Using ALL your senses in your writing

One of my favorite quotes about writing is this one from Russian playwright and short story writer, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

I included that quote when I touched on the topic of writing all the senses in my February 14, 2022, blog post, Can Movies Help You Write? Today I’m going a bit deeper into the subject.

As an aspiring novelist, I have a lot to learn. To try to remember all the things a scene needs to include can be overwhelming. It’s not enough to stay in the head of your point-of-view character at all times. It’s not enough to be cognizant of pacing. It’s not enough to remember to throw in a red herring once in a while or to vary the length of your sentences and paragraphs. It’s not enough to include all characters’ body language (but only what the point-of-view character notices.) A writer must also remember to include what the point-of-view character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches.

In addition, a writer today is told to keep in mind that today’s reader has a short attention span. If that’s true, I probably lost most of my audience midway through the previous paragraph.

For those of you still reading this blog post, I’ll continue. I say all this (1) to make fiction readers appreciate some of the work it takes to write a novel you’ll enjoy; and (2) to lead up to a recommended blog series you might benefit from if you’re studying the art and craft of writing.

In 2020, Joan Hall wrote a series of blog posts about using all the senses, including the 6th Sense, in your writing. Here are the links to Ms. Hall’s six blog posts about the senses:

Sight: Photo Credit: Davidson Luna on Unsplash.com

Post number one in Joan Hall’s Story Empire blog series about the senses: https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/2020/02/14/using-the-five-senses-sight/.


Smell: Photo Credit: Motunrayo Babtunde on Unsplash.com

Post number two in Joan Hall’s Story Empire blog series about the senses: https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/2020/02/26/using-the-five-senses-smell/.

Taste: Photo Credit: Engin Akyurt on Unsplash.com

Post number three in Joan Hall’s Story Empire blog series about the senses: https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/2020/03/11/using-the-five-senses-taste/.

Sound: Photo Credit: Marcus Woodbridge on Unsplash.com

Post number four in Joan Hall’s Story Empire blog series about the senses: https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/2020/03/27/using-the-five-senses-sound/.

Touch: Photo Credit: Jocelyn Morales on Unsplash.com

Post number five in Joan Hall’s Story Empire blog series about the senses: https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/using-the-five-senses-touch/.

I couldn’t find a photo to represent the Sixth Sense in the way I wanted to here, so use your own imagination for the sense of knowing in advance that something is going to happen. Have you experienced it? I have, and it can be unsettling.

Post number six in Joan Hall’s Story Empire blog series about the senses: https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/2020/04/29/the-sixth-sense/.

I might be accused of cheating here by giving you the links to Joan Hall’s blog posts about writing the senses, but she’s far more experienced in writing and more knowledgeable of the subject than I.

The Internet has made it possible for writers to learn from others in ways that weren’t possible before the 1990s. It gives us a marvelous platform on which to share ideas and give each other feedback. I’ve learned a great deal from writers like Joan Hall through blog posts and online articles.

I hope you find Joan Hall’s blog series helpful if, like me, you’re learning to write. I started to say, “write fiction,” but creative nonfiction also entails using all the senses.

I felt vindicated when I read Ms. Hall’s article about the sixth sense, for I was already using it in my The Doubloon novel manuscript. I was pleased that I thought to do that before being told that I should consider it.


Since my last blog post

I took a short break from writing last week to work on a project I started 20 years ago for my church. It involves taking photographs of the grave markers in four of the church’s cemeteries. When a congregation has a 271-years history, it can end up with multiple cemeteries on the different sides of various creeks.

Old Rocky River Graveyard, October 2021

Digital photography allows me to read the inscription on many of the markers that cannot be read in person due to the ravages of time. March and October are the best months to take pictures in these rural cemeteries due to the angle of the sunlight and the number of large trees that surround and have grown up inside them. I’m taking advantage of the month of March to get back to a project I’ve neglected for a few years.

My project might sound morbid to some of you, but I don’t see it like that at all. Some of my immigrant ancestors are buried in each of the four cemeteries, so I feel like I’m honoring them in a small way by making a permanent record of the inscriptions on their grave markers.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read — one that you can’t wait to get back to.

If you’re writing, painting, or endeavoring to do anything creative, I hope you produce some rewarding and satisfying work this week.

Stay safe and well. Please come back next week to see what my next blog post is about.

By the way, on Wednesday, pause to consider that it’s National Book Smuggler Day in Lithuania. Here’s the scoop:

In 1864, Russian authorities outlawed the printing of books using the Latin alphabet in Lithuania and tried to force the Cyrillic alphabet on Lithuanian speakers. A newspaperman, Jurgis Bielinis, created an underground network to get Lithuanian books smuggled into the country. Some who were caught were banished to Siberia or shot in the head. The ban lasted until 1904 but is still remembered on March 16, which is the date of Bielinis’ birth. You can find more about this online. It’s an inspiring bit of history I wasn’t aware of until recently.

There are two lessons we can learn from this: (1) The Russian government never stops being Russia; and (2) Regardless of what a book contains, it’s never a good idea to withhold access to it, for book banning and the banning of knowledge never have positive results.

May the free world continue to support the people of Ukraine.

Janet

Trying to Get Novel Structure Right

Several times in my blog posts in December I mentioned that I was working on novel structure. Thanks to the writings of K.M. Weiland online and in her books, the light bulb finally came on in my head. Everything fell into place and made sense. At least, I think everything fell into place.

As a reader of fiction, I just knew when I liked a story and when I didn’t. I never gave the structure of a novel any thought. I didn’t know a novel was supposed to hang on a framework. Call me slow, but I just didn’t.

Over the years, I’ve read about novel structure; however, I started writing a novel without giving structure any thought. I thought the words would just naturally flow in chronological order and, when I had written 100,000 or so of them, it would be a novel.

That’s an over-simplification, but it’s not too far off the point.

Photo credit: Alain Pham on unsplash.com

I read numerous articles that said a novel has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Well, duh! Of course. How hard can that be, right?

But there’s a lot more to novel structure than that – and I’m still learning.

I worked on the manuscript for the novel mentioned above for more years than I want to admit. (The working title is either The Spanish Coin or The Doubloon.) Then, I made some major changes in the story because what I thought was a fact turned out to be a legend. There was an ounce of truth in it, but I didn’t want to perpetuate a myth.

I didn’t write for about a year. I didn’t think I could face starting over, but that’s what I did early in 2019. New story, new characters, same old location, and same time period.

Yet again, I plunged into writing without any structure. I wrote a long and detailed outline and thought I had everything right. Some 90,000 words later, in December 2021 the concept of novel structure kept gnawing at me. It wouldn’t let me go until I put everything else aside and focused on it.

When I thought I had a fairly good grasp of novel structure, I set about to compare it to my manuscript. I was relieved to discover I had some things in the correct order and the correct place. There were some scenes, though that had to be moved. That was a scary proposition! Thank goodness for the “cut and paste” buttons on the computer. If this had happened to me in 1990, I probably would have just thrown the manuscript and my typewriter in the trash.

So, what are the basics of novel structure, as I understand them?

