How not to do an Interview!

As a regular reader of the NYT Book Review I usually look forward to their weekly column ‘By the Book’ but this week’s contribution raised my eyebrows. Unfortunately, to me at least, it was a classic example of what not to do in an author interview. The author this week was Philippa Gregory (a link to column can be found here) and in some ways my post today is a follow up to the one I did about Hilary Mantel (who appeared to look down on female historical writers such as Gregory!). Gregory’s interview is full of such gems as:

  • “What I don’t read is historical fiction in the period I am writing. Firstly, the characters as described by anyone else drive me mad…”
  • “Why does anyone write sloppy genre novels? The typing alone is so exhausting – surely if you’re going to undertake 150,000 words, you might as well have something interesting to say?”
  • “Why do people write crime novels with blindingly obvious murderers?”
  • “Choosing to write a genre novel is like fencing the universe because your are afraid of space.”

The upshot of Gregory’s tone is that she is far above those mere mortals who write ‘genre’ novels. What bothers me the most about her town is the unprofessionalism that seems to be on display. When giving an interview, I think that all writers (and especially those who enjoy popular acclaim) should be mindful of the image they present. There is no need to denigrate ‘genre’ writers (or any other writers for that matter) and there is certainly no need to show disdain for their craft. By the Book is normally a column that displays the quirks of an author and their book tastes, it doesn’t usually involve book snobbery or an attitude that, quite frankly, turns me off reading an author’s work….but this one did.

My takeaway from this? A few pointers on how to do a professional interview…

  • Don’t use the interview to denigrate other writers, genres, or work. You can most certainly reveal your preferences, but negativity isn’t needed.
  • Don’t make statements such as ‘why does anyone write sloppy genre novels?’. No writer I’ve ever met has sat down to write 150,000 words of absolute crap. We all sit down to write the best book we can, and who is Gregory to judge the merits of that in such wide ranging terms? Genre novels are not by their very nature ‘sloppy’ – and many so-called literary books can be excruciating to read:)
  • Be aware of the tone you are conveying and avoid anything that smacks of pretentiousness or snobbery.
  • Publishing doesn’t need to be shark-infested waters where, to succeed, you have to lunge and bite other writers in order to succeed. Most writers I’ve met are nothing but supportive and humbled by the own success. This interview suggests that Gregory feels herself far superior to other mere mortals writing historical or genre fiction (was that really the image she wanted to convey?)

So TKZers what is your take on the interview? If you were invited by the NYT to be interviewed for ‘By the Book’, how would you want to appear?

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Dear Diary…

The last time I kept a personal diary I was twelve years old. Since then I’ve kept various travel journals documenting trips and stays overseas, but I’ve never revisited the idea of keeping a personal diary. I know many writing teachers advise aspiring writers to keep a journal but, to be honest, I’ve never been very good at documenting the day-to-day. Recently, due to some health issues, my doctor said that it might be a good idea to journal but my immediate thought was ‘I’d much rather kill people off in a novel’…so obviously, for me, fiction is far more cathartic than diary entries!

In yesterday’s NYT Book Review there was an article about the German novelist, Christa Wolf, who kept a diary over 50 years recording the events of only one day each year – September 27th (the link to the article is here). Apparently she kept this diary until her death in 2011, jotting down everything she did and everyone she saw (even everything she ate) on that day. From the article, it sounds like she was a careful diarist rather than a confiding one – giving plenty of detail on the day, and some deep commentary on the meaning of time, but less in the way of sharing her innermost thoughts or emotions.

I’ve often wondered about writers who keep detailed journals or diaries and how they tackle the delicate balance of writing for themselves as well as writing in a medium that might ultimately be made public (especially if they become famous). I certainly admire anyone who has the discipline to keep a diary/journal as well as their other writing. I  would find maintaining a personal diary challenging – in part, because, I’d always feel a constraining hand, as if someone was reading the entries over my shoulder. I think I would censor my entries or indulge in creating a ‘fictionalized’ account of my life rather than being open and honest (this may also be why I find it hard to write anything in public areas like coffee shops – I need to have the absence of ‘others’ in order to write).

So TKZers, do any of you write a personal diary or journal on a regular basis? If so, how do you maintain the momentum for this? Do you censor or hold yourself back in any way? Do you find it helps your fiction writing? If, like me, you don’t write a journal or diary, why not?

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First Page Critique

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is a fantasy entitled A Turin Mercenary. My comments follow.

A TURIN MERCENARY

I sat silhouetted on my warhorse on the top of the hill.  I wanted them to see me.  A band of brigands had noticed me when I left the town of Ashton this morning.  I knew they would follow me.  I decided to make a stand.

It was midmorning.  The sky was clear, but it was cold.  It was the beginning of winter in the Realm.  I had taken off my warm cloak and gloves and let the cold invigorate me.  I took a deep calming breath and prepared myself for battle.

I could see the four of them riding on the road toward me now.  All too often, there were brigands that made their living by robbing people.  A lone female mercenary against the four of them.  They probably thought I would be an easy target.  I think not. Because I made my living by stopping them.  I allowed myself a little smile.  I made sure they would never harm anyone again.

The lead brigand whooped out loud when he saw me.  He drew his broadsword and held it high in the air.  The three brigands behind him drew their swords raised them as well.  They turned off the road and sent their horses at a gallop up the hill toward me.

I had given Talon the order to stand still and placed him with his left side parallel to the road.  A tactical maneuver.  In my left hand, was my longbow with an arrow notched.  I held the black bow vertically so it was hidden with my black horse, tack and clothes. The brigands would not see the bow until it was too late.

