27 August 2012

Contemplation with Eggs Over Easy

Genre fiction is like oatmeal.

Now, just hear me out. 

Many people have studied the bases of stories.  I think it was Socrates who said there were only five original story plots. (Don’t ask me what they are.)  So, sticking with the number five, we’ll say the oats themselves are genres, or different classifications for stories.  We’ll name the genres as follows: Romance, Adventure, Western, Mystery, Fantasy. 

Obviously there are many ways to mix and match these genres, and endless combinations of how much of each to add in.  Fantasy and Mystery.  Romance and Adventure.  Western and anything else.  There’s rarely a book written without romance of some sort, and even fewer written in which there isn’t emphasis on some sort of relationship, be it familial, friendship, enemy, or... or what else is there?  

So, in oatmeal it’s the same, right?  I don’t know anyone ANYONE who likes oatmeal plain, without anything in it.  At least sweeten it a little.

That’s where romance comes in.  Romance is the sugar.  Or I guess honey, or artificial sweetener, or molasses, or agave, or whatever your preference is.  But as I explained before, romance is perhaps ill-named because it can include all types of relationships.  But I put it as romance because that’s what it is at it’s most extreme.  It can be taken in smaller doses, depending on your preference when sweetening.  Perhaps the different types of sweetener could be the different types of relationships.  But that might be taking this metaphor just a little too far.  

Adventure is the spice of a story.  Without it, what kind of journey would the hero take?  What would keep us reading into the wee hours of the morning?  What would get us to take that next bite?  A hint of cinnamon?  Maple?  Nutmeg?

Westerns are the nuts.  Some people love nuts in their oatmeal (some people like me).  Add a little pecan or walnut and I’m in heaven.  Other people can’t eat them, either because of allergies or because they just don’t like them.  And some are indifferent; take them or leave them.  It’s the same with Westerns.

Mystery is the milk.  If you add enough milk everything in that bowl of oatmeal becomes a mystery.  You take a bite and think, “Wait, was that an oat?  A bit of blueberry?”  But it doesn’t matter because it all satisfies, even when you have to work harder with a spoon.  If you add just a little milk, it blends everything together with that perfect smoothness that takes away the sticky and makes it palatable.

Fantasy is the fruit.  There are those that cannot stand fruit in their oatmeal.  I don’t understand it, but there you have it.  Fruit adds texture, flavor, variety, and color.  What would life be without those?  What would a story be?

And in case you’re wondering what I had for breakfast:  Oatmeal, with a teaspoon of artificial sweetener, half a handful of pecans, a sliced banana, a hint of cinnamon, and a splash of milk.  

It was delicious, just like a story would be.

20 August 2012

Conan "The Writer"

I clearly neglected someone in my list of last week’s authors who write what they know.  A little unknown.  A nobody, really.

A man we like to refer to as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
A.K.A. Sherlock Holmes.
A.K.A. Dr. John Watson.

First off, who wouldn’t like a man with the name Conan?  It almost begs for “the Barbarian” as epitaph, doesn’t it?

I picked up a doorstop of a book by this unrecognizable author from the library last week called The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume II.  To be honest, I love Sherlock Holmes, in all his reincarnations, but this book is intimidating.  It’s the kind of thing that has someone’s dissertation just inside the front cover, exclaiming over the ins and outs of the characters, or the writing, or this edition, or how many other adaptations have been made from it over the years.  My personal favorites are the academics who try to argue how much influence their favorite authors or books have had on society.  

Anyway, the introduction was hefty and I had no intention of reading it, until a phrase caught my eye.  Then I was hooked.  

Because of the detail of the Dective’s investigations, people the world over believed the cases had actually taken place and that Sherlock Holmes really lived.  Street names, railway stations, details only Londoners would know.

Did you know the people who live at 221B Baker Street, London, still get mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes?  

Sherlock Holmes was the first fictional character awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Society in Chemistry in Britain.  This fictional character has earned a better real-world degree than many of us living in this real world.

In 1892, a series of articles appeared in a UK based paper, written by “Our Special Correspondent”, Sherlock Holmes.  The paper refused when called upon by the public to verify Holmes’ authenticity.  You see, people so believed in the character they kept wanting him to be a non-fictional character.  They wanted him to be real.  And the British Paper never claimed he wasn’t.  (Although, to be fair, they also never claimed he was.)

For all of Sherlock’s brilliance, Sir Conan Doyle was nothing like him, which in my mind, makes his “real-ness” more impressive.

So, to make up for my sad omission of last week, I dedicate this post to Sir Arthur Conan “the Barbarian” Doyle.  With Respect.

13 August 2012

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?

The beginning of my story writing began the winter of 2006-2007.  I only remember that because it was the few months before our family moved to New Zealand.  I had been reading a lot of cheesy romance novels and after reading several by an author who desperately needed a good editor, I thought, “I can write at least that well!”  So, I set off to try.