Photo credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel on unsplash.com

Remember – I’m still trying to grasp all the details and nuances. Don’t use me as your source. Please use K.M. Weiland’s books and online articles as your source if you plan to follow this structure to write a novel. Here’s the link to her website: https://www.kmweiland.com/book/structuring-your-novel/. Here’s the link to her series of online articles about novel structure: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/secrets-story-structure-complete-series/.

The following percentages are approximations, and the explanations are very brief and written to the best of my understanding.

Hook – Close enough to the beginning to “hook” the reader.

Inciting Event – Approximately 12% into the novel. Introduction to the main conflict.

Key Event – The protagonist’s response to the inciting event.

1St Plot Point – Approximately 25% into the novel. Ms. Weiland calls this the “Doorway of No Return.’ This is when the protagonist decides she’s all in. There’s no turning back.

1st Pinch Point – Approximately 37% into the novel. This is a small turning point. The protagonist is “pinched” by the force of the antagonist.

The Midpoint/2nd Plot Point – Approximately 50% into the novel. (No surprise there.) Internal and external conflict come together and the point of the story comes together. New information is revealed to the protagonist resulting in a paradigm shift. She has a clearer understanding of the threat against her.

2nd Pinch Point – Approximately 62% into the novel. The protagonist realizes like never before just what is at stake.

3rd Plot Point – Approximately 75% into the novel. Ms. Weiland says this includes the “dark night of the soul.” The protagonist must decide if she has it in her to keep fighting for her goal. She might make some progress toward reaching her goal, but then there will be a “low moment” where a lie she’s been telling herself all this time will die. She must face the facts.

Climax – Approximately 88% into the novel. This is where the protagonist confronts the antagonist and we find out if she achieves her goal.

Resolution – Loose ends from the story are tied up, unless the book ends with a cliffhanger to entice the reader to want to know more about this character.

It almost takes the fun out of writing a novel! Writing is hard work, but I’m happiest when I’m writing.

Where my novel stands now

As I mentioned in last week’s blog post, I’ve been inspired to write a novel series. After brainstorming the backstories of my protagonist in The Spanish Coin/The Doubloon, I realized her backstory would make a good novel.

Photo credit: Aaron Burden on unsplash.com

I don’t outline my writing projects in a rigid outline form like I was taught in school. I outline in paragraphs, throwing in bits and pieces of dialogue. The first draft of my outline for “Book One” now stands at nearly 4,000 words, and I’m eager to expand that into a scenic plot outline. (That outline is also in paragraph form, but gets into more detail than the first outline.) Next, comes the writing of Book One.

Book One takes my protagonist back to her childhood in Virginia, moving to Salisbury, North Carolina in 1766, and meeting her first husband. The Spanish Coin/The Doubloon will be the second book in the series. I have the bare bones of the third, fourth, and fifth books planned.

Call me overly optimistic, but that’s where things stand today. If my novel(s) never see the light of day, at least I’ve had the utter enjoyment of researching and writing them.

Since my last blog post, in addition to the above outlining

I’ve done a lot of decluttering since last Monday’s post. I’m getting to the age when I need to think about the fact that someday someone is going to have to dispose of my stuff. I need to make that task as easy for him/her/them as I can. I organized my stash of fabric and filled one large plastic storage bin with “unfinished sewing/quilting projects.”

I scanned some old photographs using the Photomyne app on my cell phone. I watched an hour-long webinar about organizing a large collection of photographs.

It seems like half the things I do these days are to decrease the amount of “stuff” my niece and nephew will have to deal with when I’m gone. I’m not trying to be morbid, but the closer I get to 70 the more I need to realize I’m not going to live forever. I’ve already lived longer than my father.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read.

I hope to spend as much time writing as I do reading in the coming week. I hope you also have productive creative time.

Stay safe and well. Let me know what you’ve been doing.

Janet

Some Odd Books Read in October 2021

The titles of the books I read in September are way off the beaten path. Since I’m writing a novel that includes a murder, I need to make sure I have certain details as accurate as possible.

Actually, I want to get all the details right, but my research and study in October concentrated on (1) the details about the dead body in the first chapter; (2) the ways in which the murderer tries to present himself as innocent; and (3) writing in deep point-of-view.

Hence, I read the books listed below. They aren’t exactly the kind of books one wants to curl up with on a lazy Sunday afternoon, but they were helpful (or, not-so-helpful) for what I needed them for.

Acting: The First Six Lessons, by Richard Boleslavsky

I checked this book out from the library in hopes that it would give pointers on how an actor “gets into character.” It did not.

In order to write a novel in deep point-of-view, I must get into character. I must write everything through the ears, eyes, and emotions of each of my point-of-view characters.

Badass Acting, by Tice Allison

I had the same hopes for this book. It failed to deliver.

Seven Pillars of Acting, by Sonya Cooke

I thought surely this acting book would include what I was looking for, but it didn’t.

I think I know what I’m doing in writing deep point-of-view. I just thought reading pointers on how an actor gets into character might be helpful. The best way to grasp this element of writing is to read the work of authors who do it well.

All these acting books might be helpful to someone learning the art of acting. They just didn’t cover what I was looking for.

Forensics for Dummies, by D.P. Lyle, M.D.

Forensics for Dummies, by D.P. Lyle, M.D.

This book contained a bit of technical information I needed to know about the timeline for the body in my novel.

Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers, by D.P.

Lyle, M.D.

Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers, by D.P. Lyle, M.D.

Like Forensics for Dummies, this book had bits and pieces of helpful information.

Forensics and Fiction: Clever, Intriguing, and Downright Odd Questions from Crime Writers, by D.P. Lyle,

M.D.

Forensics and Fiction: Clever, Intriguing, and Downright Odd Questions from Crime Writers, by D.P. Lyle, M.D.

You’ve maybe noticed a pattern here. Dr. D.P. Lyle is the leading expert in the field of forensics in writing books for writers and other laypersons.

What Every BODY is Saying, by Joe Navarro with Marvin Karlins, Ph.D.

I wanted to read this book to get pointers on how to tell if a person is lying. I wanted to incorporate “dead giveaways” in the words, body language, and behavior of the murderer in my novel. It was an interesting book. It gave some suggestions, but the bottom line was that you need to read more than one book to become an expert in spotting a lie.

What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People, by Joe Navarro with Marvin Karlins, Ph.D.

Spy the Lie, by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero, with Don Tennant

This book is very much like What Every BODY is Saying, by Joe Navarro. It’s a little more indepth but gives the same admonitions that you need to do more than read a couple of books in order to become an expert at telling when someone is lying. I don’t need to be an expert, so I think I’ll end my research there.

Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception, by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero, with Don Tennant.

I won’t give any examples from the book because you can’t take just one or two hints and make a definitive decision about whether a person is lying to you. I hope most of us rarely are lied to, so it’s not a huge problem for us. On second thought, if we watch certain TV networks, are on Facebook, or hear any political campaign ads, we’re lied to every day.

The Little Red Writing Book, by Brandon Royal

The Little Red Writing Book, by Brandon Royal

The most helpful part of this tiny book is the pages of often-made-mistakes in grammar. For instance, you’d think by now I’d know when to use “who” and when to use “whom,” but I always have to look it up when I’m writing. When I’m talking, I probably get it wrong every time. Now I have a cheat sheet.

