Accurately Capturing the Past

Most of my recent writing takes place at least ten to sixty years ago. A dilemma for me and I suspect other writers, is how to acurately capture the look and feel of the times we are writing about. For example, consider mobile phones. They didn’t come into widespread use until after 2007 when longer range 3G networks and improved battey life made regular use of these handheld devices practical. So if I’m writing a story about a teenager from a lower middle class home whose borrowed car breaks down on the way home from the prom in 2005, it’s unlikely he would pull out a cell phone to call Mom and Dad for help. If I do choose to use that technology, I run the risk of alienating my readers by raising questions about the authenticity of my writing. So I make it a point to research the settings, slang and speech patterns, period clothing and dress, and everyday artifacts in common use, relying on newspaper clippings, letters, diaries, as well as novels from the same era by other writers. Another good source is converations with folks who lived during that time frame. The best source, of course, is drawn from personnal memory. Here is an example I wrote yesterday of a twelve year old recalling his grandparents home in Dorchester: My grandparents and two great aunts moved a few years ago from their home of almost forty years in Dorchester to a two-family house in Hyde Park where they rented the bottom floor. The change in house style was dramatic – from their former home, rich in architectural detail including two ornate circular verandas facing the street to their current modest-sized box of a house that looked pretty plain and was identical to all of the other houses around it. The inside of their apartment still hosted much of their drab olive-green overstuffed furniture, which also included a mahogany rocker with arms worn white with age along the edges and a corner chair with dark twisting spindles and very cool claw feet. A chiming grandfather clock and a sloping top mantle clock competed for attention by interrupting conversations at regular intervals. Sitting on shelves and tables were assorted ceramic and lethal-looking lead crystal vases. Many of the walls were adorned with darkly moody religious pictures filled with pain and agony. Those I religiously tried to avoid looking at. The floors were covered with a bewildering assortment of heavily detailed oriental carpets, many with serious wear patterns. When my great aunt Aggie opened the front door to greet me, I was reminded by the rush of aroma that all the old smells of Lindsey Street had made the move safely along with its occupants. I’d love to hear what you use to insure the authenticity of your writing.

Finding Story Ideas

Where do story ideas come from? I’ve read somewhere that you should write what you know and know what you write. Write what you know: I think sometimes the best ideas are those closest to the heart. We want to connect with the reader, engage them, make them want to turn to the next page. If what you are writing is compelling, has some thematic elements that resonate, and feels authentic, you are halfway to your next masterpiece. Ideas born of first or second hand experience will have an authenticity if you can help the reader experience the sights, sounds, smells, dialogs, etc. that you experienced. Know what you write:As you begin to tell your story, you’ll find elements that will need additional research. For example, I might be quite familiar with a recent event, but not the geography of the place, or other events taking place that are related. Or I might write of an experience from my childhood that was quite vivid. But many of the artifacts from that era, such as song titles, toys we played with, clothing worn, expressions commonly used, have been fogotten with the passage of time. How do you go about finding your story ideas?

A Story Told by Me

Today’s blog is about writing your story from one perspective – in this case, the main character. This presents some challenges as well as some unique opportunities. First of all, information is acquired and filtered through the eyes, ears, and accumulated experiential baggage of this character. This provides the reader with a particularly intimate look at the character’s observations, thoughts, fears and prejudices. Of course, there may be events that have happened that the character knows nothing about. This means the reader will be ignorant of these events as well. Consider this passage from a new novel I started writing last week:

We passed through an arched entryway into a large dimly-lit double room. Half of it was occupied with dozens of people sitting or standing, talking in hushed tones. Most of them were not looking at the center of attraction at the other end of the room: my grandmother. She was all dressed up, lying in a casket, her head propped up on a small pillow. Flowers from friends and family spread out on either side like little tiered bleacher seats filled with a display of colors and smells that made my eyes water. A small kneeler maybe big enough to hold two skinny people was placed in front of it. My grandfather, and the four children which included my mother, stood like a row of tall thin darkly garbed trees with thin armed branches in a solemn receiving line, thanking the mourners who came to pay their last respects with bobbing heads and clasped hands. My Dad gave me a nudge. I walked up to the casket and knelt down, transfixed by the perfectly made-up sleeping woman who only vaguely looked like the Nana I remembered. A pair of rosary beads were artfully draped around her bony wrinkled hands and someone had attached a cross to the inside white satin lining of the lid. I stared at it, mouth open, wondering how it stayed up like that without falling. A little voice inside my head that could have been my father’s embarrassed whisper behind me, told me to say a prayer. 

