Transported: When Historical Fiction comes off the Page

Bringing a character to life is a challenge of its own, but bringing an entire era to life—that takes another kind of artistry.

My most recent experience of historical fiction reminded me once again of why I love the genre: when done right, it simultaneously immerses you in and humanizes the past. This is what Ailish Sinclair achieved in her beautifully penned novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, set in the late 1500s in Scotland.

When I first began blogging a year ago, Ailish’s was one of the first blogs I followed because of her unique synthesis of photography and storytelling. Her pictures of the Scottish countryside, coupled with explanatory snippets and musings, drew me in from the get-go—and not simply because I love Scottish history and culture. It was the milieu that she created through these posts leading up to her book, that convinced me I absolutely had to read it in order to fully experience the story each post alluded to.

The book was no disappointment.

While I have little patience for excessive description (as in, pages upon pages of sheer details that have little bearing on the characters or events), that is not at all what I found between the covers of this book.

This is because Sinclair’s extensive research does not call attention to itself. Instead, she illuminates every scene with just enough details to place the reader in the mind and shoes of the protagonist, Isobell (which is especially crucial, given the first-person narration).

It is also important because of the sensory nature of the story.

Sinclair spends the first 2/3 of the book developing a magical aura to fit the mysterious setting in which Isobell finds herself, essentially charming the reader with thoughts of faeries, mist, butterflies and so on. And then the magic stops. That is, the good magic. The detail suddenly becomes a conduit of horror as Isobell’s world shifts from that of marital bliss in a castle to that of a nightmare in which pure evil is championed as the hand of God. Enter: the Aberdeen witch trials. Seemingly overnight, we are plunged with Isobell into the cold waters of cruelty, and the only sights, sounds, smells, and feelings we read of make her recent life seem worlds away.

Although Sinclair makes Isobell’s character accessible to the reader early on, I connected most strongly with her near the end.

One of the most unexpectedly compelling details I found was the description of the castle after the main ordeal has transpired. To avoid spoiling too much, I will just say that the former magic of familiar places is replaced by a haunting remembrance of the evil that occurred there, whose lingering dread is depicted just as potently as the vivacity and charm that once filled the walls.

I found this compelling because it is something that all of us can appreciate in some way. Most of us haven’t been to Scottish castles, and hopefully none of us have been tried for witchcraft. But all of us have memories tied to certain places. We remember the smells, the sound of our feet when passing through, the sounds we might hear, the faces we might see. And when something drastic happens there—whether good or bad—it becomes almost impossible to separate those sensory details from the joy, pain, fear, or whatever feeling that event aroused. Places we once considered bastions of security and comfort can become graveyards of unwelcome memories. This is where I connected with Isobell: I connected with her when the fragility of her world suddenly mirrored the fragility of mine. So to speak, I met her in the details.

If you haven’t checked out Ailish Sinclair’s book or blog, I strongly encourage you to do so. For those of who already like historical fiction, it’s a delicious literary morsel. 🙂 And for those who don’t normally gravitate to the genre, you’re bound to appreciate the human quality Sinclair brings to an otherwise distant time and place.

What are some books where you found the vivid description crucial to forming a connection with the characters?

What does it usually take to connect you with a character?

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The Female Warrior Returns… well, sort of

The Inquisitive Inkpot is turning 50 weeks old today!

On this blogging milestone, I thought it would be fitting to publish a follow-up to my most popular post, The Female Warrior: A Figment of the Modern Imagination?

Yes, the title of that post is a question.

You see, when I wrote that article, I erred on the side of skepticism. Having encountered multiple conflicting sources on this topic, I was hesitant to conclude one way or the other regarding the likelihood of women actually fighting alongside men in historical societies. Of course, there were some far-fetched sounding “scientific findings” that claimed to prove the existence of female Viking warriors and such, but it all seemed a bit too nebulous to accept with certainty. Until one of my former professors from Hillsdale College showed me what I was missing.

Although the media sure isn’t good at correcting itself, I endeavor to do a better job at that.

When we publish something, only to learn later that new information has been added or that our initial findings were inaccurate, we would do well to acknowledge it and share what we’ve learned since.

In short, female warriors appear to be a historical reality—not just a legend.

In December of 2019 (just months after publishing that post), the Smithsonian came forward with the discovery of a tomb that housed the remains of four Scythian women alongside battle gear used by warriors. In case you aren’t up on your Scythian history (I certainly wasn’t), this group was a nomadic people that inhabited what we now know as Siberia in ancient times. So basically, think Amazons. The takeaway? These women (or some form of them) actually existed in the ancient world. 

But burial with weapons doesn’t necessarily mean that the women themselves were warriors… does it?

According to DNA tests, it does.

The Scythians weren’t the only ones with fighting women—the Vikings had them, too.

In Sweden, the remains of a Viking warrior discovered in the 1880s, revealed female genetics in a DNA test. This type of revelation has subsequently been replicated with numerous similar graves. In fact, modern facial recognition technology has even paved the way for scientists to reconstruct the faces of some of these women.

As with any groundbreaking archaeological discovery, I think there is room for some level of skepticism. I mean, how many “missing links” turned out to be hoaxes? More than most scientists care to admit! But when you consider the longevity and potency of the female warrior concept in human history, it becomes pretty unlikely that all of these archaeological findings have been misinterpreted.

The implications for my novel The Exile are also quite significant. If these women were in fact warriors, it means that someone like Delta (the narrator) may have lived and died, only to have the reality of her life dismissed by subsequent generations as a myth. Or to her have her life grossly exaggerated and glamorized, as most “warrior princess” books are wont to do. In this sense, I am grateful now that I did not attempt to glamorize or gloss over the harsh realities that a woman like Delta likely would have faced– because to do that would have added to the stereotypical, modernized image of female warriors, which can’t help but inspire skepticism.

But this new knowledge also makes me realize that no amount of research, re-creation, or imagination can ever fully capture the realities lived by people of the past.

What’s your perspective on the phenomenon of woman warriors? Do you think it’s modern society’s attempt to rewrite the past?

Also, do you think this wave in discoveries has to do with feminism’s traction in modern society?

Do you think a more chauvinist society would seek to conceal archaeological evidence of female prominence in history? Please do share your thoughts on this one, especially if you’re acquainted with non-American cultures. I’d love to hear your insights!

The Healing Power of Stories

“Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they may wreak?”

Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

If you are at all familiar with Ness’s beautiful tale, however, you will know that the primary aspect of stories it explores is their power to heal, not to wreak havoc.

Something many people need right now, in fact.

As a freelance writer for the national radio program Our American Stories, I recently encountered this power in a new way.

Any time you record something for national radio, you know it will be heard by plenty of people you don’t know.

In this case, hundreds of thousands of people. I didn’t consider that when I asked my boss if he would agree to an interview about his late best friend, Forrest Johnson—a WWII veteran whom my boss, Jason, had met after completing his own service in the Marine Corps. All I knew was this man’s story had to be shared.

Most of my conversations with my boss revolve around the company, but a large percentage of those that don’t are essentially “story time.” And when he gets going about his time in the marines, it almost always comes back to the man he met after eight years of active duty: Forrie. I love story time. It gives me a window into a life so different from my own, while reminding me that even a Special Ops service member had lessons to learn. And so many of them he learned from Forrie—a man over fifty years his senior.

I won’t recap the whole story in this post, which is why I’ve included the link where you can listen to the full recording.

What I do want to share right here is what I learned about the power of stories passed from one person to another.

Do you ever feel like you know someone because of everything you’ve heard about them? That’s how I felt about Forrie. After conducting this interview and listening to hours of “story time” that somehow came back to this man, I felt like I had personally known him. Heard his laugh. Seen his smile. Heard his stories from his own lips. And above all, I wanted to do something to honor him, however small that might be.

So I went to visit his grave on Memorial Day.

I went looking for Forrie’s grave in the cemetery where Jason said he was buried. Little did I know when I arrived at the cemetery that there were hundreds upon hundreds of headstones, all without any particular alphabetical or chronological order. I decided I would drive to the furthest corner, park, and start my search there, expecting it would take several hours to find Forrie. I did just that: I parked, got out of the car, and began walking toward the first row of graves in the furthest corner. I was mostly watching where I stepped because the ground was somewhat uneven and I had worn completely unsuitable footwear for a cross-country graveyard expedition. But as soon as I turned my head, there it was: FORREST L. JOHNSON. Located directly in front of my car. Next to his headstone was that of his four-year-old son, who passed shortly after he returned from the war.

It could have taken hours to find that one out of perhaps a thousand or so gravestones. My first words were, “Thank you, God.” After standing by the grave for a while, twisting together a clumsy dandelion bouquet, and recalling the hours of stories I’d heard about him, my last words were, “Thank you, Forrie.”

To feel a personal sense of loss over someone I never knew seemed rather odd.

But standing there, looking at his headstone, I felt grief, blended with gratitude– like two wines that only enrich each other.

Somehow his children heard the radio piece. And thanks to Facebook and social media, I was able to reach out and tell them what an honor it was learning about their father and how I wished I’d known him. The story has basically gone viral within their family and friend circle. To think of all those people gathering around a story told about their father—the man who served his country and nearly lost his life, the man who poured his heart and soul into those around him—to think of these people coming together in shared grief, memory, and gratitude is the greatest reward I could have hoped for.

And that, I realize, is the power of stories.

How have you seen stories bring people together?

In what ways have you accidentally encountered the power of stories in your own life?

A Comedy of Subtitles

Unless you’re used to watching foreign films or you have a hearing impairment, you probably don’t find much use for subtitles.

Neither do I—unless, of course, I’m watching a historical drama set in 1800s lower-class England, where everyone has a thick Cockney accent. Then I need subtitles. (More on this specific drama to come in a later post!)

Oh, but I learned something from this experience! It’s remarkable what watching an entire 10-part series with subtitles can reveal about the sounds you otherwise took for granted (or always wondered about).

Below is a list of actual subtitles that accompanied the (mostly) nonverbal sounds in this anonymous historical drama:

“Heavy breathing.” Seriously? I thought it was the wind.

“Soft sobbing.” I mean, at least they’re not ugly-crying…yet.

“Indistinct profanity.” I’m pretty sure I recognized at least one of those swear words, but if you say so!

“Somber music.” Well, I knew the scene was serious, but this really takes it up a notch.

“Lips smacking.” Thank you for clarifying—I really wasn’t sure what that slurping sound was when that couple kissed. Must have been those lips.

“Plucky music.” Not sure I knew this was a thing, but I’ll assume it’s the opposite of “somber music”.

All right, the subtitles didn’t enlighten me as to what those fairly recognizable sounds are. But they did remind me about something we often forget: the power of subtlety.

Reading a blunt narration of literally every sound actually detracted from the emotional effect of some of those scenes. Instead of feeling my heart torn in two as a couple kissed goodbye, I found myself reading up on their lip-smacking—and then laughing about it! All whilst “heart-wrenching music” swelled in the background. While the presence of subtitles didn’t ruin the plot at all, it did rob the film of its sentimental impact. Why is that?

Plot can be communicated in much more concrete terms, while emotion is cultivated through covert tactics—one of these tactics being sound.

What we hear in a film plays a HUGE role in how we interpret each scene, and yet there is no one telling us what we are hearing and how it is supposed to make us feel.

Subtitles kill subtlety. As soon as we are told how to feel, we sense we are being manipulated (film is, after all, a master at manipulating). What subtitles on nonverbal sounds do is draw attention to the factors we aren’t supposed to consciously notice, making our emotional journey somewhat flat and prescribed—not organic and personal.

That all said, I have also realized that turning on subtitles for no reason is a great way to get a laugh out of even the most “somber” moments in a film. And so I issue you a challenge!

If you dare, try watching your favorite movie or show with subtitles on. Unless it’s already a comedy, I can almost guarantee it will not be the same experience!

If you have already discovered the comedy of subtitles, please share some of the best subtitles you have noticed!!

The Power of the Short Story

For all the bite-sized TV dramas, music videos, and social media posts out there, it seems people often overlook the common thread that these share: they are all short stories.

And while plenty of psychologists and social scientists argue that our attention span is shrinking due to the A.D.D nature of modern media, our human fascination with the “brief” long precedes Tik Tok, Snapchat, and Instagram.

Although the term “short story” is a fairly modern entity, the phenomenon of the brief account is as old as language itself.

In a sense, the roots of the short story can be traced all the way to the first-ever “a funny thing happened to me on the way to the___” conversation. But beyond that, its more identifiable roots lie in the origins of myths and the oral tradition. Now when we hear the term “oral tradition” today, many of us in Western culture probably think of Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey—which, as anyone who has read them knows, are anything but short! But the fact is that oral tradition spans across every ancient civilization, and every society had its stories of creation and the struggle between good and evil—what we generally refer to as “myths.” These accounts are meant to express and illustrate cultural values and truths, in a form that can easily be passed by word-of-mouth from one generation to the next.

While some attribute the brevity of myths and fables to the lack of literacy in some civilizations (arguing that short tales are more easily remembered and retold), this does not explain why the concept of short stories has survived and even sharpened in recent centuries. In fact, it wasn’t until literacy began to blossom in the Western middle class during the 19th century that the short story asserted itself prominently in publication.

So what do we learn from all this?

Perhaps a minor history lesson, but more importantly, I think these facts suggest something:

The continued prevalence of short stories in a widely literate society points to the lasting power of brevity.

Just ask yourself what you think of when you hear the term “short story.” Most of us probably think of a tightly packaged little tale, whose every word counts—perhaps even more so than in a novel. Ask any TV screenwriter if it’s harder to write for a 30-minute show or a 60-minute—the answer is usually the 30-minute show. Of course novels and feature films are incredibly difficult to write. But the fact is that when you have a limited amount of words or minutes, the audience is going to scrutinize your work with a higher-caliber magnifying glass, because they will remember more of it. If you make a blunder, they will notice! This means that every word, every phrase, every scene had better pull its own weight, which eliminates the option of “filler” and what I call “verbal flab.”

This does not mean that brevity necessitates bluntness.

Think of the Gettysburg Address: 272 words of metaphor that earned the speech its acclaim as one of the most candid yet elegant addresses in history. Although Lincoln makes his point succinctly, he does so in a rhetorically brilliant and compelling narrative form, using the story of America’s past and present to inspire its future. Students still memorize it in classrooms today.

So, no– being brief does not mean being blunt. What it does mean is that condensing a message or story into short form can pack an additional punch that even the most distracted, media-saturated millennial might remember. 😉

What’s your take on the power of brevity?

Do you read short stories as often or more often than novels?

Confession: I read novels more, so I don’t feel I have enough scope of experience to make a judgement on this next question… But do you find that the short stories you have read are generally more powerful or less powerful than novels? Do you think this has to do with length?

The Spectacular Hack that Recently Revolutionized my Writing

You can’t buy talent, but you can buy migraine-free writing.

In case you missed my post bemoaning the woes of the contemporary writer, I can bring you up to speed in one sentence: screens hurt my eyes.

Not just my eyes, but plenty of people’s eyes. And not just our eyes, but our ability to do our work and creative writing without a pounding headache and compromised sleep.

The cure?

When I say it’s spectacular, I mean it quite literally: it’s in the form of a pair of spectacles.

Blue light glasses, they call them.

Now, either I live under a rock (which is not an impossibility, but then again we all do during a quarantine) or the concept of blue light glasses needs more trumpeting. This post has been written on the premise of the latter.

Many of us already have to stare at screens during the work day, and if you’re a writer, chances are you spend even more time at the computer afterwards. Perhaps late into the night.

How many of you writers out there find the Muse visits you after 9 pm? Sometimes she doesn’t come for me until 10 pm, and then overstays her welcome—not only keeping me from hitting the pillow until 1 am, but keeping my brain turned on long after my laptop has powered down.

Well, my fellow night owls, there is hope!

While most screen-related eye conditions are not caused by blue light, it has been confirmed that blue light can mess with your sleep. And if you are like me, in that your late-night creativity jolts are your goldmines, then the ability to seize those moments without suffering for it is priceless. (You’ll still be tired the next day, but if you’re a night owl, that’s nothing new. 🙂 )

Screen fixation is never a good thing, but if you rely on a computer for your writing, blue light glasses really might be a worthwhile investment.

I have personally noticed my headaches disappear since I ordered my pair—which, if you get severe headaches from the visual glare, you know what I’m talking about. It’s pretty miserable. But over the past several weeks, I have not cut my screen time for work or for writing, and still I have experienced no pain, no pounding, and no more trouble sleeping.

As you know, I do not generally promote products on The Inquisitive Inkpot, but this one has made such a difference for my own writing life that I felt I had to share it with all of you. You can easily order blue light glasses online for any range of prices, depending on how gourmet you want to go.

But to kiss headaches and restless nights goodbye? It was worth every penny of the $17.97 I spent.

What new writing hacks have you discovered lately?

Also, if you are a morning writer, do you find that concentrated screen time early in the day messes with your body’s “wake-up” process? I’m actually quite curious about this one, because while I’ve begun mornings with a pen and paper, I’ve never dived into creative writing on a keyboard until I’ve at least had my morning coffee. 🙂

The Viewer’s Perspective: Finding the Freedom to Laugh at Life

When my friend told me my life was material for a 4-star sitcom, I couldn’t decide whether that was flattering or insulting.

“I would watch that show,” he said emphatically. “It sure would be better than some of the stuff out there.”

On the upside, that meant my life’s recent events were interesting. On the downside, it meant they were also somewhat melodramatic—unfortunately something I had no control over at the time.

Can you relate?

Some people go through life actively creating drama wherever they turn. Others wish something dramatic would happen to them. Others try to avoid the drama. And still others sit back and laugh.