Breathing Life into Your Characters: How to Give Your Characters Emotional & Psychological Depth, by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D.

You probably recognize the name of this book, since I’ve referred to it a number of times in my blog this summer and fall. I started reading and working my way through it early this summer.

Breathing Life into Your Characters: How to Give Your Characters Emotional & Psychological Depth, by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D.

The online writing course I took for eight weeks pulled me away from it, but I did finish it in October. I highly recommend it to anyone writing their first novel.


Since my last blog post

I got my Moderna Covid-19 booster shot on Tuesday. I’m happy to still be fully-vaccinated. I just wish all the people I’d like to be around at church, etc. were vaccinated. That’s not going to happen, since the Covid-19 vaccine has been politicized in the United States. Although I still wore a mask, it was nice to get back to in-person worship yesterday after a long absence.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. At the recommendation of one of my Australian blogger friends, Chris Andrews, I’m finally reading The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan. It’s excellent and a nice change of pace after the books I read in October.

Note: November is National Novel Writing Month, National Family Literacy Month, National Memoir Writing Month.

Note: Today is National Family Literacy Day and Author’s Day.

Wherever you are, thank you for reading my blog. Have you read any odd books or good books lately?

Janet

Giving God the Right of Way

I plan. I make lists. I find great satisfaction in checking off the items I complete on my to-do list. There are some problems with this.

First, I always think I can accomplish more in a day than I can. This leads to frustration and feelings of guilt.

Second, I don’t allow for “down days.” Even if I didn’t have chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, having a rigid daily to-do list would be foolish.

Third, and most importantly, I tend to leave God out of the process.

If you followed my blog this summer, you know I’ve gone through some upheaval with the novel I’m writing. I started writing it more than a decade ago. I honestly don’t know when I started it. It languished on my computer for the last several years.

In July, I decided it was “no or never.” I hired a professional editor to critique the first 50 pages of my 303-page manuscript. The feedback I got from her was constructive and attention-grabbing. At the same time, it was disheartening yet exactly what I needed to hear.

A failed plan

That detailed critique prompted me to stop procrastinating and start focusing my attention and energy on learning the skills I needed to learn so I could finally finish that novel. I made a plan. I made a daily (Monday through Saturday) to-do list for what to study and what to practice or write each day. I thought by not working on my book on Sundays I was doing the Christian thing. I would give myself Sundays off and, thereby, do what was pleasing to God. That worked fairly well for a couple of weeks.

But guess what happened. I became a slave to my plan. It was my plan. I thought I had been clever to create this plan with its one-day-a-week set aside not to work on my writing. By doing so, I thought I was “keeping the Sabbath.”

It was my plan, but it was wearing me out.

Photo credit: Glenn Carstens Peters on unsplash.com

I fell behind on August 16. I’d assigned myself too much reading, too much writing, and way too much nuts-and-bolts work on my novel regarding details about my characters.

I’d set myself up for failure.

By pushing myself to do everything on my list, I threw myself into a chronic fatigue syndrome relapse for the next three weeks; however, I read something on August 17 that got my attention. It was the third chapter in Seven Things That Steal Your Joy: Overcoming the Obstacles to Your Happiness, by Joyce Meyer.

Led by the Spirit

Ms. Meyer wrote the book in 2004. I’d bought it as a used book many years later and kept meaning to read it. I read the first chapter on August 15 and the second chapter on August 16. It was “on my list” to read the third chapter on August 17.

Little did I know that God had a reason for leading me to Chapter Three on August 17. I don’t believe in happenstance when it comes to such things. The title of that chapter is “Joy Keeper: Be Led of the Spirit.” By “Spirit,” Ms. Meyer is referring to the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is our Helper, if we are just open to It. From the first sentence in Chapter Three (“One of the most dynamic ways to keep our joy is to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us in the way we should go.”) to the last sentence in the chapter (“God will write His laws on your heart, then you won’t need reminders to keep your joy.”), that chapter was exactly what I needed to read in the emotional and physical place I was in on August 17.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my six days-a-week reading and writing plan – as detailed and as carefully- and methodically-planned as it was – lacked one thing. It lacked the most important thing. It lacked God. I spent hours working out a plan that I thought would lead me to a point next February when I’d have all this knowledge in my head and be ready to rewrite my novel’s outline and then start rewriting the manuscript.

But aside from setting aside the Sabbath to not work on my novel or my writing skills, I’d left God and the Holy Spirit out of my grandiose plan. I shredded my plan.

What’s next?

Don’t get me wrong – I still believe in having a plan, but what’s new is that I want to start each day by seeking God’s will for me that day. He may want me to tackle the next item on my novel “to-do” list, or He might have a better “to-do” list for me for that day.

I still believe God wants me to write. He might want me to write the novel I’ve had in my head and on paper for 10+ years. He might have an entirely different novel in His plan for me. He might have something else altogether in store for me.

Ms. Meyer wrote in the third chapter of her book, “If you keep your plan before the Lord, you must be ready to let Him change anything at any time. If you do this, your path will always be right and prosperous.”

She also wrote, “… and we will never find joy if we think we have to know everything before we take our first step in the direction He is leading us.”

Today is the last class in the “Eight Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful Novel” online course I started on September 6, so it’s time for me to create a new plan.

This time, though, I’ll try to be reasonable, and I’ll try to remember to seek God’s will every morning and be ready to ditch my plan for His plan.

Since my last blog post

I’ve always been a pack rat. I keep things “because I might need it someday.” I’ve transitioned into, “I’m never going to need this.” Last week I concentrated on my file cabinets. That alone dates me. I’ve purged file folders of all descriptions.

I don’t need the paperwork for the car insurance I had in 1995. I don’t need most of the recipes I kept in the 1980s. I don’t have the energy to do much cooking. Plus, I’m trying to eat healthier in 2021 than I did in 1981. The list goes on.

This is a work in progress, but it feels good to let go of some things.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read or productive time if you’re writing one.

Whatever season you’re transitioning into where you live, try to enjoy the gift each day is. This is a challenge for me. You know I don’t like cold weather.

Thank you for taking time out of your day to read my blog post.

I’ll leave you with this short sentence from the third chapter of Joyce Meyer’s book: “To walk in the presence of God, we must give the Holy Spirit the right of way.”  I love that!

Until my next blog post – which I have planned for next Monday – I hope you and I both give the Holy Spirit the right of way.

And wait on tiptoe to see what happens.

Janet

Books Read & Analyzed in September 2021

I dedicated the month of September to read books about the art and craft of writing. It’s slower than reading novels – that’s for sure!

At least, that was my plan. I had it all mapped out, down to how many pages I’d read each day. Then, that online writing course I’m taking began on September 6, and my plans went out the window.

Studying historical novels and historical mystery novels dominated my reading time in September. Weekly online course assignments included analyzing various elements of novels in our chosen genre. My genre is historical fiction, with an element of mystery in my first novel – the manuscript I’m currently working on. At least, I hope this turns out to be my first novel.

