals. Looking at thousands of pages of depositions and testimonies. Reading hundreds of newspaper articles. I know the ins and outs of the cases. I know the theories about his disappearance.

What I don’t know, however, are the people involved. 

There are times when I think I do. When I get an insight into them via their depositions, or their behavior in court, and I think okay, I’ve got them now! I understand this person. And then . . . I realize, when I turn the page, that I really don’t, not at all. I’m not seeing them through their own words and actions. I’m always seeing them through a veil of secondary sources and hidden motives.

I’ve spent so much time tracing their footsteps – the lawyers Bacon and O’Brien, Kimmel’s sister Edna and his mother Estelle and his uncle Charles Johnson, his friends in Niles, Michigan and here in Arkansas City – that it’s easy to think I get this case. That I get all of their motives and know exactly what happened.

After ten years, I can honestly say I don’t have a damn clue about any of it.

Who were they, really? How did they really feel about Kimmel? How did they deal with his disappearance, and the subsequent trials? Where are their letters and diaries? Where are their conversations with others? Where are they in this narrative?

The truth is – they are nowhere. Because I don’t know them. Because I don’t have the very things that would let me know them. Diaries. Letters. Records of conversations. Memories from those who knew them. Things that could clue me in as to their motives. Things that could tell me if my suspicions are on track – or hopelessly off base.

As I said a couple of weeks ago in this blog, when you write history, you have an obligation to your subject and your readers to be fair, honest, and objective. When you haven’t got the sources that would enable you to be those things, how far can you morally go? How do I bring these people to life when they are little more than shadows moving through newspapers, or across the pages of depositions? How do I get at the truth of who they were and what they did?

That is why some stories are never told.

When I started this research, I had no end goal in mind. I just wanted to follow the story and see where it led. And then, as I got deeper and deeper into it, I wanted to know what really happened to George Kimmel on that July night in 1898. And when I did that . . . it changed everything. In part because of all the twists and turns the trials took, I never knew what to make of anyone involved in the case. How, for example, could you possible explain a woman who would sign away nearly $1 million in life insurance money just because her uncle told her to? There had to be more. I had to know why. 

This is not a biography; I get that. This is a mystery story, at heart. But in fiction, we say that there are no plots, only characters that want things. That’s what I’m missing here. It’s like I’m working backwards, precisely counter to where I would start if this was a fictional story. What did these people want? And what were they willing to do to get it? And it brings me, sadly, back around full circle to David Grann’s question:  can this story be told? 

This is the crossroads I find myself at now. Having gone so far, have I gone too far to go back?

Can the story be told – or at the very least, can it be told right? 

I honestly don’t know.

* For more on the Kimmel case and my research into it – including numerous times I’ve had my head meet my desk in frustration! – see these posts:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2018/03/10/when-research-becomes-obsession/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true-part-2/

Red, White, and Royal Blue: A Review

Imagine with me, for a moment, that in 2016, an intelligent, strong, Democrat woman was elected President of the United States. She has a son and a daughter, and an ex-husband who is a Senator. The country is safe. The country is happy. This woman will not drop nuclear weapons into hurricanes to see if it stops them. She is smarter than that.

Her children are likewise highly intelligent, ambitious, driven. But they are in their early twenties, and sometimes do things that this first female President might wish they didn’t.

Like fall for the Prince of England.

red white royal blueThis is the premise of my new favorite romance/alternative history/fairy tale, Red, White, and Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston.

Very rarely does a book come along that makes you drop everything to read it. That makes you think about it all day while you’re at work, and devour it the first thing when you get home. And even more rare is a book that is super-smart, super-sexy, and super-funny.

This book had popped up on my social media all summer. I kept seeing it recommended by Goodreads (I know I hate them, but let’s see what they have to say . . .) and on a couple of Facebook romance pages I follow. I hesitated, because frankly, I’d never read anything quite like it before, but the reviews were so great, the premise so intriguing, I finally downloaded it to my Nook – and then got totally lost in the absolutely wonderful alternate reality McQuiston has created.