While I won’t get into the details of the scenario to which my friend referred, suffice to say it had caused quite the social upset among some people close to me. It made me realize that the reason some sitcoms thrive isn’t because they’re far-fetched, but because they could happen to any of us—even those of us who try to eschew life drama with every fiber of our being.

What I learned was that, while I love a good televised or written drama, those types of events are actually quite painful in reality. We might empathize with the characters in the story, but at the end of the day, it is still entertainment. We are still being entertained by their fictitious tragedies and triumphs. So what happens when we are suddenly the characters in a live soap opera? Does the scenario lose its charm?

Usually. That is, for most of us.

The intrigue of two real-life colleagues trying to one-up each other becomes too stressful.

The drama of a real-life family dividing against itself becomes too painful.

The tension of a real-life love triangle becomes too agonizing.

The repeated rejection of the real-life underdog becomes too disheartening.

All of these elements work their way into film, and yet they are no fun to live out in real life. It’s because they involve real people with real decisions and feelings, whose lives only get one draft—no rewrites if the script goes awry.

That being said, I think there are times when we would benefit from taking ourselves a little less seriously.

There are some moments I remember having during the aforementioned life saga which, although excruciating at the time, I can look back now with a laugh. Conversations that literally sounded like a script. Moments when I knew that the imaginary audience of my life was gasping in shock, pity, or chagrin. Moments when I knew the same imaginary audience was rolling in the aisles with laughter at the irony of my predicaments. While it didn’t make any of those moments easier, the days, weeks, months, and years that followed gave me a clearer perspective (as time usually does) on what had actually happened and how significant or insignificant those events really were.

In short, time gave me the “viewer’s perspective.”

Much of what happened would have been laughable if it didn’t happen to me.

Now, I’m not talking about truly traumatic events or life-and-death situations. Those are not laughable, no matter whom they happen to. I’m talking about the dramatic episodes we sometimes find ourselves in, which seem like the most monumental crises at the time, but which pass and leave us wiser in the end. I’m talking about the stuff of, well, sitcoms.

Every one of us has memories that we would prefer to forget because they were either too stressful, embarrassing, awkward, or bewildering.

It’s all just part of being human. But sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we won’t forget—and sometimes, if we do forget, we are missing out on prime comedic material. Part of healing can mean learning to take something less seriously—learning to recognize it as absurd or ironic and, instead of languishing over it, laugh at it. If we can separate ourselves from the emotions of the situation enough to look at it from the viewer’s perspective, we might just be able to appreciate some of the humor woven into our tumultuous little narratives.

Maybe it’s a part of maturing. Or maybe it’s just called making the most of a real-life melodrama.

What’s your take?

No need to share embarrassing stories (although they are definitely welcome)… but what are some ways you’ve coped with the drama of life?

Are you the type of person who creates the drama? (Which raises the question of whether drama queens ever know they are drama queens…)

Are you the type to flee drama and dramatic people? Are you an unwilling victim of drama?

Or are you perhaps the invisible audience laughing at everyone else’s drama???

Networking: Making Friends in all Places

You can’t grow up today without having the importance of “networking” drilled into you.

We’ve all heard the adages:

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

“You scratch their back, and they scratch yours.”

“It helps to have friends in high places.”

Now all of the above are true—I’m not here to question that. What I find a bit disturbing, though, is the degree to which this last adage has narrowed our concept of who is worth our time.

In an age and country where artists, writers, businesspeople, and politicians have unprecedented opportunities to climb the ladder, the sociological concept of “networking” can become incredibly self-serving.

We are trained in school, by our parents, by our superiors, and by the media to always be on the lookout for strategic contacts and make sure to latch on when we find them. Who knows? Maybe the person sitting across from you can pull the strings to get you that job. Or that promotion. Or that publishing contract. Or that audition. Or… or…

You get the idea.

But what I find sad about this mindset is that it often leads us to either make compromises that we shouldn’t make or miss out on something entirely:

1) If we are always focused on meeting and pleasing the powerful people, that leaves us little room to be ourselves.

This is beyond peer pressure—it’s superior pressure. It’s when we find ourselves pretending to be something we’re not in order to make a good impression. It’s when we bend our moral code a little to satisfy someone else’s expectations. We can catch ourselves doing this sooner than we may think, if we believe people “in power” hold all the cards.

In short, if we accept the idea that gatekeepers hold the key to all of our success, we may end up chasing our tails or selling out on who we are. Not to mention, we will miss out other connections that may actually prove more meaningful.

2) If we limit our network to people who we think can give us something, we are setting ourselves up for a lot of shallow, utilitarian relationships.

While it’s great when you can get in front of decision makers, most people we meet are not “the decision makers.” Does this mean we should simply ignore them or limit our circle to individuals who can put us in front of decision makers?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think there is a danger in trying to quantify the amount of “value” any given connection can give us, because that means we are reducing other humans to economic terms of profit and loss. If we find ourselves asking, “Is this person worth getting to know?” we are in dangerous waters. How can we possibly know that until we know the person? And what’s more, who are we to measure the value of a new acquaintance by what they can do for us? If that’s the question we are asking, we’re bound to wind up with a bunch of parasitic relationships—symbiotic at best. And if mutual dependence is the main motivator, then as soon as one person no longer needs the other, the bridge will probably dissolve.

This is not to say networking is inherently selfish—it’s not the activity that’s selfish, it’s the mindset behind it.

If we are only looking for friends in high places, we will probably not have very many friends, and even fewer loyal ones.

Which is why I would encourage all of us writers, artists, and career folks to make friends in all places, not just the high ones. Because at the end of the day, real friendships and meaningful connections have very little to do with power and rank disparity and everything to do with what two people share in common.

What has been your experience with networking?

What kinds of pressures have you faced in the process?

How do you go about building meaningful connections that are also strategic?

The Story behind the Story

Recently a contact from my alma mater reached out to interview me about The Exile, my first published novel.

Fellow Hillsdale College alumna Gianna Marchese, the Editor in Chief of the Student Stories Blog and the college’s Social Media Coordinator, took the time to ask the following questions. You can find her full article here.

“Tell us about how this novel came to be. Where did you find your inspiration?”

“As with most stories, The Exile evolved quite a bit since its inception—which is really for the best, considering I started it when I was fourteen. I remember getting the initial idea for a “princess story” as I read C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, simply because I have always found books and films set in far-away, historical cultures fascinating—and again, I was fourteen, so of course, princesses.

“I had actually created a whole mythical world of my own, in whose setting I had been writing little 5-10 page detailed synopses of tales and folklore over the past several years. The Exile began as one such synopsis, told mainly from the perspective of the princess, Clare. But as the story developed and the synopsis ran into 12 pages and beyond, I found myself more intrigued with the character of Clare’s foil, the warrior and ex-slave, Delta. Long after finishing the synopsis, I remained haunted by Delta’s character and the pair’s dynamic. So I decided to start a novel, narrated by Delta, to see where it went.”

“Walk us through your creative process. How did the princess-story-inspired-by-C.S. Lewis evolve into The Exile as we know it now?”

“Over the next four years, what started as a princess story turned into something I still struggle to categorize: an adventure story in which two individuals’ simultaneous diametrical opposition toward each other and need for each other forges a blend of annoyance, respect, and loyalty. While my understanding of both characters deepened throughout the process, the most “sweat” I put into the book was the research. Transforming a mythical world into an actual historical backdrop is no picnic, but because of the obscurity of the time frame, most of my research focused on the details of medieval life and Scandinavian clans. The names of the clans and the cities are all fictitious; however, most of them are taken from Old Norse.

“In general, my stories and scripts begin with three elements of inspiration: a central personality, a relationship, and some tension. This creates what I call “the situation” (shocker, I know), and from there I ask three basic questions:

  1. Who are these people (to the reader and to each other)?
  2. How did they get here?
  3. Where are they going and why?

The rest of the story is basically a progressive answer to all of these questions.”

“Do you think your Hillsdale education set you up for success in this field?”

“My experiences in the Rhetoric and Theatre departments left an enormous impact on my storytelling… we were always examining the multi-faceted, organic nature of every interaction, as well as the fundamental roles of word choice and arrangement of content in giving a written work its meaning. On top of that, learning about induction and deduction gave me a fuller perspective on the different approaches to plot and character development, and why certain stories require one approach instead of the other. Writing, casting, and actually stage-reading scripts for… playwriting classes gave me a chance to incorporate my rhetorical training into dialogue. I now look at every exchange between characters as a game of verbal chess, in which each has their own motives, strategies, and tactics.”

If you are a fellow writer, what steps do you include in your creative process?

Where do your ideas usually begin and how do you go about shaping them into a story?

What specific obstacles do you frequently encounter and how do you move past them?

Hatfields, McCoys, and Mental Issues

For all the attention that political and social issues receive in historical dramas, it seems mental issues are rarely addressed.

That being said, when I started the History Channel miniseries “Hatfields and McCoys,” I had no inkling that this topic would even surface—and was wholly unprepared for what followed.

The series itself features Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton opposite one another as the respective patriarchs of the two families (Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy) whose notorious conflict came to define our understanding of the term “feud.” As I became increasingly captivated with the complexities and plot twists, I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, I’m sure the directors added that to make it more interesting.” Parts like the forbidden love story between Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy. Some of the familial ties to judges and lawyers. Even some of the characters, who I had assumed were fictional additions, were real people with real roles in the feud.

In short, my subsequent research showed me that the History Channel did a certain amount of justice to the actual events and players in the legendary feud.

But the part that I found most emotionally difficult to watch was the portrayal of Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts, a member of the Hatfield family with some apparent mental challenges.

Against the vicious backdrop of the feud, Cottontop appears as one of the few gentle, innocent souls in the narrative. Because of his slowness and childish naivete, he remains blissfully ignorant of the bloodshed between the families until his father (Anse’s brother) is murdered. In all honesty, he was the character I cared about most, largely because of my own inherent sensitivity toward individuals with mental disabilities, but also because of how much time the directors spend framing him as a lamb-like victim—who is eventually sacrificed to end the feud.

During the series, we see Cottontop as the brunt of insults and pranks from non-family members, who condescend on him for his lower intellectual capacity.

Today, we would call this bullying, discrimination, slurring, and a host of other unsavory titles that label such actions for what they are: cruelty.

But in the 19th century boondocks, such things were common, as there was little scientific understanding of mental retardation and disabilities. 

All the same, I had to wonder: was this element of the story added for dramatic effect, or was it historically accurate? The answers I found were somewhat unsatisfactory.

While it appears Cottontop did have mental struggles, accounts vary as to whether he suffered from simply mental challenges or a more malicious form of mental illness.

The History Channel’s background publication on the feud reiterates that Cottontop was in fact mentally retarded, but they do not address in writing whether he was as innocent as his portrayal. Considering that he was hung for murdering a young McCoy girl (which the series portrays as basically an accident), a lot of ethical weight for his character hinges on whether he intended harm or was truly as oblivious as the series suggests.

What I found has some heavy ethical implications for how society treats those with mental disabilities.

According to William Keith Haltfield, a modern-day descendant of Anse Hatfield, Cottontop’s slowness led to a level of social ostracization, leaving him desperate to please his family at any cost. Some have posited that his life record indicates a darker, cruel streak that characterizes those whom we would call mentally deranged. But William Keith Hatfield attributes Cottontop’s overall disregard for his actions to an insecurity and desire for acceptance, commenting,He never really considered the people he hurt or the pain he might cause others.”

Which is still a step above his family, who consciously worked to inflict harm and vengeance.

Even though Cottontop’s innocence and obliviousness was likely embellished for dramatic effect, I still find his involvement in the feud one of the saddest, most disturbing parts of the whole story. Regardless of the degree to which he experienced mental challenges or illness, the History Channel series does an effective job of capturing the contagiousness and tragedy of violent revenge. And I think it’s a reminder of the fact that, although everyone is responsible for the choices they make, we have to be mindful of how society influences those who are more mentally vulnerable.

Does withholding of social acceptance drive outcasts to desperate measures? Sometimes.

Does condescension on those with specific challenges lead them to de-value themselves? Sometimes.

But at the end of the day, there is still individual responsibility. Social pressure does not relieve people of their personal accountability. And yet the way we handle people who are vulnerable can play a huge role in their life trajectory—and it can either exculpate us from their poor choices, or incriminate us for exploiting them.

And that is something that holds true in every generation and culture.

The Secret Recipe to Great Blog Posts: what the experts never told you

WARNING: If you have no palate for satire, read no further.

What you are about to read is a collection of the four unspoken, yet ubiquitous, components that are essential for writing unrivaled, mind-blowing posts.

As someone who has been blogging for a little under a year, I wish the experts had told me this sooner.

Yet, as I scoured and studied the habits of the Greats (meaning those who have thousands of followers), I began to recognize several common factors underlying many.

These Greats trumpet the merits of well-known and oft-proclaimed strategies such as writing solid content, planning, revising, and citing other bloggers. But the dirty little secret ultimately responsible for their success far outweighs these pedestrian practices: it is the four objects subliminally present in every idyllic blogger photo.

For my readers’ benefit, I shall identify each of these four mystical objects, without which one can never hope to write a truly great blog post.

Glean what wisdom you may.

1) The coffee mug.

If you don’t have a mug sitting within reach when you begin writing, you may as well give up.

No great work was ever written without the presence of coffee, tea, or some other fluid poured into a cozy-looking mug (preferably cradled in a saucer). Research has yet to prove whether the actual fluid itself is of any importance—so far all that can be verified is the positive correlation between aesthetic drinks and content quality. Those seeking exceptional posts should consider swirling some white, creamy substance into the surface of their drink to enhance its beauty and subsequently their own brilliance.

2) The MacBook.

No one with a non-Mac laptop can advance beyond amateur status.

To purchase any other brand is folly; to use said device for blogging is creative suicide. Only the MacBook, with its slender, silver body and minimalistic keys can fully transmit your message to the screen. While the magic of the Mac is not an ability to conjure ideas (coffee mugs and Components 3 and 4 do that), its inherent powers of Chic infuse raw ideas with unequaled, hipster-level eloquence and efficiency. 

3) The pen and notebook.

These appear frequently beside the obligatory coffee mug, furthest from the MacBook itself (although the precise location is not known to impact their effect).

Whether or not you use said pen and notebook is irrelevant—the key is simply to keep them within reach, as these objects are known to channel the elusive forces of creativity. Their necessity is actually rather controversial, considering that their wanton use of paper has been decried as wasteful; however, this social ill can easily be remedied by the perpetual reuse of a single, blank notebook for every blog post.

4) The succulent.

Of all the critical ingredients for great blog posts, this object holds the most mystique.

When the succulent emerged as a commonly photographed blogging asset is difficult to pinpoint—however, it likely took place in conjunction with the rise of the MacBook. The specific power of the succulent remains relatively unidentified, unlike its three counterparts, whose influences boast extensive scientific verification. What has been discovered, however, is that bloggers whose photos feature only the first three objects experience less predictable success than those who regularly incorporate a succulent into their photos. The location of the succulent, unlike that of the notebook, does seem to bear some significance.

As a symbol of sophistication, the succulent’s success-inducing powers seem to thrive most when positioned subtly in the photo, rather than prominently.

This could mean applying a selective focus to the camera lens and placing the succulent in the unfocused zone, or one could simply sneak the succulent into the background (e.g. partially hidden by the MacBook). Consistent with the theme of subtlety, it is also recommended to choose a small succulent, lest it unwittingly attract too much attention and sabotage the creative forces it helps to summon.

END SATIRE

I have compiled these four blogging gimmicks both for a laugh and for a point I think is worth making: When we take all of our cues from what other people do, we often become followers of a fad. I have actually learned a good deal from following certain other bloggers (who truly do put out great content), and what makes them great isn’t their conformity to a specific aesthetic, vibe, or trend.

Moushmi Radhanpara writes heartfelt poetry, among other things. Pooja shares a combination of her thoughts, poetry, and six-word stories. Ailish Sinclair posts gorgeous photos of Scotland with sneak-peeks at her historical fiction novels. Kamal offers poetic analogies and insights into otherwise mundane aspects of life. The list goes on.

I hope you enjoyed reading this little snarky entry as much as I enjoyed writing it. And more importantly, I hope you continue to create according to your own gifts, interests, and “aesthetics”—not someone else’s idea of what the idyllic blog looks like. 🙂

Drop a comment and let me know if you’ve noticed other blogging gimmicks! Or if you simply agree with this list.

Or… if you yourself have identified the mysterious power of The Succulent.

When We are History

Today I was caught in a hailstorm.

Well, not by the time you read this—the storm happened on April 7.

And obviously I survived it. In fact, within two minutes of making it in through the back door, I looked out the window and saw that the pebble-sized chunks falling had turned to rain, and those on the ground were quickly dissolving.

I’ll probably remember the incident for a while, until the next time the sky decides to throw ice at me, and then that will be “the hail storm” I remember.

It’s similar with history.

People say every generation is known for something. That may be true, but what was your grandparents’ generation known for? Or their parents? Or the generation before them?

Every generation may be known for something at the time, but not every generation is remembered.

Even the greatest generations have a way of dissolving with time, leaving only a few key political or cultural figures in the contemporary memory.

Some people find this disturbing—even frightening—and so they spend their entire lives striving to do something that will leave them a legacy.

The thing is, unless you manage to overthrow an entire political or social system, start a cultural movement (which everyone seems dying to do these days, so please let’s have no more), win (or start) a war, or create some physical or literary masterpiece, your chances of being remembered past your grandchildren’s generation are pretty slim. And yet we still try.

Why do we do this?

