Monday, November 7, 2011

Finding my Fire

I just finished working through Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction.  This book, like Maas's others, The Breakout Novel and The Breakout Novel Workbook, is intended for for authors who have finished at least their first draft and are in the revision stage.  But I found The Fire in Fiction an ideal brainstorming tool, as well.

Maass starts by asking the question, why is it some books end up on your keeper shelf, while other books by your favourite authors feel like they've let you down?  He then analyses what he considers stand-out fiction and provides excercises for your to produce the same type of effects.

After chats at the 2010 RWNZ conference with really productive authors like Stephanie Laurens, I came to the conclusion that I need to plan my novels, rather than letting them evolve organically on the page.  As a result of using Y-Writer and a few brainstorming tools gleaned through various workshops and on-line classes, I was able to finish the first draft of Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty in six weeks. 

I've now started my new YA Headfirst Down Breakneck Moutain.  At the 2011 RWNZ conference I got myself Karen Weisner's First Draft in 30 Days, thinking her worksheets and her methodical plan would be really useful.  Well, they are.  But I still need something to trigger ideas.  I happened to listen to Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction Part 2 workshop on the DVD of the 2010 RWA conference, and the exercises he suggested got my brain buzzing.  Weisner got put aside the minute The Fire in Fiction came in from the (a life-saving website for NZ writers who don't want to pay NZ prices and all that postage!)

One of the chapters that I found the most useful was "Scenes That Can't Be Cut".  These are the scenes that are supposed to drive your plot forward but somehow fall flat.  Maass talks about finding the emotional turning point in these scenes and building your scene around that.

In fact, one thing I took from the whole book was the importance of emotion in driving an outstanding work of fiction.  Emotion is what makes the hero heroic yet human and the villan frightening (even more so for being human as well.)  The emotion we're talking about here is the internal emotion of the characters themselves -- the passions that drive them.  And Maass suggest finding that by looking inside yourself. 

What are you passionate about?  What do you rant about?  What about the story you're telling makes you angry/excited?  Use one of the characters your story to give those emotions a voice. 

When you're writing a scene, what is the core emotion the POV character feels?  When did you feel that way?  Maass walks you through reliving that emotion and then suggests you use those details to make the emotion real for your character.

Action scenes are also based on emotion, what the characters feel, not what they're doing.  Their actions get filtered through their emotions.  And if it's conflicting emotions, even better.

So I decided to try some of this stuff out in the first chapter of Headfirst Down Breakneck Mountain.  Here's what I discovered:
  • The scene is about winning.  Thinking about when I wanted to win brought me back to my days doing combined driving, the carriage driving equivalent of three-day eventing.  That high when I realized I was going to win...
  • Rikki wants to win.  But she wants to win honestly, not because of an accident.
  • Rikki thinks it's cool to beat her mentor.  It shows how good she's become.  But she doesn't want to lose her mentor's friendship.
Suddenly my first chapter, which was about a mountain bike race, was full of layers, and my heroine, whose motto is "Winning is Everything" is on the way to the first lesson in her character arc.

Thank you, Donald Maass.

Monday, September 12, 2011

911 from the Other Side of the World

It’s a Wednesday morning not unlike other September days in Tauranga, a small coastal city on the North Island of New Zealand. Clouds skid across the sky; raindrops clatter on our steel roof. The phone rings, unusual for 7:30 AM, but in the six months we’ve been in New Zealand we’ve learned to expect early calls.

“I know you haven’t got a TV, but I think you want to know this.” It’s Carole, Phil’s cousin in Auckland. “Last night two planes crashed into the World Trade Towers in New York.”

No, we don’t have a television, but there’s one at the language school where we both teach. Phil and I turn on the radio, race through breakfast, and head downtown. We’re both too stunned to speak.

Like all Americans, we thought America was invulnerable. Now, like the rest of the world, we’re sure it’s under attack.

When we get to school, the staff is crowded around the one TV, which someone’s dragged into the meeting room. Maori, European, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder hypnotized by the footage of the towers collapsing again and again.

Students straggle in, their voices loud in Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean and a smattering of European languages. Most know the Twin Towers have been attacked, but lack the English to understand much more.

Our own minds still numb from the shock, we herd the students into the classrooms and attempt to calm them and explain what has happened. Our own English fails as we recount the details in simple terms they can understand.

In every student’s mind are the questions, “Should I go home? Can I get home?” We answer questions, reassure. All thought of English lessons for the day are forgotten, but the students receive practice in English they’ll never forget.

Gray clouds continue to darken the sky. A typical spring day in New Zealand. But nothing will ever be the same.

Monday, August 29, 2011

RWNZ Conference Report

I just got back from the Romance Writers of New Zealand Conference in Auckland. The line-up this year was impressive, with best-selling authors Tess Gerritson, Bob Mayer, and Maria V. Snyder as keynote speakers, and four editors and a US literary agent there to both speak and take pitches. Here are highlights of some of the things I learned:
The prologue isn’t dead. Both Sue Grimshaw, editor for Ballentine Bantam Dell’s new e-book imprint line and Bob Mayer confirmed it’s ok to use a prologue to set up your story.

It’s ok to multiple-query publishers. Bob Mayer recommended this in his workshop and said they expect it these days. Once you’ve been asked for a full, though, you need to go exclusive with your pitch.

Tess Gerritson in talking about how she comes up with her gripping plot twists suggests scanning the media and paying attention to your emotions. What gives you a “punch in the gut” when you read or hear about it?

Tess’s stories are known for their horrific crimes, but Tess said it’s not necessary to show the victim being tortured. What readers are looking for is tension, not gore. That can often be captured by showing the scene after the torture, where someone walks in on the results of the crime. When I talked to her afterwards a bit more about this, Tess indicated that there are times when it’s appropriate to show the “torture” scene. You may want to show, for example, how determined your character is not to reveal information. You need to think out your purpose for the scene.

Lucy Gilmore from Harlequin Mills & Boon talked about writing with originality within the confines of category romance. She said the trick is being unpredictable with those parts of the story readers have come to expect. Unpredictabilty isn’t:
  • Far-fetched plot twists
  • The “cute meet” that has nothing to do with the core conflict
  • Characters acting out-of-character
  • Meshing genres for the sake of it
  • An excuse to replace conflict with plot devices.

In developing character, she said make sure your hero and heroine have emotional barriers to overcome before they fall in love. Overcome the barriers is what enables them to get together and have the happily ever after ending readers expect.

Bob Mayer gave a full-day workshop on planning and writing your book. According to Bob Mayer, you have only 4 hours a day of creativity. Use it! He also said, don’t keep your ideas in your head; write them down. He gave us some amazing worksheets that simplify plotting a book.

When you’re developing the plot for your book, include the antagonist’s complete plan. This doesn’t mean you have to reveal it all in your manuscript, but you must know it thoroughly.

Characters have layers of motives. There’s what they say they want, what they really want, and what they need. You need to know and show them all.

In developing your characters, don’t forget to include their blind spot. The blind spot is the part of their character they’re in denial about. It’s the part of their character that needs to change.

Every character (including your antagonist) needs what Bob calls a “spark of redemption” – some tiny indication at the beginning of the story of the better person that person could be if she/he changed.

Bob also had something interesting to say about the point of view you use and info dumping. Generally, info dumping is a no-no, as it slows the pace and takes you out of the POV character’s head. It turns out this is true only for third person limited POV. You can info dump in first person, where the narrator would be sharing a bit of info he/she thought you as reader/listener should know. (Even so, you want to be cautious about your use of info dumping, as it still takes you out of the scene and can slow the pace.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Anatomy of a Carriage Accident -- What Went Wrong

Carriages play a big part in historicals, and, no surprise, so do carriage accidents. The trouble is, over and over again it’s the same old, predictable disaster scene. The horses bolt; the hero, at great risk to his own life, stops them, and the heroine is eternally grateful. After a dozen of these, what was supposed to be a thrill for the reader is just a ho-hum. And if you know anything about carriage driving, they don’t ring true.