Today’s blog post might appeal more to writers than readers but, since it’s definitely part of my journey as a writer, I feel compelled to share it with you.

I evaluated one book I’ve read and five books I haven’t read. I was looking for such things as scene length, chapter length, sensory detail, point-of-view, tense, noun and verb strength, microtension, high moment, amount of narrative, amount of dialogue, and the action-reaction-processing cycle.

Until taking this “8 Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful” online course by C.S. Lakin, I’d never tried to analyze the elements of a novel. I just read for enjoyment. I look forward to reading for enjoyment again someday, for I find analyzing novels a bit of a drag.

Even though today’s blog post takes a much different approach than my usual first blog of a month about the books I read the previous month, I hope you’ll bear with me a few minutes. My remarks about each of the following books might pique your interest, even if you’re not interested in the elements considered in the writing of a novel.

The War Nurse, by Tracey Enerson Wood

The War Nurse, by Tracey Enerson Wood

Published this year, I found The War Nurse to be an excellent example of historical fiction for me to evaluate. I’d read Tracey Enerson Wood’s first novel, The Engineer’s Wife, and liked it. The War Nurse is full of rich prose. She uses strong verbs and vivid adjectives. Writing like that has to be learned. It is hard work. I want to write like that. I wish I’d had time to read the entire book instead of skimming through it to look for specific writing techniques and elements.

The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

This book was published in 2010. I read it in 2017. (See what I said about it and other books in my February 3, 2017 blog post, What I read in January 2017.) It was a novel that stayed with me for a long time and it’s one that still clearly comes to mind when I think back on historical novels I’ve especially enjoyed. I checked it out of the library last month just so I could analyze it in relation to my class assignments.

Like in The War Nurse, I found an Author’s Note, Acknowledgments, Book Club Questions, and “A Conversation with Kathleen Grissom” at the end of The Kitchen House. I think these are items that fans of historical fiction like to see – and expect to see.

Historical fiction readers like for Author’s Notes to tell them which characters and events in a novel are real and which ones are a creation of the author’s skill. I find myself reading the Author’s Note at the back of novels before I read the actual novel.

The Historians, by Cecilia Ekbäck

The Historians, by Cecilia Ekback

This is a 2021-published historical mystery. I didn’t get to read much of the book. I made note of how the book was organized and some of the features it included, such as a map of the setting, a preface, and “Cast of Characters.” All these were in the front of the book before the story itself began.

I found the list of 44 characters intimidating. I would never be able to keep up with so many people. The 19 or so introductory pages included sections like “Lapland, January 1943,” “Stockholm, February 1, 1943,” and “Blackäsen Mountain, March 31, 1943.”

The book is 431 pages plus a four-page “Author’s Note and Historical Background,” and a list of nine “Sources” in the back of the book.

Scenes varied from two to eight-and-a-half pages. Some paragraphs were half a page long. The story is told in an unbroken pattern of “Laura” chapters, “Jens” chapters, and “Blackäsen Mountain” chapters and ends with “Lapland, June 1943.”

The settings in this book are a refreshing change from all the World War II novels of recent years that have almost exclusively been set in France, Poland, or Germany.

I regret I didn’t have time to actually read this book; however, I was overwhelmed by the pages and pages of introductory material. One would have to be keenly interested in the settings and time period in order to read those 19 pages before getting to the story.

It was an eye-opening exercise related to the writing course I’m taking to analyze the elements of this historical mystery. This was the first recently-published historical mystery I analyzed.

An Irish Hostage, by Charles Todd

An Irish Hostage, by Charles Todd

Charles Todd is the pen name for a mother-son writing duo. An Irish Hostage is the 12th novel in their Bess Crawford Mysteries. I haven’t read any of them. This is their 2021 novel, so I chose it to analyze.

Like The Historians, this is an historical mystery. Although I didn’t have time to read much of it, this novel appealed to me more than the other book. That’s just personal preference, and not a criticism of Cecilia Ekbäck’s book.

It’s written in first-person past tense and is set in Somerset, June 1919.

The opening narrative paragraphs set a pleasant tone with such phrases as, “the long windows open to a surprisingly mild spring evening, and a bit of a breeze pleasantly lifting the lilac curtains just a little.” But then the mood suddenly turns with, “The only thing that spoiled this charming scene were the expressions on our faces.”

Of course, the novel being categorized as “historical mystery,” the reader should already know the tide is going to turn.

I found the style of writing to be more to my liking than the “heavier” Ekbäck book. Chapters ranged in length from around four or five pages to about 20 pages.

There is a page of acknowledgments and a two-sentence “About the Author” page at the end of the book.

The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell

The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell

This is another 2021 historical mystery. It’s set in February through June of 1893. It begins with “I. Requiem Æternam” and the five succeeding sections also have Latin names. That technique in itself gives the reader a hint about the mood of the book.

The opening paragraph introduces Esther Tull feeling “the first gentleness of the snow.” In the second paragraph, Esther extends “a gloved hand to the railing…. The pain was returning, but it was not yet more than she could bear….”

Interesting wording there. The inclusion of the word “yet,” adds a level of intrigue for the reader. Every word matters in a novel – or should.

This novel is mostly narrative, with scenes averaging six or seven pages. There’s an Afterword and Acknowledgments on page 401.

Murder on Black Swan Lane, by Andrea Penrose

Murder on Black Swan Lane, by Andrea Penrose

When I searched for best-selling historical mysteries, I noticed Andrea Penrose’s name coming up repeatedly in the top 50 or top 100. I borrowed her 2017 novel, Murder on Black Swan Lane from the library. It’s set in Regency London, which appears to be Ms. Penrose’s favorite era and location.

I’m not a fan of prologues, but hers was just four pages and I wanted to get a feel for her writing style. Her rich language using strong verbs and spot-on adjectives drew me in. For example, the prologue opened with, “A flicker of weak light skittered over the stone floor, followed by the soft scrapes of steps and the whispered whoosh, whoosh of mist-dampened wool.”

The book’s 27 chapters range from nine to 16 pages in length, based on the seven I counted. They’re followed by a two-page “Author’s Note” and then the prologue and first chapter of her book, Murder at Half Moon Gate.

The biography on the inside of the back cover reveals that “Andrea Penrose is a pseudonym for an author who has also written as Cara Elliott for Grand Central and Andrea Pickens for NAL.” Perhaps you’ve read one of her books under those other names. I haven’t.

I look forward to reading or at least perusing more of Andrea Penrose’s books. The rich language skills she has are something I’d like to emulate.

Since my last blog post

I completed the fourth week of my eight-week writing course, and have been busy editing my novel manuscript. Trying to work in all I’ve learned in the last month isn’t easy. I’m into the third chapter now. There will be many more revisions in my future. I enjoy the process of fiddling with words.

I’ve also worked on the notes from my local history research. I still hope to get those notes in book form eventually.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I just finished reading Making Good Habits, Breaking Bad Habits, by Joyce Meyer. It was a nice diversion from all the books and scenes I analyzed for my class.

Making Good Habits, Breaking Bad Habits, by Joyce Meyer

Now that the deer have devoured the leaves on the hydrangeas and other plants and shrubs in our yard, this week they started eating the azaleas. Now they’ve gone too far!