Some simply want to achieve fame, little realizing that a window of glory in their lifetime does not translate to lasting renown and notoriety. Others think they can become immortal by cementing their names in the history books. And in most cases, the underlying motivation for wanting to be remembered is quite selfish.

As someone who has long romanticized the idea of creating a work that will outlive me, I’ve given this subject some hard thought, and this is the realization I’ve come to:

The greatest legacy most of us will have is the impact we left on those around us.

Not on unreached generations, who will one day read with fascination the words we wrote or behold in awe a statue of us. But the people who see us every day, who call us every other month, who ask for our advice and give theirs in return, or even those who receive one kind gesture from us—those are the people who constitute our legacy. Oh yeah, and your children are also kind of significant too. They are the people singularly most shaped by your words, actions, and attitudes, who will inevitably bear some of your characteristics into the future.

This doesn’t mean the world will remember our name, but if we can think beyond ourselves in any capacity, we should realize that our name is not the important thing to remember. It’s what we stand for that counts.

That being said, there are brilliant novelists whose personal lives shot their story’s message in the foot– at least for those who knew them. They may have publicly championed great causes and beliefs in their books, but in some cases the only people who could appreciate the book were those who didn’t know the author. That, fellow readers and book nerds, is a tragedy.

 So even if we do go on to achieve some master accomplishment that makes the history books, we should take care that our private legacy doesn’t undermine the one we’ve spent a lifetime trying to build.

But for most of us, our names will be forgotten with time. So let’s spend less of of our time building an empire, and more of it building into others.

The Reluctant Screen-Writer

Whether we like it or not, most of us today are screen-writers.

Not that we all compose scripts, no, not that kind of writing. What I’m talking about is the fact that, regardless of what medium we are writing for, we have been compelled to do it through a screen.

Personal diaries aside, I would bet that the vast majority of creative writing that happens nowadays begins on a screen.

There’s a number of reasons why this makes sense.

1) The necessity of revision makes the use of computers more practical.

Simply put, it’s much easier to edit a virtual document using “copy,” “paste,” and “backspace” functions than it is to scribble out, erase, and rewrite entire paragraphs on a physical sheet of paper. Not to mention, it will save you from all the paper-shaming you’ll get from the green culture for wasting trees!

2) Using a computer is actually a shortcut.

Starting your creation in virtual form also saves the step of typing it up later, which is inevitable for those who want to publish. (Side note: my first novel started off as handwritten. In pencil. Yup. Needless to say, transcribing 250 pages into a Word doc was no picnic.)

That said, though, there is a substantial amount of science that suggests the act of using a screen can actually decrease our brain’s creativity.

Does this mean that starting your story or article on a computer is shooting yourself in the foot? Well, the research (as usual) is not complete on this, but it shows some pretty consistently adverse effects on the brain development of children. The lack of research on adults could mean that, scientifically speaking, using a screen to write doesn’t inherently cripple the quality of your work.

All the same, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the amount of time I am forced to stare at a screen. Aside from the headaches and eye strain, I find it difficult to get “in the zone” for any given story when my stare is fixated on a glaring white screen. It seems to tangibly impair my imagination and ability to visualize scenes and settings—especially those in historical time periods.

While some things may not require the same level of sensory immersion or focus in order to get the creative juices flowing, I do wonder how much of writers’ block these days may be because the very tool we are using to write impedes our ability to imagine.

Is this the case for you? Do you find creative writing difficult while using a screen and keyboard?

Do you ever handwrite first drafts of something, and later transcribe it during the editing process?

If you yourself write historical fiction, how do you handle the distraction of a screen? How you mentally overcome the deluge of technology in order to stay in the zone? Please do share your thoughts on this, I am extremely eager for input!

A Curious Perspective on Coronavirus

“What is going to happen?”

“How will this virus affect the economy?”

“How many people will die?”

These are the questions we are deluged by on every side during this pandemic.

Countless mavens and prophets are spouting off their opinions and predictions via every imaginable outlet. They may be right, they may not. Some may be way more off than others, but we’re all stuck with the same desire to know what’s coming.

I’m not here to make any kind of prediction. First of all, I’m not qualified, and second, I don’t think there’s anything to contribute at this point.

What good can a blog centered on stories offer people who are simply craving answers?

The world of storytelling rarely gives answers—but it always offers a perspective.

While there are usually better analogies to draw from literature, the closest one I can think of for the present situation is this:

We have to keep turning the pages, whether we want to or not—and there is no “skipping to the end.”

Plenty of people are afraid, because they have seen what this virus can do. They’ve experienced firsthand either the loss of a loved one or the effects of the illness itself, and there is pain in that.

Others, though, are afraid because of the unknown.

At this point, most of us have not yet experienced personal loss or illness from COVID-19, and yet mass panic seems to have taken hold of our country. (Why else does the toilet paper keep vanishing from the shelves???)

The analogy breaks down, of course, because we each have a role to play that can either alleviate or exacerbate the spread of this sickness—unlike a reader, who has no influence over the story itself. In this sense, we are more like characters than readers. But we also have our limits. We cannot single-handedly master the situation and establish control over it. Things will take their course, and we can neither foresee nor fix the future before it happens.

But again, like a story, the past, present, and future all have an author who has foreseen and mastered the entire plot.

An author who is not surprised by any of this. Is this comforting?

The fact is, this really can’t be of any comfort to us unless we personally know and have confidence in the author. Have you ever persevered through a book because you’ve come to have high expectations of its author? Because you trust his ability to bring the loose ends together?

It still doesn’t show us the future. It still doesn’t give us our answers.

But maybe that’s because we are asking the wrong questions.

So I ask you:

How well do you know the Author?

A Writer's List of Virtues

Everyone has a theory of what it takes to be a successful writer.

That’s all well and good, but first we have to define “success,” don’t we?

I mean, one person may churn out melodramatic teenage vampire novels, while another compiles decades of life experience into one heartfelt story. Two very different ideas of success.

But I’m not going to propose a step-by-step formula for how to become a “successful” writer of any kind. Frankly, we should be skeptical of those who do. What I do want to share are three virtues that every writer must possess and practice in order to stick through the publication process and be rightfully proud of the outcome (be sure to check out my video on this too):

Passion.

If you don’t care about what you’re writing… then why are you writing it?

Well, some people write because they are passionately proud of themselves first and foremost, and they want everyone else to think they’re great too.

Here’s the kicker: unless your passion centers on something bigger than yourself, no one else is going to find the book worth reading. Or the poem. Or the song! Not that we shouldn’t let our personal experiences inform our writing (we absolutely should), but our motivation to write needs to come from a belief primarily in the story itself—not in ourselves.

If we write because we like to read our own words, it’s like talking simply to hear your own voice—and the readers won’t be able to hear the characters’ voices over the sound of ours.

There is a place for believing in your writing ability, but first you must believe in your characters, or there will be nothing interesting for those reading the book. (See my post on developing compelling characters.)

Patience.

While it is important to write regularly, we must never be in a rush toward publication.

Stories and characters take time to develop and mature, just like us and our writing skills. This is one reason why revision is so crucial. Not only will you catch mistakes in the manuscript, but by the time you finish the first draft, you will no doubt have sharpened your word choice, flow, and character voices. It’s worth going back and making sure the first half sounds as good as the second. And when it comes to publication, whether you go through traditional or self-publishing, TAKE YOUR TIME.

In talking with one of my fellow novelists, Brendan Noble, author of the Prism Files series, it’s refreshing to hear another self-published writer who believes in thoroughness first. It’s exciting to see his series taking off—and not at the expense of the quality. Like many things, I think it comes down to a fundamental understanding of love. Do you love your story and its characters enough to help them reach their best? If submitting to publishers, do you believe in the book enough to keep sending query after query after query after query (think I’ve done this?) until finally someone takes it? Or if no one ever does take it, do you believe in the story enough to publish it without the help of the professionals? Either way, give it every ounce of the time and effort it deserves.

Humility.

You probably expected the third virtue to be “pride” or something similar. Nope.

The only kind of necessary pride in this context is passion for the story, and the eventual satisfaction over a job well-done.

All other forms of pride can get in the way when crafting the manuscript into a masterpiece. We absolutely have to be able to take and actually seek out criticism. (See my post on revision.) I remember holding an audience feedback session after the debut staged reading of my latest play… and some of those comments stung. But you know what?

The audience was right. The script I thought was pretty near perfect had a long way to go yet, and it ended up undergoing three extensive rewrites before it was production-ready.

I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we enjoy criticism, but most people don’t like open heart surgery either.

And yet it saves lives. The fact is, every first manuscript just about needs open heart surgery before it’s ready for publication. So at least we know it’s nothing personal!

Do you agree with this list of virtues for writers? Which ones did I miss?

What are some things you’ve learned throughout your own writing process?

Perfectionism and Publishing

If any writer knows that revision is necessary, then he also knows the final product will be imperfect.

“Final” draft does not mean “perfect” draft.

This becomes especially (nay, painfully) clear when you see one of your works in print.

Take it from me—I published a novel last summer, later to find that there were several errors in the printed manuscript. While I still believe self-publishing was the best choice for this particular novel, I learned first-hand the value of multiple editing rounds and critical eyes.

Part of me winced when I found these. I’d given it countless pre-publication read-throughs. How could I have missed these mistakes?

I have to admit, it’s humbling to share this publicly. And it doesn’t mean I’m not proud of my book—I still am, and thankfully I’ve been able to update the manuscript with the necessary edits.

But the reason I share this is because I think it’s important for us writers to get comfortable with our own imperfection without using that as an excuse for laziness.

(See my post on revision for more.)

Having known the excitement tainted by surprise as I paged through my first published novel, I understand on a whole new level the value of extensive (astronomically extensive) editing. But I also understand that the world didn’t end because there were a few typos. People still liked the book. The characters still had their own voices. The professionalism of the book, however, could have benefited from more close read-throughs.

And happily, I can now say that it has!

While perfectionism may not be the struggle of every writer, it’s worth reminding ourselves that as long as we are imperfect, our creations are going to be imperfect as well.

And that’s okay!

While we shouldn’t let the fear of failure stop us from stepping out, we also shouldn’t use our natural flaws as a free pass from hard work. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that our best two years from now will be better than our best today—if we go all-in every time and commit to improving at each chance we get.

In what ways have you dealt with perfectionism in your work? Do you think it usually helps you or hinders you?

If you’re a writer, what have you learned from the process of “rough draft to final draft?” What motivates you to try again when something doesn’t turn out as planned?

Worth Your Salt?

If there’s one thing writers know, it’s that adjustments are inevitable.

In reality, this goes for everyone, not just writers.

But what’s interesting is that there’s a special term for this in writing—revising. Okay, that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that we view change in writing as a given—as something that is inherently part of the process if you want a product to come out top-notch. No writer particularly delights in revision, but any writer worth their salt knows that it’s an investment that will pay off in the final result.

When it comes to the rest of life, we dread change.

To be fair, some of us dread it more than others, and some of us are better at it than others—but what’s consistent is that change in our external circumstances requires us to adapt, whether we like it or not.

Maybe it’s just an over-representation bias, but I’d bet that more people fear the unexpected changes in life. Each day, we spend more time in hypothetical-land worrying about what new catastrophe could strike, rather than wondering what fresh, groundbreaking opportunities will fall out of the sky.

As with many of our topics here, there are probably oodles of philosophies, psychological theories, and maybe even quantum mechanics explanations as to why we as human tend to worry about the future’s changes instead of chasing them with anticipation. I will not attempt to explain the why. I’m more interested in what we can learn from the world of storytelling.

Because here is what it comes down to:

If we all approached the future with the fixed eyes and flexible mind of a writer revising his work, we’d have a lot more masterpieces in the world.

A writer going over his manuscript knows there will be parts he doesn’t like that he still has to keep. He knows there will be parts he loves that he has to lose. He knows there will be inconsistencies to straighten out, messes to clean up, and sections that need complete reinvention. All this can sound so overwhelming! It stalls many a writer from picking up the red pen, simply because of the sheer amount of drudgery and frustration this process involves.

But the determined writer knows that unless he begins that process, he will never get that beautiful novel.

The determined writer uncaps the red pen and gets to work.

That’s the writer worth his salt.

How many hurdles might we overcome if we stop staring at them and just take the leap? How many wounds might heal if we stop denying them and give ourselves the space to recover? We will always be faced with changes we didn’t count on and didn’t want—not much we can do to avoid that. But what we can do is recognize what’s different, accept it, and make the adjustment. Compensate. Adapt. Evolve, if you prefer.

Because every one of us is work in progress—no one is the final draft until the day his or her life ends. That’s pretty final. We all have revisions to make, and the clock is ticking.

Let’s be writers worth our salt.

Closing the Deal (and the Book)

If a writer can sell a lead character to an audience for the entirety of a story, he’d better not give them what they expect at the close.

Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? What buyer wants to walk out of a store dissatisfied?

While this little series has previously explored the parallels between storytelling and business sales, here we come to a fork in the road: because the “close” of one ought to look vastly different from the other.

Which is why I ask you to consider this question, in reference to stories:

Since when are predictable endings satisfying?

You see, predictability is everything in business—except in business, we call it reliability.  

Without it, companies and products would have horrible reviews from disgruntled patrons who feel shortchanged. Because in business, you must always deliver exactly what you promise. Sure, you can exceed customer expectations by giving them what they ask for and more, but if what you give them is fundamentally different from what they expect, then you’ll be hearing about it later.

Change, on the other hand, is the key element in closing out a story.

Not that you should turn a rom com into a horror film at the last moment, or that the hero should turn out to be a villain (although both have been done). What I mean is that if your lead character is the exact same person by the end of the story as he was when your readers cracked open the book, then you’ve let them down. Unlike a Swiffer mop, he shouldn’t operate the same way after purchase as he did in the demo. And it’s not because readers and viewers simply crave change—it’s because real people don’t function the same way at the end of a wild ride as they did in the beginning.

The narrative term here is the character arc—something we’re all familiar with, but something we as writers often neglect to give our leads.

So what’s the point of all this? Why bother comparing sales to storytelling if they don’t line up at the end?

As a writer (and really, as anything), I think there is always something to be gained by considering a craft from a fresh angle. When we do something frequently enough, we can begin to think of it narrowly and to settle with what’s comfortable. By taking a new perspective, we open the door to discoveries that can help us improve and personalize our work. And while no one can give you an exact formula for creating a character arc, we would do well to think about it consciously as we write.

Because if we forget to let our character change, then our readers will inevitably forget our character.

What do you think goes into a successful character arc?

Have you had success at writing characters who change by the end of the story?

What are some books whose “close” left you unsatisfied with the lead character’s arc?

Which ones do you think pull it off well?

How to Sell a Lead

Unlike most types of sales, this one involves no transaction.

The agreement is unspoken, and is measured only by the customer’s insatiable desire for more.

It’s the sale of a lead character.

Last week we talked about the two different strategies to hooking readers, and how many classic works build interest gradually through a character-focused approach, rather than an action-focused approach. This is not to say there’s no place for swashbuckling beginnings, but not every book needs to start with a hair-raising scene in order to promise worthwhile content.

At least, the master authors didn’t think so.

Check out these famous opening lines:

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1878)

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (1884)

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to.”

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (1843)

What do all of these have in common?

Well, if you look closely, you’ll see that each opening line sets the stage in human terms—that is, it raises a question about the central person in the story.

How was Scarlett able to hold these men spellbound?

Whose family fiasco are we about to hear?

Who is the narrator of Gatsby tempted to criticize?

What does Tom Sawyer have to do with this next story’s narrator?

What is the connection between Marley and Scrooge?

You’ll also notice that none of these opening statements introduces an urgent crisis—no one is about to die, get kidnapped, or lose his family. At least, not yet.

Any motivation we have to keep reading is solely based on the character traits or human elements alluded to in the first line.

And I say “alluded to” because at this point, any statements made have yet to be proven. How do we know Scarlett will never meet a man she can’t charm into adoring her? In what way is the family Tolstoy describes uniquely unhappy? How do we know that the person Gatsby’s narrator has in mind doesn’t deserve criticism?

Each situation holds a bit of mystery, meaning that we can’t possibly know the characters yet… but do we have a taste for more?

We can usually answer that question after the first few paragraphs, or even chapters. It’s true, not every author who draws the reader in slowly begins with an opening line about his characters, but if the entire first chapter or two introduces nothing noteworthy about a character, then not many are going to keep reading. We have to at least begin to buy the character.

So what makes readers “buy” a character?

Like any sale, there are different elements of interest and involvement from beginning to end. We don’t have the same sense of awe and wonder toward our new washing machine once we’ve run it a few times as we did when the customer service dude showed us its fancy computerized features. And sometimes we hesitantly order something off the menu, later to be surprised at how good it tastes (those are the lucky times).

Similarly, when we commit to following a character through a story, we don’t always end up as pleased with him or her as we were at the beginning—or sometimes we find ourselves strangely fond of someone we didn’t expect to like.

Or (even weirder) we’re fascinated by someone we abhor.

This is where selling a lead character differs from any other type of sale: the reader does not always have to like what they buy.

Some stories are told around despicable, conniving villains whose actions are deplorable—and yet everyone wants to know what happens next.

The thing is, selling a character doesn’t mean making him good, it means making him memorable. And in order for something to be memorable, there has to be something unexpected about it.

Think about it: when was the last time you got anything meaningful out of a completely monotone speech? Or found yourself motivated to finish a movie whose ending was all-too-obvious? (See my post on tropes for more on this.)

We don’t remember things that are predictable—or if we do, there is nothing meaningful added to our perspective after having experienced them. A lead character doesn’t have to win your moral approval, he has to win your fascination—and that happens when the author gives you bits and pieces of personal information on him that prevent him from fitting into a mold.

