B is for Background

On this second day of the 2017 A to Z Blog Challenge, my blog post is supposed to have something to do with the letter, “B.” I was tempted to write about blogging, but I’ve had that as my topic several times lately. I decided to write about BACKGROUND and what it means in fiction.

Foundations in Fiction

My first thought was to see what my fiction writing instructor in the Continuing Education Department at Queens University of Charlotte, Judith H. Simpson, had to say about background in her book, Foundations in Fiction.

Judy Simpson's book cover 002

Although background and setting are often used interchangeably, Judy chose to address them separately. Whereas setting is physical location, background is the story’s environment. Of background, Judy wrote in her book, “It is not the physical place but something more than that. It can be the hero’s job.”

Examples of background

Many popular authors use a background for their novels that becomes part of their brand. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels are set in New Jersey, but the background is bounty hunting — albeit of the bumbling variety. Tony Hillerman used Indian reservations for background in his Leaphorn and Chee series. Margaret Truman used iconic locations in Washington, DC in her murder mysteries, and Amy Clipston uses the Amish culture as the background in her fiction.

I enjoy reading and writing historical fiction. The historical fiction writer must create physical setting, create story background, and recreate a past culture, according to Judy Simpson. That last aspect — recreation of a past culture — is what gives historical fiction authenticity.

The writer of historical fiction must do extensive research in order to write believable characters. The novel manuscript I’m writing is set in the Carolina backcountry in 1771. People dressed and lived differently in 1771 than how we dress and live in that same geographical location in 2017. The culture, values, and accepted societal mores were different in 1771 than they are in 2017.

The writer of good historical fiction “must know the history of the period you are using; you must understand the social structure of this society; you must know how they lived, what they wore, what they ate, their monetary system, their transportation system, their social events, their daily lives,” according to Judy’s book. If you make an error, one or more readers will delight in bringing that mistake to your attention.

In writing my The Spanish Coin manuscript, I have done extensive research. The fear of making a mistake has paralyzed me sometimes. If I wait until my research is complete and my writing is perfect, though, my novel will never be published. At some point in the next 12 months, I need to conclude that it is as good as I can make it, push to get it published, and get back to writing the sequel.

The Flavor of Historical Fiction

Judy Simpson wrote the following in Foundations in Fiction and I try to keep her words in mind as I work on my book:

“Remember that what makes a historical novel different is the flavor, the sense of time and place of a long ago era. When the reader finishes the book, they should feel as if they were there, as if they really know what it would be like to live then. You have to capture the essence of that time and each period has its own flavor. Only you, the writer, can open the gate to that era for the reader.”

Until my next blog post tomorrow

I hope you have a good book to read. (As I was writing this last night, I was still reading The Heavens May Fall, by Allen Eskens.) If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

The value of a good writing teacher

It was my privilege in 2001 to take a fiction writing course through the Continuing Education Department at Queens University in Charlotte. The instructor was Judith H. Simpson. Judy was a jewel and a natural-born teacher. She always had time for each of her students, and she organized and moderated the Queens Writers Group — a group that any of her former students were eligible to join.

When I get stuck, bogged down, confused, or just need a little encouragement in my writing life, I can turn to the words Judy left behind in her book (Foundations of Fiction), my notes from her class, e-mails from her that I printed and kept, or postings she made on our yahoo group’s site.

Judy Simpson's book cover 002

Judy had a way of explaining things in a nutshell and giving examples that clearly illustrated the points she was making. She delighted in seeing her students improve and succeed. I wish Judy were still here to nudge me along to get a literary agent and get my historical novel, The Spanish Coin, published.

It has been my experience that most writers are happy to share what they have learned with those of us who are still just beginning our journeys as writers. If you aspire to be a writer, I hope you will find a writing instructor/mentor like Judy Simpson. Through her class and caring, Judy helped me to take my first steps as a writer. She gave me the confidence to keep putting one foot in front of the other and to keep writing after she was gone. Come to think of it, is that not the true definition of a teacher?