Before you run out to read this, be aware:  this is a ‘gay romance.’ And I’m going on record right now as saying that I HATE that term. It’s a romance. The main characters happen to be gay. The trajectory from meetcute to happily-ever-after isn’t any different that that of a traditional straight couple. There. Soapbox Rant over. Thank you. 

So yes. The child of President Claremont who falls for the Prince of England is her son, Alexander.

When the First Children are sent to attend a royal wedding. there is a debacle with the wedding cake, which is Alex’s fault, which means that he and Prince Henry need to become BFFs in order to get the media off his back – and repair relations with Britain. From there, they are forced to attend events together, text back and forth, and friend each other on social media. But as Alex and Henry get to know each other, they find the superficial ‘for the media’ acquaintanceship deepening into a real friendship – and from there, into something a lot more.

One thing I love about this book is that the relationship feels so real. I hate – hate, hate, HATE with the fire of a thousand suns – romance novels that have the couple meeting, falling in love, and ending up in bed all in one day. There is no such thing. But Alex and Henry’s relationship evolves naturally, sweetly, depicted partly through text messages, emails, and group chats with their siblings and friends, and partly through their meet-ups – which, of course, have to be kept absolutely secret. Because it’s Election Year in America – and the media is watching. Always.

Alex and Henry are perfect foils for one another as well. Alex – hotheaded, outspoken, obnoxious, eloquent – is the only one who can bring reticent, closed-off Henry out his shell. But it’s Henry who offers the first kiss, taking the lead, being the bold one. They are perfect complements to each other, a wonderful yin-yang.

Another thing I loved about this book is the funny. God, I needed the funny! Part of this is the good-natured jabs Henry and Alex throw at each other, making fun of each other’s titles and countries, the sexy banter that is going to be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship. Part of it is from the situations they find themselves in. Part of it is the political references. (It really does help to be a history nerd and politico to read this. Seriously. As Henry says in one of his emails to Alex, “The phrase ‘see attached bibliography’ is the single sexiest thing you have ever written to me.”) And when Alex’s Secret Service agent catches him in bed with Henry, his mom puts together a PowerPoint discussion entitled “Sexual Experimentation With Foreign Monarchs:  A Gray Area,” with bullet points like, “Federal Funding, Travel Expenses, Booty Calls, and You.”

And the fact that these two young men are quoting Virginia Woolf and Henry James and Alexander Hamilton . . . (I swear to God, I did not know there would be Alexander Hamilton references in this book. I didn’t. I swear. It just was a totally happy coincidence. I swear.)

But another thing I loved is the wonderfully rounded secondary characters that populate this book. Not a single one is superfluous. Every single one is wonderful and necessary and interacts perfectly with Alex and Henry, and it’s a joy to watch them. Alex’s mother – even though she’s the President, even though she’s up for re-election – stands by her son no matter what, a strong and unswerving presence. His sister is ready to take a bullet for him. His Secret Service agents don’t take his crap – but they also aren’t going to stand by and let him be ripped apart from Henry, either.

But I think what I loved most about this book is that it was just escapism at its best. The tension and trials that Henry and Alex go through are real – but again, this takes place in this wonderful alternative universe where everything went right in November 2016, and where there’s still hope and good people and sanity. Tension? Of course there’s tension, from all sides – from the media, from their families, from the consequences of being found out, from the very real possibility that the royal family will not allow the relationship to continue. Tension between all the characters. Tension from an evil Republican candidate, too. But you know it’s all going to be okay, in the end.

Fair warning, just in case you didn’t get the memo from reading this:  there is language, and gay sex (not 100% blatant, but you’ll definitely get the drift), and unapologetic liberalism. If that bothers you . . . well.

Read it anyway. 🙂

 

“Writing Herself Into the Narrative” – A review of ‘Eliza Hamilton’ by Tilar J. Mazzeo

elizaSo, yes, it’s no secret, I’ve been on a Hamilton kick lately. And when I saw Tilar J. Mazzeo’s Eliza Hamilton at the local bookstore, I thought it might be the perfect companion to what I already knew.

