Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂

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Playing What-If: a review of ‘The Heartless City’

As writers, we all play the ‘what-if’ game. What if . . . someone used standing stones to go back in time in Scotland? What if . . . there were vampires/werewolves/werecats/werewhatevers? What if . . . the world’s greatest art thief got caught and started working for the FBI instead? What if . . .

About a month ago, I walked into my local coffee house and saw a sign on the wall announcing a local author who would be doing a book signing soon. That’s cool – but we’ve frankly got a lot of local authors, most of them self-published. What stopped me in my tracks was the cover:  cover1000-1-678x1024

Yeah. Remind you of anything? Maybe this?

9781416975861

The Infernal Devices trilogy is my favorite Young Adult series ever (so much better than Mortal Instruments – more depth, more character development, more conflict!). So I had to go.

Andrea Berthot lives right here in my home town, and she was gracious and lovely. When I admitted the reason I was curious about the book was due to the cover, she laughed and said she loved it for that reason, too – when they asked her what she wanted for the cover, the only thing she could think of was a boy and the London skyline.

And she plays the ‘what if’ game. For her first novel, The Heartless City, it was a historical and fictional question:  what if Dr. Jekyll was real, and what if his experiments didn’t end where Robert Louis Stevenson said they did?

The Heartless City is the first book of Berthot’s Gold and Gaslight Chronicles series. It’s a re-imagining of the Jekyll and Hyde tale. It starts in 1903, thirteen years after Dr. Jekyll’s experiments went horribly wrong, resulting in the creation of more Hyde-like monsters – and a total quarantine of London. No one out. No one in. The Lord Mayor has taken over as a quasi-king; Parliament has moved to York; food is rationed and no one has news of the outside world.

In this world lives Elliot Morrissey, the son of the Lord Mayor’s personal doctor, and his best friend Cam (the Lord Mayor’s son). Elliot, due to a misbegotten experiment of his own, is an empath – he can feel every emotion of every person around him. Handy, when there are monsters to avoid. Not so handy, when people desperately need to hide certain things.

After going to a ‘dance hall’ for Cam’s birthday, they meet Iris, who is also not what she seems to be. Together, the three will have to figure out if there is any way to cure the Hydes – and who has a vested interest in not curing them.

As a writer, it’s difficult to review books – I always want to offer constructive criticism, as if I’m nothing more than a beta reader and there’s still time to change things! I think it’s more difficult for writers, in fact, than people who are only readers. Those who don’t write really don’t understand the amount of work that goes into writing a novel. The hours you spend on research, putting fingers to keyboard, editing with red pen in hand – those are hours you’ve chosen to subtract from other areas of your life.

So writers have a bit of empathy for fellow writers that often stays our hand when we might otherwise be harsh. Because we can read a scene and even if it doesn’t sound quite right to us, we know that the author probably spent hours and hours and hours in rewrites on it. We also know that agents and editors have to have their say and (I know this is heresy, but . . .) those changes may not always be for the best.

There was a lot to like in The Heartless City – the friendship between Elliot and Cam, the way Berthot handles the overwhelming emotions Elliot feels, and his real conflicts about what to do about it. Philomena sparkles on the page as the comedy relief/bad-ass girl rebelling against her heritage and station in life. Iris – well, truth be told, I’m still unsure what I think of her; sometimes she didn’t feel ‘real’ to me. It’s Cam and Philomena that most resonate on the page – Cam’s desperation to know more of the outside world – to be freed of the hell that London has become – is palpable and I sympathize with it completely. (Truth be told, I found Cam more interesting than Elliot, and I hope that the third book will focus on him.)

The story flows smoothly, though I admit I did lay it down for several days after about chapter 4 – it felt a bit slow to begin – and the Hydes seem to get lost after a time. The main antagonist is believable – a bit two-dimensional, but we all know people like this (cough-Trump!-cough), so that didn’t bother me too much, either. Honestly, part of me prefers a villain I can just hate. 🙂

One of the things I disliked about the book was something that I dislike in a lot of YA – or even a lot of adult books, for that matter – which is what I call “Twilight Romance Syndrome” (TRS, for short). This is when the two main characters fall in luuv instantly, without knowing the slightest bit of information about the other – basically the idea that “he/she is hot, he/she is fascinating/brooding/unavailable, so I MUST fall in love with them NOW!” Thus it was with Elliot and Iris, who were declaring love after only knowing each other for a few days.