It’s officially autumn in North Carolina. There are spots of leaf color here and there here in the southern piedmont. Many leaves seem to just be dying and falling off. Of course, it won’t be peak fall leaf season here for several weeks. There’s a hint of fall in the air at night and in the mornings, but our daytime temperatures are still mainly in the low- to mid-80s.

It’s warmer than it was last week when I mentioned being cold. None of my southern hemisphere readers took the bait last week when I volunteered to go down under and visit for a few months. I guess they’re enjoying spring now. I will be, too, in six months!

Janet

Books Read in August 2021 (a.k.a. What to Do When You Can’t Afford Writing Courses)

I could be the poster child for how hard it is to learn the art and craft of fiction writing. It requires not only reading good fiction to see how certain things are done well but also lots of study and practice.

My first blog every month is traditionally about some of the books I read the month before. Usually, I’ve read five or more novels and I’m eager to write about them; however, in August I concentrated on reading books about the art and craft of writing fiction.

Not being able to afford to take the best writing courses in August, I prioritized the books I needed to read to bone up on such things as characterization and emotion in fiction. Between the books I had purchased through the years (most of them used books or inexpensive e-books) and the books I could borrow from the public library, I identified 18 books and two workbooks I wanted to work through before I attempt to finish polishing the historical novel I’m writing.

In August, I read the following books about the art and craft of writing:

Making It in Historical Fiction, by Libbie Hawker;

Writing Deep Point of View, by Rayne Hall;

Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View, by Jordan Rosenfeld; and

The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, by Noah Lukeman (pertinent chapters);

Breathing Life into Your Characters, by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D.

Also, I’m about 50% through Breathing Life into Your Characters: How to Give Your Characters Emotional & Psychological Depth, by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D. I’m working through a few pages each day and doing the many writing exercises provided. It has helped me immensely in rewriting and expanding my characters’ biographical sketches.

Online Sources

There are also many free resources online. There are bloggers with much more writing experience than I who give wonderful tips and advice. There are free online interviews with authors. Check the websites of independent bookstores for scheduled author events. Some are in person, but most seem to still be virtual.

I hope virtual author events will continue after the pandemic. They’re a wonderful way for readers and aspiring writers to get to hear authors. Many of us wouldn’t get to hear them otherwise. At least one good thing has come out of the pandemic!

Once in a while an excellent opportunity comes along that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Such was the six-hour “Writing from the Heart” free webinar I got to watch several weeks ago. (See my August 9, 2021 blog post, 2 Environment- and History-Related Books to find out some of the topics covered by that webinar.)

Online course: “8 Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful Novel”

In light of the critique the first 50 pages of my novel manuscript received in July (See my July 26, 2021 blog post, How My First 50 Pages Stood up for Critique), I needed to take C.S. Lakin’s online writing course, “8 Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful Novel.” I must have read the course description a dozen times, but I couldn’t afford to take it.

Then, out of the blue, on August 4, Ms. Lakin offered a $200 discount on the course. That discount made all the difference in the world. I registered for the course, which starts today!

I’m excited about the skills I will learn in the next eight weeks. I’ll keep you posted. Today’s lesson is about high moment and character change.

Since my last blog post

In addition to the writing books I listed above, in August I read Seven Things That Steal Your Joy: Overcoming the Obstacles to Your Happiness, by Joyce Meyer. It not only helped me with my personal life, it gave insight into the inner conflicts some of my characters struggle with.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have one or more good books to read. Thanks to my cousin, Jerome Williams, I’m reading Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear.

There are many sources of conflict and concern in our world. Let’s all try to find something to be thankful for and joyful about every day.

Janet

How My First 50 Pages Stood up for Critique

Those of you who have been reading my blog for years know that (for years) I’ve promised to get my historical novel finished, critiqued by a professional, and published. You also know that I failed to take that second step until this year.

Since this is called “Janet’s Writing Blog” and is supposed to be about my journey as a writer, I promised somewhere in a blog post that I would report in my blog all the good, bad, and ugly of writing a novel. That includes the important part of getting a professional to critique my work. Hence, today’s post is about the ugly.

Photo credit: Pim Chu on unsplash.com

In mid-July I decided to go for it! After reading several of her books about the craft of writing, I hired C.S. Lakin to critique the first 50 pages of my 303-page manuscript. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve received her detailed evaluation of those 50 pages. I hate it for Ms. Lakin but, as they say, “Somebody had to do it.”


The Good News

The good news is that Ms. Lakin liked five things about those 50 pages. To be specific,

she thought I had an intriguing premise and story idea;

she liked my couching this murder mystery/theft in the American colonial era;

she liked how I showed Sarah (my protagonist) shaking her fist in the air in pain as her dream is shattered;

she liked how the walls closed in on Sarah as the first rain drops of a sudden downpour pelted the windows; and

she liked how Sarah felt clammy, her heart raced, and everything started going black.


The Not-as-Glowing, Yet Much-Needed News

I don’t know where to begin. Ms. Lakin made numerous detailed comments and asked many questions throughout my manuscript. Proverbial red ink was all over the 50 pages. So much negative (yet constructive) criticism was difficult to swallow all in one evening. Having found out earlier in the day that I need a root canal and a crown on a back molar, receiving the critique was the ending of a not-so-perfect day.

I’ve heard that every writer goes through the anguish of being told their work is lacking no good. The initial read-through of the critique comments left me wondering if I even knew how to write a coherent sentence.

That was last Monday. After having a brief pity party, though, I got back to work.

On Tuesday, I reread Ms. Lakin’s comments and started forming a plan of what I needed to do in order to improve as a fiction writer. This is what I came up with, in no particular order:

Photo credit: unsplash.com
  1. I need to reread C.S. Lakin’s book, Layer Your Novel: The Innovative Method for Plotting Your Scenes. I’d read the first third of the book some time ago, but rereading it in light of her critique made the book make more sense to me;
  2. I need to study how to demonstrate emotion in my writing. In my manuscript draft I relied too much on the reader “hearing” the tone and emotion in the dialogue and descriptions I wrote. Sometimes I told what emotions a character was feeling instead of describing those emotions and how those emotions were affecting them physically. I need to work on what the characters are thinking;
  3. I need to put more time into making the setting of the story come alive so the reader will visual the time and place to a greater degree;
  4. I need to put more effort into getting into my point-of-view characters’ heads and show their reactions and what they’re feeling;
  5. I need to study story structure and the framework of a successful novel;
  6. I need to move some scenes around because some of them appear to be a bit early in the overall scheme of things;
  7. I need to work on pacing because some scenes seem rushed;
  8. I need to study deep point-of-view;
  9. I haven’t spent enough time in the book showing Sarah striving to overcome the inciting incident – which was the premise of the book that I described to Ms. Lakin in my one-page synopsis. In other words, I’m waiting too long into the story to have Sarah actively put a plan of action in place. Her efforts along those lines should be “well underway” before page 50;
  10. I haven’t adequately explained the purpose of some of the secondary characters;
  11. Ms. Lakin recommends that I take her Emotional Mastery course;
  12. Some of the dialogue sounds too modern; however, I don’t want to fall into the easy trap of using dialect that is expected in novels set in the South – especially the dialect that we’ve all been conditioned to expect slaves to have used. I’m adamant that the Black characters – free or enslaved – in my novel will be portrayed as the human beings they were and not mythical stereotypes;
  13. I need to pay attention to scene breaks and chapter breaks. For instance, Ms. Lakin said when skipping ahead several hours or days, it’s best to start a new chapter;
  14. I need to be sure every scene advances the plot;
  15. I need to remove the predictable, mundane, and boring lines and paragraphs;
  16. I need to explain why William had a will in order for his widow to inherit anything, including her own kitchen utensils. In the colonial era, a wife didn’t automatically inherit anything from her husband or the lives they’d built together. If particulars weren’t spelled out in the husband’s will, the wife was legally left with nothing;
  17. I need to explain why Sarah couldn’t just free a slave on a whim. Manumission papers or a statement of granting freedom in a will were necessary, but that only becomes evident later in the novel;
  18. I have too much dialogue in the manuscript;
  19. Ms. Lakin recommends that I take her course, The Ten Key Scenes That Frame Up Your Novel;
  20. Ms. Lakin recommends that the best course for me to take is her 8 Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful Novel. Before taking this course, I need to read Layer Your Novel: The Innovative Method for Plotting Your Scenes and The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, both by C.S. Lakin;
  21. Although I’ve already written 303 pages and almost 90,000 words, Ms. Lakin encouraged me “to put off writing a whole novel until you get these key elements of fiction writing under your belt. It takes time and practice and effort, but it’s really the best advice I can give you at this point.”

What I’ve done since making that list on Tuesday afternoon

It is said that ignorance is bliss. A couple of weeks ago I knew I had much to learn about writing fiction, but I didn’t know how much I didn’t know or have a good grasp on. Bliss is over now. Reality has set in.

I’ve visited Ms. Lakin’s website to read about the courses she offers and how much they cost.

I’ve looked at my bookshelves and my library of e-books. I own many books about the art and craft of writing. Some of them, I’ve not read. Some of them, I need to read again. Those are on my “to-be-read” list now alongside some novels I’ve been on the waitlist for at the public library for a while. I’ve listed those books (along with writing books I can borrow from the library) in the order in which I think I need to read them.

I started rereading Layer Your Novel: The Innovative Method for Plotting Your Scenes, by C.S. Lakin, as a result of number 20 on the above list. The assignment at the end of the first chapter is to write what each scene is about on index cards. The purpose of that exercise is to make it possible for you to lay out all the scenes in order on a table. By doing that, you can see the natural sections of the plot.

Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema on unsplash.com

In light of number 21 on the above list, my doing this exercise now is getting the cart before the horse; however, reading that assignment prompted me to look at all 68 scenes in my current draft. With all of Ms. Lakin’s comments swimming around in my head, I was able to readily pick up on some problem scenes as I reviewed the entire manuscript.

I made notes to remind myself to rewrite some scenes in Sarah’s (my protagonist’s) point-of-view instead of a secondary character’s point-of-view. There were some “aha” moments when I thought of new plot twists or thought some early scenes could better take place later in the story or vice versa. It refreshed the entire story in my mind.

Photo credit: Daniel McCullough on unsplash.com

As Ms. Lakin recommended in number 21 in the above list, I need to learn more about the key elements of fiction writing before tackling the entire novel. Ms. Lakin compares constructing a novel with building a house. In order to hold up, both must have a solid foundation. And solid foundations require careful planning, skill, practice, and an eye for detail.


What’s My Next Step?

In the near future I’ll dedicate more time to my writing. I’ll read everything I can about constructing a novel, constructing a scene, emotion, deep point-of-view, description of time and place, and speech in the backcountry of South Carolina in 1769.

I’m afraid this means I won’t get to read as much fiction and nonfiction about contemporary issues as I’d like. I will need to read certain types of fiction to see how successful authors construct a novel.

This week’s plan: Delve deeper into setting and description of setting. The question before me this week: How can I write about the setting of my novel more vividly and succinctly in order to plunge my reader into the Carolina backcountry in 1769?


Until my next blog post

Next week I plan to blog about two books I read in July that enlightened me about some issues of racial injustice and some of the lessons I’ve been taught that just weren’t true.

I hope you have a good book to read.

If you’re an aspiring author, I hope you get good advice and roll with the punches like I’m learning to do. It’s definitely a journey.

Janet

Censorship and Reader Sensitivities

I try to plan my blog topics well in advance so I’ll have time to devote to writing each one. The fancy name for it is “editorial calendar.” Today was a day I had trouble settling on a topic. I’d made a list of possibilities, but none of them really grabbed me.

Another blogger came to my rescue on April 12, 2021. John W. Howell, an author of thriller novels, inspirational fiction, and family life fiction, wrote What to Do With Books That Are Insensitive to Social Norms | Story Empire (wordpress.com) and in it he referred to his March 24, 2021 blog post, Avoiding Insensitivity in Characters or Story | Story Empire (wordpress.com). Viola! I was inspired to write today’s post.

(Here’s a link to Mr. Howell’s Story Empire website and blog: https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/.)

An Example of Book Censorship

Reading Mr. Howell’s blog posts got me thinking about book censorship and the closely-related topic of cultural appropriation and reader sensitivities.

The very idea of a book being censored or people demanding that certain books be banned from public libraries, school libraries, and bookstores really gets my ire up. Book censorship is a slippery slope. Images of book burnings in Nazi Germany come to mind.

#bookburning #censorship
Photo credit: Jonny Caspari on unsplash.com

The American Library Association’s (ALA) annual list of the top books requested for banning or restricted reading is fresh on my mind. Here’s the link to the ALA’s website where you can see the list: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee is consistently on that list. It’s on the list the ALA published earlier this month. One reason given for its being requested for banning is that the lawyer who represents the black man in court is white. The story is set in Alabama in the 1930s, so it is true to the time and place that the lawyer and all the jurors would be white. Racial injustice is the core theme of the novel. The book was published in 1960, and little had changed by then.

I believe we can learn the lessons of history by reading good historical fiction. It’s one thing to read a list of laws governing people of color in the United States in the 1930s, but how better to illustrate and shine a bright light on the laws – written and unwritten – prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1965 than to bring them to life on the pages of a novel and the subsequent movie based on that book?

I’d no sooner had that thought than I found Jabari Asim’s article from July 17, 2015 on Publishers Weekly: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/columns-and-blogs/soapbox/article/67521-rethinking-to-kill-a-mockingbird.html. (Please take time to read his entire piece after reading this blog post.)

Being a black man, Mr. Asim offers a different perspective than the one I can offer. His words made me stop and think. Perhaps I had read To Kill a Mockingbird with naive blue eyes. Mr. Asim is one of the most influential African American literary critics of this generation. If you’re not familiar with his work, please visit his website: https://jabariasim.org/about_jabari_asim/.

