Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Not long ago I had a nice IM chat with a friend my husband and I visited in England in 2006, when I was in the early stages of drafting Bring to Light. It got me thinking about how discovering a captivating setting can open possibilities for plot, theme and characterization.

In early outlines of my novel, I'd intended to include a one-chapter foray to southwest England, where I'd actually lived with a family when I was in college. But this particular vacation morphed into a major research trip changed everything.

The nature of the trip first changed when we entered King's Cross station, the railroad gateway to the north--a hub for rail service to northern England and Scotland. Despite the Harry Potter connection, it's not an elegant station like Victoria or sleek and hip like Charing Cross. This communicated a lot about internal stereotypes among Britons, namely that north England is considered the sticks, and its inhabitants, country hicks. Suddenly a resonant back story on my protagonist's British father began to unfold: Country boy leaves home and culture to seek his fortune abroad, where he'd meet fewer prejudices about his upbringing.

Durham itself was the second great discovery, a rare jewel few tourists ever see. The city is perched on cliffs on a peninsula formed by the rivers Tyne and Wear, with a stunning 900-year-old cathedral its crowning beauty. At the cathedral and elsewhere in the region, we saw evidence of Christianity's long history sunk deep into this land--back to Roman times. The ancient past of the Vikings, the Saxons, the Romans seems nearer here than in the south, where generations have built over the past time and again. This got me thinking about the decision every generation must make: will we examine and learn from the past, or bury it?

Our friends, American transplants to England, patiently answered my thousand and one questions. Unlike natives, they were able to see the jarring differences between the "two cultures divided by a shared language" that my American-born protagonist would also notice. I soon saw how cultural differences--especially American versus British ideas about privacy and emoting--could have interesting consequences within a family dynamic.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009 Laurel Garver
Not long ago I had a nice IM chat with a friend my husband and I visited in England in 2006, when I was in the early stages of drafting Bring to Light. It got me thinking about how discovering a captivating setting can open possibilities for plot, theme and characterization.

In early outlines of my novel, I'd intended to include a one-chapter foray to southwest England, where I'd actually lived with a family when I was in college. But this particular vacation morphed into a major research trip changed everything.

The nature of the trip first changed when we entered King's Cross station, the railroad gateway to the north--a hub for rail service to northern England and Scotland. Despite the Harry Potter connection, it's not an elegant station like Victoria or sleek and hip like Charing Cross. This communicated a lot about internal stereotypes among Britons, namely that north England is considered the sticks, and its inhabitants, country hicks. Suddenly a resonant back story on my protagonist's British father began to unfold: Country boy leaves home and culture to seek his fortune abroad, where he'd meet fewer prejudices about his upbringing.

Durham itself was the second great discovery, a rare jewel few tourists ever see. The city is perched on cliffs on a peninsula formed by the rivers Tyne and Wear, with a stunning 900-year-old cathedral its crowning beauty. At the cathedral and elsewhere in the region, we saw evidence of Christianity's long history sunk deep into this land--back to Roman times. The ancient past of the Vikings, the Saxons, the Romans seems nearer here than in the south, where generations have built over the past time and again. This got me thinking about the decision every generation must make: will we examine and learn from the past, or bury it?

Our friends, American transplants to England, patiently answered my thousand and one questions. Unlike natives, they were able to see the jarring differences between the "two cultures divided by a shared language" that my American-born protagonist would also notice. I soon saw how cultural differences--especially American versus British ideas about privacy and emoting--could have interesting consequences within a family dynamic.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The fiction experts tell us time and again to "show, not tell." It's a useful enough guideline, as far as it goes. But how should one go about showing? Describing physical sensations is one way: throat tightening and eyes stinging shows a character is sad or upset. But a whole page of this sort of descriptions gets tiring to read. Ditto with descriptions of movement and tone of voice.

Tapping into a character's interior world, showing thoughts that are never spoken can be another way of punching up a scene. The real trick is to write "non telling" thoughts. One of the ways to do that came to me, strangely, while editing an essay about Knut Hamsun at work. The author of the piece was from Denmark, and my mind made the association he's Danish...mmm, I could go for a danish. Wouldn't knut hamsun be the perfect name for a rich, eggy dessert bread full of pecans, sultanas and candied cherries? I posted some of these random thoughts on Facebook, and a friend piped up, "you must be hungry." Of course, I was hungry. Ridiculously hungry. Those strange associations said it colorfully and memorably, much more than if I'd made my status "Laurel is hungry."

So when you want to tell it slant in your character's inner monologues, remember "random associations" as yet another way of showing, rather than telling, how you character feels.
Friday, October 16, 2009 Laurel Garver
The fiction experts tell us time and again to "show, not tell." It's a useful enough guideline, as far as it goes. But how should one go about showing? Describing physical sensations is one way: throat tightening and eyes stinging shows a character is sad or upset. But a whole page of this sort of descriptions gets tiring to read. Ditto with descriptions of movement and tone of voice.

Tapping into a character's interior world, showing thoughts that are never spoken can be another way of punching up a scene. The real trick is to write "non telling" thoughts. One of the ways to do that came to me, strangely, while editing an essay about Knut Hamsun at work. The author of the piece was from Denmark, and my mind made the association he's Danish...mmm, I could go for a danish. Wouldn't knut hamsun be the perfect name for a rich, eggy dessert bread full of pecans, sultanas and candied cherries? I posted some of these random thoughts on Facebook, and a friend piped up, "you must be hungry." Of course, I was hungry. Ridiculously hungry. Those strange associations said it colorfully and memorably, much more than if I'd made my status "Laurel is hungry."

So when you want to tell it slant in your character's inner monologues, remember "random associations" as yet another way of showing, rather than telling, how you character feels.