I knelt down, pushed my hands together, and shut my eyes, wondering what prayer I should say to the dead body lying in front of me. Every prayer I could remember just didn’t seem to fit. I recalled her sitting beside me on the front steps of our house. I turned and looked up into her sad, kindly, green-gray eyes. I didn’t remember her reaching out and laying a strong thin arm on my shoulder. I felt a jolt like static electricity ripple across my back and down through my body. My eyes snapped open in surprise and I sucked in a sharp breath. “Nana?” My grandmother was standing between two oversized prayer plants to the right of the casket, nodding sadly at me. I started to stand up, looking from the body in the casket to Nana dressed in two wrinkled hospital jonnies. My father put an arm on my shoulder, a concerned look darkening his face.
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The reader is instantly thrust into into the world of a ten year old boy who experiences something frightening and quite confusing. If I choose to use an omniscent narrator to describe this scene, I might have written it like this:

Theo and his Dad passed through an arched entryway into a large dimly-lit double room. Half of it was occupied with dozens of people sitting or standing, talking in hushed tones. An angry older couple standing in one corner of the room were in the middle of a heated conversation, the woman looking up occasionally with wet eyes staring at the mahogany casket. Most of the people appeared to be studiously choosing not to look in that direction. Theo’s grandmother, Catherine Coyle, was dressed up in a light blue dress, lying on a bed of pleated satin in the casket, her head propped up on a small pillow. Flowers from friends and family spread out to either side like little tiered bleacher seats filled with a riotous display of colors. A small kneeler was placed in front of the casket. Joseph Coyle, her husband, and the four children which included Theodore’s mother, stood like a row of tall, thin, darkly garbed trees in a solemn receiving line, thanking the mourners who came to pay their last respects. Theo’s father gave him a nudge. He walked up and knelt down, transfixed by the perfectly made-up sleeping woman who only vaguely looked like the Nana he remembered. A pair of rosary beads were artfully draped around her bony wrinkled hands and someone had attached a cross to the inside white satin lining of the lid. He stared, mouth open. His father leaned over behind him and told him to say a prayer.

The boy shut his eyes, and put his hands together appearing to pray. His eyes suddenly snapped open in surprise and he sucked in a sharp breath. “Nana?” He stared at the two oversized prayer plants to the right of the casket. He started to stand up, looking from the body in the casket back to the plants. His father put an arm on his shoulder, a concerned look darkening his face.
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The narrator in this second version provides provides the reader with some additional information, such as peoples names, the kind of casket, as well as other conflicts that might be going on during the wake, etc. It also allows the writer to introduce an element of suspense and raise lots of questions. Did the boy really see the ghost of his grandmother? Can he see other people who have died? What was that argument all about?

However, we do lose the unique perspective of Theo. Unless he tells someone about what he saw, the reader is left to guess what’s going on. This may not be such a bad thing, if the writer intends to surprise the reader with some answers later in the story. It should be noted, that changing the point of view within a chapter (say, suddenly jumping to Theo’s point of view) can pull the reader out of the story and be quite jarring, so generally, it’s a good idea to avoid it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about writing a story in the first person.

The Dawn of (Novel) Creation

How do you begin the daunting task of writing your first novel? Before you begin putting pen to paper, consider these few words of advice:

Make sure you set aside a regular time to write, every day if possible. Set some goals, like, “I’ll set aside at least ninety minutes at least three days a week.” or “I’ll try to write a minimum of 1000 words every time I write.”

Find a place that’s comfortable (but not so much that you’ll fall asleep) and free of distractions.

Then your real work begins. Decide how you will organize your writing. Should you create an outline or just wing it? This is one of the hotly debated topics in the writing community. Here’s what some of the greatest writers of all time have to say.