I’ve rarely been more wrong.

Tilar J. Mazzeo is not a historian, and this is clear on every single page. I  had misgivings about the book from the start, when I studied the extended family tree at the front of the book and noticed that she had Philip Hamilton (the eldest), dying in 1808 – which would mean that Alexander Hamilton had to return from the dead to give him all that bad dueling advice, given that Hamilton died in 1804, and Philip died in 1801. A typo? Perhaps. But that’s not the only issue with the family tree (which doesn’t lend credence to one of Mazzeo’s later claims), and it didn’t get better from there.

As Mazzeo points out, this is the first full-length biography of Eliza Hamilton – wife of Alexander Hamilton – ever published. As a historian and writer and woman, I think it’s fantastic that we are finally beginning to recognize the women that have been referred to as the ‘Founding Mothers.’ Far from being meek, illiterate, obedient wives, these women were strong, courageous, intelligent, and sometimes at odds with their powerful husbands. But this isn’t new territory – others, including Mary Beth Norton, Kathleen M. Brown, and yes, Cokie Roberts, have all walked this ground before. Today, we don’t often recognize the power these women wielded, or how much influence these women had, so this scholarship is both interesting and necessary.

But I would like to emphasize that key word:  scholarship. That is where Mazzeo, who is not a historian, is lacking in this book.  I’d also like to emphasize the word biography – because in the end, that’s not what this book is.

To be fair, I did like the first chapters, and the last chapters. Mazzeo clearly feels sympathy with Eliza Hamilton, and brings her and her family to life in the opening chapters. I enjoyed reading about the exploits of Angelica and Peggy, and later, the youngest sister Cornelia (all of whom eloped against their parents’ wishes!). The entire Schuyler family comes to life in those early chapters, especially Eliza’s mother Kitty.

But when you write history, you have an obligation to your subject and to your readers to remain objective, fair, and most of all honest. Mazzeo fails at all three. It’s not just the fact that she liberally peppers the book with her own views as if they were fact (telling us how Eliza felt or acted, when in fact we have no idea if she did or not, and this begins with the very first sentence). For instance, on page 151, she says “Eliza was frantic and had a terrible sense of foreboding. She wanted to come home.” But nowhere does Mazzeo cite her sources for this. If Eliza wrote letters to this effect, Mazzeo has an obligation to cite them, to tell us in the endnotes (which are both inadequate and incorrect, by the way) why this was included. However, because these are not supported with evidence and citations, we are left to assume that all of this is down to Mazzeo’s imagination. In a work of nonfiction, this is not acceptable.

(Also, it bothers me that she repeatedly refers to Hamilton as “Alexander” throughout the book. Even Eliza referred to him as “Hamilton,” most often calling him “my dear Hamilton” in her letters. It’s annoying and amateurish.)

soapboxIn fact, Mazzeo hardly cites anything to support her claims, most of which fly in the face of accepted truths about Hamilton. On page 144, for example, she says blithely, “Alexander and Eliza were not an exception. They owned both enslaved people and indentures.” But, no end notes. No citations. Nothing. How can she say this (especially when Chernow goes to great lengths to point out that we don’t have evidence that the Hamiltons owned slaves) as if it’s gospel? She takes pains to point out that both Eliza and Hamilton kept household account books, that the family was always in a bit of a financial straits. Then where is her evidence for them owning slaves? The one receipt she references is not enough, when there is no evidence afterwards that those slaves ever took up residence in the Hamilton household. If the evidence is there, cite it. If it’s not – then it doesn’t belong in the book.

The title of this review is, of course, a reference to the musical Hamilton – and a fitting one, since Mazzeo makes repeated, Easter-egg references to the musical throughout the book. This only adds to the feeling that she wrote it only to ride the coattails of Ron Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda. ‘Writing herself into the narrative’ is a reference not to Eliza, though, but to Mazzeo herself. And that brings me to the biggest criticism I have:  her treatment of the Reynolds Affair.

