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. 🙂

The Obligatory NaNoWriMo Post . . .

As I reel – still – from the events of November 8 (and pin my hopes on the vote recount so heroically organized and paid for by Jill Stein!), I find my writing more important than ever. And my cats. Cats = Very Important.

But November is NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month, though it’s international now! – and for the first time in three years, I think I’m going to ‘win’!

The idea behind NaNoWriMo, if you don’t know, is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s an average of 1,667 words per day. For some, that’s about an hour’s worth of work; for others, it’s several hours. It just depends on how fast you type and write, and how easily the words are coming that day. But more than that, it’s about getting into the habit of writing. If you can do something for 30 days straight, you have a much better chance of continuing that habit. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. I don’t know. Ask gyms in February about that.

I didn’t really have a goal going into it this year, except to reach 50,000 words. I’d hoped to finish my YA  historical, but though I did work on it a bit, it’s at this stage where I don’t know where to go with it. I got about 17,000 words into a new romance novel, but I got down most of the things that were running through my mind and now I need time to let the story simmer on the back burner so all the good plot points and scenes can bubble up to the surface.

Some NaNoWriMo’s (people who participate in NaNoWriMo) spend all year, or at least a few months, getting ready for the event. They do research. They jot down notes. They make scene cards so they can pull one at random and write a scene per day. They intend to work on one novel. Maybe a new one, maybe finishing an old one. I know people who save up their vacation so they can take a week or more off during November just to do NaNo, trying to cram as many words into that time as possible.

But sometimes, not having a goal is okay. Not being tethered to just one novel allowed me to go back to an old romance novel and work on it, which I’ve been doing for the last few days. It let me do revisions to my YA novel – 35 words  here, 78 there – and rewrite things that weren’t right. I did some research into an old urban fantasy and typed up my notes, which generated ideas for new scenes and revised scenes.

Sometimes, I found myself struggling to reach those required 1,667 words per day; I’d get to about 700 words, check the word count – are you KIDDING ME?!!! That’s IT? I’ll NEVER get done! – and then, suddenly, it would take off and by the time I stopped, I’d written more than 2,000 words.

And it was just an escape.

I could write during commercial breaks while watching Lucifer and Supernatural. I learned to type with a kitty in my lap (which is okay until he slides forward into the keyboard and hits the space bar and the mouse and a bunch of keys and you have to spend fifteen minutes figuring out precisely what he did). I hate Daylight Savings’ Time, but I do get more writing done on these long dark winter nights when there’s nothing else to do.

I do want to point out one thing:  writing a novel during NaNoWriMo doesn’t mean it’s done. First of all, 50,000 words does not make a novel. It makes a novella. If you completed an entire story arc in 50,000 words, well, like I said. Not a true novel. No. It’s far more likely that you completed the first part of a novel. Or a draft. A good draft, a draft that might eventually get you to a real novel, but a draft nonetheless. It won’t be your best work, since you’ve been intent on the word count and not the quality (probably). Characters won’t be full formed. Plot holes will abound. There may be several places where you type “Stuff Happens” to fill a place where you’re not quite sure what happens to bridge two scenes.

Don’t think for a second that your work is done, in other words. It’s not. It’s just starting, in fact – which is why it’s great that you’ve developed the habit of writing every day! Time to finish that novel now. Time to get those characters complete, figure out all their motivations, fill in those gaping plot holes, get the setting right. Time to revise, edit, rewrite. (For more on this, see the links to the two blog posts below:  Sarah Gruen and Erin Morgenstern, among others, are two published authors whose bestsellers started as NaNo projects – but then took years to get to a point where they were publishable.) Heck, even my own YA novel started as a NaNo project – and it’s still not done.

So here we are, November 27. And I think, this year, I’m on schedule to hit 50,000 words.

I have three days, after all.

 

http://nanowrimo.org/dashboard – the official site for National Novel Writing Month

And previous blog posts about NaNo:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/what-do-you-want-from-nanowrimo-this-year-for-me/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/nanowrimo-a-journey-back/

 

 

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/

 

 

‘The Quiet Man’ and Secondary Characters Revisited

I’ve been struggling with my young adult novel, and whenever I find myself floundering, I turn to writing books to kick-start the brain, and look at things from a different perspective. This time, I picked up The Breakout Novelist:  How to Craft Novels That Stand Out and Sell by Donald Maass.