I’ve posted about this particular pet peeve of mine before, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. Authors, please, do us all a favor:  your characters can fall in love all they want, but for heaven’s sake, let them do it gradually! Make it real. Make it believable.

For some reason, I actually found Cam’s romance with . . . um, someone, must not give too many spoilers! . . . more believable, maybe because I saw it coming a mile away. Or maybe because it was hinted that this romance had developed over the last several weeks or months – again, gradually.

Rant over. Back to the review:

One other thing I think Berthot could have worked on more was her use of language, particularly dialect and accent. Anyone who’s read a lot of Victorian literature knows it’s a very specific style of speaking (and the upper and lower classes had their own ‘dialects,’ even), and since London had been under quarantine since 1890, I would expect much more Victorian-esque speaking. But except for a bit of Cam’s good-natured jests, there wasn’t much of that here. The characters don’t even sound particularly British. If you watch any good British shows like Downton Abbey or Doc Martin, you get a feel for how true Brits speak – the rhythms, the sentence structure, the words. There just wasn’t any of that here, and that’s something true Anglophiles need. (A good example of someone who does this well is Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire series is set during the Napoleonic Wars.)

But overall, as a debut novel – especially one in the alternate history/paranormal realm – it’s a good first effort. Solid characters, solid plot, solid writing. And in the age-old game of ‘what if,’ it excels.

 

The second book in the series, The Hypnotic City, which follows Philomena’s adventures in New York City, is available.

A link to the Curiosity Quills Press’s homepage for the Gold and Gaslight Chronicles:  https://curiosityquills.com/series/gold-gaslight-chronicles/

 

 

Goodreads Profile: YA Author Debra Dockter

Things got hectic this weekend, so instead of me going on and on, please enjoy this selection from YA author Debra Dockter. 🙂

debra dockter

Just answered questions from Goodreads members about books and the writing process. Check it out on my Goodreads author page and as always, happy reading and happy writing!

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Historical Fiction: Playing in the Sandbox

A few weeks ago on a writing website, someone asked a question that went like this:

“I want to write a historical novel for my first novel ever and I don’t know what era I should use so tell me!”

soapboxThis is one of those times I gently banged my head against my desk and refrained from responding. Because this goes back to my biggest pet peeve. Soapbox time again: you don’t become a writer by saying “I want to be a writer” and then begging for ideas. You become a writer by writing.

Historical writing is so close to my heart, as a historian. My first attempts at novels were fantasy, with a heavy dose of medieval history; later efforts revolved around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of my ideas, truth be told, are based in history — even my urban fantasy series is steeped in several layers of history going back 500+ years. That’s a lot of research! And it bothers me so much when someone says, “I don’t know what era to write in.” Um — how do you NOT know?

As I’ve said before, Diana Gabaldon is one of my favorite authors, for a multitude of reasons. (Her ability to write really hot sex scenes is just part of it. Really.). Here’s one of her interviews, where she talked about how she came to have the idea for Outlander:  http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/gabaldon.html

Yup. I realize she broke all the rules. Still does. But the point is, she chose a time period herself. Thinking like a writer, she took inspiration from the things around her (Yes, I call Doctor Who an inspiration!), and then proceeded to draft things. She thought about sources of conflict. That’s where Claire Randall came in. And like a good writer, when Claire began to take over the story and boss it around, Diana let her.

History’s a funny thing. It won’t let you get away with much. It’s a sandbox with definite boundaries. And yet, once you start to work within its limits, it seems to expand and grow. Your sandbox becomes infinite. Take Nicky, for example. I had become 100% focused on his run-ins with the local Klan. But as dug into the newspapers for 1924, I learned that there was an entire bootlegging empire in this region. Not only were they bootlegging, they were stealing cars and chickens and even hijacking people on the streets and stealing their valuables! And I knew immediately that Nicky would never, ever get involved in that — but what another level of complexity and conflict for the novel! By playing within the confines of my historical sandbox, I was given a broad base, which may allow me to expand this from one novel into at least two, and maybe a trilogy.