Anyone familiar with Hamilton knows the story of the Reynolds Affair – in the summer of 1791, Hamilton met Maria Reynolds, had a torrid affair, and was subsequently blackmailed by James Reynolds, her husband. He thought it long over, until he was accused of using his position as Secretary of the Treasury to do some insider trading to make his family and friends wealthy. Then, to clear his public reputation, he had to confess to a private affair – which did, yes, ruin his political chances, but which he felt was necessary in order to keep his public, professional honor intact. Mazzeo, however, seems intent on painting Hamilton as nothing more than a despicable scoundrel who fabricated a sexual relationship in order to cover up insider trading.

Which makes absolutely no sense. 

Mazzeo all but manufactures evidence to support her theory. She claims that Hamilton gave money to James Reynolds to invest for him, which was illegal; when those transactions were brought to light, Hamilton fabricated the story about the affair and blackmail to cover his tracks. This is where Mazzeo’s complete lack of historical knowledge and training are most evident. She claims – again, without proof – that the letters sent to him by Maria Reynolds were forged by Hamilton (possibly with the help of Eliza), and that is why Eliza stood by him during that time rather than kicking him to the curb.

First – there is no evidence that Hamilton knew Reynolds before this affair. Above, I referenced issues with the family tree. Mazzeo says that Maria Reynolds was a distant cousin to Eliza, and thus, Hamilton knew Reynolds as a relative. Let’s suppose that the family tree isn’t wrong in this case, and Maria was related to Eliza. Did Hamilton know? And if he did, why would he ask Reynolds to invest money for him? Why not secretly slip his father-in-law a few hundred dollars to invest instead? Or – since he was still Angelica’s husband’s lawyer, and handling his investments, why not slip a few hundred of his own money into John Church’s accounts, then withdraw it just as easily when the money had grown? Hamilton was a financial genius, and Mazzeo forgets this. She studied Eliza – but never Hamilton. Hamilton never really earned enough to support his family. When he died, he was $50,000 in debt. Do we really think a financial genius would have engaged in insider trading and yet not made a penny at it? 

Second – Hamilton would have never done anything to tarnish his reputation, or do anything that might possibly destroy the very things he’d created – the Treasury, and the Bank of the United States. Even a whiff of scandal at that time would have been just cause for his political foes to dismantle both and discredit him. He fought too hard, for too long, to jeopardize them in any way. The Republicans were looking to bring Hamilton down any way that they could. Insider trading – especially entrusted to someone Hamilton didn’t know?! – would have given them the ammunition they needed. There is absolutely no way he’d have risked that. None. Mazzeo needs to read Gordon S. Woods’ “Revolutionary Characters” for a better understanding of how these men viewed their honor. Sacrificing his marriage, admitting in public to a sexual relationship, in order to save his public and political honor – yes, these are precisely the things Hamilton would do. She admits several times that he was a bit of a hound. Yes, he was. And when someone under stress meets someone looking pretty . . .

As to why Eliza never kicked him to the curb – again, to anyone who has studied the eighteenth century, this is no mystery. Divorce was not unheard of, but for a woman, it was difficult to obtain. Where was she going to go? Would she, a devoted mother, risk losing her children? Risk their reputations? She had no choice but to support him. Besides, who’s to say what went on behind closed doors? Who’s to say what was in the letters she burned at the end of her life? Again, this goes back to the idea of public honor, which Mazzeo doesn’t understand. Eliza had a duty as Hamilton’s wife – and a Schuyler – to remain at his side, to not add fuel to the rumors. (It’s not as if it’s the first time a strong, independent woman has done this, after all – Hilary Clinton, anyone?)