In this blogpost, I'll guide you through some real carriage accidents (fortunately, U-tube is full of them), analyze what went wrong, and show you how you can make your driving accidents look more authentic.

Where do I get the qualifications to do this? Well, I spent 20 years working with horses, 10 of them competing in combined driving, a highly skilled and challenging form of carriage driving. I’ve trained my own horses and competed and won in competitions around the US, been the course designer for the Arizona Combined Driving Event, judged combined driving in the US and New Zealand, put together weekend workshops on driving, and been the president of a regional carriage driving association.

So let’s start with a typical accident. This is a young, inexperience pair being driven through Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island, Maine. The park is criss-crossed with lovely driving roads and is the venue for the American Driving Association’s weekend drive, which is what I think these drivers are.

As you can see, the horses saw something at the side of the road that frightened them and jumped sideways. The driver easily regained control over this well-mannered pair.

Spooks are the most common kind of driving mishap. Basically there are three kinds of accidents: bolts, spooks and crashes. The kinds can be combined. Horses have two instinctive reactions to a fright: flight or fight. The preferred mode is flight. A spook is a sudden action (usually sideways) in reaction to a fright.

In this accident, the consequences were minor. The horses went off the road, but fortunately, there was a level clearing that they were able to go into. No one fell out of the carriage. Imagine what would happen if there was a fence or ditch there. As a writer, this is how you can complicate your accident.

Let’s look at another incident with the same pair. At this point they are just starting their drive.

This is a typical bolt. The pair spooked first, then ran. The driver lost control of his/her horses, who ran, but then the driver was able to get control back again in a very short distance. Driving horses generally are bred for their calm, docile disposition and are extremely well-trained. They’re reliable animals, so most bolts – if they happen at all -- are very short. When the horses continue to gallop out-of-control for a long distance, then things get scary. Very scary.

I’ll show that later. Right now, let’s talk about what went wrong.

This is a young, inexperienced pair, though they have been trained well. Young horses are more likely to spook or do stupid things than older, more experienced ones, who learn to take a lot in stride. This situation, where both horses in a pair are inexperienced, is something you’ll find in the twenty-first century, but was unlikely in the age of carriage driving. Usually then, an inexperienced horse would have been paired with a steady, experienced one, who would have transmitted his confidence to the youngster.

This is how Black Beauty was trained. When I was in the foothills of the Himalayans in Yunnan province, China, where carriage transport is still used, I had a chance to drive with an old man whose “pair” consisted of the mother, who was pulling the carriage, and her yearling foal, who was tied loosely beside her. The youngster wasn’t in draft, but he learned the ways of the road and would have become a calm, steady horse by the time he was actually put to the carriage. (“Put to” is the technical term for hitching a horse to the cart.)

So… since he was driving inexperienced horses, the driver in this clip should have been the alert for trouble. I get the feeling this driver is inexperienced, too, not a good combination with an inexperienced horse. Or he may have just been distracted by all the people around him. Which is common at a carriage driving event, where your friends are driving, too. Certainly the camera person isn’t paying attention to what’s going on.

With horses, distraction can lead to disaster.

Rerun the clip and watch the horses’ heads and ears. Notice how they’re turning their heads to look at something on the side of the road. Horses will signal a spook this way. (Look at the first clip and you’ll see they’re signaling loud and clear.) At this point the driver should have done something to get their attention. Just pulling on the right rein and asking them to turn their heads to the right would have probably done it. Horses cannot hold more than one thing at a time in their minds.

Another element of the accident-waiting-to-happen is the camera person, whom I suspect was supposed to groom for this driver. The job of the groom is to help control the horses and stabilize the carriage (if necessary.) With an expensive piece of video equipment in his/her hands, my guess is the groom would have been more concerned with saving the camera than dealing with horses. Of course, there could have been others in that vehicle, which looks like a wagonette. A wagonette is a cross between a carriage and a wagon. There are seats for the driver and a passenger or groom up front, and then two seats in the back, facing each other, for additional passengers or grooms. It’s a vehicle often used in combined driving today, and can be pulled by either a pair (2 horses) or a team (4 horses, also called a 4-in-hand).

The next two clips are serious bolts, where the horses have an extended run. Look at the way the driver is bounced around in this first clip. I really have to admire this guy. Here’s a hero for your book. (Something like this happened to me once, and it was not fun, especially since I got jammed in the boot – the area where the driver puts his/her feet – and then my horse stopped and began kicking the carriage apart.)

Notice how the driver here regains control of his team, by circling them tightly. A horse cannot run flat-out in a tight circle. This works for this wagonette because it is designed for combined driving, where you have to make sharp turns. If you try to do this with a two-wheeled cart or with a traditional carriage or coach, you risk flipping the vehicle.

The driver WOULD NOT try to walk up the pole (the piece of wood between the horses), as you sometimes see in Westerns. That pole is tied very loosely to both horse and carriage. Even if it was able to support a man, his weight would twist the harness in a way that would, at the very least, add to the horses’ frights, or tangle in the horse, injuring it. Plus, as you can see from the way the driver is being bounced around IN the carriage, do you think anyone could actually stay balanced on a pole that’s not even the width of his boot?

In this next clip, the team – a four-in-hand of gorgeous Friesians -- have somehow broken loose before the driver was able to mount the box seat (get up in the carriage.) Look at the chaos they create in the carriage yard. Here people on the ground are able to detach the leaders (the front pair). Modern turnouts (the term for the complete ensemble of horse, carriage, driver, grooms, livery and equipment) usually feature safety devices such as “quick-release” clips that allow grooms to quickly unfasten the horse from the carriage.

Trying to grab a running horse from the ground is dangerous in itself. Basically an 80 kilo (170 lb) man is trying to stop a frightened 500 kilo (1100 lb.) animal that can easily pull its own weight. The next clip, another display of great courage, shows what can happen. And this is only a 225 kilo (500 lb.) pony.

What happens if the horses bolt and the driver isn’t able to regain control? The last of my clips is the ultimate horse show nightmare, but it could just as easily have happened in an 1815 London street.

The other drivers in this scene have followed what is standard horse show procedure for a run-away. They’ve come to the centre of the arena, leaving the outside track clear for the running horse. The trouble is horses are herd animals. The run-away wants the safety of his kind. And he’s dragging a carriage.

The smart drivers and grooms have un-hitched. You’ll notice the ones that get into trouble are those who stay in their carts.

What went wrong here? Driver error, again. Replay this clip and you’ll see the horse even as he enters the arena is very nervous. He is an accident waiting to happen. This kind of driving class – known as a pleasure driving class -- features hot, spirited horses, but they should be well-mannered and well trained. They should be eager to go forward, but not nervous and scared. In this case, the horse is tense. He signals his fear mostly through his head – up in the air – and the way his neck is bowed, not arched (look at the other horses and compare.) He should never have been brought into the arena. The driver probably hoped he would settle down, or had the erroneous idea that fear would heighten the horses “action” (his high-stepping stride) and catch the judge’s eye. What happens here is entirely due to the driver’s bad judgment.

At the end of the clip, when they force the horse to stay on the ground, this is not cruelty but about the smartest thing they can do. First, it keeps the horse under control. Secondly, a downed horse will usually stop struggling and start to calm. Third, it gives them a chance to remove tangled equipment and also to do any necessary emergency vet work. Once the horse is calmed, they would release it and allow it to regain its feet.

In the clips I’ve analyzed, you’ve seen many crashes. There is another kind of crash known as a hang-up. Driver error usually causes that, too. The turnout is going too fast and not able to make a turn, or the driver misjudges the clearance between carriage and obstacle. This kind of crash is common in combined driving events, where part of the competition involves going through tight-tricky obstacles (know as “hazards”) as fast as you can. Usually the driver and groom are able to get the carriage un-hung-up and they continue on with the competition, merely losing time, as in this clip.

As I mentioned, driving horses are generally very calm. When there’s a hang-up like this, usually they will just stand still and wait for their driver and groom to rescue them. Occasionally they panic and start kicking and rearing. They injure themselves and also make it very difficult to free them. They can damage equipment and hurt their handlers.