He might be mean, but if he has a pet lizard that he tucks into bed each night, he suddenly becomes more interesting.

She might be a nun, but if she’s constantly struggling not to flirt with a priest, she becomes more than a typecast.

He might be a university professor, but if he never graduated from college, there’s a back story worth hearing.

In short, the concept behind writing a character people will want to learn about is the same concept behind brand marketing: it could be good or bad, but if it’s memorable, that’s half the battle.

The Case of the Vanishing Character

Do you find it unsettling when people vanish from your life?

“Depends on the person,” you say.

Fair enough.

But in general, when people who formerly played some semi-notable or even regular role in your life leave it, you usually have a sense of why.

I find it interesting that media does not always abide by these rules.

Characters disappear from stories, often without a trace, as if the audience will never notice.

Books seem to do this less, because they work as more of a cohesive whole, and the entire plot can be affected if a significant minor character falls through the cracks. Movie series can get a bit dicey. And TV series… well…

We’ve all heard the complaint about a favorite character getting killed off in a show. But getting killed off at least accounts for the disappearance. Classic examples: Matthew’s death in Downton Abbey, Lord Melbourne’s death in Victoria, Elizabeth’s death in Poldark, and so on. If you’re familiar with any of these, then you’ll know what I mean when I ask the following:

What on earth happened to Charles Blake from Downton Abbey?

Julian Fellowes generally provides a clean break for any exiting characters, but this one could have used some more follow-up. The last we see of Charles, he is going on a six-month trip after helping Mary ditch Tony Gillingham.

What happened to Wilhelmina Coke in Victoria?

Although the final episode of season 2 ends with her getting engaged to Alfred, she never makes a single appearance or receives a single reference throughout the entirety of season 3! Meanwhile, Alfred carries on years later at the palace, chipper and single as ever.

And then there’s the dog in Poldark.

Not that he vanishes, but the fact that he’s still there by the time Geoffrey Charles grows up. That dog has to be at least eighteen years old, considering he entered the show with Demelza in the first episode. Now I’m all for dogs lasting a long time, but you’d think he’d show some age at least by now. My dog certainly does! But, on the other hand, considering his owners haven’t aged in eighteen years, why should he?

Don’t know these shows?

Don’t worry!

The trend of characters inexplicably vanishing goes way back! I have to admit, I didn’t recognize most of these shows, but here’s an interesting article that tallies the invisible corpses from various shows.

The fact that there are a number of such articles identifying lost characters suggests it’s not just the OCD audience members out there who find this unsettling. I think it bothers us because we crave a sense of continuity and a certain degree of predictability, both in media and in real life—which is understandable.

Why, then, do the writers do this? Why do these characters slip through the cracks without an explanation?

At least in the case of film series, each character’s reprisal requires the renewal of a contract, so it can’t be because the writers simply “forgot” to write him/her in. So why don’t they make up an excuse for their absence and weave that into the story somehow?

I don’t really have an answer to this, other than they must not consider the lost character important enough to require an explanation. Or perhaps this leaves the door open for the character to return?

One thing’s for sure, though: it’s a sign of sloppy writing. If a character is given enough screen time to develop a memorable impression on the audience, then that character deserves a coherent exit. Otherwise someone out there is going to notice it– and it’s bound to end up in an article someday! 😉

Identity Crisis: the Point of Re-inquiring

Identity Crises come in many forms.

And with any luck, they lead to positive changes. This one is no exception.

On The Inquisitive Inkpot’s 30th birthday, it has come face-to-face with the reality it can no longer deny: it is something different from what it set out to be. Not because it hasn’t grown or learned, but rather because it has.

When I first started writing this blog, I thought it was going to be strictly about historical fiction.

By the tenth post, however, it began to take its own direction, much like characters coming to life and defying the author’s intentions. Any author can identify with that struggle.

What the past 30 weeks have shown me (no, this blog is not 30 years old) is that it is impossible to limit meaningful discussion to one genre.

Why?

Every writer has to be able to blog or journal about things that will both benefit him/her and whoever else reads it.

(And in case you were wondering, “whoever,” not “whomever” is correct in this case because it is the subject of the last clause. 🙂 ) A blog is most meaningful when the pieces challenge you as the writer, not just your readers. When the topics force you to stop and think multi-directionally, not just linearly. As one of my mentors, the esteemed philosophy professor Dr. James Stephens at Hillsdale College, puts it, “thinking sideways.”

Why should we bother with that?

Because we were born to participate, not just to receive.

Every book, movie, or story you come across contains some sort of message.

Some messages are more encrypted than others, but the point is that any time you sit down and try to decode that message, you begin to engage with its rhetoric. You are looking at the work in front of you and breaking down its parts to analyze their purpose. You assign value to those parts. You form opinions. You are no longer just a passive recipient of the message, but an active participant who is capable of evaluating the message for its truth, persuasiveness, and beauty. And this applies to all stories, not just historical ones.

The beauty that I see in this is that we learn best how to create our own original art when we have studied all the kinds of art out there—not only the kind we want to make. Because the best stories are not contained strictly within their genre. They transcend and reach other audiences who might otherwise dislike that genre. The best stories are capable of teaching every artist something, and for this reason we writers would do well to read and watch things out of our “zone.”

So what’s changing about The Inquisitive Inkpot isn’t the asking of questions. The scope of questions is simply expanding. It’s expanding to include stories in all forms and consider all aspects of the telling. Because it’s not a choice between broadening horizons or deepening the well. The best quests are the ones that do both.

Cancer, Monsters, and Catharsis

Have you ever found yourself emotionally unprepared for a book or movie?

You know, when you finish it and feel like the wind was just knocked out of you—and not in a good way. There’s a number of ways this can happen:

Scenario 1: You’re already feeling miserable and you want a distraction, so you pick up a book or watch a movie you know nothing about… and somehow the experience and the storyline pours salt into the wound, leaving you worse off than before.

Scenario 2: You’re kind of coasting along, feeling “ready for anything,” so you start a book or movie that you know has some heavy stuff… only to find out you’re not as invincible as you thought.

Scenario 3: You know the story has the capacity to depress you, and so you wait until you think you are emotionally stable enough to handle it… but it ends up tugging on heartstrings you didn’t know you had and sending you reeling.

My recent experience of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls somehow did more than all of these combined.

As the story of a little boy struggling to cope with his mother’s impending death from cancer, A Monster Calls resonated painfully with my own life.

Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls, 2016

It depicted, more accurately than I have ever seen before, the critical pieces of slowly losing a parent.

The attempt to persuade yourself the treatments will work.

The attempt to keep functioning.

The underlying anger.

But most poignantly, the secret wish that it would all just end.

 I think I went through about eleven tissues.

The story broke me. But it also healed me.

How does this happen?

It’s a strange tonic.

This is not to say that a story itself can single-handedly provide healing from any major loss. Of course it can’t. But inasmuch as it can emotionally re-break you, it can also re-heal you, if it is told a certain way and if you are ready for it.

A year ago, I could never have watched this movie, because everything was still too fresh. I would have been more sad, more depressed, and more angry than I was before. But now, for some reason, now—I was ready.

How do you know when you’re ready?

How do you know when a sad story will be cathartic instead of more traumatic?

There is a lot of research out there about the grieving process, and the different stages of grief (if you want depressing content, just look there!), but it all varies depending our different personalities, circumstances, beliefs, and other factors. The thing is, we just can’t break it into a formula. So what one person finds therapeutic (though tear-jerking) at one year, another person may need seven years before they can derive anything beneficial. Or maybe never.

At the end of the day, you simply have to know your own emotional state.

Some people are more naturally resilient to moving stories that would break other people’s hearts. Or some people can appreciate sadness in a story without feeling prodded toward depression. But for some of us, there’s a wound that needs to be kept in mind. I’m certainly not suggesting that we avoid anything that might make us cry—sometimes we need to cry. But there’s a difference between tears of release when something resonates with us, and tears of fresh pain when something digs deeper into an existent wound.

So for anyone familiar with the loss of a parent, the hell called cancer, or the battle of denial, first of all, I’m sorry. I’ve been there, and it’s awful beyond words.

But if you are the kind of person who finds any comfort in stories, I highly, highly recommend this film. At some point during your journey of healing, when you are ready. It is much more than a realistic portrayal of terminal illness. It is a beautiful allegory of a much higher Truth, a much higher Being, that anyone experiencing grief is invited to call upon and, in doing so, receive healing.

The Aeronauts: What the Skies Teach us about Humanity

Found: a fine specimen of historical fiction and an epic ride. It’s Director Tom Harper’s latest, The Aeronauts.

Admittedly I was mostly interested in seeing Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones starring opposite one another again (after first seeing their acting chemistry in The Theory of Everything, I couldn’t pass this one by). But within the first few minutes, the inductive plot development, accompanied with character clues through flashbacks, brought together so many different concepts that I’ve spent time on recently, that I simply had to keep watching.

The movie depicts the record-setting gas balloon expedition conducted by James Glaisher in 1862.

Who made the ascent with him, however, is where the story takes a major artistic turn. In the movie, Glaisher (Redmayne) takes his trip with the widow of a former French aeronaut—a sprightly young woman named Amelia Wren (Jones). This is where the story got a bit creative, to say the least.

It turns out that Glaisher was accompanied on this particular mission by another male scientist, Henry Tracy Coxwell. While I suspected that Amelia’s character may have been embellished, I was a bit surprised to learn that she never existed. Instead, she was drawn together by a number of real women in aeronautical science, and named after Amelia Earhart, whose adventures would not come for another 60 years.

Overall, the movie takes you on a riveting (and dizzying) journey above the clouds with these two, as they discover uncharted territory in the sky, each other, and themselves. Facts aside, it made an inspiring statement about going where no other has gone before, and pushing oneself to the highest achievements possible—all while recognizing one’s own limits.

As a work of historical fiction, The Aeronauts actually makes a fascinating statement about “limits.”

In creating Amelia’s character, the writers portray a woman defying the limits imposed on her gender by an otherwise male-dominated field. And yet as Glaisher and Amelia climb higher into the atmosphere, they must both come to terms with their physical and mental fragility against the forces of nature. Well, actually, Amelia somehow stays conscious for almost half an hour after Glaisher faints from oxygen deprivation, so apparently she wasn’t as fragile as he was. But still, she eventually loses consciousness at 36,000 feet.

The warning here echoes of the Icarus myth. It’s all well and good to reach high (and we ought to), but we cannot forget our own weakness and frailty as humans. Not as women or men, but as humans.

Does the movie smack of feminism?

A bit, in my opinion. I generally dislike politically charged movies, but in this case what stood out wasn’t the exultation of women over men, but the shared impediments and ingenuity of both genders.

While I was a bit disappointed to learn that Amelia Wren never existed or set the record alongside James Glaisher, I can appreciate the creative choice to invent her. Placing both a man and a woman in the balloon enabled the film makers to communicate a message about people as a whole:

Our unique gifts and callings ought to be pursued—but we must always remember that no matter how high we soar, we can never change our basic needs as humans.

Character Quizzes and Why We Take them

Raise your hand if you’ve never taken a character quiz from a movie!

The fact is, if you’re in my generation or younger, it’s a safe assumption that you have taken at least several. Okay, yeah, I just dated myself, but I’ve probably already done that in previous posts.

For those of you who precede my generation (millennials), I don’t mean a quiz that measures your knowledge of a character in a story—I mean a quiz that attempts to identify which character you are most like.

Think of it as a personality type quiz—except that the results are confined to the cast of characters in whatever book or movie in question.

As an eager victim of these quizzes (for better or worse), I never cease to find them simultaneously amusing and horrifying.

Ever wondered what Disney hero you would be? Probably. But have you ever wondered what villain you would be?

What about Star Wars?

Marvel?

Lord of the Rings?

Narnia?

Harry Potter?

Ever wondered which Mean Girl you secretly are? (I did once, and then it told me I was Karen…)

The point is, people find these quizzes fascinating—otherwise the internet wouldn’t be oozing with them. But why do we bother with them?

For a good laugh?

To pass the time in the waiting room?

Or are they really just another mind-numbing activity?

Probably.

I mean, you’re not going to figure out who you should marry or what you should do for a living based off a quiz on Buzzfeed. But what these quizzes do give us is a license to do what we already subconsciously do no matter what:

They invite us to interpret the story in terms of ourselves.

The truth is, no matter the genre, the time period, the actors, or any of that, we always look for ourselves in the story. We try to find a character with whom we can identify to at least some degree, in whose welfare we become invested. (See my article on La La Land.) If we never find this character, chances are we find the entire book or movie pretty boring. Sound familiar?

What I’ve just now explained is actually a central concept in rhetorical theory: the concept of identification.

As a rhetorical concept, identification receives a good deal of attention in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives and Walter Fisher’s writings on the narrative paradigm. In sum, Burke argues that the degree to which Person A identifies with Person B affects how much influence that Person B has over Person A. Building on this, Fisher proposed in his narrative paradigm that if an audience identifies with a character in a story, then their emotions and opinions about the story will be shaped by whatever happens to that character.

So in short, any time we see a movie or read a book, we are looking for a character who we think represents us.

Does this mean we’re all narcissistic? Maybe a little. But think about it—how would we ever learn or glean anything meaningful from a story if we never “placed ourselves in the characters’ shoes?”

I think our need to see ourselves in a story is a statement about how we engage, learn, and find enjoyment.

We do this already any time we open a book or put on a movie, without even realizing it. But the popularity of character quizzes is a testament to this.

No matter how silly the questions or ridiculous the results (okay, my Disney villain was Jafar, which is convictingly accurate), we derive some pleasure out of whatever shallow self-examination and comparison the quiz offers. We enjoy walking through the mental paces of the questions, trying to figure out what we would do if placed in the world of the story, and who our friends would be in that world.

And even if we end up being compared to a ditzy snowman (yes, my overall Disney character was Olaf), we can at least laugh and see our quirks in a new, humorous light.

Sequels: when Part II just isn’t a good idea…

When does too much of a good thing become a bad thing?

I mean, let’s be honest: any time you read a great book or finish a great movie, somewhere in the back of your mind you wonder if there will be more –unless, of course, the author is dead (and no, fanfiction does not count).

Why is it we want more? Is it because the story left things open-ended? Is it because it was a cliff-hanger? Or is it simply our voyeuristic curiosity to know what the characters do with the rest of their lives?

Whatever it is, it has led hundreds—nay, thousands—of writers into plotline pandemonium (or frankly, lameness) and character catastrophes (or frankly, contradictions).

With each new installment the writers attempt to perform CPR on a corpse, failing to realize that they are the ones who killed it in the first place.

A good story doesn’t feel dead without a sequel.

It might feel incomplete, but if it has no life on its own, then adding Part II or even Part VIII isn’t going to breathe life into it.

But even worse is undoing the meaning of the first story by undermining its characters in the sequel.

At this point, I tread dangerously near the edge of controversy. I would avoid naming names, but alas, it’s impossible.

Take for instance Andrew Lloyd Weber: the man is a brilliant composer and storyteller through music. But I cannot bring myself to watch The Phantom of the Opera’s sequel, Love Never Dies (even though I sang the title song in my junior recital). Although *some* of the music in the sequel is comparably beautiful to that in the second, as a continuation of the story, it destroys the characters—not to mention, it robs any meaning from the original’s iconic “All I Ask of You.” Where is the beauty in the commitment Christine and Raoul make in Phantom if they throw it all away in Love Never Dies?

The other pitfall of sequels comes from contriving watered-down plots that have no energy left.

Okay, maybe I’m plunging off the edge of controversy now.

But Pirates of the CaribbeanI’ll defend the choice to make the trilogy, but I think everyone can agree that the first was capable as a stand-alone. It had a complete plot arc, a somewhat complete character arc (at least for Will), and a signature swashbuckling finish that left ends just open enough for a sequel or two. But even without the sequel, it would still have been a good film.

The hole they dug themselves into with this one was the introduction of a fourth. Not only did it have an inferior plotline, but the new characters it introduced were one-dimensional tropes pulled off the front-row shelf—even if they have the faces of Penelope Cruz and Sam Claflin. That being said, the fifth was a slight improvement from the fourth, but I don’t think they can ever match the glory of the trilogy. Basically, in making the fourth, the directors opened a can of worms they seem reluctant to close back up again… even if it would be best for the world of cinema.

And then there’s Star Wars… I won’t say much here, because I never saw the prequels and stopped watching after the seventh and Rogue One, so I’m utterly unqualified to give any assessment. But I do know the creation of the latest two trilogies has caused simultaneous enthusiasm and eye-rolling.

It makes me wonder, as do these other cases, what exactly is it that makes a story ripe for a sequel? Aside from those cases where it’s obvious that the story will be a saga (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.), what components set up a stand-alone for a second installment?

What are some stories out there that could have done fine without a sequel?

Which ones could have used a part II? And which ones absolutely should never have received a follow-up?

Inception and the Impact of Emotional Memory on Personal Identity

Whether or not you buy into the theory that the entirety of the movie Inception takes place as a dream, we can all agree on one thing: the importance of emotional memory in the story.

The first time I saw the film, I struggled simply to keep up with the plot twists—as any normal human probably would. But what I could follow quite lucidly was the development of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, as the movie inevitably swerved deeper and deeper into the layers of his subconscious. The thing is, for all his cleverness in infiltrating the minds of other people, Cobb remains a fugitive from his own mind—or more specifically, what (appears to be) his memories.

Some critics view the film as a statement regarding cinema itself, while director Christopher Nolan emphasizes its commentary on the nature of reality.

In any case, one undeniable theme the movie tackles is the power of emotionally charged memories in a person’s present.