So no. I don’t understand the whole “I want to write a historical but I don’t know when to set it” question. Because to anyone who does historical research, we know that the history will dictate what you can and cannot do.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind, from a historian’s point of view, if you want to do historical fiction:

1.) The characters and your era have to work together. One will inform the other. If they don’t, you’re screwed. I believe Claire and Jamie were always there in Diana Gabaldon’s head, just waiting to get out; it just took her finding the right time period first! When Nicky came to me, there was no doubt he was from the 1920s. The two almost always arrive together.

2.) Your characters have to work within societal norms — or be very aware of the price if they don’t. If your character wants to break the rules of society, you’d better give her a good reason, and a good cover. Let’s say you’ve got a 14-year old girl who wants to attend University of Paris in the 1400s, for example. She’ll have to cut her hair. Behave like one of the boys. Lots of conflict there! This is where so much conflict comes in for Nicky; he knows the rules. He just chooses to ignore them. But he also knows the price he’s going to pay if he ever gets caught.

This is one thing that bothers me so much about Ariana Franklin’s books. While painstakingly researched, her main character, Adelia, consistently acts outside the societal norms — in fact, she acts quite a lot too much like a 20th century woman. It really takes me out of the story; the historian in me keeps saying But she’d have been burned as a witch already!

3.) Research, research, research. Read every book you can get your hands on about that era. Your character’s field of work. Horses. Whatever you need to research, do it. Somewhere out there are experts in your field. Find them. Or I promise, once you publish, they will find you. 🙂 Even if you are 99.9% sure you know what x and y are, double-check everything. Triple-check. I have to find out if you can, in fact, drop a 1917 V-8 Cadillac engine into a 1916 Model T. I’m sure hoping so. If you’re lucky enough to be working within the past 150 years or so, read newspapers from that time period. Get a feel for the language and politics and fashions and rules.

4.) There is some room for play. But not much. We often talk about “poetic license” and “taking liberties.” But you have a contract with your reader. If you’re telling them this is a straight-up historical, that’s what they’re expecting. Take one step out of bounds, and you’ll never hear the end of it. If you choose to write alternative history, or a time-travel novel, then your reader will expect you to take a few liberties. For Nicky, I’ll be taking a handful of liberties; I already know that. But the liberties I plan to take all make sense within the confines of the 1920s. Never give your characters an easy way out. By playing within the sandbox of your era, you make sure their conflicts, and their risks, are genuine.

So if you’ve ever thought about writing a historical novel, keep these things in mind. People who read historical fiction are a unique group; they’re often historians or “amateur historians” themselves (I put that in quotes only because the “amateur” historian often has more knowledge of a particular subject than a trained, degreed historian!), and they will rip you apart if you get one thing wrong, like underwear.

So go find your sandbox. It might look small now. But I promise, once you start to research and write, you’ll look up one day and realize that sandbox has no limits.

Say Hello to Nicky . . .

All right. My friend Debra Dockter requested a meeting with Nicky, so this is as good an introduction as I can give. It’s rough! And as you’ll see, it’s nothing like what you’re used to seeing from me. This is why it’s so hard for me to slip back into his voice; it’s so unique, and the language is very different. The sentence structure, the dialogue, the word choice — all so different from what I usually write! 

Our first customer was the speakeasy east of Silverdale, down on Grouse Creek. It’s so well-known, they don’t even bother hiding what they are. It was January; really cold that year, with snow blowing and the creek freezing near solid. I drove Abby over to Simon’s and we loaded her up with the wooden crates. We’d taken out the rumble seat and put in some cotton padding in the back to give us more room there, and we’d shortened up the seat in the front some so’s I could reach the pedals easier and we could fit more bottles between the back of the seat and the back of the car.

“You be careful heading over there,” Simon said. “They play rough, or so I hear.”

“I will,” I said. I shivered in my coat; it was deuced cold out, and my sleeves were about two inches too short. My pant legs were abut two inches too short too, and my socks were close to threadbare. Simon looked at me and studied me a second.

“You got anything else to wear?”