U-tube is full of carriage driving accidents. If you’ve got one in your story, watch a few clips first and your writing will be richer and more authentic. You can find more clips by doing a search for “carriage driving accidents”.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Saissac and the Mysterious Treasure Hoard


The first of the Cathar strongholds Phil and I visited was Bram, a town along the Canal de Midi. Built in concentric rings around a late medieval church, there is no sign of the castle that once stood there, so we didn’t stay longer than it took to find batteries for my camera.

Bram is the sight of one of the most gruesome incidents of the Albigensian Crusade. After capturing Bram, Simon de Montfort sent the hundred survivors to the castle of Cahours. Sounds like an act of mercy? Not for de Montfort. The defenders of Cahours looked out their gates to a horrific sight: a staggering line of soldiers, minus noses, lips and eyes, guided by one survivor to whom de Montfort had left the use of one eye.

As for Bram itself, de Montfort’s army levelled the place. The charming town there today grew up after the Cathar crusade.

From Bram we drove the 30 kilometres into the Montaignes Noire (Black Mountains) to the next Cathar castle we planned to visit. During the drive I filled Phil in about Simon de Montfort.

After Pope Innocent III called the Albigensian Crusade, Simon de Montfort was given charge of the crusading army. He was the father of the Simon de Montfort who gave the King Henry III of England so much trouble a generation later.

De Montfort started in the north and worked south across Languedoc with a ruthlessness that earned him a reputation for butchery. He took the city of Beziers and slaughtered the entire city’s population. To be fair, the massacre was not entirely de Montfort’s decision. He asked the papal legate what to do with the prisoners and was told, “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.”

From there he moved on to Carcassonne, the seat of the Trencaval family, who held the Languedoc as vassals of Count Raymond of Toulouse. Carcassonne quickly fell under the pressures of starvation, thirst and the August heat. By the time the crusading army reached Saissac, de Montfort’s fearsome reputation had become a weapon in itself.

The village of Saissac
Coming up from the plains, you can see Saissac long before you get there. When you get close it’s a different story. Perched on a v-shaped outcrop projecting a vertical escarpment in the Montaignes Noires (Black Mountains), you actually have to go downhill, through the village of Saissac to get to the castle itself.

Entrance to the castle from the village
Even so, with only one, narrow wall accessible to anyone approaching the castle, and that protected by a deep moat, Saissac should have been impregnable.

But its lord, Bertrand de Saissac, abandoned the castle rather than give his fealty to de Montfort, who by that time had been given all the lands held by the Trencavals. Bertrand then became one of the faydit – Languedoc lords who were condemned by the Church and technically considered heretics and outlaws. He would have been a man on the run. Eventually he joined Raymond Trencaval in his unsuccessful attempt to recapture Carcassonne and the Languedoc. Interestingly, a part of the fief of Saissac was eventually restored to Bertrand and his heirs by King Louis IX.

The other part Saissac – which included the castle -- remained in the hands of the crusaders, who took control of the fortress for the King of France. And this is where the next interesting bit of its history appears.
In 1979 a treasure trove was found by construction workers helping to stabilize the castle walls. Hidden in a clay pot buried in the ground, it consisted of 1954 deniers and 3 obules, dating between 1180 and 1270, with the bulk from the mints of Kings Louis VIII and IX).

The money represents a turning point in the history of European currency. Towards the end of the Carolingian era (9th century) the king lost the exclusive power to mint coins. By the 11th century, local lords were minting their own – and by the 12th century, there were a multiplicity of local mints, all on a small, artisan level. On a political level, this independent state of coinage reflected the independent local sovereignty that was the reality throughout southern France. The King of France might call himself “king”, but the fact was, he had little power beyond central France. And this was particularly true in southern France, where Count Raymond of Toulouse was almost a king in his own right.

For the King of France, the Albigensian Crusade was an opportunity to consolidate his power over southern France, all legitimized by a religious cause.

Once Louis VIII gained control of Languedoc, he forbade the minting of local coinage and made his own coinage the sole legal tender of the realm. The Saissac treasure trove must have been accumulated during that period in history. The majority of the coins are from Louis VIII’s and his successor’s mints, but the handful of locally minted coins shows that a few of them were still in circulation.

How the hoard got there is the subject for much speculation. A denier is the medieval French equivalent of a penny. (In fact, the British system of pennies, shillings and pounds came to England through the Norman conquerors.) Two thousand deniers would have not been a lot of money – enough to buy a cow, or two or three sheep, or a nice set of clothes for a common man’s wedding, or food to keep a family through a winter. So this is obviously the savings of a villager, not the treasure of the Lord of Saissac. 1270 marks a period in which the faydit Languedoc lords made one final attempt to regain their lands. Possibly the villager hid his savings in hopes of keeping it out of the hands of marauding armies. Then something happened to prevent him or her from returning to reclaim the coins.

View out over the plain toward Carcassonne
Today, with the exception of the one building restored as a museum for the treasure trove, most of Saissac is in ruin. It covers three terraces, running downhill to a narrow point looking out on the plain. As a fief of France, the castle was expanded and held against the Protestants during the Wars of Religion during the 16th century, but it eventually fell into ruins after the French Revolution and was the subject of major looting during the middle of the nineteenth century.

Figuring out what was where has challenged modern archaeologists, who are still at work. Structures aren’t always what they seem. Ovens look like dungeons, storerooms like castle halls.  What appear to be defensive structures for pouring out boiling oil along the castle’s edge, for example, are actually medieval latrines. I found myself fascinated by some multi-coloured stones at what would have been floor level -- but have no idea what they once were.

Vicky's mystery stones


Monday, August 8, 2011

The Cathars

The Medieval Market Square in LaGrasse

Phil and I sit on the terrace of a café in the medieval town of Lagrasse in the Languedoc region of France and warm our hands around cappuccinos. It’s July. The temperature should be in the 30’s (90’s F) but the Sens, a cold wind from the north, has sent the temperatures plummeting to 20 degrees (68 F). We’ve been in France three days and I’ve already concluded cappuccino is not something France does well. The four I’ve had so far – all at different restaurants – have all been disasters. The latest, at least, with its cap of whipped cream is a decent imitation of Viennese coffee.

Lagrasse is in the heart of what, during the 12th and 13th century, was the homeland of the Cathar heresy. Half the sightseeing brochures we’ve picked up indicate that this castle, or that abbey or that village is somehow linked to the biggest bloodbath the south of France experienced. I’ve just found a history of it written in French by a local author, and am reading bits to Phil. As a Medievalist, I knew a little about the so-called heresy, which the church of Rome saw as such a threat that it called a crusade, but I’m amazed at how much of what I thought I knew is wrong. Like my search of the “real” King Arthur, it’s another indication of the vast extent of new information Medievalists have uncovered in the 30 years since I studied for my PhD (and then dropped the whole thing to go into advertising.)


In 1208 Pope Innocent III called the king and nobles of France upon a Crusade to eliminate the Cathar heresy that had spread through southern France. In the thirty years that followed, more than 40,000 Cathars, their supporters and innocent bystanders fell under swords of the crusaders. The principle cities and fortresses of the Languedoc were captured and destroyed. Northern France, at last, gained political and economic dominance over the vast, rich territory it had coveted (and which technically but never in political reality was a fief of France.) A civilization – the one that had spawned troubadours, chivalry and courtly love -- had been destroyed. And the Catholic Church initiated the Inquisition.

Catharism itself was a grass-roots movement of itinerant preachers calling for religious reform at a time when the Catholic Church was growing increasingly corrupt.