When I began typing, I had a vague notion of what I wanted the story to be, but mostly I was on the journey too.  This is the first paragraph of that story:

She looked around her without knowing where she was or how she got there.  She could remember a feeling of being warm and secure in a luxurious bed with a feather mattress, and then she woke up on a damp, dank forest floor.  She rolled on her back and stared hard at the treetops trying to think.  Her whole back itched from the dirt that had worked its way into her shirt after sleeping in a forest, for what she assumed, was all night.  Flashes of memory flicked through her mind like pictures illuminated by lightening.  She could see a woman, plainly dressed in brown hues, with a look of distain on her irregular features.   A man popped up next, with gentle eyes that looked as though they held a hidden source of delight.  He had dark brown hair that hung in reckless waves to his eyebrows in front and to the nape of his neck in back.  She saw a room full of sturdy furniture and decadent hangings.  Next came a view of a garden full of flowers from the inside of a large window.

I just looked it over this week, thinking that it had been long enough that perhaps I could read it without worrying. (I’m a professional worrier.  If worrying was an olympic sport, I’d definitely be in the running.)  What I got instead of worry was a good laugh.  Then I got a pen.

I mean, I knew before picking it up again that it would require a lot of re-working, I had just deluded myself as to how much.  It. needs. a. complete. gut-job.  I’m not sure I’m up to it.  I might just tuck it away into the darkest drawer I own and only pull it out to reassure myself that I have gotten better than I was in the beginning.  At least, I’d like to think I’ve gotten better.

At any rate, just for some fun, I thought I’d post the marks my pen put into the manuscript and if you feel so inclined, you can tell me if it makes it a better read.

Tulia looked around without knowing where she was or how she got there.  She remembered warmth and security, a luxurious bed with a feather mattress.  But she awoke on a damp forest floor.  She rolled to her back and stared at the treetops trying to think.  The pine needles swayed in a slight breeze, backlit by a flawless blue.  Her back itched; dirt had worked its way into her shirt.  What could she expect after sleeping in a forest, for what she assumed, was all night?
Flashes of memory flicked through her mind like paintings illuminated by lightening.  A woman, plainly dressed in brown, with a look of habitual distain on her irregular features.  A man next, with gentle eyes that held a hidden source of delight.  Dark brown hair hung in reckless waves to his eyebrows in front and to the nape of his neck in back.  Then, a room with sturdy furniture and elegant hangings.  Last came a view from a large window of a garden full of flowers.

Even as I read through the revised version, I cringe.  I love this story.  It’s my first full-length novel and I still think it has potential.  I just have a hard time thinking that potential will be worth digging through all the muck.

Sigh.  Back to grindstone.

06 August 2012

Knowing is Half the Battle

In case you’re new to the blog, or new to my life, I should clarify something.  I read a lot.  Most would injure me by saying I read too much.  I have to ask:  Is that possible?  (My husband is jumping up and down in the back of my brain shouting, “YES!”)

But whatever.

What I wanted to say is that I’ve been thinking about authors who ‘write what they know’.  There are obvious (to me) winners in this category: Lucy Maud Montgomery, Jane Austen, Eva Ibbotson.  (And Louis L’Amour, since we should include a man.) When these women wrote, their characters became real people, places and times took on a “now” quality.  I want to live in nineteenth century England, or 1938 Vienna, or early twentieth century Prince Edward Island.  I want to be friends with them, both characters and authors.  I live in their creations.

When authors don’t write what they know, there are obvious issues.  For example, when I had my family read through the manuscript for “Uneasy Fortunes”, someone told me I had called a gelding a mare, or something just as unfortunate.  I guess I should have paid more attention to the terms people used when I was younger and we had horses.  Another faux pas I’ve become privy to happened to my BFF Shannon Hale.  In “Princess Academy” Miri and the other villagers on Mount Eskel used goat dung to keep their fires going.  I have it on good authority that goat dung would not work as fuel.  But instead of making me like Shannon less, it has the endearing effect of making her human.

Recently, though, I’ve discovered a Christian author who doesn’t do either one and does it well.  She writes history in places she has never lived in times she couldn’t possibly have known.  But she knows her stuff.  I have learned lots from reading her stories, and I love feeling as though my time reading wasn’t a waste, but an education.  I also really like the romance she plots.  Because I’m a sap.

Other glorious examples of that, is Georgette Heyer and Louis L’Amour.  She probably visited England, but she didn’t live there.  And the period about which she wrote was not her own, but boy, does she own it!  Same with Mr. Love (cause you know, L’Amour mean love, right?  Get it?  I’m a nerd.).  He went West at the very tail end of the frontier days.  He met a few of the men he wrote about, but for the most part, he did his research.  A lot of it.  

And therein lies the key, I think.  A LOT of research.  If you want to write about something you don’t know, get to know it.  Good advice from me.  Good advice for me.