I shook my head, stamping my feet. I was outgrowing my boots too – I’d tied ‘em up in cardboard and twine, but my toes were freezing through the cracks. But Eunice and Sam were growing too, and they had to have new coats for winter. Mama had made over one of my old ones for Sam, but Eunice had to have a new one, and it’d taken the last of my money to get the stuff for Mama to make it. Hadn’t been nothing left for me.

“You go find yourself something before you go over there,” Simon said. “It’s only gonna get colder. Mind you, you get yourself over there before ten, you hear? Else they’ll want their money back.”

I nodded. I didn’t have nothing else to wear.

“I mean it,” Simon said. “You go get yourself a blanket or something.”

I couldn’t go back home; I couldn’t let Mama see me. I couldn’t worry her. But maybe she’d be in the sitting room with the babies, helping ‘em with their homework. Maybe she’d have a blanket or something in her room I could sneak in the back and grab. Something in her closet.

I pulled the Model T around the back of the house and waited in the dark, but Mama didn’t ever come to the door, so I got out and let the door sit there, not daring to shut it. Then I snuck in the back door and listened; I could hear Mama and Sam in the sitting room, talking about math, so I crept down the hall towards Mama’s room. Seemed like she kept old quilts and stuff in her closet. I didn’t dare light the lantern, just let my eyes adjust to the full moon coming in the window and opened the closet door.

God alive.

All of Daddy’s clothes was still there.

I couldn’t. She’d know.

But I could smell him – opening that closet was like opening a door to Daddy. Suddenly I was eight again, sitting next to him in the garage while he explained why spark plugs had to be cleaned regular, and how fuel lines could get clogged up with dirt and stuff . . . smelling the pipe tobacco he carried in his front shirt pocket, and the hair pomade he used on Sundays, or when he and Mama got dressed up on Friday nights sometimes and went to Ark City to go dancing. I grabbed a shirt and brought it to my face, breathing deep, and felt something twist up inside my chest and tears sting my eyes.

Why? I wanted to shout. Why’d you have to go and die and leave me here doing all this? Why’d you have to leave us and go to Europe and go fight? Why’d you have to take up with those damn Germans and get accused of treason anyway? Why’d you make me do what you were supposed to be here to do? Why’d you leave me? Why?

But I didn’t shout it. I just dug my fingers into the shirt real deep, like I was trying to reach him, and suddenly, I was pulling off my old coat and the ratty old shirt I’d been wearing for the past month ‘cause it was the only one I could still button up, and I was pulling on Daddy’s shirt. It was too big – I buttoned the sleeves and they slid over my hands, but I didn’t care. I smelled like him.

I had to grab one of Mama’s hat pins and put more holes in the suspenders to get ‘em short enough to keep his pants up around my waist, and roll up the cuffs several times, but the shoes, God love it, was a perfect fit. I pulled out his old overcoat – it was miles too long for me, coming past my knees, and I had to roll up the sleeves on it too, but it was so warm. Felt like I hadn’t been warm in years. I snuggled deep into it.

Daddy’s driving cap was hanging on a hook on the back of the door. Gray and tan houndstooth, like the coat; Mama always said he looked smart when he wore’ em together. He always said he’d buy her a coat to match, too, but he never did. The cap fell over my eyes, but I shoved it back off my face. The coat was so heavy it felt like I could barely move, but I wasn’t gonna leave it behind.

Mama had a clock on the table next to her bed – God alive! I had ten minutes to get to Sally’s. I ran out the back door so fast I didn’t even stop to latch it, threw myself into the Model T, and revved the engine. I thought I saw light spillin’ out of the house as I took off, but I didn’t bother to look back. I just shoved the cap further back on my face and shot her into third.

NaNoWriMo — A Journey Back

It’s November 1. The official beginning of NaNoWritMo, 2014!

If you don’t know what that is, it’s National Novel Writing Month, where you’re challenged to write 50,000 words in 30 days — between November 1 and November 30. (Ironic, that the first words I’m going to write are this blog!) Here’s the site:  http://nanowrimo.org/

The words don’t have to be on the same topic. That’s the best thing. You can work on different projects at once if you want. All that you need to do is actually write the 50,000 words. If you do, and you submit them to the official website count, you win! What do you win? The bragging rights and a really awesome banner you can put on your Facebook page. Here’s mine from last year! NaNoBut it’s better than that, because the things you really win by completing NaNo are intangible.

