Time Exposure is a mystery that takes place during the Civil War. I wanted readers to abandon the present and immerse themselves in those brutal, tumultuous years of the mid-nineteenth century. Scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Well, I wasn’t there, so how could I paint a picture of that time period, accurately, vividly, and with painstaking detail?
Research, of course, but research using primary sources whenever possible. What does that mean? There are many books written about the Civil War. About the battles, about the people, about the politics — the operative word being “about.” These sources are written today by historians looking back in time. I wanted to go back there myself. How?
Primary sources are the ones that deliver the information firsthand. Photographs are an excellent way to learn about the past. In my case, tens of thousands of Civil War photographs are available, yes, through books and online, but also at the Library of Congress, where there are drawers upon drawers filled with folders of photos taken back then. The originals, if you can imagine!
Other primary sources of an historic period are letters or journals. Using the Civil War as an example, there are books of letters to and from soldiers and their loved ones. If you use credible authors, ie: Ken Burns, you can be sure these are the true words of the people of the time. If you are really lucky, you may be able to track down a diary written from the time period. A friend of mine’s ancestor was a soldier in the War and he passed down some interesting paraphernalia (no journal, unfortunately.)
Very important primary sources are books written by someone of the time period. An example, which helped me shape my scene at the Union Hotel Hospital, was a precious thin book called Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott. Louisa May was actually a minor character in my book. If you ever wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a nurse in a hospital during the Civil War, listen to Louisa May:
“My three days experience had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation (I had to look this one up!) of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patients, hopping, lying and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new ‘nuss,’ who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t.”
From this one simple paragraph, I learned about the hospital, the patients, the illnesses and Louisa May’s (and other nurses’?) attitude toward them all.
In addition to Louisa May Alcott’s writings, I examined photographs, I read letters, poems and the words of songs written during the time. As I kept reading, I got a feel for the rhythm of speech of the period. I learned some of the basics: what the people of the time ate, drank, smoked, what they wore, how they amused themselves when they weren’t killing each other on the field, what their sex lives were like (there are some bawdy postcards out there!) Essentially, I learned how they lived and, sadly, how they died.
Bottom line: If you write historical stories, (or even modern stories about places you’re not familiar with,) what you don’t know can hurt you. The best way to find out what things were really like, is to do your research through the eyes of those who lived it.
There are no shortcuts. Ideas welcome.
Should You Hire a Pro?
A writer friend asked me whether it was really a good idea to pay a professional editor to read her manuscript. My immediate response was yes, but the question made me pause and reflect on my personal experiences.
I have had all six of my novels (number six coming this summer!) edited by pros. Here are my thoughts.
There is huge value to editors who “copy” edit, that is, they read for spelling, grammar, syntax, etc. You always miss something: a comma where it doesn’t belong, the incorrect use of a semicolon. In terms of the broader picture: the plot, characters, structure, tension, conflict, on and on, the pro can be very helpful. . . or not.
In The Triangle Murders, the professional editor I hired was so intrigued with the historic story that her suggestions would have made me totally change the book. It would have become a historic mystery rather than a historic mystery that is solved today with modern technology. She had her own vision for the book. But who was writing this?
The editor I hired for my Civil War book, however, was extremely helpful. He gave me an idea for a dynamite ending that I hadn’t even considered. It totally changed the story for the better.
Before you consider hiring a pro, however, do your own self-editing. Believe it or not, there is a lot you can do to improve your writing before it gets the going-over by someone else. Some suggestions:
Edit in small sections at a time. If possible, reread the section before and then edit the current 5 to 10 pages.
Also, read aloud (or to your dog or cat.) I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. You’d be surprised what you hear that you didn’t think you wrote. Dialogue may sound stilted, tension weak, setting inappropriate. Often I will come away from my reading out loud thinking, ugh, did I write that?
Some things to look for when you’re self-editing:
- Do you want to turn the page?
- Did you stumble over awkward phrases or clunky words when you read aloud?
- Were you confused by your own plot twists?
- Did punctuation mess up your reading?
- Were your characters boring, too flawed (yes, that’s possible) or totally unbelievable (unless you write Bourne thrillers)?
- Were there plot inconsistencies ie: a character appeared after she was murdered?
- Were there setting inconsistencies? It was hot as Hades one day, snowing the next?
- Did you get your facts right? Very important if you want authenticity.
You can be your own best editor. But, just to be sure — reread, rewrite, read aloud. And again x 3.
Now hire a professional for the final read.
Your thoughts welcome.
A young friend, beginning her first foray into fiction writing, asked me: “What is conflict in a novel?” I thought I’d take a stab at an answer.
The simplified dictionary definition is: “A conflict is a struggle or an opposition.”Conflict comes from the Latin word for “striking,” but it isn’t always violent. Conflict can arise from opposing ideas. If your character is torn between two different desires, say, marrying a woman who lives in Boston, but dying to take a job offer in Saskatoon (where is that, anyway?) he’s conflicted.