Most of what has entered popular knowledge about the Cathars was actually disseminated by the Catholic Church, the Cathars’ worst enemies. Even the name was a Catholic invention, having been given to the group by Benedictine Abbot Eckbert of Schonau in 1163. Cathars themselves had no name for their movement. They called themselves “Bonne homes” – “Good men”. Eckbert himself, in one of his sermons, admits that the members of this group were called different things in different locations. In fact, the movement, which is probably the best term for what the Church considered a heresy, was widespread throughout Europe. There were large pockets in the Rhineland, where Eckbert wrote, Burgundy, Bulgaria, Languedoc, northern Spain and Tuscany and Lombardy in Italy. Depending on the location, the Church referred to them as Bogomils, Bulgarians, Buggers, Publicans, Piphels, Lucifarians, Arians, and Cathars. The many names may have been the Church’s attempt to play down the wide-spread nature of the movement. Or to cause confusion regarding its nature. The church also spread much misinformation about Cather beliefs and practices. It’s only during the past fifty years that historians have unearthed original Cathar documents and been able to sort truth from propaganda.

So who were these Cathars? And what made them such a threat that Church and State united to destroy them?

Join me over the next couple of weeks while I share what Phil and I learned.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Draconian Divorce -- New York in the 1950's

A big part of the plot of Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty circles around Sophie’s parents’ divorce. Exiled takes place in the 1950’s in an imaginary version of my Long Island hometown. Back in those days, divorce was very different from the no-fault, bye-it-was-nice-knowing-you system prevalent throughout the US today. And New York State had the most draconian of all divorce laws.

For those of you who don’t live in the United States and didn’t have to sit through an interminable term of what our high school teachers called “Government”, laws concerning marriage, divorce, birth control, driving, education and a lot of other things differ from state to state. That’s thanks to a quirk of the US Constitution that reserves to state governments everything not specifically mentioned in the Constitution.

In 1956, the year Exiled takes place, every state was different. Laws ranged from Nevada, where you merely had to establish six weeks residence, file a petition and get a divorce, to New York, which restricted divorce to only those who could prove the adultery of their spouse. Even then it took ages to go through the complete process to the final “Decree Nisi”, which said the marriage was officially ended and the parties could remarry.

Early New York divorce law had an interesting quirk. Until the state constitution was modified in the early 20th century, there were two routes to divorce. The one was a judicial route, in which a party could be granted divorce upon proving the infidelity of the spouse. When the law permitting this was originally proposed in 1787, it also stipulated that the adulterous party would not be permitted to remarry, but when it was actually passed two years later, that provision was dropped as too onerous.

The other route was called a parliamentary divorce. It allowed the parties to apply to the state legislature, who could then pass a special law permitting the divorce. This allowed a much broader range of grounds, but was very hard to get.

As a result, even as early as the 19th century, a large number of New Yorkers sought divorces outside the state, in what is known as “migratory” divorce. This was the route my own father took in 1946 when he split from his first wife (who was not my mother). The states preferred for divorce were those with very short residency requirements, chiefly Alabama, Nevada, Florida, Idaho and Wyoming. The wealthy often went overseas. There were divorce “mills” in Paris, Havana and Mexico.

There were domestic scandals, as well. Several times in the state’s history, divorce “rings” were exposed, in which professional “co-respondents” were paid to attest to having sex with one or the other of the parties in order to provide the necessary grounds.

Of course, in Exiled, Marta’s adultery is a proven fact. Even so, Jan needs hard evidence for court, which is why he appears to stalk her. Courts were not favorable towards women caught in adultery, by the way. Happy Murphy, who divorced her doctor husband to marry Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1963, was forced to give up her four children by Murphy.

By 1956, citizens were clamoring for reform and a commission was created to study the divorce laws, but its limited mandate prevented it from accomplishing anything. In fact, reform was strongly blocked by the Catholic Church, which had a strong hold on the lower and more populous half of New York State. It took another ten years before the 1966 Divorce Reform Law was adopted. This law allowed for a wider range of grounds, including desertion, imprisonment, “deviant” sexual behavior and “cruel and inhuman treatment”. It also permitted “no-fault” divorce based on legal separation, which was carefully defined.

The reforms, while an improvement, were by no means equitable. In the 1960’s, the majority of women were still economically dependent on their husbands, and legislation did not guarantee a divorced woman sufficient means of support. It wasn’t until the feminist movement and further reform in 1980 that this was addressed.

Source: accessed 22/8/08

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Enhancing Language

Finally we’re at the part of layering the scene that most new writers consider “editing” or “revising” – enriching the language. By now, if you’ve been following my Layering Your Scene blogs through all nine parts (has it really been that many?), you’ve discovered there’s a lot more to enhancing a scene’s emotional impact than “fixing” the words.

Actually, words are the last thing you should look at, because by the time you’re finished puttering with everything else, those words may not even be there.

OK, you’ve got your scene working hard, contributing to the novel’s plot, conflict, theme, character development and building tension as it goes. Your scene has a strong beginning that jumps right into the central conflict of the scene and it has a hook that spins the characters off into a new direction.

You’re ready to look at the words.
  • Backload your sentences to strengthen their power.
  • Tighten the language. Get rid of redundancies and unnecessary verbiage.
  • Replace clichés with fresh writing.
  • Layer in rhetorical devices that heighten the emotional impact.

There is already so much good advice on the internet on how to enrich your language that I’m not going to repeat it all. Instead, I'll to point you in a few choice directions. So here goes:

"Backloading" is an expression that I think was coined by Margie Lawson, though she’s not the first place I discovered the concept. Backloading a sentence means putting the most powerful word in the sentence in the most powerful location in the sentence: its end.

Power words (also called “loaded words”) are words that resonate with readers’ emotions. They’re strong words that carry their own baggage, words like death, prayer, rape, caution, silence, blood, guilt, knife, edge, fall. Words that contain connotations of death, injury, disaster, chaos, pain, joy, love are all power words, as are many action verbs.

There are two ways you can backload a sentence.

 Chop off words and phrases that aren’t necessary and that cause the power of the sentence to trickle away.

Thinly scattered streetlights reveal vast lawns, long, curving driveways, and tall, old trees whose bare branches twist like witches’ arms in the moonlight. 
The power words here are “witches’ arms”. I’ve already mentioned streetlights, so I certainly don’t need moonlight. It can go.

Thinly scattered streetlights reveal vast lawns, long, curving driveways, and tall, old trees whose bare branches twist like witches’ arms.

Here's another original that can be chopped:

I remember now the ambulance arriving, and realize they must have come up the same lane we did.
Revised, it looks like this:
I remember now the ambulance arriving, and realize they must have come up the same lane. 
Another way to backload is rephrasing the sentence so the power word is at the end.  Here's the original:
We were both sitting cross-legged on our beds, our summer blankets pulled over our shoulders, even though it was hot outside

Rephased to move the power words to the end:
Even though it was hot outside, we were both sitting cross-legged on our beds, summer blankets pulled over our shoulders.

My revision has other problems, namely lots of fat, so let’s move on to my second bullet point and look at how to tighten it.

Mr. Stewart, my junior year high school teacher, introduced me to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style close to fifty years ago. The book was already a classic text for writers then, and still is now. It should be in every writer’s reference library. Mr. Steward repeated Rule 1 of Strunk and White so many times that it still rings in my ears: “Omit needless words.”

So what needless words can go?

First, anything that the reader could have guessed from context. Like “both”.

Next, anything that can be said more concisely: “Even thought it was hot outside” can become “Despite the heat”.

Third, look at the verb. Compound verbs that contain “begin to”, “start to” or anything similar can be reduced to the main verb. Progressive tenses (is + verb+ing) are also suspect. No, they are NOT passive voice, though critique partners and contest judges who have a mediocre grasp of grammar will try to tell you so. A progressive verb indicates that something, while active, is happening (see a used one right there) while something else happens. In other words, it indicates synchronicity. But you don’t always need progressive tense. Test the sentence by replacing the progressive form with the simple form of the verb. Does it still work? If so, use the simple form.

My sentence now looks like this:

Despite the heat, we sat cross-legged on our beds with our blankets pulled over our shoulders.

Now that "pulled over our shoulders" – the power words that indicate there’s some strong emotion making these kids feel cold – is at the end of the sentence, the phrase “cross-legged on our beds” seems to intrude on the main idea (the emotion). When that happens, ask yourself, “Do I really need that image”? Ninety percent of the time, the answer’s “no”. Often, when the answer’s “yes”, you can find another place to work it in (possible a different sentence) without weakening the sentence you’ve just strengthened.