“I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.”

~ J. K. Rowling

So one of the all-time best-selling authors seems to take a bit of a middle ground. J.K believes you should plan, but only to a degree. But there are other writers who strongly disagree.

“Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

~ Stephen King

Harsh words from Mr. King! The truth is, it’s your novel, your ideas, and your decision. By all means, listen to the wisdom of these great authors. Just don’t assume it’s wisdom meant for you.

What words of advice would you like to share with budding authors?

Spring is Sprung: The Pen or the Petunia!

As the weather gets warmer, I find it more and more difficult to stay focused on my writing. I usually try to write at least 1000 words a day. But as nature explodes outside my window, the sap rises, my attention breaks, and I keep stealing looks at the profusion of beauty just a few feet from my monitor. I’ve found that if I get up early (say 5:30), I can get in a few hours of writing and still have time to go outside in the warmth and sunshine. Does anyone else have thoughts about how they stay on task?

Writing organizer

I don’t usually use any type of organizer for my longer written pieces. I divide up my scenes and shifts of time and place into chapters. However another writer I meet with every three weeks wouldn’t think of commtting his thoughts to paper without using a writing organizer such as outline in MS Word. Some of the more popular writng tools are:

  • A word processor/simple outlining tool like you’d find in MS Word, Open Office, Scrivener, Google Docs, or Pages (Mac only)
  • Uylsses (Mac only)
  • yWriter
  • Heminway Editor

How do you approach organizing your writing tasks?

Shifting Point of View

I’ve learned to pay closer attention, with the help of a couple of writer’s groups, to who is the narrator in my stories. Generally speaking, there are four points of view in fiction writing:

  • First person. This is when “I” am telling the story. The character is in the story, directly relating their experiences.
  • Second person. The story is told to “the narrator” (you). This is not common in fiction, but it’s still good to know about.
  • Third person, limited. This is probably the most common point of view in fiction. The narrator is outside of the story and relating the experiences of one character.
  • Third person, omniscient. The story is still about one character, but the narrator has complete access to all characters and everything going on in the story.

Here is an example from my first novel, Sparkles of Discontent, of a first person point of view.:

I leave my mom watching TV, knowing she’d fall asleep, slouched over a ball of yarn and knitting needles, working on some unlucky relative’s Christmas sweater. I trudge upstairs, following my nightly routine of going to my room to study for a few hours, watch a little TV, and then slip into dreamland before midnight. But tonight, something feels different. I lower my Chemistry book and listen intently, watching moonlight shadowed tree branches dance with wild abandon across my tattered window shades. Our house is old and has always made odd, creepy noises, especially at night. I remember my Dad laughing when I’d creep terrified into my parent’s bedroom at night. He’d explain in his quivering not-scary voice that it might be our old furnace and hot water pipes shuddering and shaking the night away as they made frightfully devilish sounds down in the cellar or maybe it could be the wind-tossed branches scratching at the windows trying to sneak in. Then he’d pull back the covers to make room for me to sleep safely between him and a disapproving Mom. But I’m seventeen now and use to all the odd noises. Dad’s been dead now for a couple of years. So there’s just Mom and me to ward off the not so scary monsters left from my childhood.

And here’s an example of third person linited from my second novel, Darkness in Paradise:

They swung in an easy rhythm, blissfully unaware that with each motion the trunk was imperceptibly loosening. “Something feels different.” She peered over the edge. “Odd. My fingers are moving deeper into the sandy soil with each swing.” Rachel heard an unfamiliar ripping, groaning sound. She felt a sudden shift in momentum causing her to shift her gaze up toward the dead tree holding one end of the hammock. Her momentary confusion was replaced by a horrified realization that a large dark shape was descending rapidly toward them. Reflexively, Rachel turned her body and raised her left leg to deflect the falling trunk. Her body exploded with pain. She heard a muffled scream from the warm body nestled beside her. 

I’ve found that as I write I need to pay attention to who’s telling the story, and how much does any one person know know (and share) about the past and present? Good suspence often hinges on, as Alfred Hitchcock would say, “Making them wait.” I’d be curious what other writer’s experience has been with point of view?