There are other small issues of scholarship as well – for instance, she cites a letter from Angelica as proof that Eliza encouraged Hamilton to resign from the Treasury, but she cites the letter as being from 1793 or 94, not 1795 as Chernow does. A small thing, perhaps, but again, something that throws into question her veracity and judgment. In the few images in the book, she cites a portrait of Philip as being of William. Again – when you write history, every detail has to be exact, every idea has to be supported by evidence. If not, it throws into question your entire ability to do the work. And I already had those questions before I started reading.

Mazzeo treats the Reynolds Affair as if it was the midpoint of Eliza’s life – in truth, Hamilton’s murder was the midpoint of her life (she was 48 in 1804), and a scant 53 pages are given to the rest of her life. She lived another half a century, raised the rest of the children on her own, lost her family (including her father and Angelica), created New York’s first orphanage, fought for her husband’s rightful place in history, went west in her 80s, for God’s sake, to see her son William, and . . . all that in 53 pages?!

So no. I wanted to like it. But her treatment of Eliza is too light, too fictional, to be taken seriously, and as I said – in the end, I felt that all Mazzeo wanted to do was write herself into the recent Hamilton narrative by spending way too many chapters on the Reynolds Affair, which she neither understands nor cares to understand.

My hope is that someone else will do Eliza’s story justice.

 

In Which ‘Save the Cat! Writes a Novel’ – and Saves Mine!

A while back, I mentioned that I’d been avoiding my manuscript like the proverbial plague, and I was. Definitely was.

I have a love/hate relationship with my work, as most authors do, I think – we want to see it thrive and grow and succeed, and yet, sometimes, the damn things insist on doing the exact opposite. You say ‘Characters! Do this and this!’ and they say, ‘Eh. Go away.” You say, ‘Plot! Sit up and roll over and fetch!’ and the plot says, ‘Yeah? Make me, wuss.’ After a while, you get tired of carrying a rolled-up newspaper in one hand and treats in the other, and you give up and go away.

That’s where I was pretty much all spring. For years, I’ve bee thinking I’ve found The Thing That Will Make It All Work. Every time there’s an issue, I go out, I read books, I find The Magical Solution (which, of course, never turns out to be quite as magical as I hope it to be).

But this time, I might actually have done it.

save the catAt Barnes & Noble a couple of months ago, I picked up a book called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Based on the popular screenwriting guide Save the Cat!, this book applies those techniques to novel writing, utilizing the ‘beat sheets’ that make movies so compelling to make novels just as compelling.

The subtitle of this book is a bit egotistical:  The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. I can’t say that’s true – but this book saved my life and my novel and that IS true!

I always knew there was something wrong with the novel that had to do with the plot and structure. I had betas read it. They declared it to be fine. The characters were fine; the dialogue was great. But something was always off about the plot, and no matter how I tried to fix it, it never worked. My characters had problems! They wanted to solve them, and they tried hard to solve them! Why wasn’t that enough?

Well, with one paragraph, Brody made it all clear to me. I don’t know why – it’s just how she phrased it:

“Now, the question is, what does your hero think will fix those problems, or what does your hero think will better their life? Whatever the answer is . . . that is your hero’s goal. That is what they will be actively striving to achieve throughout the novel (or at least in the beginning). . . . And most important, what will really fix your hero’s life? What does your hero actually need? This is the crux of your story.”

Suddenly, in the space of two pages, I was scribbling in the margins. I never scribble in margins. But here I was, writing down sudden plot points and holes and how to fix them. And I did that through the entire book. 

For example:  my MC, Erin, states on page 10 that she is done seeing ghosts. They have screwed up her life for the last time. So her want, or what she thinks she wants, is to be normal and ghost-free. That has to drive the novel, in part, and I realized that it actually never does. She’s even given hints on how to do it, and never follows through! Boom! Instantly, I sat down and within an hour had two great scenes drafted in which she does just that. Plus, I highlighted that want through the rest of the novel. What she needs, of course, is to give in to her gift and learn to live with it. And by the end of the novel, she learns that lesson. (Great. Now I just gave away the ending!)