One thing I was struggling with was my secondary characters. I don’t know why exactly, but in my previous novels, my secondary characters have been great – they come onstage, they fulfill their roles, and sometimes they even take over scenes. They have voices, backgrounds, traits, goals and dreams. They both further and hinder my protagonists. Which is precisely what a good secondary character should do. But in my YA novel – not so much!

Maass emphasizes that your secondary characters need a purpose. Are they there to be sidekicks to your MC, like Ron and Hermione were for Harry Potter? Are they there to be your MC’s antagonists (like Draco Malfoy)? How do they further the plot, and what role do they play in that (Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Mad-Eye Moody)? If your secondary characters don’t do anything other than be a talking head (unless you’re talking about Bob the Skull from Harry Dresden), then there’s room for improvement.

the quiet manAs I mulled this over (and continue to mull this over), I was delighted to find one of my favorite movies on TV yesterday – John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, it’s about an American boxer who goes back home to Ireland after a tragic incident in the ring, and falls in love with the sister of the town bully. I love this movie – it’s so well-written, so wry and funny. It’s got great tension and conflict. But what struck me as I watched it yesterday is how much the secondary characters play a role!

Sean Thornton (John Wayne) arrives in Ireland to find Michaleen O’Flynn waiting for him at the train station. He’ll be Sean’s sidekick, giving him sage advice, acting as his mediator, and educating him on the social conduct of Ireland (“‘Tis a bold, shameful man you are, Sean Thornton! And who taught you to be playing patty-fingers in the holy water?”) 🙂

Then there’s Will Danahur, the brother of Mary Kate, Sean’s love interest. A typical selfish bully, Danahur has one weakness:  he’s in love with the Widow Tillane. When Sean outbids Danahur on a cottage (owned by the Widow Tillane), he swears vengeance, and when Sean asks for Mary Kate’s hand in marriage, he denies the request.

Enter two more secondary characters, the Reverend Playfair and Father Lonergan. Together with Michaleen, they plot to get Danahur to change his mind by insinuating that if he got Mary Kate out of the house, the Widow Tillane might be willing to marry him. (“Two women in the house. And one of them a redhead.”) That’s not Sean’s doing! He knows nothing of it. These three take it upon themselves to change the fates of all involved. And it works – sort of. Danahur relents, only to screw things up at the wedding and then refuse to give Mary Kate her dowry. Without that, she can’t consider herself truly married.

Notice how little Sean does here? He’s the title character, but it’s this lovely cast that does the major work! Why? Because Sean’s afraid to fight. He killed a man in the ring – he didn’t mean to, but he refuses to risk it again. It’s not until he finally realizes his marriage – and his reputation – are in jeopardy that he stands up to Danahur and they have their major sprawling donnybrook (“Marquis of Queensbury Rules!”). Mary Kate, secure in the knowledge that her husband really does love her, simply saunters off, calling over her shoulder that she’ll “have the supper on when you get home.”

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2THIS IS HOW YOUR SECONDARY CHARACTERS SHOULD BEHAVE. They need to give your protagonist something to react to. If it feels like your story is growing stagnant, don’t look to plot – look to your secondary characters.

 

  • What are they doing?
  • Do they all play a role?
  • If not – cut the ones that aren’t pulling their weight.
  • Is there a way to combine two of them? If so, do it.
  • Can you give them more conflict?
  • Is there a place where one of them might work against the protagonist? Maybe they’re corrupted by the antagonist, or threatened by them, or simply have different beliefs? Highlight that.
  • Is there a place where they can provide aid or information the protagonist needs?
  • And although they won’t have a story arc to match that of your MC – your secondary characters, particularly the most important ones, probably will change over the course of the novel. Make sure we see that. Make sure it’s believable and necessary. How does that change work for or against your protagonist?
  • And . . . remember. At least some of your secondary characters are support for your MC. As you think about how to make his life more difficult, how much support can you remove, and how? Some may die. Some may change their minds, abandon the MC.
  • What about the ones that are against your MC – how can you make them stronger, more of a force that works against your MC? They have story arcs, too!
  • How do they react to your MC’s actions? Just like in real life, there’s going to be backlash for something said or done. How can this add to the tension in your novel?

I know it’s emphasized over and over again that your MC drives the novel. But the secondary characters are the foundation on which your MC’s story is built. By ensuring they’re as strong and vibrant as you can, you’ll ensure that your MC’s journey is just as compelling.