I’ve merely scratched the surface tightening your writing. Author/agent Lois Winston has an amazing blog post that covers it in detail.

Clichés crop up at us when we least expect them. There are two that sentence. “crop up at us” (which I think is a misuse, as well) and “when we least expect them.” The point is it’s easy to write clichés. They’re so strongly embedded in our culture that when we open to the door to our Muse, there they are.

The trick is recognizing them and replacing them with something fresher. Fresher equals stronger.

Having trouble recognizing them? Just Google “cliché lists” and you’ll find over five million lists.

There are also plot clichés -- those predictable bits of action that bore the reader. You know, the hero who spots the unknown heroine at a ball and just has to pursue her, the girl who trips so the hero notices how pretty her ankle is, the dog that eats the crucial piece of evidence (otherwise known as “the dog ate my evidence”), and so on. Hopefully by now you’ve gotten rid of them, but if you’re still new to writing, you may need help recognizing them. Google will point you toward websites with lists of them, as well. One of my favorites is

That leaves layering rhetorical devices. Rhetorical devices are the things you learned in poetry: metaphors, similes, hyperbole, alliteration and so on. Actually, there are heaps more. If you’re serious about upping the standard of your writing, take any of Margie Lawson’s courses. Her EDITS course includes practice in many rhetorical devices that writers use all the time, but that you probably were never aware were RD’s and could be used to create specific effects.

That wraps up my series of blogs on Layering Your Scene. Have fun revising!.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Endings

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sharing the content of a workshop I gave for the C2C chapter of the Romance Writers of New Zealand. We’re nearing the end – and appropriately this blog is about the scene ending.

So let’s look at the ending.
  • Does it have a hook?
  • Is the hook fresh and interesting?
  • Does it move the plot in a different direction?
  • Does it have a “Shrek moment”?

Not sure whether your scene has a hook? Read your last few paragraphs to a partner. Get feeback on whether the hook’s working.

Every scene should have a hook.

Most paragraphs should have a hook.

Most sentences should have a hook (I’ll talk about how to do this in the next blog).

First draft writing looks something like this, from my WIP, Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty. This scene is from a chapter that I eventually cut entirely from the book. In it, Sophie and her father are at the beach discussing her brother Marion’s tragic death.
Dad slapped at a mosquito. Like Marion, he was blond and gray-eyed with the finely chiseled features of a handsome man. Mosquitoes loved him.
“Time to go home.” 
It’s not bad, but there’s nothing about it to make the reader turn the page. Mary Buchanan, in one of her workshops, says that every scene should end with a hook that drives the reader to go on to the next scene.

Usually, however, the first draft of any scene ends on something that would put a potential reader to sleep. That’s because beginning writers have the urge to feel closure. It's what happened with this scene. You know what’s going to happen next. They’re going home. I could have shown them packing up their picnic and loading the car, but by the time I wrote this I’d gotten past writing most of what Margie Lawson calls “walking the dog”.

Signs of walking the dog at scene endings include:

  •  Saying good-bye (unless there’s something about the good-bye that spins the characters on their heads)
  •  Putting things away
  •  Any of the rituals of leaving (putting on clothes, shaking hands, opening and closing doors, walking away.)
While this is logically how the action in the scene would play out, there is no conflict in any of these actions. Without conflict it is dead.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use good-byes to end a scene. But if you do, they have to be laden with conflict. Last night I was curled up in bed with Margaret Mahy’s YA Alchemy. Look how she turns a good-bye into a page-turner:

Roland, the hero, has been pressured by a teacher into getting to know Jess, a classmate who has no friends. Roland sums up the courage to visit her at her home, where he’s welcomed with the warmth of an Antarctic winter. Here’s the end of the scene:

Jess thrust his game of Viper towards him, then walked on to fling the front door wide. Stepping out onto the porch, Roland turned, shooting an apparently casual glance over her shoulder as he did so. There was no one and nothing on the landing. All the same, a moment earlier, he had seen – he had seen – he knew he had seen…

Of course, the reader wants to know, what has Roland seen? Mahy, right at the end of her scene, sets up a story question that propels us into the next part of the book.

My favourite “good-bye” at the end of scene – one that works dramatically well – is the penultimate scene from Gone with the Wind, in which Rhett walks out on Scarlett with the famous line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

But if you look at the scene itself, you’ll see that although he tells her he’s leaving, we don’t actually see him walk out the door. Not until the next – and final – scene in which Scarlett picks herself up from the disaster, determined to go back to Tara, which always gives her strength, and figure out a way to win him back.

As a writer you don’t need to begin or end the scene where the character enters or leaves the setting. Begin it as close to the central conflict of the scene as possible and end it as soon as possible after the scene reaches its climax. In the Gone with the Wind scene, the climax is the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.
The ending to the GWTW scene twists around not just love scene we as readers expect (Scarlett entered the scene determined to tell Rhett she finally realized she loves him), but the whole the Happily Ever After ending, as well.

As a hook, the scene works magnificently, setting up at the last minute a new story question that leads us to read the last scene, which is not action, but introspection. GWTW is one of those novels in which the novelist doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, but the author has painted such a vivid portrait of a young woman who always manages to get what she wants, that the reader know Scarlett will somehow find a way to win back Rhett. On the other hand, it does leave open the question of how. If Margaret Mitchell had chosen to write a sequel, it, like GWTW, would have been a runaway best seller.

We can learn a couple more things from this scene:

  • Good hooks often set up story questions – things the reader is dying to know.
  • Good hooks surprise the reader.
Look at your scene ending. Is it predictable? How can you twist the scene and make it different?

Lori Wilde, to whom I am indebted for much of what I’ve learned on layering, suggests a couple of ways to do this:

  • End the scene the opposite of how you begin it
  • Look for a different motivation for the character’s behaviour
  • Add what Lori Wilde calls a “Shrek Moment”. A Shrek Moment – taken from the animated film Shrek – turns a cliché on its head. Shrek is filled with these. Most of them take iconic Disney conventions and give them an ironic twist. My favourite is the morning after Shrek has rescued Princess Fiona from the dragon. They are still in the forest. She hears birds singing and spots a mother bird on its next. In a typical Disney animation, this is a cue for the heroine to burst into song. Instead, the next scene shows a frying pan full of eggs.
Alexandra Sokoloff says that a good scene ending should contain a “disaster”. Like the ending I quoted earlier from Margaret Mahy, it should swivel the protagonist and the plot around in a new direction.

To create a disaster, ask yourself:

  •  What surprises can occur?
  •  How can I make things worse?
Next week: Layering Your Scene by Enriching the Language

Monday, July 4, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Theme

The next layer to add to your scene are the all the elements that have to do with the novel’s theme. For those of you who weren’t English majors (there must be a few of you out there) theme is basically the one-word definition of the abstract concept or ideal the book is about. For example, Othello is about jealousy, Hamlet is about revenge, Romeo and Juliet is about love. Often a work can have more than one theme. While Hamlet could be about revenge, it can also be about justice -- or indecision.

The theme is always a moral quality. It broadens the story’s scope, transforming it from a series of incidents that happen to a certain individual during a certain time at a certain place to a fable to which a broad audience can relation. In other words, the theme makes the story universal.

Although the theme itself is a universal quality, what each writer brings to a particular theme can be very different. For example, Titanic, Romeo and Juliet, and When Harry Met Sally are all about love. But they say very different things about love:
  • Titanic: Love lasts forever.
  • Romeo and Juliet: Love overcomes hate.
  • When Harry Met Sally: Friends can turn to lovers.
Every scene should reinforce the theme. But how do you do that?

One way to state your theme is to use the formula put forward by Stan Williams in his book The Moral Premise:

            ___________ (virtue) leads to _____________ (positive
            outcome) but  _______________________ (opposing
            vice) leads to _________ (disastrous result).

Once you’ve stated your theme, ask yourself, “How does the scene support this premise?” In other words, what lesson does the reader learn from the scene?