Conflict is key to your characters’ relationships. If everyone gets along beautifully and there are no differences of opinions, arguments, debates, fisticuffs . . . no screaming, pulling hair, beating up or murdering someone, well, there’s not much conflict. And not much interest.
Conflict can occur within a person’s mind. This is the most interesting of conflicts and defines the character’s character, if you will. When a character confronts another character, there is drama. When a character confronts his/her own self, there is drama plus. Now, the stage is set for future interactions with everyone he/she meets.
In The Triangle Murders, my protagonist, Frank Mead is overwhelmingly conflicted about his relationship with his daughter, whom he feels he has abandoned after his wife’s suicide. The daughter feels similarly. However, circumstances bring the two of them together, creating not only conflict, but often tension. There is great strain between them and the reader must wonder if it will ever be resolved.
Emotions play a large role in portraying a character’s conflict. If a character keeps his emotions hidden, any conflicts he faces may stretch these hidden emotions to a breaking point. As a reader we need to know what’s happening in his head – how this conflict is affecting him. We also need to see how it manifests itself in his behavior. Does serious money problems cause him to drink more, beat his wife and kids, or retreat further into himself? How your character handles conflict makes him unique . . . or not. Unique is better, by the way.
Conflict between characters can take many forms. It can be job-related, school- related, socially-related, sexually-related, family-related, or other (everything else) -related. Often all. However, too many conflicts in too many places can cause the reader to get worn out. Give your character, even a cranky one, at least one amiable relationships, even if it’s with another cranky character, please, or we won’t like him very much.
I like to find new ways to help my characters resolve their conflicts. For instance, in Frank’s case above, he enlists his daughter’s help to solve an ancient murder. They form a tentative truce to accomplish this, which may, or may not, last into another book.
My advice is to maximize the use of conflict in your story. It is a great tool to keep readers turning the page.
As always, I welcome your feedback.
Chapter endings are as important as beginnings. Read the endings of your chapters. Go ahead. Are they riveting? Are you anxious to turn the page? Will your readers be? Take a closer look at the ho hum ones and begin to focus on endings that would compel a reader to keep going.
I skimmed through some books to see how those authors ended their chapters. Here’s one from Deception Point by Dan Brown. “Rachel felt weightless for an instant, hovering over the multimillion-pound block of ice. Then they were riding the iceberg down – plummeting into the frigid sea.” The reader is not likely to put the book down at this point, at least until they find out what happened to Rachel and her friend. Brown could have ended with something like: “Rachel stood motionless on the block of ice and prayed the block wouldn’t fall into the sea.” Nah.
Here’s another. “Emergency Room. Code Blue. Susan ran for the elevator.” This is from Chelsea Cain’s The Night Season. What if Cain had stopped at Code Blue? Would it have the same impact as her running for the elevator?
I believe this idea of compelling endings is not only important for fiction but for non-fiction as well. Take Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: “Sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, he had taken off his uniform, picked up a sack of rice, slipped into the Naoetsu countryside, and vanished.” Vanishing, dying, running, falling, are all great ways to end a chapter on a high, cliffhanger note.
How about this from my mystery, Time Exposure: “As he sank to his knees, he lifted his head to gaze up at the Blackhawk. Captain Geoffrey Farrell smiled down at him. A boot to the head put him out.” Or this from Pure Lies, in the form of dialogue: “Well, you may be nuts and I wouldn’t testify to this in court, but between you, me and the microscope, honey, these signatures were all written by the same person.”
Scene endings can follow this rule to some extent, but it might get tiresome if every scene did. I think you have to let the reader rest once in a while and catch up with the action.
Not all chapter endings must end on an action note either. Many can end with inner conflict or conflict between characters. Gives the chapter tension. What happens between these two people next? Does Anna May leave her husband? Does mom throw Maynard out of the house? Does little Davey start to cry? Is Barbara in danger of being fired, of losing her health insurance, of missing a plane to an important event? If you care about the characters, you will turn the page.
I’d love to hear some chapter endings you think are great . . . or terrible. When we can recognize what works and what doesn’t, our writing benefits in the long-run.
One of the major characters in my book, TIME EXPOSURE, is Alexander Gardner, a famous, and real, Civil War photographer. Gardner hailed from Paisley, Scotland and arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1856 with a thick Scottish accent. How was I to handle dialogue? I wanted to make sure that the reader knew Gardner was from Scotland. So, I added a bit of dialect. Check this out:
“I must speak to ye, Joseph.” Gardener took a deep breath. “I’ve had a special offer I must consider. Mind ye now, it doesna preclude my maintaining an association with Brady. But, I want ye to be part of me decision.”
I also sprinkled in lots of dinnas, shouldnas, couldnas, ayes, me for my, etc. Ugh. The reader couldn’t possibly forget that Gardner was from Scotland. Or care. He’d already given up on the book.