Link to Barnes & Nobel, where you can buy Donald Maass’ book:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/writing-the-breakout-novel-donald-maass/1102359686?ean=9781582971827

Challenged – and Challenging – Books

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about whether fiction is a safe place, and my own experiences with The Picture of Dorian Gray. I determined that fiction – even if age-appropriate – is not only a dangerous place, but that it should be a dangerous place. That it should force you beyond your comfort zone, and push you to think about things you’d rather never consider, and in the process, make you grow. Make you stronger. Make you more diverse and broad-minded and hopefully, more educated.

One way in which religions and governments have always tried to control the populace is by controlling what they read. From the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books to the current push by individual school districts to ban certain books from school libraries, books have always been regarded as dangerous.

As well they should be.

Although the Index was abolished in 1966, it remains an indelible part of history. My students are flabbergasted to learn that great scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo had their works listed, that philosophers such as Descartes and Locke and Hume are on the list, that books such as Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were on the list.

Yet it’s no different than the efforts to ban certain books in schools across America today. Some, like Fifty Shades of Grey, I totally get – in fact, one librarian in Florida refused to put it in her library not due to the content, but because it was poorly written. 🙂 But that begs the question:  is it ever up to us to decide what someone else reads?

As a writer, I say no. As a teacher, I say no.

Fiction may not be a safe place – but it’s far safer for students to become exposed to issues like racism, drug/alcohol abuse, suicide, death, parental abuse, etc. than anywhere else. We want to ban books because they discuss such topics – but kids go through this every day. Not only that, but they’re online. They watch TV. They see this stuff anyway. The difference is, they see it in real life, with no tools to handle it or process it.

Fiction gives them those tools. By allowing them to read about fictional characters who are going through difficult situations, it allows them to see how this character handles it – and the results of their choices. It gives them a way to discuss what they would have done instead, or options the character may have had. They have a chance to identify with someone, perhaps someone who’s going through a very similar thing. Not only that, but these characters sometimes give kids a role model, someone to look up to. How many teenage girls went to archery ranges after The Hunger Games became popular? Maybe more importantly, how many of them realized that girls could hold their own against boys? Maybe even gave them the confidence to defend themselves if the need arose?

This is one reason why To Kill a Mockingbird is still a classic today. (We’ll forget that other, second book for a moment.) Through Scout’s eyes, we’re able to understand Jim Crow South. We’re able to see racism from her vantage point. We’re able to see the hatred and fear of the town, and the incredible courage Atticus Finch shows. Atticus (until that second book, anyway) gave us a father figure to look up to. Published in 1960, just six years after Brown v. Board of Education, just five years after the murder of Emmett Till, it showed the world the South that Harper Lee knew. It drove home the fact that the South she knew was still very much alive. And I like to think it gave whites the courage to stand up for what they knew was right, to start joining the fight for civil rights.

Was it challenged? Of course. By both blacks and whites, generally on grounds of racial content, racial slurs, profanity, and sexual content. It’s been challenged – and banned – since it was published.

But that’s the point. It challenged us. 

All good books should challenge us. That’s what good literature – whether adult or young adult – should do. The Hunger Games and Divergent challenge us to consider a future with a totalitarian government in which all civil rights are eradicated. Thirteen Reasons Why, although many people have pointed out that the reason for the suicide may not be believable, is still disturbing to a lot of adults – I taught this book in a Young Adult Fiction class designed for teachers, and I was surprised that this was the book that most disturbed them, that they didn’t think they could actually use in a classroom. The Book Thief forces us to consider the evils of Nazi Germany – but also, to recognize that not everyone bought into Hitler’s vision, and that many were just trying to survive.

So, yes. Some books are dangerous. Some make us question our beliefs. Some make us question our upbringing. Some make us question our society.

And that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do.

 

Some links you might find interesting:

http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/classics – the American Library Association’s ‘Banned Classic Book’ List

http://www.ala.org/bbooks/top-100-bannedchallenged-books-2000-2009 – the most challenged books from 2000 – 2009.

http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/indexlibrorum.asp – the Index of Forbidden Books, from Fordham University

 

 

Keeping it Real: Magic

Last time, I talked about keeping it real in your fantasy and sci-fi works (and really, anything). But this week, I want to look specifically at magic.

Writers sometimes think that because their book is a fantasy, or it deals with magic, they don’t have to worry about the rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. Readers who love those genres WILL know if you break the rules. More importantly, the agents and editors you send your manuscript to will know it – and they won’t think twice about rejecting your work.