As the plot of Inception progresses, it becomes clear that Cobb is running from something in his past (or what he believes is the past) while simultaneously trying to carry out his mission of planting an idea in someone else’s mind. Eventually we learn that this dreaded memory is the death of his wife Mal, which he attributes to the “fact” that he suggested to her that the life they created together was in a world of sham. While we never really figure out (at least, I still haven’t) whether Mal actually committed suicide, the part that haunts Cobb throughout the entire movie is the simple idea that he is responsible.

There is a lot to dissect in this movie, what with all the layers of reality and unreality, which I obviously don’t have the space to do here—and also just don’t have the mental elasticity to do!

But what’s fascinating about Inception’s depiction of memories is that the factuality of the memories (i.e. whether they actually ever happened) takes a back to seat the emotional weight associated with them.

Basically, if we have strong enough feelings tied to our perception of an event, that event becomes real to us and we begin to treat its memory as such. And because we derive so much of our identity from our memories, these events (whether real or unreal) feed into our view of ourselves.

We see this fact illustrated all the time in movies and books. Think about it—how many flashback scenes or reflection scenes have you seen where the character’s memories are used to show you something important about who he is? And it’s really only the emotional memories that do this, isn’t it?

That’s part of what Inception is telling us.

The difference is that in most other movies, the memories are actual, and not imagined, whereas Inception blurs the line.

And while this blurring of lines could lead to all sorts of philosophical theories and discussions (postmodernism, subjectivism, and surrealism, to name a few), at the very least it encourages us to consider how much of our personal identity is based off of our emotional impressions of the past—or what our minds have construed as the past.

How has our acceptance or denial of responsibility for past events shaped our personal identity?

And what are the implications if our assessments are actually wrong? Does this mean our identity is built on a lie?

See, I thought that writing this might help make some sense of the movie—which to some degree it has—but now I’m realizing that I really ought to watch it again. Which, if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. But you better strap yourself in, or you might get lost! Actually, just be prepared to get lost, because I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to. 🙂

Ambiguity: the Emotional effect of Memory in La La Land

First, let me ask: have you seen La La Land?

If not, do NOT read any further or you will forever rue the day that you let me spoil it for you.

Last week we talked about the role of “reflecting” or “recalling” in storytelling—how it illustrates something that we all experience as humans: the power of memory.

I briefly explained the two types of recalling that stories use in order to either reveal information or to reiterate it in the minds of the audience. If you didn’t read last week’s article, it might be helpful to get the background, because I’m going to dive right into this week’s topic:

The power of audience recollection.

In this type of reflection, the story takes a moment to immerse the viewer/reader in the recollection of past events/characters that we as the audience have witnessed. It is reminding us of an event or person that we actually saw or met in the story, and inviting us to remember that experience along with the character currently engaged in reflection.

But what does this accomplish?

Well, usually the memory we are being reminded of is supposed to conjure up a certain type of emotion through empathy.

Nostalgia, grief, regret, anger, fondness, satisfaction… the list goes on. But usually we are supposed to be experiencing whichever emotion the character is also experiencing. (I mean, how often do we see a flashback in the character’s life and think “Wow, I can’t believe he’s not over that yet”?).

Most moments of reflection only happen with characters we can identify with, because they are the only ones whose memories we consider significant. And consequently, they are the ones whose emotions we will empathize with! So basically, the more we relate to a character, the more easily the storytellers can make us experience that character’s emotions. To put it mathematically,

            More relatable character = More power over our emotions.

“Okay, but where are you going with this?” you ask.

Valid question. A question it took me 82 pages to answer in my senior thesis.

Here’s where La La Land comes in.

You know that flashback sequence where Mia and Sebastian see each other in Sebastian’s new club after five years of going their separate ways? If you go back and watch the movie again, you’ll see that scene after scene leading up to this moment, we have been given intimate glimpses into their inner thoughts, feelings, and desires (especially Mia’s). These glimpses enable us to perceive the moments of fear, embarrassment, awkwardness, disappointment, and excitement that make them human. This 2-hour long process prepares us for the wild ride at the end.

The flashback sequence we see at the end is not the first time we are asked to remember or feel or imagine things with Mia and Sebastian.

It’s simply the last, most powerful moment of recollection we experience through their eyes, and it leaves us as dizzy as they are. Because after all, isn’t that life?

We blunder and soar through experience after experience and decision after decision, collecting these memories that all have different emotional associations, and the minute we stop to look back on them as a whole, we realize how tangled up everything is. This doesn’t make it meaningless, it simply makes it mixed.

So how do Mia and Sebastian feel at the end of their reflection? Well, it’s hard to say—by design.

The emotions Mia and Sebastian walk away with are actually intended to be ambiguous.

Don’t take my word for it, read the script! The directions in the script are actually written so as to make it unclear exactly what sentiments these two people have at the end, after strolling down memory and imagination lane.

I used to think I missed something, and that was why I couldn’t decide how I felt about the ending. It was this confusion that motivated me to study the film for my senior Rhetoric and Public Address thesis. But after doing the research, after dissecting the film scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot, line-by-line, I realized my confusion wasn’t because I’d missed something. It was because the flashback sequence did its job.

There is a huge stack of research that I don’t have space to include organically in this article, but if you are even remotely interested in the overlap between film theory and psychology, I highly recommend you peruse the sources below. The kind of exciting news is that Hillsdale College is working towards publishing my thesis, so a more thorough discussion of this topic and its implications will be available before too long!

But for those of you who have already seen the movie, please let me know your thoughts!

Did you leave the film feeling satisfied with the ending, or like you’d just taken a punch to the gut? Do you think the film makers achieved their goal? What effect did the reflection sequence have on you?

And if you read to the end without watching the movie, well, shame on you. Still watch the movie though. 🙂

Resources

Carroll, Noèl. “The Power of Movies.” Daedalus, 114, no. 4 (1985): 89-92.

Dannenberg, H.P. Coincidence and counterfactuality: Plotting time and space in narrative fiction. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Lambrou, Marina. Rethinking Language, Text, and Context. New York: Routledge, 2019.

Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.

Roese, J.N. and J.M. Olson. “Counterfactuals, causal attributions, and the hindsight bias: A conceptual integration.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 32 (1996): 197-227.

Russell, James A. The Psychology of Facial Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Soules, Marshall. Media, Persuasion, and Propaganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

Triggered: the Power of Memory in Stories

Do you ever think about how much of our lives we spend reflecting?

I don’t mean staring into a mirror. And I don’t necessarily mean long, soul-searching contemplations on our inner being. I simply mean pausing to acknowledge or recall the past and its events. This could lead to a deeper thought process of comparing the past with our present, or even tracing the development of the present from the past—but it all starts with a simple pause triggered by something.

Perhaps it’s a visual object, like a family photo.

A smell that takes you back to childhood.

A song that reminds you of someone or some season of life.

Whatever it is, it temporarily immunizes you to the bombardments of the present and transports you backwards in time—for better or worse.

Maybe it’s something you don’t want to remember, but there it is, all the same. Or maybe it’s the kind of memory that makes you wish you could literally, and not just mentally, relive the experience.

I find it interesting that many stories (in fact, some of the best) do this.

They depict a character experiencing the power of recollection, either in a nostalgic or traumatic way.

We as the readers or viewers are invited to participate in that to whatever degree we have shared the experience.

This “sharing” of experience pans out in one of two ways.

In the first way, we witness a character recalling an event or person whom we never witnessed or met in the story.

In a sense, it’s a flashback whose purpose is to reveal information to us, not to recall it with us. A classic example is the flashback in Once Upon A Time in the West, where we see what Henry Fonda’s character did to Charles Bronson’s character long ago in order to explain why Bronson has been seeking revenge the entire movie. Or even It’s A Wonderful Life, in which the entire first hour and a half are, technically speaking, a flashback on George Bailey’s life in order to explain what has brought him to his present situation.

In this type of “reflection,” the reader or viewer does not actually engage in the act of recollection—we only perceive that the character is reflecting.

But in the second type, we witness the events and meet the characters that are later alluded to in the character’s moment of reflection.

Take the film Up. At the beginning, we see a very brief but powerful montage of Carl Fredricksen’s married life with Ellie, before he is widowed and goes on to live out the main adventure portrayed in the story. When he rediscovers the old photo album near the end of the movie, we feel that we have lived those memories with him as he pages through. We can not only appreciate his nostalgia sympathetically, but empathetically, because we were “there” when he had those experiences. Ellie is not only a part of Carl’s memory—she is also a part of ours.

There is more to be said on this, which is why I’ve decided to make this topic a short series of posts. But for now, I want to open the discussion and see what you think about these two types of reflection that occur in storytelling.

Are certain kinds of stories prone to using one of these forms of reflection?

Are there some examples of books or movies that do just fine without any such pauses of reflection?

In either case, I think it’s noteworthy that so many stories play to our sense of memory in order to draw us in. Perhaps it’s a testament to the universally human nature of reflection, whether or not you consider yourself a sentimental person.

How Many Faces Can One Figure Have?

Have you ever seen multiple iterations of the same historical figure?

I don’t mean simply multiple appearances of said person in a variety of different hist-fic books, shows, or movies. I mean different works both devoted to that person, whose portrayals clash in some significant way.

Take for example the legendary King Arthur and Guinevere. Countless versions of their story have been told, many of them giving vastly different depictions of the main characters. I mean, the 2004 film stars a strapping young Clive Owen alongside Keira Knightley—as opposed to The First Knight, which embodies Arthur in a majestic-but-aged Sean Connery whose marriage to Guinevere is nothing short of cradle robbery. Oh yeah, and then there’s Camelot…

This really is no surprise, though, considering how longstanding of a legend King Arthur and his knights are.

But I found this type of discrepancy somewhat jarring in the cinematized portrayals of a much more recent historical figure who has caught the public eye these days: Queen Victoria.

Having first seen the movie The Young Victoria, written by Julian Fellowes (the same guy who wrote Downton Abbey!) and starring Emily Blunt, I got a very different impression of the woman whose story was later adapted in the BBC series Victoria by Daisy Goodwin. Of course, there would be some variations, as one is a standalone movie that only presents the beginning of her marriage and reign, whereas the other follows her life for three seasons (and counting).

There were definitely some points of overlap, probably due to known historical facts. In both, she is portrayed as a very independent, determined woman who spoke her mind freely. We also see her reluctance towards motherhood and her strong temper—two documented facts. But the thing that did not seem consistent between the two—in fact, was disturbingly inconsistent—was the nature of her marriage to Prince Albert.

It’s not that Jenna Coleman’s Victoria doesn’t love her Albert… it’s just that she constantly feels threatened and undermined by him, seemingly to the point of paranoia.

Julian Fellowes captured one or two quarrels between the couple in his feature film, which suggested Victoria’s capacity for overreaction and irrational behavior—but it seems this is the norm in the world of BBC. It’s a rare moment when Victoria and Albert aren’t in a tiff over something.

I guess this confused me because I had never thought of their marriage being particularly tumultuous. After doing some research of my own, it seems like there might actually be something to this portrayal of constant conflict. Granted, some of these articles give only cursory (and potentially sensationalized) glances at the facts, but it made me wonder. Either the movie glosses over reality, or the show over-dramatizes reality, because the two depictions of Victoria are not entirely compatible.

What this comes back to is the responsibility that a person assumes when he or she decides to write about a historical figure.

Obviously historical fiction/elaboration is not inherently unethical, but it holds the power to either baptize or demonize a figure of the past.

But I think the best thing we can do is humanize them.

Of course some figures have nobler legacies than others, but even the best and the worst of them were still human. When you’re telling stories about real people, the goal shouldn’t be to glamorize them beyond reason, and it shouldn’t be to simply state the cold, hard facts—that’s what documentaries are for. If you’re going to get creative with someone’s biography, it’s best to do so in a way that brings them down to earth or speculatively fleshes out their personality. Because no matter what other information might be missing, we know they were humans… and so is your audience.

What the Author Hoped You Wouldn’t Notice

It’s funny how much of an author’s character we read into his works.

We’ve all done it, and often with good reason.

Knowing Mark Twain believed in racial equality helps us understand The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a satire.

Knowing Arthur Miller’s purpose in writing The Crucible enables us to view the play primarily as a political statement—not as the religious commentary of a Puritan-hater.

Awareness of Edgar Allan Poe’s traumatic loss of both his mother and his wife to tuberculosis casts an informative light on his morose poems and stories—especially those involving the deaths of young women.

But what happens if you reverse the process?

That is, what can you infer about a writer’s character from his or her stories?

This is a dangerous question.

Not that it’s always invalid. If you know your classics, you’d call this an Aristotelian approach, as opposed to a Platonic one. (And no, I do not mean Platonic in the non-romantic sense of the word!)

Here’s a little logic lesson:

In a Platonic approach, you start with what you know about the source (in this case, the author) and use that knowledge to interpret the product (in this case, the book, poem, or script). But in an Aristotelian approach, you start with the concrete data in front of you and try to reason backwards to understand what created that data—to understand the mind and character of the author.

So why is this dangerous?

It’s dangerous because it can reveal things about the writer that he didn’t think anyone would notice—or at least, hoped no one would connect to him.

Maybe an insecurity in one of his characters. Maybe a failed love interest (don’t writers love to sneak their exes in!). Maybe a moral dilemma or personal failing.

Now I’m no Freudian psychologist— but I am an author. One of my friends asked me after reading The Exile if one of the narrator’s quirks was my own. Guilty as charged. Well, not really guilty, considering it was just a quirk and not a moral issue. But still, I’d been caught.

Of course, I refused to answer the question, saying that the characters were their own individuals and not simply facets of myself—which is true, as every writer understands. Giving our characters some of our personal traits does not make them miniatures of us. I think it makes them human.

In a similar way, an author’s incorporating themes and experiences from his or her life into a story does not make it an autobiography or a manifesto.

They do not write those things in, hoping someone will say “Wow, I guess he really hated his father!” Even if a universally negative portrayal of father figures suggests the author’s toxic parental relationship. They write those things in because no one wants to tell a story about something they don’t care about. And no one wants to read a story told by someone who doesn’t care about it.

A work will never reflect the whole of the author’s character, nor will it ever be purely a reflection on its creator’s own person. It will also draw from outside the author. But if you look closely, there will always be something subliminally present in the story that the author slipped in. Maybe consciously, hoping the reader doesn’t associate it with him; maybe subconsciously, writing from the unfiltered but cryptic heart. Does that mean a story could be a form of “author-therapy?”

In a sense, perhaps. But I think any story worth its salt will carry some personal ties to the author, and any brave writer will not shrink from including whatever vulnerabilities will make the story more real—even at the risk of “getting caught.”

Sailing on Against All Obstacles: Lessons from a Historical Figure

“Only a weakling gives up when he’s becalmed! A strong man sails by ash breeze.”

Admittedly a funny-sounding inspirational quote. What on earth is “sailing by ash breeze?”

I wondered this when I first read the line in Carry on Mr. Bowditch— the true story of Nathaniel Bowditch, one of the lesser-known-but-crucial figures during the early 1800s. The novel by Jean Latham traces the childhood and young adulthood of the man who single-handedly developed the advanced form of navigation that laid the foundation for maritime practicum worldwide.

Oh yeah—and he never went to college.

But he did receive an honorary M.A. from Harvard after publishing his revolutionary The American Practical Navigator, which forever changed the way seafarers charted their courses. The book itself contains an overview of the relevant astronomy, oceanography, and calculations that Bowditch learned from reading scholarly works in languages he literally taught himself to read.

Oh, and did I mention? He never went to college.

That was obstacle number 1.

The other major hurdles to his success, and frankly, survival, were the one-by-one deaths of almost half his family and his first wife.

I remember thinking when I picked up the book, “Oh, this is going to be a fun little book about a historical figure.” After all, it was written primarily for a younger audience, so it couldn’t have that much sobering content… could it?

Although recorded in the most matter-of-fact way, the loss of each loved one in the story began to feel like a punch in the gut as I became more invested in Nat’s character. And yet what’s incredible is that none of this stopped him. How is that possible?

Latham writes a beautiful exchange between young Nat and a sailor early on, when he has just learned he must serve out an indenture instead of going to school. After a jaded old seaman tells Nat his indenture will leave him “becalmed,” his kind-hearted counterpart proceeds to explain:

“When a ship is becalmed – the wind died down – she can’t move – sometimes the sailors break out their oars. They’ll row a boat ahead of the ship and tow her….Oars are made of ash – white ash. So – when you get ahead by your own get-up-and-get – that’s when you ‘sail by ash breeze’.” (p. 48)

From this point on, Nat becomes determined to sail by ash breeze—and he does. Each setback, each family death that could have crippled him fails to becalm him and leave him stagnant. This becomes the most compelling point of the story.

It made me stop and think:

How often do we find ourselves waiting for the winds to change when we should be breaking out the oars?

Whether it’s waiting to get into a dream school, waiting for a dream career, waiting to publish a book, waiting to make new friends—whatever you’re waiting for, there comes a point when it’s time to get moving. Sure, you can’t always force these things to happen, but it helps to build momentum until the winds change—to keep going with your own “get-up-and-get” until you get the boost you’re waiting for.

And if the boost never comes?

Well, you’ve still progressed forward and are that much closer to the other shore. And putting in the sweat will make you that much stronger for the rest of the journey.

The Story I Distilled With

When I pulled the two notebooks off my shelf and folded back the cover of each, what I saw surprised me.

Even though it’s only been a handful of years since I filled them, the penciled handwriting is already fading.

Yep. Pencil. I was not the most resourceful writer when I started The Exile. Somehow I didn’t foresee that graphite, unlike ink, would have a tough time remaining intact for posterity. But of course, I was fourteen at the time.