It’s the time when you put the pedal to the metal and prove you’re a writer. As I’ve said before — don’t make me get my soapbox out! — you don’t become a writer by talking about it. You become a writer by writing. NaNo makes you write. You have a daily word goal — just 1,667 words per day. That’s not a lot! You just write one word, and then another, and then another, and then 1,664 more, and by gum, you’ve met your daily quota! And best of all, no one cares what you’re writing! It can be a novel. It can be short stories. It can be blog posts. It can be dribbles of cold pudding. Who cares? No one will ever see it.

Unless . . . you’re like Erin Morgenstern. Or Sara Gruen. Or anyone else on this list of published novels that were started during NaNo:  http://mentalfloss.com/article/53481/14-published-novels-written-during-nanowrimo Heck, there’s an awful lot of published writers who actually do research ahead of time so they can spend the entire month just writing on their new novel. See, this can be about Something Bigger. Often, the ideas that germinate during the cold November days as you’re chained to your computer can bloom into full-blown novels . . . novels that can get published.

Before last year, I’d never done NaNoWriMo. But last year, I took the best class of my life — Writing Young Adult Fiction from the University of Oxford. And there, we had to come up with an idea for our own young adult novel. I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do. Until one day, on my walk, this pipsqueak kid in suspenders, a tweed driving cap, and a tweed overcoat that dragged the ground appeared to me. That was Nicky. My rumrunner.

Nicky is difficult to work with. Not because he’s reticent or quiet — absolutely not!!!! Exactly the opposite. Of all the characters that have ever come to me, Nicky is the one who basically grabbed me by the shirt front and said, “Hey, lady! You. Write my story. Now.” From the second I saw him in my mind, I knew he was going to be trouble. And he’s done his best to live up to that initial reaction. But I swore that this year, during NaNo, I would finish the novel I started last year. And I would do it because Nicky deserves it.

I won’t lie. Giving myself over to his voice is a lot like a medium channeling a spirit. Last year, I was even starting to talk like him, and it took at least a solid month to break myself of the bad writing habits he demands of me. But more than that, with Nicky, he grabs you by the hand and sucks you into his world — and moving between my real life, and his world, is very difficult for me to do. It’s exactly like time-travel. (Well. Not that I know that for sure, but . . .) I have to re-immerse myself in the year 1924 — remember the dialogue and dialect, the words and phrases, the music and cars, the businesses and politics. I live there, when I’m writing with Nicky. And in reality, I live in 2014. But I do it anyway, because I have to.

Will my entire NaNo be taken up with Nicky? Hard to say — but probably. Does yours have to be? It better not be! You stay away from Nicky! He’s mine! 🙂 Go get your own characters to talk to you and suck you into their worlds. Go get your own characters that demand hours of research at the library and an entirely new vocabulary. But I am finishing Nicky’s story. If I know him, the worst is yet to come, and there will no doubt be tears — many of them — before it’s done. There will no doubt be more times when I’m typing away whispering to myself Nicky, just shut up and stop digging that hole deeper! even as he continues to do whatever it is he’s hell-bent on doing. But I’ll do it anyway.

Because I have a novel to finish, and a fourteen-year old rumrunner who needs me.

(If you need an inspiring story to get you started, here’s Erin Morgenstern’s blog about her NaNo adventure, and the path towards being published:  http://erinmorgenstern.com/2010/05/agented/)

Announcing . . . the cover for Deadly Design!!!

Have to share!

Today is the cover reveal for Debra Dockter’s YA thriller Deadly Design, and here it is, on the Bittersweet Enchantment blog:

http://www.bittersweet-enchantment.com/2014/10/cover-reveal-deadly-design-by-debra.html#comment-form

Plus, there are ARC giveaways! So head on over — it’s an amazing cover, and an even more amazing book (I should know; I’ve read it already!).

As always, you can follow Deb on Twitter:  @DebraDockterYA, or on her blog at debradockter.com.

Yes, once I get published, I expect the same shameless publicity from her, too. 🙂