Among Mr. Asim’s sentences that made me reconsider my stance are the following: “Mockingbird, like Uncle Tom before it, often strikes me as a form of literary ointment for white guilt, meant to soothe outbreaks of conscience while dispelling perceptions of how pervasive white supremacy is. Its homespun patter and deep-fried homilies enable many readers to overlook its sketchily drawn black characters—little more than archetypes—and bask in the glow of Atticus Finch’s exemplary moral courage.”

Also, this: “Some days I can ignore Mockingbird’s mostly pedestrian prose and regard it as a cleverly subversive send-up of white racism, minus Mark Twain’s stylistic flair but dutifully echoing his irreverent tone.”

And this: “Other days I marvel at Mockingbird’s apparent prescience when, years before Fox News and talk radio, Atticus Finch says to his brother, ‘Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand.'” 

What is To Kill a Mockingbird‘s place, then? It’s likely to be debated for decades to come.

#ToKillaMockingbird #censorship
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Self-censorship, Cultural Appropriation, and Reader Sensitivities

Being a writer can involve self-censorship, and there are degrees of that when it comes to reader sensitivities. I’m not a published novelist, but as I work on my historical novel I’m ever-cognizant of reader sensitivities.

Most of us practice self-censorship in our communications with others. Some people who should self-censor are sadly unaware. As a writer, I feel the need to self-sensor. I don’t use racial slurs in my speaking or thinking, but that doesn’t mean I won’t need to include one in my writing in order to be true to time and place. It doesn’t mean I condone the use of such words. My challenge in writing a novel presented from multiple points-of-view is having the audacity to put myself in the skin of a person of color – especially a person of color who is male and enslaved in the United States in the 18th century.

Doing so is somewhat akin to cultural appropriation, which is a dominant culture adopting a practice that is inherent in or associated with a minority culture. I’m not doing that in my novel, but I am attempting to write thoughts, emotions, and conversations of three people of color. I want to be aware of possible reader sensitivities, but I don’t want that awareness to fundamentally change my writer’s voice.

I’m writing a novel set in the North and South Carolina backcountry in 1769. It includes two black male slaves, one free black woman, a Frenchman, and a number of white Scottish and Irish settlers. I’ve been working on this novel for many years. If I were to look at my first draft, there would be many cringe-worthy words and scenes. I started out really over-doing writing accents phonetically. It was tedious to write, and I’ve since learned that it’s not appropriate. It can be degrading, and it can be exhausting for the reader.

I’ve grown as a person and as a writer since I started the book probably a decade ago. I’m striving to make the final product true to the time and place. I’ve done extensive research – even into the laws on the books in South Carolina in 1769 that governed the fabric of the clothing slaves were permitted to wear.

If and when my novel is published, I hope no one’s sensitivities will be offended, but that’s probably wishful thinking. I’m attempting to write a book that will be entertaining and educational. I hope it will be a book that will cause readers to put themselves in the skin of the various characters and come away with an appreciation of history.

An Earlier Blog Post about Cultural Appropriation in Writing

Author and administrator of the “Writers on the Path to a Page-Turner” Facebook group, Barbara Kyle, wrote the following: “The move to self-censorship for fear of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a sad state of affairs. Author Morgan Jones eloquently champions the opposite position: ‘Fiction remains the best means we have of finding connection where there seems to be none; and the novel, of all forms, encourages a search that’s deep and sustained. By reading (or writing) one, you’ve travelled somewhere else. You’ve moved, if only slightly, towards others. In a world that finds and increasingly exploits division and difference, this in an invaluable, precious exercise.”

I copied the above quote several years ago and taped it to the top of my computer monitor. In trying to find an online link for you, I was reminded that I used it in my August 27, 2018 blog post, Cultural Appropriation in Writing. Ms. Kyle shared (and I included in that 2018 blog post) this link to an October 1, 2016 article in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/01/novelists-cultural-appropriation-literature-lionel-shriver.) Please go back and read my earlier blog post and click on the link to Mr. Shriver’s article in The Guardian.

Where do we go from here?

I think writers would do well to keep in mind the following question asked by John. W. Howell in his March 24, 2021 blog post referenced in my opening paragraph today: “Am I knowingly or unknowingly writing characters or a story which casts aspersions on anyone relative to their race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, religion, disabilities, or age?”

Mr. Howell goes on to say, “The key to the question is we may write something that we didn’t think would discriminate but did that exactly.” He also said, “The caution here is that if you are not part of a group you are writing about, be very diligent in your research. Some would say unless you are a part of a group, don’t write about them. I disagree since I do not want to believe that writers can only write what they know.”

#Censorship #readersensitivities
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

In his follow-up blog post on April 12, 2021 (also referenced above in my opening paragraph), Mr. Howell gave Gone with the Wind as an example of a book that could be criticized on several fronts due to its glorification of the Southern plantation. A little later in his blog post he said the following: “Maybe because I’m an author, I hate to see a book be declared undesirable, but it does seem that we should embrace a discussion of any book that is outside our social norms. Include in the discussion why a text no longer reflects current attitudes. If we were to discuss why certain depictions in a book are wrong, we all would better understand each other. Maybe, more importantly, we could learn more about what actions and depictions are especially hurtful.”

I agree with Mr. Howell on that. Let’s not ban books from our library and bookstore shelves. Let’s read and discuss them and, thereby, learn to do better.

Since my last blog post

I enjoyed all the beautiful azaleas in our yard. I don’t think they’ve ever been prettier. All good things must come to an end – or so “they” say. Wednesday afternoon brought snow 100 miles away in the North Carolina mountains, and Thursday and Friday mornings brought record-breaking below freezing low temperatures to my house. I hope this was winter’s last gasp.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have at least one good book to read this week. I have more books checked out from the library than I can possibly read. It’s a nice dilemma to have.

Enjoy a relaxing hobby.

Note: Tomorrow is National Tell a Story Day in the USA. Don’t tell a lie. Tell a story. Tell a young person about one of your good memories. It will give them something to remember you by.

Note: Ironically, Wednesday is the anniversary of author Harper Lee’s birth in 1926. Some literary critics say a person who writes just one novel (such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) is not a great author. (I know, I know. Her unpublished manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015, so she actually wrote two books.) My example is still valid. Ms. Lee died in 2016, and until 2015 she was known as an acclaimed author who wrote “only” one book. I’m not saying the historical novel I’m writing is a great novel, but it gives me hope to know that Harper Lee “only” got one novel published during her lifetime. If I only get one novel published, I’ll be more than happy.

Note: Watch out for May! It arrives on Saturday. May is “Get Caught Reading Month”. Start making your plans for getting caught.

Janet

#FixYourNovel #6: Theme and Plot

My “writing blog” has turned into more of a “reading blog.” It’s my intention to strike a pleasant balance between the two. The purpose of my blog from the beginning has been to give you a way to follow my journey as a writer. A writer needs to read books by other people, and I hope you enjoy learning about the books I read.

I’ve made a conscious effort this month to spend more time writing and less time reading. As I mentioned in last week’s blog post, I’m working my way through C.S. Lakin’s The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction Workbook: Your Blueprint for Building a Solid Story. It has been a tremendous help to me in evaluating various aspects of my 85,000-word novel manuscript. I’m not getting paid to sing the praises of this workbook. When I find a book or workbook about the craft of writing fiction that is helpful to me, I’m happy to share that information with my blog readers.