What fourteen-year-old thinks about posterity?

The fact is, there were a lot of things I didn’t think about at fourteen when I began the novel.

I know the big thing these days is to plow through and finish manuscripts quickly, but in this case, I’m glad I didn’t. There is so much that teenage Shiloh would never have incorporated in the telling of this story that became crucial parts of the final product. Not that I was writing the first draft for six and a half years, but the revision process took a solid three.

If you’ve read the book (or honestly, even just the first chapter) you know there are some heavy elements. Elements with which I had no personal experience. The first time I wrote those scenes depicting clan brutality, I had very little help other than what my research told me—and the sound of Delta’s voice in my head narrating it.

Years later, I still have no experience with some of those themes, but what I do have is exposure.

I have met victims of abuse. I’ve heard their stories and the impact those events left on them.

Some of the themes I am now acquainted with personally. The death of close family members. The struggle to explain away events using my own neat little paradigms, afraid to face the fact that my preconceptions don’t always match reality.

A lot of life happens between our teenage years and our twenties. In a way, the story and I grew up together. What started out as almost entirely speculative writing became informed by my own life experience and exposure, making the characters more human, the themes more full, and the story more real. There are still plenty of elements in The Exile that could have received more depth if the process had taken ten years, but we have to draw a line somewhere!

Here’s question I’m left with at the end of the writing process: how do you know when to start the story you’re burning to tell?

Last week I compared a story to a bottle of wine: the longer it sits in the bottle, the richer it becomes. That analogy fits for many of my novel and script ideas. I’ve deferred sitting down to write them because I haven’t considered myself mature enough to adequately handle their scope and depth—and so they’ve been percolating for years.

But in some cases, the story might be more like a block of cheese than a bottle of wine: apt to grow moldy if left on the shelf for too long.

So how long is too long of a wait? Do we run the risk of the ideas growing stale?

Do we wait to write until we feel we have enough life under our belts? Or is there something about the writing process that actually matures us along the way?

The Package that took Six and a Half Years

I spent the entire day listening for the knock on the door that would signal the delivery of the package.

Six and a half years of waiting for this package… it had been a long wait.

The irony is that I had to take a phone call from my boss, and by the time I got off the phone the truck and come and gone without my hearing it. And when I found the box on the porch and peeled back the cold cardboard, I can say I was actually afraid.

My book had already been published—it was already out there in the e-world, making the rounds. But something about knowing that now it existed in the three-dimensional world, with two covers and a spine, and (gasp) actual pages to turn… that’s scary stuff.

When I first held it, the thing that struck me (aside from how cold it was from being outside) was the weight of the book. At 282 pages, it’s sizeable, but not huge. It’s not the volume that surprised me, but the heaviness in my hands as I held it between them for the first time.

It occurred to me that, until now, the only other place its completed body had been contained was in my mind.

The original manuscript, jotted in one and a half notebooks, was not complete. So many changes had been made that altered the themes—or rather, those changes happened later as I realized what the themes inherently were. But here, at the end of a six and a half year long process, the developed, revised, completed product of my mind had been delivered to my doorstep by a person I never got to thank—enclosed neatly between a two-sided cover.

I hardly knew what to think.

After paging through it and seeing that everything looked all right, I finally stopped feeling afraid. Everything was in order. The physical appearance of the book was not going to single-handedly wreck my burgeoning literary career. On the contrary, I don’t think I could be happier with how the cover looks (shout-out to my amazing designer Ana Ristovska in Macedonia!).

But if you’re a writer, or have ever written something that mattered deeply to you, you know the feeling.

That thing you’re staring at in your hands—it’s a part of you. It weighs something.

And if you’ve been through the revision process, you know how agonizing it is to rework and rearrange and rewrite things that didn’t work on the first or seventeenth draft. And if you’ve been through the publishing process, you know how discouraging it is when rejection letter after rejection letter comes—or worse yet, when you get approached by a publisher, only to find out it’s a scam group. (Yep, been there.)

But you know what?

Aside from the characters in that story, the thing I’m most proud of is the eleven rejection letters I got along the way. If I had the wall space (which I definitely don’t), I would frame them all.

Because each time someone said no, I had to take that as “not yet.”

And when it comes to freelancing, that absolutely has to be your mantra. Of course, the version that is now in print is very different from the first version that crossed a publisher’s desk—which is a good thing. Each time someone said no, it not only went to someone else, but it got better. And now that it’s here, copyrighted, published, and printed, it’s the best it’s ever been.

I like to think of some stories as a bottle of wine: the more time they spend in the bottle, the richer they are when poured out. So six and a half years? Yeah, it was a long wait. Eleven rejections? Yeah, it was tough.

But I wouldn’t wish for one year or letter less.

From Grilled Cheese to Paninis: a Literary Journey

Are stories with morals antiquated?

I mean, think about it: when was the last time you read a story or watched a movie with a clear “moral” and didn’t inwardly yawn?

But we’ve been born and raised on such stories. Everything from Beatrix Potter to Aesop’s Fables to The Children’s Book of Virtues. Sure, there are plenty that don’t smack of moral instruction, but it’s interesting that a large proportion (if not all) of the old “classics” in children’s literature make a clear value statement. Not only a value statement, but an explicit statement of what one “ought” to do in specific situations.

I think most of us would agree that, as we get older, this kind of story loses its potency with us as readers.

Not that we don’t have fond associations with the books we grew up reading, but we don’t keep looking for that kind of blatant moral guidance as youths and adults.

Why is this?

The philosophers might tell us it’s because once our moral system has been developed, we don’t feel the need to reinforce our values through simplistic narratives. The psychologists might say it’s because our brains have become so accustomed to specific moral patterns that we find the repetition of such fundamental content unstimulating. And some groups in religion might suggest that our distaste for explicit moral statements marks a hardening of the conscience as we mature.

All of these might have a grain of truth. And yet when you look at the history of different cultures, most storytelling traditions started off as instructional. Myths, legends, and lore usually revolved around or pointed to some lesson that the audience was supposed to glean. Especially during medieval European Christendom, stories of the saints were told as fundamental lessons in virtue so that others could follow in their footsteps. Evidently for a while people didn’t tire of hearing stories intended for moral development.

So why do we tire of them now?

Is this a mark of a society that has outgrown spoon-fed, black-and-white morals? Or is it the mark of a society that no longer has an appetite for morality at all?

I think it varies between the individuals that make up society.

With moral relativism gaining ground in our culture, I’m sure there are some people who come to view absolute morals as irrelevant and non-existent. So by the time they reach adulthood, they have no use for fables or their messages.

But for others, growing up means moving from explicit moral statements to implicit value statements. It’s not that they reject the ideas promoted in their childhood stories—it’s just that they’ve developed an appetite for more complex stories that speak through whispers rather than megaphones.

Take for example, The Giving Tree: a children’s story about a boy who knows only how to take and never learns to give. By the end, when he is an old man, he realizes that selfish pursuit leads only to unhappiness. He missed out on what matters most.

Similarly, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby acquires all the material goods he could possibly ask for… and yet without the woman he loves to share it with him, it amounts to nothing. One of these stories is obviously more simplistic, while the other packs in a host of other themes and sources of tension, but both illustrate a very similar principle. The main difference is subtlety and complexity.

Or take Stella Luna: the story about a bat who grows up with a family of birds, and learns to appreciate their similarities in spite of their differences. There’s the famous line, “How can we be so different and feel so much alike?”

A point echoed, less blatantly, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When Huck comes to realize that Jim, although a black slave, has the same emotional ties to his family as white people do, he begins to recognize that people of different colors are not fundamentally different from one another.

Obviously neither Gatsby nor Huckleberry Finn is simply a repackaged children’s book. But I suspect that there are many books we read as adults that contain the same “morals” as the books we grew up reading—minus the neon sign announcing “moral of the story” and plus a web of other themes and complex characters.

So maybe we don’t outgrow stories with morals. Maybe we just develop a palate for more sophisticated stories, just like we outgrow grilled cheese sandwiches for Italian paninis.

Okay, I still love grilled cheese, but you get the point. 🙂

What do you think of all this?

How often do you see books/movies for adults that have a glaringly obvious moral? Does this bother you?

What are some children’s stories with messages that you’ve seen reiterated in adult stories? Do you think certain morals/messages are easier to transcribe from children’s stories to adult ones?

We are all Characters…

If someone were to write a book based on your life… what kind of character would you be?

This is probably an odd question, but it occurred to me the other day after finishing a journal entry. I haven’t journaled regularly in a long time. But when I paged through the spiral-bound, indigo-bluish notebook that has pencil-scrawlings from ten-year-old Shiloh and on, I noticed that almost every significant life event was in there. Not only that, but also what I thought or felt about it at the time it happened.

In a way, I can visibly trace the development of my internal character over the years.

But the slightly unnerving thing about this journal is that I am probably the only person who will ever see it.

Good heavens, at least I hope so. But why is that unnerving?

I guess because I think in terms of stories. Narratives.

In any story you read or write, you have a window of insight into each character. You may not have each character’s full biography or autobiography, but you usually have enough information to make some intelligent assessment about him.

You might know why the misfortunes befall him in the first place, while he’s left wondering.

You might see how his behavior changes as he grows older.

You might even be there when he dies.

But unless the story is told as a first-person narrative (literally documenting the character’s thoughts) or from an omniscient perspective we never know exactly what’s going on in his head.

Let’s consider historical fiction for a moment. In any fiction based on a real person, we are usually given the actual deeds of the person… explained by whatever motives the writer attributes to him/her. The writer has enough factual information to describe what the historical figure did—but, unless the person left behind detailed memoirs, the writer must infer the why. And the why that the writer comes up with is what frames the person as either good or bad within the story.

Isn’t it the same with life?

We see what other people do. They may even give reasons for their actions. But at the end of the day, we only have what they say and what they do. Nowhere are we given an objective window into their mind that shows us their real motives. We may not even observe them long enough to form a consistent impression of them. We may always be left speculating about their motives.

My journal contains my motives. If someone were to read it, they would see exactly why I made those hard decisions that marked turning points in my life. But they won’t. All they will see is the course of action I took—and the results.

So why does any of this matter?

People can’t read our minds, nor do they usually read our diaries. The “character” you are in life is, for practical purposes, determined by what you do. Those around us are left to deal with the consequences.

This is all another way of saying, from a literary perspective, that what we do with our time here matters. It matters because it shapes reality. And it matters because it defines the quality of our character in the narrative of life.

How to Cope with a Trope

Imagine you’re sitting on the edge of your seat, engrossed in a movie or show. The characters are unique, the plot is gripping, the tension is building, and then suddenly your worst subconscious fear comes true—

It falls into a trope.

NO!

Where did the originality go? The fresh energy?

No matter how interesting the first half-hour or so was, much of what follows grows stale, because you already know exactly what is going to happen 90% of the time.

Enter the princess… you know she’s going to fall in love with either the most eligible prince or the least-eligible-but-most-attractive outlaw.

Enter a member of the opposite sex that annoys the protagonist… you might as well save the date for their wedding.

Enter a wise old man… you know he’s going to give the protagonist the answer to all his problems, but it will just take the entire movie for the protagonist to follow the advice.

Enter the…

Well, you get the idea. Introducing a cookie-cutter scenario can take the wind of an otherwise unique story.

On the other hand though, where would we be without tropes? Would genres even exist?

I ask this because, as both a reader and writer, I find it hard to draw the line between necessary tropes, or conventions, that establish the genre of a story and the tropes that feel like a sheet of recycled paper. One set helps raise some general expectations for the story, while the other makes the plot painfully predictable.

For instance, a windswept town with about 27 tumbleweeds rolling by gives “Once Upon a Time in the West” the familiar feeling of a Western. And yes, it ends with a gunfight, so it’s definitely a Western. But the mysterious and gradual development of the plot and characters almost feels like a Charles Dickens novel. While you have your typical handful of outlaws and gray-hats, you have no idea what they’re all going to do to each other and who’s going to get the girl in the end. And then, about halfway through, you think you know what’s going to happen based on how the trope pattern goes—only to find out you were wrong.

Then you have the cult film “The Princess Bride” (which, by the way, is equally hysterical in its novel form!). This story commits just about every fairy tale trope you can think of, and delivers you the ending you expect all along… but it intentionally delivers all this in an unexpected manner. As a satire, it never ceases to surprise you with its cheeky dialogue and self-aware humor, making it anything but your run-of-the-mill princess story.

So what tropes can give the story a frame of reference without spelling doom for its creativity? How can they be used constructively?

I think this is a hard question to answer, but I suspect it has something to do with defying the expectations that a trope raises. In other words, if you introduce a scenario or a set of characters that triggers the audience’s anticipation of a predictable pattern, you have to surprise them in some way. Whether that means making the star-crossed couple realize they’re actually related (ahem, Star Wars) or having both the heroes ride off into the sunset without the girl (okay, I just spoiled Once Upon a Time in the West for you, but you should still watch it!), there has to be something that the audience doesn’t see coming. Otherwise, why should they bother continuing?

Some tropes are definitely more overused than others, but I think even the most recycled ones can be redeemed by an unexpected resolution or twist in the story’s plot.

Do you agree?

What are some tropes that make you yawn as soon as you see them? What books/shows/movies fall into predictable patterns too often?

Are there any stories that you think maintain their originality, even with a couple of tropes?

Less than Friends, More than Rivals

I’ve spent the past three weeks unpacking the character foils found in the TV series The Last Kingdom, and I promise next week we’ll move on to something else. 🙂 But I couldn’t help spending one more post on perhaps the most central foil relationship in the whole series: the relationship between Uhtred of Bebbanburg and Alfred the Great.

In fact, I think their constant fluctuation between friendship and rivalry makes up the main drama of the first three seasons.

With one of them a formidable warrior, and the other a sickly king, these two leaders represent opposite forces and natures throughout the entire series.

Uhtred is pagan, Alfred is a devout Christian.

Uhtred is torn between loyalties, Alfred has a single-minded drive to unite England.

Uhtred is physically robust, Alfred suffers constant physical ailments.

Uhtred is passionate and often wrathful, Alfred remains cool and cunning.

Even after leading Alfred’s men into battle and fighting alongside the king himself, Uhtred struggles to maintain a stable relationship with Wessex and its ruler. As I watched them oscillate between loyalty and suspicion, I couldn’t help wishing they’d just get along. Why couldn’t they just respect each other?

The thing is, they do both respect each other. So much, in fact, that they fear each other.

Alfred recognizes Uhtred’s merit as a warrior early on, but soon Uhtred finds himself behind bars for not following the Saxon rules within Saxon territory. This becomes a point of leverage for Alfred—in fact, it marks the beginning of the cycle that keeps Uhtred coming back to Wessex again and again, despite his wish to leave. Alfred repeatedly solicits Uhtred’s sword through manipulation, even going so far as to arrange a marriage for Uhtred that will steep him in debt. Each time Uhtred gets himself into trouble with Wessex, Alfred’s “clemency” consists of making him swear service to him for yet another duration. But why does he do this?

First of all, he knows he needs Uhtred. But, as a Christian king whose authority is new, Alfred fears having to rely on a pagan whose military prowess outstrips his own. So in order for Alfred to feel comfortable keeping Uhtred close, he must keep him in the more dependent position.

Uhtred, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to be the free lord of Bebbanburg, independent of any other ruler or kingdom. Naturally, he chafes under the constant state of dependency in which he finds himself with Alfred. Eventually he begins to fear he will never be released from Saxon hold—a fate his Danish friends Ragnar and Brida frequently warn him against. And yet even after Alfred’s death, Uhtred once again promises service to Wessex: this time to see Alfred’s son Edward secured as king.

What’s interesting about this complex relationship between the two characters is that the writers didn’t just create two opposites. They created two opposites that need each other.

So much that they fear one another’s hold.

It’s tempting to say that they might have been good friends if they didn’t need each other—and yet they never would have willingly entered each other’s lives if they had no such need. Two such opposite men would never seek out one another’s company and confidence. They were forced to out of necessity.

And so it seems that same necessity and co-dependence is both the cause and the bane of their ever-turbulent, yet ever-present relationship.

Less than friends, more than rivals… this tension alone was interesting enough to make me keep watching.

Do you find that complicated relationships between characters make a story inherently more interesting?

What are some other books/shows/movies where you’ve seen an unending dance of tension between two main characters? Do you think this dynamic makes the story more true-to-life?

Good guys, bad guys: what’s the real difference?

Do you ever stop and think about what exactly it is that makes one character a hero and another a villain?

It’s easy to chock it up to a good vs. evil conrast, but it seems that the more complex and realistic the characters are, the less purely good or bad they are.

Last week we talked about how good writing in the TV series The Last Kingdom avoids typecasting characters as one-dimensional reflections of ideologies. Lady Aelswith and the nun Hild are both devout Christians, yet one of them serves as an antagonist and the other as a support to the lead protagonist—the pagan Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Although the two women hold firmly to their faith, their dispositions and roles in the story are nearly polar opposites, making their characters foils to each other.

 But this week I want to draw attention to another masterfully developed foil relationship: the relationship between Uhtred and Aethelwold, the claimant to the throne of Wessex.

We first meet Aethelwold as the profligate son of King Aethelred, Alfred’s brother, in the second episode of the first season. We quickly learn that, although the son of the king, Aethelwold has approximately zero chance of inheriting the throne upon his father’s death because of the consistently irresponsible life he leads. Even when he protests the legitimacy of Alfred’s kingship and promises to reform his own ways, it’s obvious that he has no intention of doing so—as he repeatedly winds up hung-over in a haystack.