Thanks to my critique group my eyes were open to this dialect dilemma. I began to notice it in other novels. Too much of an accent: “How vould you vant me to wote?”
Or overuse of slang: “He needs to mellow out, he’s bonkers and that’s too dicey for this girl.”
Or clichéd idiomatic expressions : “Once in a blue moon, we see eye to eye, but you’re usually on the fence, which only adds insult to injury.”
Eeek. The use of “casual” spelling such as lemme, or gimme, can be used . . . sparingly. Dropping “g” for a word ending in “ing” gets tiresome too if used every other sentence. We have to give the reader credit and assume that by dropping a slang word, accent or expression in, they’ll get the point and as they continue to read that character’s dialogue, they’ll naturally hear the dialect.
Some of the worst examples of overusing dialect can be seen when characters have southern or New York accents. Like the use of “Ah” for “I” or “y’all for, well, you know. Then there’s the exaggerated Brooklynese – “toidy-toid and toid street” or “poils for the goils.” (These may actually need translation!) I grew up in Brooklyn and, frankly, you do hear this. It’s one thing, however, to add it to a movie, where you can hear the character say it. It’s another to read it in a book ad nauseum.
So how do you get the character’s geographical location, or educational background across? The best way is through the rhythm of the dialogue and the words you choose. One “aye” from my Scotsman and the reader hears his accent through the rest of the dialogue. To portray a well-educated German you might avoid contractions and use the full words to make the speech more formal sounding: “I should not bother with that if I were you. Do you not think so?”
In the end, you need to do your homework. Learn the true dialect, accent, slang expressions of the region your characters come from, both geographically and historically. Depending upon the time period, speech was often more formal than we’re used to today.
Practice on yourself. Once you know how the dialect really sounds have your character try it out in dialogue in a scene. Read it aloud. Very important, to really hear the effect, you must read it out loud. You’ll find you will most likely want to eliminate all but a smidgen of the dialect. What will be left is the essence of your character.
As a writer, being observant of your surroundings is paramount in creating an authentic environment. I wanted to share one of my travel experiences with you to illustrate what I mean.
Several years ago, I spent two weeks traveling in the Pacific Northwest. Starting in Canada and ending in the U.S., I found myself anxious to start scribbling ideas for a future book. The settings were amazing, from large, modern cities, to small, more manageable ones. From dense rain forests to rocky coastlines. From museums, to sky towers, to suspension bridges and ziplines, the backdrops are there for a new book.
But just as important as settings, were the people. We’re all familiar with the concept, true or not, that often people resemble their dogs (or vice versa.) Well, I can testify to the fact that people “resemble” the place they live in.
In cities like Vancouver, BC, I noticed that people were more formally dressed (at least the working locals.) They had sharp edges to their clothes, suits, shoes, just like the tall, glass, high-rises of the downtown. They didn’t meet your eye as they brushed past you in the street (much like NYC, where I grew up.)
Victoria, BC, was quite a bit different. Without the tall skyscrapers, people seemed more intent on immediate surroundings, including nodding at passersby. The buildings were shorter and stouter and had a very British feel. So did the locals. You can take that to mean whatever you like.
From Canada we ferried across to Washington and then drove to Olympic National Park. Amazing crystal clear lakes, thick and tall evergreen forests that blocked out the sun, and myriad green colors that could shame Scotland. Most folks were travelers like us so we couldn’t discern any particular likeness to the environment. Oddly, the few natives seemed to not know much about other parts of the Park. So they worked and played in one area only. I guess, like the grand old trees, they are rooted to one spot.
From the wilderness we ferried back to big city: this time Seattle. Much bigger and more built up than I remembered from visits twenty years ago. Almost overpowering in downtown now, with giant skyscrapers of glass and stone. Still, there was the old, more comfortable feel of its former, smaller self. Seattle has so many attractions, it’s hard to pick and choose. The Pacific Science Center was a dear old friend from my museum days, but we didn’t visit this time. Instead we went to the Chihuly Glass Museum and Garden. OMG. Words can barely describe the beauty.
Again, it was hard to gauge the people since many were from other places. But I think it’s safe to say that Seatte-ites are a bit cool, aloof, and keep to themselves, what with huddling under umbrellas and all. Many carry a Starbucks coffee cup, however, which is no surprise.
And finally, we took Amtrak to Portland, Oregon. Portland was a cozy, warm and friendly town, with lots of environmentally friendly businesses and people. And then there’s Powell’s Bookstore, of course. The most amazing place to spend some hours (days, even.) They were nice enough to set out my bookmarks!
Portlanders like to chat. They like to smile, despite the often gloomy weather. And they have the greatest ice cream shop in the world. “Salt and Straw,” where you can get a cone of salty, caramel ribbon ice cream. My kind of people, indeed.
The next time you travel, study the setting, study the history and architecture, wildlife, museums, galleries, and gardens. And study the people. They could be the inspiration for your next characters.