For example, in the first book of my Arthurian trilogy, The Deadly Peace, the moral premise is “”Trust leads to allies and success; lack of trust leads to lack of allies and failure”. In the opening scene of the sequence in which my heroine, her best friend and her maidservant plot to set a day for my heroine’s coronation, my heroine’s inability to trust men leads her (a) to have powerless allies in the form of her female companions (b) to be reluctant to team up with a potential ally, the hero.

If your scene does not support either the positive or the negative half of your moral premise, your scene is not working hard enough. In fact, it may be totally superfluous. At this point, evaluate the purpose of the scene, especially if you’re running over your target word count. This may be one of those scenes you can omit.

Or, if there are good plot reasons why the scene is necessary, consider the following alternatives:

  • Combine it with a scene that does support your moral premise (can you slide the information you need to convey from this scene into that scene instead?)
  • Revise the scene to support the moral premise.

Once your scene supports your moral premise, you’re ready to add another layer to your text: symbolism.

In the workshop she gives on Layering Your Scene for Maximum Impact, best-selling romance writer Lori Wilde claims adding this layer made the difference that led to her first sale. Lori adds to every scene a “concrete symbol that represents the POV character’s state of mind or the plot or the theme or the misguided belief or the goal or their vulnerability.”

Often the McGuffin can work as a central symbol.

In the movie Titanic, for example, the gem “The Heart of the Sea” starts as the McGuffin that the treasure hunter (and later Cal) seeks. But it also represents Rose’s imprisonment in a role she deplores, and ultimately as the symbol for her own heart.

 While overarching symbols can contribute to the literary quality of the work, not every symbol has to be carried through the book. A symbol can be specific to a scene. For example, at the beginning Titanic, the porters bring a number of the works of early modern French artists into Rose’s cabin. They’re easily recognizable as the works of artists who are famous today, but back in 1912, they would have been barely known. We never see these paintings again, but they reverberate on several levels. Rose’s recognition of the potential of these undiscovered gems says a lot about the heroine’s artistic sensibility, but her financé’s scorn for the same works also tells us a lot about him. The paintings become the focal point for the conflict between Rose and Cal. They also foreshadow Rose’s relationship with Jack. On a wider scale, the later loss of these potentially priceless works under the sea mirrors the incalculable value of the disaster’s lost human lives.

 Checklist for theme:
  • Scene supports the moral premise.
  • Scene contains a symbol that “represents the POV character’s state of mind or the plot or the theme or the misguided belief or the goal or their vulnerability.”
Next week:
Layering the Ending and Language




Monday, June 27, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Pace

For those of you who’ve joined this discussion of layering a scene in medias res, this is part of a workshop I delivered last month to my area chapter of the Romance Writers of New Zealand. This week we’re talking about layering to increase the pace of a scene.

No question, the emotional impact of a scene is tied to its pacing. Pace equals conflict. In my first blog, I talked about making sure that the scene was set up to contribute to the conflict inherent in the plot. Now we’re going to take a magnifying glass to the scene.

First, check every paragraph to make sure it contains conflict. Get rid of what Margie Lawson calls “walking the dog”. “Walking the dog” are those bits of business (a theatrical term that means actions and activities) that don’t contribute to the conflict. Typical walking the dog segments include:
  • getting up and getting dressed or ready
  • eating a meal
  • travelling, entering, leaving
  • waiting (unless you’re able to show tension building)
  • bickering (as opposed to where the argument stems from the characters’ goals)
  • social conventions
  • polite dialog, such as when the host offers tea and the guest says, “No thank you” (and there’s no subtext that indicates she thinks she might be poisoned)
  • anything you wrote to fill pages while you figured out what happens next
The rule is get in and out of the scene as close to the central action as you can. Start the scene where the conflict begins. Show us the secretary asking for a raise from her stingy boss – forget the part where she drives to work. Get out of the scene as close as you can to where the protagonist achieves or fails to achieve his goal. Forget the polite good-bys the morning after they sleep together – but by all means keep the part where he says, “I don’t think we should see each other again.” (Lots of conflict there!)

 Next, highlight all lines of introspection -- you know, those places where your character is thinking. Introspection slows the pace.

 Scrutinize. Is it all necessary? Cut, cut, cut, right down to the bare bones. Then turn as much of the rest as you can into dialog, which is much faster paced.

 Closely linked to introspection is over-explaining. These are lines that look like,

     “The Apaches will attack at dawn.” He wanted his troop to be alert.

As if they’re going to sleep through the night after news like that.

 Not all lines of explanation are useless. Sometimes they add subtext to the story:

     “I’m on a diet.” She didn’t want him to think she was always this fat.

Now we know (a) she’s got a weight problem, or at least she’s concerned about her body image (b) she’s worried about what he thinks of her, perhaps as the first step towards a romance…

 Over-explaining merely adds padding to your text. Give your readers credit for their intelligence. Do you really need to explain this? They’ve probably already figured it out. Omit the repeats, and consider opportunities to add subtext.

 Backstory is another pace-slower. A whole blog – possibly a whole book – could be written on this. In an opening chapter, it can kill your sale.

 As a good writer, you probably know more backstory on your characters than you’ll ever need to tell.

 The rule for backstory is feed it to the reader only on a need-to-know basis. And only one line at a time. One speaker at last year’s RWA National Convention mentioned that in the first third of the book, there should be only one sentence of backstory per chapter. That’s not much.

 Look at it like this: your job in the first half of the book is to set up “story questions”, questions readers ask themselves that keep them reading to the end in order to discover the answers. You do that by dropping hints. For example, in the opening of my YA WIP, my first person narrator says,

     We haven’t had a lot of happiness.

Instantly the reader is going to ask “why not?” But not until several chapters later do they get the beginning of the answer. And then, only the beginning…

 There are two places where somewhat extended backstory will work:

  •  The prolog (if your editor will let you get away with one) – Prologs are designed to provide the necessary backstory to set up the plot. But you need to open with action, just the way you would in a standard opening. And, bad news, a prolog does not get you off the hook of having a terrific Chapter One. Editors still want to see an “opening chapter” that pulls readers into the book.
  •  A flashback (late in the book) – By that time, hopefully, you’ve dropped so many hints about what happened that you won’t need one. Warning: the minute you go into the past, you’ve taken the reader out of the conflict and the tension drops.
Research – historical or otherwise -- can also slow the pace with what editor Jennifer Enderlin calls “over-writing”. You’ve probably put a lot of time into making sure you’ve got the details right. You know your time period or your protagonist’s job details better than a real life person in your protagonist’s shoes. But, like backstory, you should include only enough for the reader to understand the plot.

Signs of overwriting include:

  •  The POV character says or thinks stuff everyone around her/him takes for granted or knows. For example, the stable master does not have to explain to the groom how to harness a horse.
  •  The tone changes. Suddenly it sounds like a college lecture. You’re no longer in the POV character’s head.
  •  It pulls you out of the action of the story.
Sometimes you need that bit of historical or technical explanation, so how do you work it in?
  • Introduce an “Expert” cluing in the newcomer/neophyte. For example, in the James Bond movies, this job of M and Q.
  •  Refer to it in a way that is natural for the context, making use of subtext. For example, in the movie Gosford Park, there is a discussion below stairs over who among the staff will serve those guests who didn’t bring maids/valets. The subtext intimates that (a) it is expected every guest will have a maid or valet to help them dress and take care of their clothes (b) staff are expected to do extra work when there’s an event like a house party.
A final suggestion for increasing the pace is to look at your white space, paragraph length and sentence structure.

White space always speeds up the pace.


So do short sentences.

And fragments.

On the other hand, long sentences, as much as we enjoy their rhetorical and structural intricacies, slow down the pace, which isn’t always bad. In an idyllic scene where your lovers are enjoying each other’s company, a slower pace enhances the tranquillity of the moment.

Notice the difference?

So go back one more time and look at sentence and paragraph length. Decide what pace this part of the scene requires and adjust your sentences accordingly.