Essentially, his behavior undermines his claim to the throne so that we understand perfectly why no one listens to him. As a result, he begins to look for support beyond Wessex’s borders where his wayward reputation is unknown, while using his knowledge of the kingdom’s internal politics to subvert Alfred’s military efforts.

In comparing Uhtred and Aethelwold, their differences are more immediately obvious than their similarities:

Uhtred, having grown up as a Dane, had to earn his keep from a young age—whereas Aethelwold has used his protection as the king’s son as a safeguard for his licentious behavior. But as I looked at the two characters more closely over time, I realized they had some notable points of overlap:

A strong sense of pride.

Irreverence toward the Christian religion.

Difficulty (deserved or undeserved) overcoming others’ suspicions against them.

I could go into more depth explaining these, but I think there’s one commonality that deserves special attention because of its implications for the entire narrative: the fact that both of them have been denied their “rightful” titles.

This may seem like a superficial trait—it’s definitely a circumstantial one—but it sets the stage for every other contrast drawn between Uhtred and Aethelwold. Looking at their position as disinherited lords, we might initially expect them to see some of the same behavior as they go about trying to secure their rights.

Au contraire.

While Uhtred and Aethelwold both share a similar circumstantial position, we see over time that they have vastly different internal dispositions.

The fact is, even though they overlap in the other areas I mentioned (pride, irreverence, etc.), the way they handle these issues and govern themselves is almost always opposite.

Aethelwold’s pride leads enables him to betray others when expedient, whereas Uhtred’s pride forces him to remain loyal.

Aetheulwold feigns piety, while Uhtred can’t even pretend to be Christian.

Aethelwold has to trick people into trusting him, while Uhtred lets his integrity speak for itself.

At one point, Aethelwold attempts to lure Uhtred into a joint scheme to recover their claims, arguing that their similar status binds them together as equals. Uhtred responds that no equality of external circumstance can make up for such an enormous discrepancy of internal character.

Although the two do not clash swords until the end of the third season, I think the development of their characters as foils throughout the series drives home this very point. Uhtred’s courage and Aethelwold’s cowardice, Uhtred’s loyalty and Aethelwold’s treachery, Uhtred’s integrity and Aethelwold’s deceit—all of these contrasts consistently prove that no man’s conduct can be dismissed as an inevitable result of the hand he was dealt.

In a sense, Aethelwold is right: he and Uhtred were dealt the same hand. But it is how they play their cards that makes one of them a villain and the other a hero.

Thoughts?

Do you find this way of juxtaposing a hero against a villain to be compelling?

What are some other ways you’ve seen writers develop meaningful contrasts between heroes and villains?

Saints and Prudes: what do they show us?

You probably don’t sit down to watch a show with the intent of analyzing and breaking down its elements.

Most people don’t.

And to be honest, I didn’t plan to when I first started The Last Kingdom, but by the time I finished season 3, I couldn’t help looking back and asking what it was about the connections between characters that made the story so rich. I’ve already mentioned that it didn’t take long to become personally invested in the characters, but all the while there was another subtle, artful web being spun: the web of foils.

So what’s a foil?

Here are a couple of basic definitions:

  1. “Another character in a story who contrasts with the main character, usually to highlight one of their attributes.”
  2. “A character who is presented as a contrast to a second character so as to point to or show to advantage some aspect of the second character.”

I prefer the second definition here, because it widens the scope to include contrasts between more characters than the protagonist. This is helpful when looking at a series where so many characters are well-developed— like the Last Kingdom, where I could draw almost countless comparisons and contrasts between major and minor characters alike. There are three though that I’d like to focus on, because of their salience to the themes of the story.

I’ll start with two of the most significant women: Aelswith and Hild.

We meet Lady Aelswith early on, as the wife of the newly crowned King Alfred.

After the death of his brother, King Aethelred of Wessex, Alfred receives the throne in place of the former king’s profligate son Aethelwuld—a turn that provokes Aethelwuld to constant scheming and eventual treachery (stay tuned for next week!).

From the beginning, Lady Aelswith knows that her husband’s reign is precarious, threatened both internally by dissenters in Wessex and externally by the Danes occupying large parts of pre-England. She also knows that Christianity is still young in the land, and that the military enemies of Wessex and its sister kingdoms face are steeped in pagan religion. Thus, when the Danish-adopted Uhtred of Bebbanburg enters the scene, Aelswith immediately senses a threat to both Wessex’s political and religious stability.

While we as the audience know Uhtred to be a man of his word (though a little on the violent side), all Aelswith can see is a godless heathen whom her husband should not trust. And I have to say, the writers did a good job making her character solely obnoxious for the first several episodes, as she constantly seeks to pull Alfred away from any alliance with Uhtred. It wasn’t until much later that I actually started to feel any sympathy for her.

But here we have her: a woman devoted to her husband and her God, who, for all her consdescension and narrow-mindedness, tries to do what she thinks is best. And for her, that means removing Uhtred’s influence from Wessex.

On the other hand, we have Hild: a nun Uhtred and his companions rescue during a Danish raid on a Saxon town.

She quickly becomes a member of his party and, in time, one of his most trusted friends.

Though we know little of Hild’s back story, we do learn that she was once a mother and that she suffered abused at the hands of Danes. Like Aelswith, she is devout and wishes to see the Christian faith advance. In fact, these two are the most deeply religious women we ever meet in the show—which is why I think it’s noteworthy how vastly different their characters are.

What Aelswith lacks in exposure to the heathens she fears, Hild possesses in spades. And yet Hild, having experienced genuine hardship from the Danes, is still able to recognize the good in “Uhtred the godless.” Time and again, she defends him against the prejudice of Saxons like Aelswith who, in their religious zeal, can only see Uhtred as the devil’s henchman. Although Hild disagrees with his paganism and would like to see him accept Christianity, she acknowledges his integrity and the value of his loyal service to Alfred.

What’s interesting to me is that both Aelswith and Hild are primarily dedicated to the faith they share in common—yet the way their beliefs affect their choices is nearly always opposite.

This is what makes for great writing.

Most times I see any religion portrayed in film, its followers are either depicted as all good or all bad: one-dimensional, single-minded characters completely defined by their faith—or rather, by what the writer thinks of that faith. If the writer disagrees with that religion, he makes all its adherents in the story diabolical and hypocritical. Or if he likes the religion, all its adherents are impeccable. And regardless of whether you find the writer’s depiction of that religion offensive, it honestly just makes the characters boring and predictable.

 But by setting Aelswith and Hild alongside one another as religious equals, but opposite one another as agents in the story, it makes them both stand out as unique components in the web of characters. Not only that, but I think it drives home some central themes throughout the whole series:

Trust must be earned by actions, not assumed based on shared beliefs.

Refusing to see the good in someone because of disagreements is short-sighted.

I’m sure there are many more points to be made here, which is why I so highly recommend the series—if you like finding this sort of hidden connection. And if you either don’t mind the MA rating, or just avoid watching the unseemly parts (like me!).

So with that, I’d like to know what you think.

If you’ve seen The Last Kingdom, what other parallels/contrasts do you see between characters?

What other examples of character foils in literature or film stand out to you? How do those foils ultimately serve the themes of the story?

Also, what are your thoughts on the depiction of religion in film? What are some movies/shows that bring the writer’s bias into the characters too much? Which ones do a good job avoiding this?

Wait… What did I just see?

Do you ever finish watching a series and then just need some time to mentally process everything?

Four weeks after finishing Season 3 of “The Last Kingdom,” I am still formulating my opinions on the series as a whole. I will say that as the show progressed, it became clear that the intended audience is primarily male, which is maybe why I have to say I kept watching in spite of some aspects. But obviously I found it interesting enough to persevere through all three seasons, so I’ve made an effort to break down what exactly kept me hooked.

For those who aren’t familiar with The Last Kingdom, it is based off of a series of novels The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell, tracing the unification of England circa 850-900 A.D. through the eyes of a Saxon-Danish warrior, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. While the protagonist is loosely derived from a real Saxon eaolderman of Northumbria (Uhtred the Bold), his adventures precede those of the historical figure, and thus a large amount of liberty is taken with his character. This makes for a fascinating angle on history, as we follow the fictional Uhtred through the labyrinth of politics and battles that surrounded the reign of Alfred the Great.

From the very beginning, I was struck by the tight writing and plot development.

After the first 58-minute episode, it was too soon for me to be overly invested in the characters, but I had to know what happened next! By about the third episode, however, I’d begun to form an attachment to the protagonist and a couple of minor characters. With time, as I finished the first season and moved on to the second, I realized that my interest in the story was no longer just intellectual curiosity in the plot, but a personal investment in what would happen to the characters.

This is what kept me going as the show became darker and gorier.

I’ll say it—I’m not a fan of blood and gore! In fact, I spend a good deal of time during the battle scenes focusing on my cherry juice and dark chocolate (a great combo for late night snacking, for your information!).

So the show is probably geared toward men, but who cares? Some of the best-developed characters are women (the nun Hild and Lady Aelswith, to name a couple), which also proves that male writers really are capable of portraying complex, believable female characters. In fact, one of the most masterfully depicted elements was how both of these women came to different convictions on how they as Christians should relate to the “heathen,” but valiant, Uhtred. (More on this next week!)

Needless to say, the series illustrated a number of qualities crucial to good historical fiction, and gave me plenty of food for thought… which is why I’ll spend the next few weeks delving into some of those themes and asking for your feedback!

So for now… What do you think are some key elements to a good historical fiction book/show?

What is most likely to make it worth your time?

When you pick up a hist-fic book or show, are you more interested in meeting compelling characters or in the events surrounding those characters?

What Makes the Cut?

We’ve all had that experience of watching one of our favorite books turned into a movie, and finding the movie version vastly disappointing.

Hopefully you’ve also had the satisfaction of seeing a good film rendition of a favorite book, but it seems that experience is less common.

Why is that?

I’ve often wondered why it is some movies based on books flop while others don’t. Sometimes it’s the director, the actors, or the screenplay’s deviation from core elements of the book. But it seems there is another factor at work, which can be harder to pinpoint:

What if the book just isn’t movie material?

Here’s a distinction I’d like to make: I do not think that a book’s “filmability” is a fair measure of its value.

For one thing, a book has the freedom to elaborate on the characters, their thoughts, and their backstories in a way that is difficult to visually depict. While the events of the story are usually capable of being portrayed physically, this is harder to achieve with abstract elements or thought processes within a character.

Take Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (yes, if you read last week’s post, you can tell I’m a Dostoevsky fan): while the novella has enough action that could be visually portrayed, the richness of the story comes from the internal dialogue of the narrator. In fact, if you were to watch everything the main character says and does without hearing his motives, you would completely misinterpret his actions.

On the other hand, some books with complex character motives are compatible with the medium of film. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are both rich with three-dimensional characters whose visible actions do not always reveal their intentions—and yet both books have received successful film adaptations more than once. So it must not be solely the complexity of a book’s characters that determines its suitability as a film…

But then what is it?

There are so many possible answers to this question, and I’d really like to know what you think. I certainly don’t have a definite answer. But there is one thing I suspect might play more of a role in our assessment of movie adaptations than we realize: the story’s setting. If you’re any kind of historical fiction or fantasy fan, you probably know what I’m talking about. How many times do we give a movie a chance because it’s set in a different era or place? Isn’t there something about the mystery of another time period or world that piques our curiosity?

I for one admit that I have sat through a number of movies or tried shows whose writing and acting were sub-par, but whose costumes, music, sets, and scenery were elaborate and convincing. And so I wonder: regardless of whether a book is actually well-suited to the screen, isn’t there some part of us that just wants to see the story’s world brought to life? And if the costume and set designers and cinematographers can immerse our senses in that world, are we less likely to mind the cheesy acting and choppy script?

Please let me know your thoughts on this.

Which movie adaptations of books do you think work, and which don’t?

What other factors do you think play a role in whether a book can be translated into film?

Literary Osmosis

When you hang around people, you usually start to adopt their mannerisms, turns of phrase, and attitudes. Or at least, theirs begin to influence your own. I’ll let the social scientists give us the details on how that works, but it seems this principle holds true in a number of areas—not just in real life.

This post is more geared toward the authors out there, as the central question is one you can only answer if you have some level of experience of writing:

When simultaneously writing a story and working through someone else’s novel, do you find yourself picking up habits from what you’re reading?

That might sound like a nebulous question, but let me break it down into a couple of categories.

First there’s the form category.

Let’s call that everything that you, as the author, fill the pages with. It’s the paragraphs of description, narration, and explication that does not occur through dialogue. Different authors (and different works by the same author) will vary in the style, flow, and nature of the text’s form—and there’s a number of factors that can explain that. For instance, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia move at a very different pace, emphasize different kinds of details, and each has a distinct tone in their narration. (This is partly, of course, due to the different audiences for which each work is intended.)

That being said, do you ever notice the form of a book you’re reading has begun to influence the form of whatever you’re writing? You might feel compelled to spend more time explaining a character’s thoughts to the reader, insert flashback sequences, or speed the action along according to the patterns of the book you have been reading. Although I have seen this effect in my own writing process, it has not happened to me as much as the second category of influence.

Then you have the character category.

This is everything the characters say and how they say it. Of course, if you are writing from the first-person perspective, this will overlap with the story’s form. It seems that, between the two, this is the influence that can more significantly shape the story—depending on what parts of another books’ character are rubbing off on yours. If the only change you notice in your characters is that they start picking up similar speech patterns, then probably not too much of your content will be affected. But if they start catching the attitudes or mindset of another book’s character, then you might have some issues on your hands.

For me, I happened to read both The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (both first-person narratives) while writing The Exile, and there is no doubt that the voices of both Holden Caulfield and Huck made their mark on Delta. This is not to say, however, that her character or mindset changed—in fact, I had already known her quite well before picking up either book. Rather, the way she expressed herself to the reader was what evolved as I learned from both Salinger and Twain’s narrative style.

Moushmi Radhanpara at The Aesthetic Miradh wrote an article not too long ago on the question of originality: Is it ethical to borrow some ideas/elements from other authors? This got me thinking. Obviously there is a deliberate choice you can make to use or not use elements from another story… but what if some of those elements simply rub off on you without your noticing right away?

I’m not convinced that the subconscious influence of either another book’s form or characters is unethical—but I think it does mean that we as writers ought to be careful.

First we ought to watch that we are not conforming our plot and characters to another author’s, and second we ought to be deliberate about what kinds of books we read during the process of our own work. For example, there is a humorous picaresque novel that’s been brewing in the back of my mind for years now, but I’m currently working through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which everyone kind of acts and talks like a psycho. Unless I want my novel to catch neurotic and dark undertones, I don’t dare do more than background research at this point!

So what are your thoughts on this?

Do you, as a writer, catch the characters of other books infiltrating or informing your own? If so, do you find this problematic or helpful?

Can You Hear the Story?

Let’s face it: whether you’re a reader, writer, or both, having the right background music can work wonders to get you and your imagination in the mood. A number of scientists, bloggers, and authors have studied the connection between what you listen to and what happens in your brain—and let me say, there is more research out there than I can fit in this little article.

As a writer, I find the impact of music on an author’s work fascinating.

This is an especially relevant issue for authors of period dramas or historical fiction.

I recently read a great article by Amy Evans at Kobo Writing Life that discusses the importance of listening to music set in whatever era/culture a story takes place. This makes perfect sense, and I can personally attest to the effectiveness of era-specific music in mentally immersing myself in the story’s world.

But there are a couple of exceptions to the rule that I found, especially while writing The Exile. Perhaps you can identify.

At times (very often, in fact) the most essential thing for me to connect with wasn’t the world surrounding the characters, but the complex landscape of thoughts and tensions inside the characters.

Regarding the historical era of my music choice at these moments, all bets are off! I chronically found myself listening to “Desperado” by The Eagles while unraveling Delta’s inner conflict and deciding how much of that struggle she would actually share with the reader. Weird, I know. But I think it connects to the questions raised earlier about time period and narrative voice. Just as using some modern language can help readers relate to a character, listening to music that expresses the basic, most human elements of a character’s inner state can help the author relate to his/her own narrator.

The other “exception” to the rule of music relevance is the use of soundtracks from other movies/shows when writing your own material.

While James Horner, Hans Zimmer, and Patrick Doyle have a plethora of music capable of both transporting listeners to a time period and stirring up emotion, it can be challenging if you have already formed mental associations with their melodies. In fact, I find my ability to distance myself mentally from the soundtrack’s original context inversely proportional to my love for the movie/show. For instance, it is because I have every line and scene of “Braveheart” memorized and engraved on my soul that I cannot easily write while listening to Horner’s bagpipes.

On the other hand, as much as I’ve come to enjoy “The Last Kingdom,” the haunting tones of John Lunn’s “Lívstræðrir” are not impossible for me to separate from the show. (Side note: maybe this is because, as a musical theme in a TV series, the occurrence of “Lívstræðrir” is not tied to any one particular scene.)

Do you ever find that listening to a soundtrack from a movie you have already seen makes the creative process more difficult? In other words, does the association of the music with another story hinder your own storytelling?

And if so, does the same go for soundtracks from TV series? Or does the recurring nature of a show’s music make it easier to distance yourself from the context?

Or similarly, do you listen to certain types of music while reading in order to help stimulate your imagination?

Verbal Flab: when can a novel afford to lose weight?

I tend to think of a novel as a cut of meat.

A lean novel is one whose words center on the storythe muscle, if you will, composed of characters and their actions. The details that do not directly impact the muscle (if excessive) add “verbal flab”—something that could be trimmed off without detracting from the essential plot and character development. For instance, if you find yourself able to skip large sections of description without missing crucial details or a hidden layer of symbolic meaning, the value of those sections becomes questionable.