Does that mean the wants can’t change, or that your characters can’t have more wants? Of course not, and Brody provides several examples of novels in which the hero’s wants change during the book.

Chapter 2 of this great book is the Beat Sheet – where Brody walks us through the three acts that all stories should have. If you’re like me, that idea has never quite gelled, never quite made sense. Well, Brody fixes that! All three Acts are placed in the context of the 15-Beat Story Arc. Each Act has set ‘beats’ that should be included (as much as possible), in order to ground your novel, ensure the characters are doing their part, and make sure you have all the components of a successful, suspenseful novel. She discusses the purpose of each act, and then explains each Beat contained therein, along with its purpose.

The clouds parted. The skies opened. The sun shone. The angels sang a chorus. Seriously. It was THAT much of a revelation! I suddenly saw where the holes were. Where the plot and structure had gone awry. What scenes were missing. What scenes needed to be deleted. Where the tension needed to be punched up. Where the secondary storylines needed beefed up or changed. I was getting ideas AS I WAS READING. I finally understand the importance of the Midpoint! Once Brody characterized it as ‘the shit just got real! beat,’ I GOT IT. Raise the stakes. Make it impossible to back out. Fast-forward the deadline. Throw in a major plot twist. All of these belong to the Midpoint, and I finally get it!

In the rest of the book, Brody explores how the Fifteen Beats apply to various genres. She chooses a book in that genre and walks you through it, beat by beat, so you can see the underlying structure. She also provides you with a list of other novels in that genre you can read and study as well.

This is quite possibly the best $14.95 I’ve ever spent on a book. EVER. I have rewritten this novel so many times, but this is the first time I can truly say I feel at peace with the rewrites, that I truly see why I’m doing them. Most of all, this is the first time I feel that the rewrites are worth the effort. That I feel I may actually get somewhere with them, that this time, it’s the real deal. I have a bit of research left to do – again, structure holes! – but I feel closer than I’ve ever been.

And it’s all thanks to Save the Cat!

The #ReadICT Challenge – DONE!

DONE! 

And it only took me six months, not twelve! 

This year, one of my goals was to complete the ReadICT Challenge – 12 books, 12 genres, 12 months. I finished last month. (Before you get all carried away with the accolades, I’d like to say that there are some in the Facebook group who read their twelve in a month.)

So here they are, my Twelve:  

