Writing “Living” History

Writing “Living” History

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.  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.

Music Stirs the Soul of a Novel

Music Stirs the Soul of a Novel

As I write this, I’m listening to Antonio Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo.”  I have a hard time writing to music with lyrics – the words tend to wind up on my page — so I opt for background music, usually classical.

Music is a terrific way to bring your characters to life.  Let’s take a peek at a fictional guy, Ray Salvo.  He’s eighty-five, fought in two wars, a widower with four kids, nine grandkids and two great grandkids.

Ray’s at home now, a small craftsman in southern California, dusty, threadbare, mostly because he can’t see well enough to care.  He’s alone, as he often is.  How can we paint a more vivid picture of Ray?  Use music.

He rises stiffly from his old recliner, ambles to the record player, an old Kenwood turntable, and his large assortment of record albums.  His kids want to get him a CD player, his grandkids, an iPod.  He’ll stick with vinyl.  As he sorts through his albums, memories blow in and out of his mind.  Is he thinking of his dead wife?  Good place for a flashback.

The albums are sorted by date, decade, actually.  The 30 and 40s, when Ray was a kid, he was one of the lucky ones to have a radio. The sweet sounds of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.   Maybe Ray’s picturing his old family home in his mind?

The 50s.  Elvis and Buddy Holly.  The Isley Brothers, twistin’ and shoutin’.  Ray picks up a photograph of his wife – ahh, she could dance the lindy.

The 70s brought the Disco craze:  Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor and the Village People.  Ray gives a few hip lurches as he hums “Y.M.C.A.”   Ouch.  He remembers watching Saturday Night Fever with his kids.

He flips some more.  Classical albums: Ravel’s “Bolero,” hmmm.  “Scheherazade,” by Rimsky-Korsakoff.  Mozart, not his favorite, actually.  He loves the Russian composers better.  But classical is not the choice for today.  Too maudlin.  Good opportunity for description here.  Maybe Ray’s worried about his finances, his son’s cancer?

He smiles when he gets to some newer recordings stacked on a side table — CDs that his grandkids have given him, in hopes he’ll upgrade from his turntable.  He reads a jewel case label: “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons.  Or is it “Imagine Dragons” by Radioactive?  Argh.  Now he really feels old.

Which record will it be?  This is the defining moment for the character.  Is he locked in the nostalgic 40s? 50’s?  What does he want to listen to?  What is he thinking about, what is his mood?

Ray flips back to earlier albums and after a few seconds finds exactly what he’s looking for.  Not swing or jazz or blues.  His fingers grasp the music he loves best.  Classic Rock.  The Rolling Stones.  Yea.  Now, he can get some satisfaction.   So can you.  You have a better handle on this character, just through his music.

Ideas welcome.

Writing a Constructive Review

Writing a Constructive Review

There comes a time in every writer’s life when a fellow writer approaches and asks:

“Will you write a review for my book for my website or back cover?”

“Will you write a review for my book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble?”

“Would you “like” my book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble?”

“Would you “like” my book on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, et al?”

What do you do?  On a number of online discussions, I’ve seen many requests for “likes” and many responses in both negative and positive.  Here’s what I do.

First, I decide if I want to read the book or not.  Except for rare cases (see below) I won’t write a review unless I’ve read the book.  If I agree to read, it’s with the caveat that I will try to get to it as soon as I can, particularly if I’m reading another book and have a top ten list of books in line.  If I don’t want to read it, however, I’ll be honest and say that I’m not the right person to write a review since I usually don’t read    . . .  name your genre: horror, sci fi, non-fiction, etc.

For those books I do wind up reading and don’t like, I think about the positives and begin with those:

“Great atmosphere”

“Spunky characters”

“Vivid setting”

“Provocative premise for the book.”

Every book has good qualities.  Really.  Find them.  Give that writer positive, encouraging feedback.

If the writer asks you to post a review on Amazon and you seriously don’t like it, I would be honest and say I can only give it two stars because:

“The writing is inconsistent”

“The characters are rather wooden”

“The setting is hard to visualize”

This might open the door for more conversation about how to improve the book– in your opinion, of course, which could be a good thing for both parties.  And, like in critique groups, both writers come away with something valuable.

I welcome your feedback.

Writers Are Reviewers Too

Writers Are Reviewers Too

I’m as guilty as the next person.  I read a lot of books, fiction and non-fiction.  I don’t often write reviews.  Yet I complain that I don’t get a lot of reviews on the books I write.  So, what’s going on?

I decided to examine the reasons why I don’t write book reviews so I can forgive those who don’t write reviews for me.  Maybe.

  1. No time. Classic excuse but I don’t buy it.  It takes only a few minutes to go to Amazon or other book venues, click on “write review” and write a few lines.
  2. Didn’t like the book and don’t want to write a bad review. Well, I don’t have to write a “bad” review.  I can constructively criticize without tearing the book apart.  This does take a little bit more time, however.
  3. What can I say? It can be as simple as “I loved this book” or “I couldn’t put it down.”  It helps to add some details such as “I loved the main character’s fortitude in dealing with her sick mother,” etc.  This does help the writer plus future potential readers who are looking for stories with strong characters.
  4. I could compare the book with others that I’ve read, both positively and negatively. Readers like to know, “this thriller was equal to The DaVinci Code in tension,” or “this writer should leave romance to Diana Gabaldon.”

Then there are the star ratings.  I definitely use them in selecting books and find them helpful when there are a lot (maybe 50 or more) of similar ratings.  I rarely will select a book that has 100 2-stars, but I might consider 100 4-stars.

As a reader, I do look at reviews.  I am remiss, however, in writing book reviews.  Still, I wonder, why can’t I get more reviews?  At the very least, from my friends, who, by the way, you cannot count on to write reviews.  And perhaps, you shouldn’t.

After writing this, I am setting my own goal to write reviews on books I read in the future.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

I would love to hear your experiences.  Please share.

Conflict and Characters: A Winning Pair

Conflict and Characters: A Winning Pair

The dictionary defines conflict as “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.  But conflict, in any form, is essential for your story.

Characters must struggle with conflict, even in a simple form. 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.  Do 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-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.

Good Grief, Bad Grief

Good Grief, Bad Grief

Emotional upheavals can translate to great writing

I’ve had a rather tumultuous week since I returned from Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks.  I started out high on beauty and serenity, natural landscapes and wildlife.  I was calm, tranquil, close to meditative.

Then my sweet dog of thirteen and a half years passed away.  It was downhill from there.

You know that feeling of being gut-punched, but you weren’t?  Of having your throat close up but you’re not sick?  Of crying during a comedy?  Of laughing during a tragic drama?  High one minute, low the next? Forgetting why you walked into a room?  Not feeling particularly hungry one minute, but ravenous the next?  In the words of C.S. Lewis:

“Grief … gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.”
This is grief.  Grief . . . at the loss of a loved one, human or animal, or even the loss of a job, a car, a house.  Not pleasant.  Still, for writers, it can give us that added insight into the emotional underlay of our characters.  Grief, or other intense emotions, like anger, can provide that extra dimension to boost ordinary characters into incisive, sharp, exquisite personalities.  It’s hard to write what you can’t feel, or what you haven’t ever felt.

Actors practice getting into character by living or reliving these emotions and translating them into behaviors.  Screaming, crying, yanking their hair out, pounding the table, running away or simply sleeping.  So many ways to act out grief.

Writers must translate those same emotions into the written word.  I encourage you to take these emotions and render them to words, then to sentences and scenes.  How have your own experiences of these sensations, like grief, helped you bring your characters to life?