I remember slogging through the 300+ pages of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and thinking that at least 100 of them must be dedicated to the description of food: the planting, slaughtering, harvesting, cooking, and consumption thereof. In fact, by the end of the novel I felt that the subject matter I grasped best from the book’s time period was the food.

To be fair, I have to credit Frazier with his diligence of detail—clearly he has a mastery of knowledge regarding the way of life during the late 1800s, as well as the military mechanics and events of the Civil War. If nothing else, the book presents a thorough depiction of the geographical, political, and physical environment surrounding the main characters as it would have been.

However, I couldn’t help feeling that the character and plot development would have been more poignant if it weren’t framed by so much physical description.

This is where things get subjective.

All readers have varying attention spans and patience for dense detail, because on one hand we need description in order to establish the story’s world and augment the plot/characters… but on the other hand, a novel is at its heart a story, and the story occurs through the actions and words of its characters.

One way this principle impacted my writing of The Exile was that it caused me to focus on details that evoked some sort of reaction in Delta, the narrator. As such, the description of her world remained secondary to her opinion of it:

“Upon entering the town, I realized I would have a great deal to adjust to. If I had found the streets and walls of Dramin constraining, Levna drew me near to the point of suffocation. The buildings, primarily made of wood, pressed tightly on either side of the squalor that served as a road, offering but a narrow channel of passage through which people flowed like a human current…

I barely heard the voice from the story overhead above the general ruckus cry, “Look out below!” before a cascade of sludge sluiced past my face, missing me by a hair’s length. It was then that I understood with a shock of revulsion the source of the air’s odor.

Raising my eyes in search of relief, however, I saw there was little to be found, for the buildings on either side of the street rose lopsided, each story protruding outward over the one beneath it. The two sides grew like a tunnel, shrouding the town from above and choking any view of the sky. I was beginning to question the wisdom of civilization.”

The Exile, p. 119-120

One novel whose description stood out to me was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. This was because the description, although at times extensive, either directly enhanced a character/his lifestyle or resonated with the deeper themes that transcend the story. The details were intimately connected with the telling of the story, not simply with painting a vivid (although historically accurate) picture.

For writers, this poses a similar question as the one mentioned a few weeks ago regarding time-period language: how do we bring our readers into the story’s world without bogging them down?

For those of you who are writers, how do you decide the appropriate level of detail for your descriptions?

I’ve shared with you my thoughts, but how do you, as a reader, assess the value of description in a novel?

Clan Slavery: an Over-dramatized Image?

I noticed when we arrived at the longhouse kitchen that there were some men tarrying around, eyeing the women at work. I happened to glance and see Clare stirring a pot that hung over a rod in the nearest fireplace. A tall young warrior was standing against the wall, his eyes fixed on Clare. I caught the look in his eyes as he gazed silently at her, rubbing a blade of grass between his fingers. I’d seen that look before.


The woman closest to Clare approached me and my companion, receiving the water we brought, but I saw something that made me tense. That young lad took a couple steps closer until he stood beside Clare. She didn’t seem to notice him there—she simply kept stirring the pot like she was told. Uncertainty gnawed at me like dogs on a bone. I knew what was coming, but something made me stay and watch.

The warrior lifted his hand to Clare’s shoulder and slid it slowly down her back. Clare’s head turned sharply and her eyes widened on him, but she did not cringe. Instead she tried to talk.

If you read last week’s post about female warriors, you’ll remember that the entire concept of the shieldmaiden has always been shrouded in lore—to the point that historians can’t decisively prove or disprove whether or not these women fought alongside men. This gave me the freedom to speculate what life might have looked like for The Exile’s narrator, Delta, if such a woman could have existed in early medieval Scandinavia.

Unfortunately, the same uncertainty cannot be said to surround the condition of slaves during that time.

Let me pause here to clarify a couple of things.

First, the exact time during which the novel takes place is intentionally obscure. The prologue mentions that the kingdoms and wars precede the Viking era, but beyond that no details are given. Essentially this sets the stage for the story without pretending to give a factual account tied to real civilizations and places.

That being said, the description of clan life and warfare is inspired by the known details of Norse clans and culture. I intentionally did not include any of the religious traditions that would have likely been present—mainly because it didn’t serve the purpose of the story—but instead focused heavily on the aspects of slave life. In that regard, I can assure you that the struggle for survival Delta faces is one that any slave (“thrall,” in Old Norse) in a real Norse clan would have faced.

Slavery in these clans was consistently characterized by brutality and dehumanization.

Andrew Lawler from National Geographic draws attention to recent archaeological findings that suggest thralls were housed and even disposed of alongside animals. The same article describes evidence of slave killings, suspected to result either from a master’s death or as a form of human sacrifice. As for a female slave like Delta, she would have in fact been viewed as a piece of property to be used for both sex and manual labor.

To be honest, this element of the novel was one of the hardest parts to write. Because her past is such an integral part of Delta’s character, I didn’t feel I could skimp on it—but at the same time I found myself struggling with the question of how much was too much. This is still a question I’m grappling.

So I ask you: when it comes to the unsavory stuff in history, how much detail should a writer incorporate?

Is it worse to under-elaborate or to over-elaborate? How does one decide this?

What are some books/movies that would benefit from a more thorough depiction of the era’s brutality? Which ones go too far?

The Female Warrior: a Figment of the Modern Imagination?

Dodging past some battle-ready men, I glided into one of the lodges and threw the door shut behind me. Fairly ripping off my dress, I pulled on the men’s leggings and tunic that warriors wore, strapping the leather belt about my waist. For a moment I was stricken dumb with the familiar pleasure of being in warriors’ clothes once again. But the cries that sounded outside the hut reminded me of the need for haste.

Quickly I slipped my feet into the sturdy but light-weight leather boots and strung them tight against my leg, snatching up the knife that lay on the floor near the other garments. The last thing I took was the bow and quiver of arrows leaned against the wall, and then I left the lodge to go find Clare.


The camp was in an uproar now; Falker and Blakkrthorn swords clashed, and arrows hissed, while slaves scurried to and fro, trying to hide somewhere safe. Having not witnessed a camp raid in seven years, I’d forgotten how bloody they are. Members of the attacking clan lose themselves in the lust that overtakes and drives them to kill, to burn, to sack, and to destroy everything in their path. Homes go up in flames, wells get polluted, animals end up slaughtered, children end up dead. If I had ever been on a raid, I imagine I would have done the same.

The Exile, p. 34

All right, I admit that when I started The Exile, I had very little idea whether female warriors actually ever existed.

But that question wasn’t enough to stop me—a sentiment that countless other writers apparently share. I mean, have you seen the sheer volume of warrior princess stories out there?

But while writing it, I realized The Exile is not a “warrior princess” story:

Number 1, because Delta is not a princess; and number 2, because she spends very little of the novel actually being a warrior. Because of this, it wasn’t terribly problematic to think that the female warrior phenomenon might be a myth.

That being said, I couldn’t help noticing during my background research a lack of solid facts in early Scandinavian history regarding women. Some archaeological findings suggest Viking women may have fought, but historians and scientists seem unable to agree decisively.

Even so, it seemed odd to me that contemporary culture would have such a fascination with the medieval female warrior if no such women ever existed. Even in shows such as “The Vikings” and “The Last Kingdom” whose main protagonists are men, you still have women like Lagertha and Brida who charge into battle alongside them.

Is all of this really just our modern attempt to feminize the past?

If you want a simple yes or no, you’ll be disappointed. On one hand, it is entirely possible that the female warrior is the product of imagination. But on the other hand, we were not the first to imagine it.

The most commonly known female warriors date back to ancient Greece: the Amazons. You’d think that once you go back far enough, you’d find some hard and indisputable facts. But as Amanda Foreman points out, even the earliest references to the Amazons are shrouded in legend. Even closer to home, I found that the Norse did in fact have accounts of shieldmaidens—but their status as legends has made it difficult for historians to separate fact from fiction (see also Valkyries). Professor Joshua J. Mark sums it up, “It seems clear that the Norse culture valued women enough to not only include female deities in their pantheon but also attribute to them the same martial skills and ability to determine their own fate as men were allowed.

What becomes clear is that, even if the female warrior is a creative invention, it is not a new invention—and so the sharp criticism of contemporary stories about female warriors (yes, even the “warrior princess” stories) is not warranted. If the Vikings fantasized about women fighting in battle, so can we. The value of a story in this genre shouldn’t be based on whether the genre has a right to exist or not. It does have a right to exist—unless you want to argue with the Greeks and the Vikings. The real measure of value lies in the story itself—the vivacity of its characters, the originality of the plot, the quality of the writing.

So what’s your take on this?

Is there a problem with today’s depiction of female warriors?

Is the subject simply too cliché at this point? Or are modern portrayals just too unrealistic?

It’s About Time!… Or is it?

“You don’t look like the rest,” Clare said, her eyes traveling over the scars on my skin.

“I was a warrior,” I told her. “But I can tell you’re not from any clan at all.”

She lowered her eyes and glanced at her sister briefly. “It’s true,” she admitted. “We did not come from these parts.”

I knew it. “Then where did you come from?”

She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then bent her knees in a strange gesture royal folk call a curtsy. “My name is Clare; how do you do?”

“I’m all right,” I answered, struggling with surprise. It was rather uncommon that someone should take interest in my personal well-being.

“This is my sister, Runa.”

I sensed it was my turn to say something about myself, but I never had to, because at that moment I heard someone calling me from outside in a most foreboding tone.

The Exile, p. 3

Part of the reason I knew Delta had to narrate The Exile was because hers was the voice I could hear most clearly—her tones, attitudes, and editorials all demanded expression. Not only that, but it seemed a large part of the story’s substance hinged on her commentary and interpretation of other characters and events. That being said, however, the main challenge of writing in her voice became apparent:

How would she have sounded in her time period?

The thing is, it’s not hard to identify a character’s voice as formal or informal. What is hard is knowing how to give a historical character a colloquial voice. This is especially true when little is known about the culture’s dialect.

I did my share of research regarding early medieval life and Scandinavian clans—so while the names of characters, clans, and places are fictional, their descriptions and hierarchies adhere closely to the historical reality. But when it comes to the actual languages, finding a way to make medieval Scandinavian vernacular sound laid-back and familiar would take a kind of linguistic wizardry I’m not sure exists. So the question becomes, “How do you strike a balance between sounding simultaneously historical and relatable?”

Some writers lean more modern than others, going so far as to insert a number of anachronisms or phrases that, while you’d never hear them in the story’s time period, make the characters and scenarios feel less foreign to us contemporary folk.

A prime example is Daisy Goodwin’s TV series “Victoria.” Although the costumes and accents are pretty convincing, I had to laugh when one of the dukes added, “Just saying” at the end of an otherwise elevated conversation. While most of the dialogue doesn’t drip so heavily with modern lingo, it’s still obvious that Goodwin gives her characters some current turns of phrase to make them more accessible.

But the question of balance still stands.

Because, although some modern phraseology can lower the barrier between character and reader, it can also polarize those who want to see more historical accuracy. Because of the challenges surrounding The Exile’s setting (and because Delta’s relatability was so central), I chose to err on the more modern side—something not everyone would agree with.

So how does a writer find the balance? Are there ways to make a character’s voice colloquial without compromising the historical integrity?

What are some other works (books, movies, or shows) that achieve this balance? Which ones miss the mark?

And of course, if you have read/are reading The Exile, please let me know what you think about this particular aspect of the novel.

Did the voices work for you? Why or why not?

Says Who?

Her name was Clare. She came on a dark day when my body was still sore from its latest beating two nights ago. They brought her into camp with her sister, both of them quiet and skittish.

When I first saw her I could tell by her countenance that she was different. She carried herself in a dignified fashion, holding herself upright, but not so tall as to flaunt—not like the women of my clan. But I wasn’t with my clan when she came to me. I was with the Falkers.

As for me, I never bothered with posture or honor. I knew I wasn’t important, so I didn’t try to be.

Oh, I was dirty and base and soiled, but she tried to change me. I suppose I did change a little, if only so she wouldn’t pity me, but not as much as she would have liked. Besides, this was before all that began.

The Exile, p. 1.

I would introduce Delta, but she seems to have done that already.

The truth is, when I first sat down to write The Exile, there was no question as to whose voice would narrate the novel. Even though the majority of the plot arises from Clare’s quest, the story would invariably lose some of its meaning if it were told from her perspective—or rather, the layers of meaning would change.

It’s easy to take a narrative voice for granted in reading someone else’s work.

I think this is something that writers themselves are more likely to appreciate, as the beginning of each new story requires us to make a conscious choice: “Who is going to tell this thing?” It could be one character or several. Or it could be a voice removed from the story itself.

While there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, we can’t deny that the choice of narrator inherently affects the tenor, themes, and even content of the novel. Imagine if a classic like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were told by Jim! We would gain all of the perspective of a mature, African American man forced to suppress his own intelligence, but we would lose the naiveté of an otherwise savvy boy coming to see the world for what it is.

What if Fitzgerald chose Daisy, rather than Nick, to narrate The Great Gatsby?

Or what if both Twain and Fitzgerald used an omniscient third-person narrator, giving us unilateral knowledge of each character’s inner thoughts?

The question of narrative perspective isn’t particular to historical fiction, but it does connect to another topic I’ll address next week that every his-fic author has to wrangle. But no matter what genre we read or write, I think exploring the different possible narrative perspectives in a novel can give us insight into why the author chose the one he/she did—which in turn can help us better understand the meaning he/she wanted to communicate.

So I ask you:

What stories can you think of whose substance would change radically if told from another perspective?

If you are a writer, do you find yourself writing more often in the first-person or third-person? How do you decide?

What makes it Timeless?

Meet The Exile

“When the Scandinavian princess Clare finds herself and her sisters sold into slavery to the ruthless clans inhabiting the unsettled mainland, she meets Delta—a hardened slave girl with a history of her own. Although their morals and perspectives clash initially, each recognizes the other as her chance to escape captivity: for Clare, to rescue her beloved sister; for Delta, to return to her own clan.

In their struggle against predators, prejudice, and their own secrets, each woman must question what is worth living for and what, if anything, is worth dying for.”

Here’s a confession:

When I first sat down to write The Exile I didn’t have a particular setting in mind. In fact, only after completing the first two drafts did I settle on Scandinavia as the geographical stage for the novel.

Why was that?

Even prior to writing the first manuscript, it was evident that the characters themselves would constitute the primary energy source that drove the story forward. In that sense, Delta the slave and Clare the princess could have lived in any medieval civilization, provided that it allowed for clan warfare. All other circumstantial elements (political corruption, denigration of women, and a constant struggle for survival) could characterize almost any culture in medieval Europe.

What drew me to Scandinavia was the level of mystery surrounding its past.

Other than the Vikings, not much is commonly known about its history—and unless you’re writing alternate history, it’s precisely those gaps that give you room to create a story. That being said, once I delved into Scandinavian history, it inevitably began to reshape and inform elements of The Exile— and let me add, there is still plenty of room for exploration.

At the heart of this process, though, I realized there lies a central question regarding historical fiction.

What is the relationship between setting and story?

The truth is, some plots/scenarios can be extracted from their original setting and placed in a different time period or culture. Some characters can receive circumstantial facelifts while still preserving the integrity of their voice and personality. I am often struck by how much of a story’s plot could have unfolded in a different context, whereas other stories draw heavily on the historical setting for their content.

Take Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: while Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert find themselves caught amidst the French Revolution, the game of chase and the core ethical dilemmas that define the story are not inherently tied to the time period.

On the other hand, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain tells the coming-of-age tale of a boy whose perspectives are largely shaped by the ideas surrounding the American Revolution. In that sense, the history is central to the themes of the story.

And yet both Les Misérables and Johnny Tremain manage to transcend their time periods in meaningful ways.

How does this happen?

From the author’s perspective, how do you know whether to choose the setting or to develop the plot first?

On the reader’s side, how can you tell when a plot was tailor-made for a particular setting?

What other stories could have taken place in a different time period? What are some whose plots/characters seem inextricable from their setting?

In any case, it seems this trend should impact our understanding of what it means to be “timeless.”

What? Why?

A Brief Introduction

At this point, you might be wondering two things:

What is the point of this blog?

What’s up with the name?

It’s really quite simple: I tell stories set in the past.

Chances are, if you landed on this site, you are also either a storyteller or a history geek—or better yet, both. Or maybe you’re just an avid reader of folklore, fantasy, or historical fiction. In any case, I’m glad you visited, because there’s a lot to talk about—hence the name.

By now, you’ve derived that the “inkpot” theme comes from past eras…

So why “inquisitive?” There are two sides to that.

One is the main source of my stories: asking of the past, “What might have happened?”

The fact is, no matter how documented and complete our history of a given time period, there will always be things we don’t know. People whose names were forgotten. Events that slipped through the cracks, or were deliberately left off the books. Historical purists find that problematic—I find it exhilarating, because where the known facts end is where the imagination begins.

There is a caveat to this, and it marks the line between fact-finding and storytelling. If a well-informed person reads Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl or watches Randall Wallace’s “Braveheart” expecting a 100% accuracy score, they will be disappointed—and rightfully so. Neither of these works presents itself as an authentic historical account. Instead, both invite the reader and viewer to explore a real time period and ask real questions faced by both real and imagined characters. This is the same adventure I invite my readers to join.

The other half of “inquisitive” is yours to fill in.

Each addition will open with a post related to one of the stories I have published, or genres/time periods I am currently researching—but that is just the beginning. The rest is yours. If you share the same curiosity in the past or in storytelling (either as a reader or an author), then you have something to contribute. Raise questions. Answer questions. Tell us about whatever you’re working on, or whatever fascinating gems you know about a particular era. Come join the adventure!

Shiloh