  1. A book with a face on the cover. I went a slightly different route on this one, and snowmanread The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts, about the legendary 1950s show jumper, Snowman. I had read her book A Perfect Horse, about the efforts to save the famous Lippizzaners (and what was left of the Polish Arabian Stud) from the Russians during World War II, and thought I’d give this one a go. It was very good. If you like horses, highly recommended. And yes, that’s Snowman’s handsome face on the cover! 
  2. A book from a genre you don’t normally read. This turned out to be a book I got last year, To Sing Hallucinated:  First Thoughts on Last Words by Nathan Brown. Brown is a former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma; I picked this up last year and forgot it was in a bag until last month! It’s really quite a good book of poetry about – you guessed it – famous last words.
  3. A book that makes you LOL. I said I’d read the last entry in the Charley Davidson series, and I did. I laughed. I cried. I am anxiously waiting to find out what happens to Osh and Beep in the new series. Come on, Darynda, hurry up !
  4. A book set in the place you were born. Deadly Design, by my good friend Debra Dockter.
  5. A classic, or a retelling of a classic. I read Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay – it was quite good. I reviewed it last month:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2019/03/02/hate-romeo-and-juliet-try-juliet-immortal-instead/
  6. A book you have avoided or didn’t finish. I intended to read a totally different book for this one, but back in March, I went through a time when I couldn’t sleep, and I picked up Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey. This book looks at the infamous ‘career’ of Gilbert Bland, who stole dozens, perhaps hundreds, of antique and irreplaceable maps from libraries across North America. I’d put it down last year for some reason, and just never picked it back up.
  7. A translated book. On the recommendation of just about everyone who’s read it, I chose A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman. Oh my God. I literally bawled and laughed all the way through this book. Mostly bawled. If you are one of the few people who hasn’t yet read this book, GO GET IT NOW. You will not regret it, I promise, though you will want the tissues handy.
  8. An award-winner. This was Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan. I grabbed it from the discount rack at Barnes & Noble. It won the Bellwether Prize in 2006. It was a lot different than I thought it would be – good, but probably not one I would read again any time soon, mostly because I felt the main female characters were just way too subservient, and I couldn’t feel any sympathy for them. 
  9. A book recommended by a child or teenager. chernowI chose Matched, by Ally Condie, for this one. (I’m pretty sure a teen has recommended it, right?) The premise started our promising (dystopian society, yeah yeah, but with a bit of a twist), but I didn’t like the ending. 
  10. A biography, autobiography, or memoir. FINALLY. I finished it. It feels like climbing Mount Everest. I’m going to write a full review later, but for now, I can honestly say that even though I’ve taken many classes on Early American History, I never knew all the hostility and animosity that existed between the Founding Fathers. The backstabbing, the machinations, the factions, the . . . wow. And even though I’ve always hated Aaron Burr, I’m going to say this:  he was despicable. If his ghost is reading this, he knows what I mean. To him, I say:  sir, bring it. 
  11. A book that features a character different fro you in some way. Done! Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. What a sweet, surprising read – probably the most surprisingly good book I’ve picked up lately. If you haven’t read it  yet, do so right after you read Ove. Seriously. They pair together quite well. 
  12. A book by an author slated to come to Kansas in 2019. Oh, I did this one, too! Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer. It was a fun – and good – read, actually better than I thought it would be.

So . . . now what? 

Now, I’m thinking I may try it again. 🙂 

Being in the Room Where it Happens

Alchemy:  a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination. (So Google says, anyway.)

Writers are alchemists, in a way. We take from thin air and imagination that which no one else can see or touch, and create worlds in which others can share.

And after a week, I can honestly say that alchemy is the only word I can use to adequately describe the experience of seeing Hamilton live on stage. There, my friend Patrick. I have described it. It is nothing more and nothing less than the transformation of life and words and history into magic. (I can see you rolling your eyes, Patrick.)

On July 11, 2004, my mom and I were at home, watching TV. Trying to find something worth watching, I’m sure. I don’t remember which channel we landed on – CNN, possibly, or maybe a New York station (because our wonderful satellite provider used to give us both New York and Los Angeles feeds – and I miss that!). The New York news was always fun – one amazing July 4, we watched the tallships in New York Harbor, as they made a slow, beautiful loop up and down the coastline.

But this particular day, we caught something I’ve never forgotten – a live re-enactment of the most famous duel in history, fought by descendants of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

Of course, I already knew about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and that duel. And when I started teaching history soon after, I made sure to include not just Washington and Jefferson and Adams in my lectures on colonial and early American history, but also Hamilton. Because how could you not? To me, he was the most interesting one of all. The outsider, the rebel, the hothead. The forgotten one.

Last fall, I showed clips of Hamilton in my Anthropology class, to show how different cultures can interpret history. I didn’t expect to start listening to the soundtrack, to become completely enthralled with it. And if you’d told me in May, 2018 that I’d be buying tickets to see it, live on stage, I’d have laughed.

Well. Fast forward to this spring, when Kansas City Music Hall announced that Hamilton tickets would go on sale during our finals week, and since it was expected to sell out, they were doing an online ‘lottery’ so that some lucky people could get tickets a day early. I never win anything, but I won that lottery. I got my ticket. (Do you have any idea how hard it is to say “I did not throw away my shot” here?) 🙂

As I said – alchemy and magic.

Novelists get to paint worlds in words. Create everything for our readers, describe our worlds so perfectly that they know precisely what we mean. We can put into words what we want them to see in their minds. The readers may put their own spin on things, but if we do our job right, there’s synergy. We see it in our minds. We write it. They read it. They see it in their minds.