The things I concentrated on since last week’s blog post are theme, plot, and subplot. Hence, the title of today’s post. I have been sporadic in posting my #FixYourNovel blog series. I had planned for the sixth one to be about point-of-view. I don’t feel comfortable writing authoritatively in any way, shape, or form about that subject yet.

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

The dreaded question: What’s your book about?

The most dreaded question authors receive is “What’s your book about?” You’ve spent months or years creating a complex story of 85,000 to 120,000 words, and you’re expected to state off the top of your head a one sentence answer to that question. Yikes! I’m still working on my answer to that question, but Ms. Lakin’s workbook questions have helped me sharpen a concise description of my book.

The section of the workbook that addresses theme helped me determine that my book’s main theme is forgiveness. To do that, I had to figure out what the book is about.

My initial answer to that question tends to be something like this:  It’s about a pregnant widow accused of her husband’s murder setting out to prove her innocence. But that’s not what the book is “about.” That’s the main plot, and the plot is a vehicle to convey theme.

Theme gets at the heart of what the main characters wants. My protagonist wants a happy family life. That’s a fairly universal desire. In order to achieve that, she will have to ask someone for forgiveness and she will have to forgive many others for their wrongs committed against her. It’s a southern historical novel set in the Carolina backcountry in 1769-1770.

The workbook has helped me brainstorm some parts of the plot that were lackluster, and I’ve worked to strengthen those weak links. When I get some key edits completed, I’ll adjust my scenic plot or step outline to reflect those changes. The next step then will be to get that outline critiqued by a writing professional.

That’s where things stand now with my manuscript with the working title of either The Doubloon or The Spanish Coin.

Since my last blog post

I’ve walked more, as I continue to get my fractured leg back to normal. I’ve done some “spring cleaning” that I wasn’t physically able to do in the spring. Better late than never. I’ve done some reading. I’ve spent many hours working on my manuscript, and that includes a considerable amount of time spent thinking.

Like you, I continue to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic on a daily basis. Here in North Carolina, our “Safer at Home” Phase 2 Order was extended five more weeks. This is the second time Phase 2 has been extended. In the absence of a national plan, each US state and territory is making its own rules. No wonder the virus is not under control in the US.

The M5.1 earthquake 100 miles from me on August 9 has me wondering if I need to add earthquake coverage to my homeowner’s insurance. It’s not something North Carolinians have had to seriously consider until now.

After giving Friends and Fiction on Facebook a plug last Monday, the program on Wednesday night was subpar. It was the first time the guest author used profanity or made vulgar hand gestures. I was embarrassed that I had recommended the program. Here’s hoping the one this Wednesday at 7pm EDT will be better.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. As usual, I have several books vying for my attention.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have productive creative time.

Be safe. Be well. Wear a mask. It’s not a sacrifice in the big scheme of things.

Janet

My Historical Short Stories

Upon completion of a fiction writing course I took in 2001 through the continuing education department of Queens University of Charlotte, I was afforded the opportunity to join the Queens Writers Group. The group thrived under the guidance of Queens University writing instructor Judith H. Simpson.

Before Judy’s death and the subsequent disbanding of the Queens Writers Group, I got to write historical short stories that were published in two books:  Inheriting Scotland, edited by Theresa Reilly Alsop in 2002 and Tales For a Long Winter’s Night, edited by Judith H. Simpson in 2003. Both books were self-published in paperback and printed on-demand.

Look for "The Tailor's Shears" in this book of short stories
Inheriting Scotland, edited by Theresa Reilly Alsop

Inheriting Scotland

For a story to be considered for inclusion in Inheriting Scotland, I had to choose an item that had been hidden away in Lochar Castle in Scotland centuries ago and write a short story around that item’s history when it is discovered in the 21st century. The item I selected was the tailor’s shears. My story, “The Tailor’s Shears,” is set in 1703 and begins on page 177.  Inheriting Scotland is available in paperback and Kindle edition from Amazon.com.

Tales for a Long Winter’s Night

Imagine my surprise when Judy told me that she had selected my story, “Slip-Sliding Away!” to be the lead story in Tales for a Long Winter’s Night! She praised the strength of my story and gave my writing ego a boost. My story is set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina in the year 1771.

I got the idea for “Slip-Sliding Away” from an oral history story about the funeral of President Andrew Jackson’s father. In my story, why did Daniel die? And why was his funeral so funny? This book is available in paperback from Amazon.com, and my story begins on page 3.

The short story about which I'm proudest.
Tales for a Long Winter’s Night, edited by Judith H. Simpson

It was a thrill to see something I’d written in print for the first time! I had fun writing the two stories and have toyed with the idea of writing several more historical short stories for self-publication in book form. I hold the rights to both stories, so I can publish them as I wish.


What’s next for me?

My semi-confinement due to my fractured leg and subsequent pulmonary embolism seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to pursue the idea of writing a collection of short stories. On February 29 I started working on a couple of short stories. I plan to write several stories set in America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s not been easy to get my creative juices running during this new normal in which we find ourselves. Slowly, though, I’ve gotten back into doing the historical research necessary for the writing of historical fiction. Although I take creative license in imagining some relationships and all conversations, I try to make the setting and the people as true to life as I can based on my research.

Most recently, I’ve enjoyed reading and rereading some documents and various books that offer background information for the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. Signed by 27 men of some standing in old Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (made up of the present counties of Cabarrus, Union, and Mecklenburg) on May 20, 1775, it predates the national Declaration of Independence by more than a year.

I’ve written a rough draft of a story set in May 1775 in Mecklenburg County from the perspective of a couple who feared that war with Great Britain was inevitable.

You’ll be the first to know when I’m ready to self-publish a collection of my stories! I think it will be a good way to “get my name out there” before I finish editing my historical novel. Self-publication will be a learning experience for me and one that I will gladly share on my blog. Stay tuned!

Since my last blog post

In addition to researching and writing a short story, I’ve been for physical therapy twice. It’s strange to put on a mask and enter a place of business where the receptionist and therapist are wearing masks and to try to make small talk when there’s nothing happening except the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s slowly sinking in that things will never go back to the way they were in 2019.

Restaurants in North Carolina are still open only for take-out or delivery. Banks are open on reduced hours. Essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies remain open for pick-up and delivery. As of May 8 at 5:00 pm, a few stores opened in the state, but there are restrictions on how many people can be inside a store at any time. As of Friday, we in North Carolina entered “Phase One” of reopening for business. Gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited.

Each of the 50 states in the US have their own rules and regulations for reopening businesses and getting people back to work. It is a confusing hodge-podge of conflicting and restrictions. I don’t think anyone knows just how bad this pandemic is and will continue to be for years to come until a vaccine is developed and made available worldwide.

Until my next blog post

Be creative. Be careful. Stay safe. Stay well.

I hope you have a good book to read. Last night I finished listening to Big Lies in a Small Town, by Diane Chamberlain.

Let’s continue the conversation

Do you like to read short stories? Would you consider purchasing a book of my short stories? (Don’t worry. I won’t hold you to it!)

Janet