Next week: the moral and symbolic layers

Monday, June 20, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- The Emotional Level

When I submit a chapter to my critique partners, I ask them to mark MOEs – missed opportunities for emotion. Because for me, remembering to stick in the emotion is the hardest thing to do. After all, writing about the emotion forces me to feel the emotion. And you know, with what I put my characters through, there’s times when I’d just as soon not feel that.
But emotion is what readers crave.

Romance is all about emotion. But it’s not the only genre in which emotion counts. Readers of historicals seek the emotional link that connects our era with theirs. Readers of YAs chase the fist-punching-air “ha!” of victory and the soul-plummet of angst. Readers of thrillers, mystery and suspense go for the chill up their spine as the protagonist’s situation turns from dire to desperate.

Once you’ve gotten the mechanics of structure and issues with POV worked through, the next level of layering a scene is the emotional layer.

Start by reading the chapter over again in one quick swoop and mark all the places you’ve shown the emotion. This can be:

Naming the emotion:

      Now I’m facing Joseph, but I’m afraid to look in his eyes, afraid to see the hurt that must be there.

Body language:

     Joseph blushes and rubs his collar with his left hand. The way guys do with a new shirt when there’s a pin still sticking there that their mother forgot to take out. Except this is a pin he’ll never find. It will always be there, itching and rubbing, for the rest of his life.


      “Not again!”

Dialog cues:

      “I think,” she says in a voice cold as the snow that will start falling any day now, “you made your position clear.”


       My mind is going fast. I’ve forgotten everything I meant to say. But, then, I said it. I apologized. What else does she want?


      The scent of gardenias drifting through the open window reawakened the sweet memory of an awkward boy’s blush as he struggled to pin a corsage to her prom dress.

Go back now and look more closely at the various ways you’ve shown emotion. Have you used them to the fullest?

OK, time for an unabashed and blatant promotion. If you really want to learn to write emotions well, take one of Margie Lawson’s on-line courses. In fact, take all of them. She is the dean of writing emotions, bar none. What I’m going to jot down here is just a drop in the bucket compared to what she knows and teaches. End of commercial. We will now resume our regular programming.

Naming the emotion

Naming the emotion is “telling”, not showing, but at times it’s ok to tell. Be judicial your use of naming the emotion. It’s not a blanket replacement when you can’t think of how else to show emotion. 
Body language:

 Most writers use facial expressions, but there’s a lot more to body language than whether the character looks, smiles, raises her eyebrow, etc. Other stereotypical body moves are touches, shrugs, nods, shakes and turns. Go beyond the standard repertoire. Think about:

  • Where are the two characters in relationship to each other? How close? Does the space change? How comfortable are the characters with the space?
  •  How are their bodies oriented towards each other?
  • How your character uses his hands and feet? Where are they placed, what are they touching?
  • Visceral reactions and their signs. Visceral reactions are the automatic responses your body makes to strong emotions like fear and attraction. They’re things like increased heartbeat and breathing, blood rushing to face and neck (and genitals), sweating, increased or decreased focus, etc. Whenever something important has happened, whenever you want a strong emotional hit for the reader, remember to include the visceral reaction. 
Dialog and Dialog Cues:  
Often the words in dialog itself convey an emotion. But if there’s potential ambiguity, then you can clarify the emotion with what Margie Lawson coined “dialog cues.” Dialog cues go beyond simple dialog tags to actually convey how a line is delivered. They indicate the speaker’s volume, tone, or pitch.

Internalization is the character’s thoughts. It’s internal dialog, and it goes without saying it can carry emotion. But it’s a weak way to convey emotion, as intellectualization is one step removed from the actual feeling. Think about combining it with a physical reaction, as well.

As writers, we’re told to use all five senses in our descriptions. Writer and medical researcher Marilyn Kelly (11 Senses: Who knew?) says actually there are eleven:

  •  The 5 senses plus
  •  Sense of temperature
  •  Sense of time
  •  Sense of equilibrium/balance
  •  Sense of motion/speed
  •  Sense of pain/pleasure
  •  Sense of orientation
  •  “6th sense” – intuition/ESP

If you're writing a  Paranormal: does your character have other senses?
When you’re writing in Deep POV, descriptions need to serve emotions. Characters don’t just see or hear something. They filter what they experience through their own world view. Your descriptions should reveal what they feels about what they see, hear, smell, touch, taste… 
      Photos of a younger Miss Pride, in slinky sequins and fluttery feathers, sneer at us as we follow her through the front hall and to the kitchen.

 In this sentence from my WIP, we don’t just get a description of the pictures on the walls; we get how Sophie, my POV character, feels about them. She feels looked down on, judged and found wanting by someone who considers herself superior.

 And there’s one more I haven’t mentioned: The subtext – what are the characters NOT saying or doing? Can you show internal dissonance? (Internal dissonance is when what they say contradicts what they do.)  For example, a shivering heroine can shrug off the jacket the hero tries to lay around her shoulders.  
     “I’m not cold,” she said through blue lips.

Now that you’ve looked at how you’ve handled the emotions in the places you’ve got it, go back again and mark every Missed Opportunity for Emotion (MOE). If you’ve got good critique partners, this is where they come in really handy. If you don’t have CPs to do this for you, you can still identify where emotions should come. Just ask yourself, “How does my character feel about that?” after every:
  • Line of dialog
  • Move by another character that
  • Is overtly or subtly threatening
  • Closes personal space (including touches)
  • Opens personal space (including turning away)
  • News or event that the character didn’t want
  • News or event that the character wanted
  • News or event that the character didn’t expect
Dig hard. Don’t let yourself off the hook. And think of fresh ways to show the emotion. Don’t let yourself get away with clichés, including less obvious clichés like “he glared, she shrugged, he grinned” that are simply shortcuts for what the emotion really looks like. Push yourself to make the way you express the emotion be as strong as the emotion itself.

Next week: Layering to speed up the pace

Monday, June 13, 2011

Interview with multi-published historical romance writer Anita Davison

One of my critique partners – Anita Davison – has just had her latest book released. Rather than blogging more about layering a scene, I thought I’d give everyone a vacation and a chance to visit with a multi-published author of historical romances.

Hi, Anita! You and I have been critique partners for a couple of years now. What got you interested in writing historicals?
I was born in London, a city which has a unique atmosphere; a sense of time passed that I connected with, even when I was young. When the other children on the school trip coach were throwing the contents of their lunch boxes at each other, I was staring out of the window at the ancient buildings, imagining men in wigs and heeled shoes coming out of coffee houses and climbing into sedan chairs on the cobbles outside St Pauls Cathedral.

Trencarrow Secret is set in Cornwall in the late Victorian period. That’s a long ways from Restoration London.
Strangely it was walking through Paternoster Row with a dear friend, discussing books of course, when the idea for the story of Trencarrow Secret came to me. One requirement of modern writing, is you cannot simply write a story, it has to be categorised, put into a box so it is instantly recognised. My critique group, and my agent, say time and again that romances are the largest market in the fiction genre. In an attempt to break into the world of traditionally published authors, I chose to step outside the world of Restoration London and into the heads of characters of another era. I haven’t managed it yet, as Trencarrow Secret is Inde Published, but I still have some stories to tell which may make it.

Isabel Hart evolved, beginning as a Jacobean character, she turned into a Regency one, eventually finding her own time in late Victorian England. Her reserved character belonged in the rigid, uncompromising days of the British Empire, and I gave her strong reasons for seeing life as many of us do when we are young; in black and white, where right and wrong are clearly defined and there is no blurring of the two.

Tell us a little bit about Isabel’s character arc?
Trencarrow Secret is a love story, and during one fateful summer, Isabel discovers that marriage is no fairytale, but an enigmatic and unique bonding of a couple which may appear unsatisfactory to outsiders, but each comes with its own chance of success.

Isabel’s romantic illusions are dispelled and she comes to realise that people, even those closest to her, are flawed and make mistakes. She has to find the capacity to forgive and move on – and to continue to love them anyway because that’s what families do. Through her unique relationship with her brother, David, Isabel struggles through revelations, self doubt and danger before she finds her soulmate.