With something meant to be performed, though, it’s different. I know the Hamilton soundtrack by heart*, but there’s a veil there we can’t cross, images we can’t completely create in our imaginations. Some settings we can guess at – we’re pretty sure that “Story of Tonight” takes place in a pub – but there were other songs I just couldn’t quite visualize. How, for example, did you take a song like “Say No to This” and put it live on stage?!

Now, I know.

It’s not that the sets are complicated. Far from it. It’s the actors. How they interact on stage. Their expressions, their choreography, the small actions that suddenly breathe life into songs I thought I knew. They have more depth, more expression, than they did before. You get them on a completely different level.

How, you ask? So many ways, but let’s take the humor. So much of the humor is in the acting and the choreography. Things you can’t hear in the songs. Things you don’t know until you see them. Sure, some of the humor comes through in the songs, but – well, take King George, for example. Played on tour by Jon Patrick Walker, he is an absolute riot! We adored him. We adored him the moment he asked us to put our cell phones on silent, for God’s sake. He was that good.

And that brings me to one of the biggest things I loved most about the experience – the audience. I’ve been to plays where the audience just sits there. The actors are working their hearts out and the audience is just – blah. Not this time. There was an almost immediate rapport between stage and seating, a rapport that doesn’t always happen. So you could almost feel those moments where the actors played it up for us, knowing we would love it. Sitting there, I could tell that there were a lot of us in the crowd that knew the story by heart, and were waiting for our favorite moments – but there were just as many that were seeing and hearing it all for the first time. It didn’t matter. One moment we were all laughing as Jefferson told Burr that he’d never be vice-President because I’m the President and I don’t like you! – and then, in the very next moment, as Burr sat down to write that first fateful letter, an absolute hush fell over the entire audience. I don’t think anyone moved, or made a sound, for the next twenty minutes. It was an eerie, awful silence, as together we watched the events play out the way we knew they must. Instant synergy – and instant magic.

And I want to say one more thing:  the principle actors always get a ton of credit, and they should because every single one of them was amazing, but the support cast? They are freaking awesome. The physical demands of the choreography was astounding, and they made it look effortless. Not only that, but they were also, I believe, the ones who moved all the props (desks, etc.). They are an integral, seamless part of the entire musical and without them, there is no Hamilton. They’re not there to do a song-and-dance number once per act – they’re on stage all the time. And they are awesome. 

As a writer, I think one thing that has always struck me about Hamilton is how nuanced and faithful the characters are to real life. None of them are perfect, least of all Alexander. Read his biographies. But I have always appreciated how Lin-Manuel Miranda gives Burr humanity. I find that hard, even in my lectures (again, he’s despicable). As the play progresses, you see how at every turn, Burr is shut out of what he thinks should be his rightful place. Miranda made sure to develop that character arc perfectly, to follow Chernow’s biography as faithfully as he could.

Yes, some details are changed for narrative’s sake – for instance, Angelica was already married when Alexander met Eliza (but she definitely had a crush on the boy!). But who they were, who they are – that never changes. And that’s because there was no reason to manufacture anything. Hamilton’s life was lived in a perfect story arc – which Miranda echoes perfectly – with everything in his life leading up to victory at Yorktown and becoming Secretary of the Treasury . . . and then from there, cartwheeling into the abyss, mostly due to his own actions.

I left the Music Hall in tears (I wasn’t the only one; a girl behind me was sobbing and kept saying “I didn’t know how it ended!”) , and came home . . . and immediately bought tickets to Oklahoma City in August. Closer, this time. Row 5. It was an imperative. I could not not see it again.

And you know what? I cannot freaking wait.

 

*(Almost. I have to admit that I never listened to the final three songs;  I just couldn’t. And I’m glad I didn’t, because I got to experience them for the first time live. It was chilling to realize that Lin-Manuel Miranda used snippets from the actual letters they wrote each other. No hip-hip. No bravado. Just their own words.)