So remember the rules from last week (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/keeping-it-real/)?

All these rules apply to magic, too!

According to the presenter at this year’s OWFI conference, here’s the Top Three Things you MUST know about your magical system:

  • How much magic is there? (Is it everywhere, and the only trick is to know how to find and use it, like The Force? Or is it very limited, and impossible to find?)
  • Where did it come from? (Earth magic? The gods? Artifacts/talismans? Magical creatures? A birthright?)
  • Where is it located? How can you access it?

Other questions you will need to answer include:

  • How does this society structure itself around the magic?
  • What changes and adaptations has your society made to it, if it’s widespread?
  • Can everyone use it?
  • If not – how are those with magic treated? Are they in charge? Enslaved? Outcasts? Paid for services? Hated? Treasured? (Or, do they go create a separate little world and leave this one to the Muggles?) 🙂
  • If not – how are those without magic treated? Are they enslaved, or in charge? Peasants, perhaps? How do they manage without magic (what adaptations do they make)?
  • If everyone can access the magic – can some people access it more easily than others? Do certain families have certain powers?
  • What powers can the magic grant, and what are the conditions of its use?

Most important of all:  You must create rules for your magical system, and follow them to the letter. Always. No new loopholes. No new powers.

I know! It’s not fair! It’s MAGIC! You should be able to do whatever you want!

But here’s the thing:  magic is not a – well – a magic pill for your MC. If your magical system can fix everything, with no repercussions, then it’s going to make for a very dull story.  There have to be repercussions. There has to be a price to pay. Does it weaken your MC to use the magic? Is there a finite amount, and with each use, the amount shrinks? Or does it change your MC in other ways – by siphoning off his humanity, driving him insane, etc? (Think about Dean, fighting the Mark of Cain on Supernatural – literally turning him into a demon. Now there’s a price.)

In the MG novel All The Money in the World by Bill Brittain, the young protagonist captures a leprechaun and wishes for all the money in the world – and gets it. The novel deals with the fallout of that. He can’t spend the money – it returns right back to him. He can’t give the money away – it returns to him. When cities and countries attempt to install new currency systems, guess what? He gets all that money, too! Having all the money in the world was supposed to solve all his problems – but it just creates more than he can deal with. It comes with a price.

Or maybe your magic is an end-all-be-all. Maybe it can solve all the problems, and using it causes your MC no problems. Then what’s the plot? How are you driving your story forward? Remember the number one rule:  Start with the story. What if using the magic is illegal, punishable by death, but your MC is forced to use it? There’s your conflict!

So you have to spend some time thinking about your magical system. Look at how intricate a world J.K. Rowling created for her characters. A magical world, accessible only to those born wizards or witches, and accessible only by a few points, like Platform 9 3/4. The Ministry of Magic creates the laws and enforce them. While smaller spells have little repercussion for the person using them, larger ones – like Apparating – are dangerous if you don’t have enough talent or training. And most spells are almost impossible without a wand – and as we all now know, the wand chooses the wizard or witch, not the other way around. 🙂 But within that world, she has created myriad chances for conflict. Her characters have ambition, greed, envy. They are selfish. They are deluded. They are bullies, and they are heroes. They stand up for the rights of others, and they treat others like dirt. Magic doesn’t make them any less human.

Setting your novel in a world with magic is the same as setting it in the world of corporate America, or the halls of Oxford, or 14th century China. You need to do your homework, and build a world that the readers can trust. And the most important part of that is creating the rules by which your magic is governed and used.

And then, as stated before, you have to follow the rules. If you say that only children under the age of 13 can use magic, and your MC turns 13 during the final battle withe the antagonist – that’s it! No more magic! You can’t break the rule. But what you have done is set the stage for a final battle to end all final battles – your MC is without their greatest advantage. Now what? Figure it out! I read a book once in which it was stated, over and over, that humans could not become angels – end of story. The human MC died at the end, and was brought back to life by her angel lover, as – you guessed it – an angel. If that hadn’t been on my Nook, I would have thrown that book as hard as I could against the wall! I felt cheated. I felt lied to. The author had broken her own rules, and I will never read another book by her again. Follow your own rules, even if characters die as a result, damn it!

Just like when I said history is an infinite sandbox to play in, so is magic and fantasy. The more you dig and research and create and write, there more there is to research and create and write. Have fun – but remember the rules. 🙂

 

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.