As a reader, I’m drawn to your vivid descriptions of the period and place. Trencarrow seems so real to me? Did you model it after an actual home?
I modelled Trencarrow on a real place, which is the village of Marazion and St Michael's Mount rather than the house itself. The Hart's summer home in Cornwall is a house I have visited often - also the village of Marazion and St Michael's Mount have not changed much since the late 19th Century, which made them easy to portray realistically. I tend to write about places I know so I can portray them with a level of credibility.

I did have one property in mind, but made it slightly smaller in my head. The inside with the staircase and the marbled floor, the double doors to the drive - yes that was from memory.

This is the house: . The problem was it's late Victorian, and as the Harts are supposed to have owned it for sixty years, so I had to change its age and say it was a bit older. I loved visiting Lanhydrock when I lived in Cornwall and have great memories of the county, although my husband hates it as he says 'It's too far from anywhere'.

Can you share with us the blurb for Trencarrow Secret?
Isabel Hart is afraid of two things, the maze at Trencarrow where she got lost as a young child, and the lake where her brother David saved her from drowning in a boating accident.

With her twenty-first birthday and the announcement of her engagement imminent, Isabel decides it is time for her to face her demons and ventures into the maze. There she sees something which will alter her perceptions of herself and her family forever.

Isabel’s widowed aunt joins the house party, where her cousin confides she is in love with an enigmatic young man who surely cannot be what he pretends, for he is surely too dashing for homely Laura?

When Henry, Viscount Strachan and his mother arrives, ostensibly to use her ball as an arena for finding a wife, Isabel is determined not to like him.

As more secrets are revealed, Isabel doubts she has chosen the right man, although her future fiancé has more vested in this marriage than Isabel realizes and has no intention of letting her go easily.

Will Isabel be able to put her preconceptions of marriage behind her and take charge of her own life, or is her life destined to be controlled by others?

You’ve got another novel coming out in September – Culloden Spirit. How do you manage to be so productive?
Actually, I'm not that productive. Both books have been in progress for the last three years. It's a coincidence that Muse wanted both. Basically I sent Lea Trencarrow Secret and she asked if I had any more!
I don't have the cover art yet, but the edits are done.

Wow! That’s still impressive. And being one of your CPs, I can hint that there are some other things in the pipe-line....
Writing historical fiction is complicated and challenging, but my spirit lives in the past and I cannot imagine myself writing anything else.

Trencarrow Secret is scheduled for release on 10th June 2011
Available at:

Trencarrow Secret Blog:
Anita’s Blog:

Monday, June 6, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- POV

Last post, I talked about making sure that your scene shows, rather than tells the story as it unfolds. One of the most powerful ways that you can “show” is by making effective use of Point of View.
For those of you who need a quick recap, the principle types of POV are:
  • First Person – The narrator is the “I” of the story
  • Omniscient – The story is told from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator. Characters are referred to in the third person “he” or “she”
  • Third Person Limited , also referred to as Deep Third Person -- The scene is told from the point of view of one of the participants in the action, who is referred to in the third person, i.e., he or she.

Most writers these days use Third Person Limited POV (TPL). Omniscient is still sometimes used for thrillers, suspense or mysteries, but even these genres are shifting towards TPL.  YA often uses first person to heighten reader identification.

TPL is a powerful tool. Like first person, it allows an author to get into the head of one of the characters and enables the reader to identify closely with that character. But it gives the writer a little more scope for description than first person, especially in love scenes. It also facilitates the use of more than one point of view character much more smoothly than first person.

First, check your scene for POV consistency.
  • Have you started and stayed in one character’s POV?
  • When you switch POVs, do you lead with a sentence that flags to the reader you are now in a different character’s head?
  • Have you chosen the most effective character as the POV character for this scene?
Popular wisdom says to select the character who has the most to lose as the POV character in any scene. This doesn’t always work for the most effective scene. If your scene feels weak, try telling it from the following alternative perspectives:
  • the person whose scene goal is the most powerful.
  • the person with the least knowledge in the scene
  • the person who has a secret
  • the person with the least power in the scene
  • the person with the most power in the scene
One thing to be very careful about is too many POV characters. In fact, plural POV characters flag to an editor that a writer is a beginner.

Depending on genres, you can get away with one to three POV characters without editors making a fuss. More than that, and you’d better have a powerful reason to bring the reader into so many heads.

Third Person Limited, used well, puts you right in the POV character’s world. You see the world through their eyes. This has some major implications.

Anyone who writes historicals knows to be careful of anachronisms. But it goes beyond that.

First, as people we all notice different things. What we notice is influenced by the time period we live in, our culture, our social and economic background, education, how familiar we are with the setting, our job or position, our age, our personal limitations (including our weight, disabilities, language), and our world view.

Put someone in a familiar setting and generally they tend to notice less. They take the familiar for granted, unless something has happened, such as a loss or death, that gives the familiar new meaning. The widow who never noticed how her husband bunched his towel on the rack, so it never dried thoroughly, will notice it now that he’s gone and regret that she never straightened it so it could dry properly. The divorcee will notice the same towel with anger – no wonder their linens always smelled of mildew.

On the other hand, put someone in a totally strange setting and they will quickly go on information overload. When we first moved to China, it was all I could do to cope with startling new architecture, the sidewalks crowded with people and bicycles, the shops with their goods spilling out onto the sidewalks. Every street corner looked the same. I struggled to memorize landmarks. Two months later, all these strange sights were familiar to me and not only did I quickly recognize the difference between San Xi Lu and Er Xi Lu (3rd Street West and 2nd Street West), but I also noticed when a new shop opened or when the stationer changed his window display.

  • Ask yourself, what would my POV character notice?
  • What would he or she feel about it?
  • Cut or alter things that aren’t true to character.
For example, a florist could give you the scientific names for the flowers in the centrepiece on William and Katherine’s wedding banquet table – and their provenance. A member of a bomb squad might not be able to identify the flowers in the centrepiece, but he would check it for a potential bomb.

Take the time to fine tune your imagery (including metaphors and similes) to reflect the character’s time period, occupation, interests. In my Arthurian trilogy, my heroine’s family is famous for raising war horses. Her POV contains a lot of horse imagery.

Now, look at the situation itself.
  • A person with a specific job to do is much more likely to notice the details of the scene that relate to that job than those not related to the job.
  • A person in danger or in a challenging situation is more likely to be aware of those things which challenge or threaten him or her.
  • A character’s emotional state can also influence what he or she notices. In a well-structured romance, for example, the reader picks up on the little things the heroine notices about the hero long before the heroine admits to herself she’s falling in love.
  • People who have just received a shock or blow of some kind often notice irrelevant details. Everyone in the United States who lived through JFK’s assassination can tell you precisely what they were doing the moment they heard he was shot – even though the incident happened forty-eight years ago.

How a POV character sees the details depends a lot on their culture, socio-economic status, and world view. For example, let’s take several different people walking today through District 6 in Cape Town, South Africa. They stop at the bulldozed down ruin of a house.

The story of District 6 inspired the movie District 9. District 6 was a multi-cultural part of Cape Town that happened to be close to the harbour and one of the most desirable pieces of real estate in Cape Town. During the apartheid period, the area was evacuated and its residents moved to one of the settlements. Before the neighbourhood could be turned to financial gain for the dominant whites, however, world opinion turned against South Africa’s apartheid scheme and the empty homes were left to rot. Eventually things got so bad, they were bulldozed down. Nothing has been done with the area, which now remains of a reminder of the earlier regime.
  • One person looking at the house might have been a descendent or one of the original occupants. She might see in a bit of china sticking out of the ground a lost way of life.
  • Another person – a developer perhaps -- might notice the prime harbour view and consider the waste that 20 or so square blocks of highly desirable commercial land can not be put to use.
  • Another person may see nothing but rubble and feel shame that this ever happened.
  • And so on…
 People don’t go through life merely seeing things. They have feelings about what they see. Put those feelings down on paper and you’ve turned POV into a powerful emotional tool.

Next post we’ll look at the emotional level of your scene and how you mine emotional opportunities.