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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—
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.
Well, you get the idea. Introducing a cookie-cutter scenario can take the wind of an otherwise unique story.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Here are a couple of basic definitions:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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:
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?
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:
That might sound like a nebulous question, but let me break it down into a couple of categories.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
A lean novel is one whose words center on the story— the 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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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 Exile, p. 34
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
“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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
At this point, you might be wondering two things:
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…
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.
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!