I waited patiently for them to come closer within range.  I calmly took in their expressions as they got closer, their faces tense with sneers of rage.  It was time.  I quickly lifted my bow up and drew back the bowstring.  I aimed and released the arrow at the lead brigand.  The arrow hit him square in the chest.  I immediately pulled another arrow from my back quiver, drew and fired.  The arrow hit the second brigand in the chest.  I saw the disbelief on the two remaining brigands’ faces when they saw their companions fall.

I dropped the bow and gave Talon the command to charge.  My warhorse responded with quick acceleration.  I drew my rapier and rode straight at the third brigand…

MY COMMENTS

It’s always tricky with fantasy as a writers needs time for world building – so a first page critique can be hard to do, as we really only get a glimpse of this. Nonetheless, I think this first page demonstrates that, even in fantasy, it is critical to draw a reader in right from the starts with specifics, firmly rooted in whatever world (be in real or fantastical) the author has created. With this first page, we have some tension, a little character development and action, but I think what we most miss is the specifics to add color and texture to the scene. My comments therefore center on world building, characterization and POV.

World Building

In this first page we get a sense of the world but little in the way of specifics. For example, the world is called ‘the Realm’ but we know nothing about it, except that the character is a lone female mercenary who is waiting for a groups of brigands to attack. We don’t really get a sense of her role, motivations, or place in the ‘big picture’ of the novel beyond this (I admit, thought, with a first page only, that is often a hard task). I would have liked more detail that enabled me to see, hear, and smell this world, and enough to enable me to distinguish this story from many other medieval/fantasy novels. One of the key issues I had in this regard was the use of the word ‘brigands’ – which is used eight times on just the first page. This kind of repetition drains the scene of color and specificity – likewise the use of ‘lead brigand’, ‘second brigand’ and ‘third brigand’. Apart from their faces being ‘tense with sneers of rage’ I can’t picture or distinguish one from the other. Such an action scene as a first page would definitely benefit from richer descriptions.

Characterization

I like how the lead character is a kick-ass lone female mercenary, but I needed a little more to truly believe and root for her as a character. It seemed strained to me that she would merely wait in the open and the brigands would oblige by attacking – what was their motivation for doing so? Does she look rich enough to be worth robbing? Why is she a mercenary (even just a hint on this would make her more intriguing)? At the moment she seems a little generic – and again, it’s really a question of giving us more specifics and making her seem more human (is she nervous at all? If she’s so confident – why? Have her experiences in the past hardened her?). This also leads to the question of voice, which I found wasn’t quite fully formed as yet.

POV

The ‘voice’ in this first page is clearly the mercenary and yet I didn’t get a sense of her voice strongly enough as yet. Perhaps it was the vague drifting into third person/omniscience (e.g.. ‘A band of brigands noticed me’) or the odd change in tenses (‘I think not’) or the short staccato style sentences (which can work, but here, felt a little bland). For a fantasy novel to grab me, I need to be fully invested in the main character from the get-go. Although I liked the action in the scene, I feel that a bit more attention to the lead character’s voice would go a long way to upping the tension and stakes.

Overall, I think this page has good action but lacks some ‘color’ in terms of world-building details, POV and characterization. If the writer spent a bit of time enhancing these elements this page would be all the stronger for it.

TKZers, what do you think?

 

5+

From Idea to Novel

Starting a new project is always nerve wracking – there’s the empty page for starters but then there’s also making sure that the idea is sufficient to form the foundation for a complete novel. Generating ideas has never been my problem – a number pop into my head each day and some are sufficiently intriguing that I jot them down in my ‘ideas book’ to see if they will gradually begin to take shape in my mind to form the foundation for a story. Many ideas fall by the wayside at this point – because while they interest me, they never really coalesce into a premise that can sustain a novel. Even after that, I’m consumed with doubts…although I’ve really only had one story die after I’d finished the first draft because I realized the premise was too convoluted and confused (the idea, though still holds promise!).

I’m about to embark on a new WIP and I’m at the doubt-filled stage of wrestling with a new idea. Since I have other projects in various stages of the submission process, it’s definitely time to knuckle down to a new manuscript but in this early stage of the creative process I have to grapple with how to formulate an idea into (hopefully!) a great story.

My process (such that it is) usually goes something like this:

  • Light-bulb moment – new idea starts to whip round in the brain and, of course, I think it’s awesome.
  • Write down idea in vague terms – lots of questions and possibilities…
  • Start research (almost always involving some historical period/event)
  • First doubts – which way to proceed? More questions than answers? Do I have enough for a novel??
  • Begin to outline a proposal to help shape the idea into a real concept and (ultimately, I hope) the premise for a novel. This is usually when the second round of doubts start to hit… Sometimes I end up with multiple proposals revolving around the same initial idea as I fumble around trying to decide if this project really is ready to get off the ground.
  • More research = more procrastination and sometimes panic that whole idea really sucks…
  • Send outline to beta readers for feedback – see if it’s intriguing and clear enough (my issue is always one of complicating rather than simplifying a story!)
  • After feedback – sometimes involving a choice between proposals – I send to my agent for her initial read/buy in. This is where I have to formulate the log-line/blurb so I can succinctly describe it to her and others.
  • Once I have agent buy-in I start on an outline and the first chapters to establish the POV/Voice for the book (I spend a long time on the first chapters feeling my way into the book as well as drafting an outline of where I’m headed with the plot/characters)
  • More research (I like to hide between the pages of history books!) = procrastination
  • Finally begin draft!

So TKZers how do you go from idea to first draft? Do you spend time, like me, formulating the premise and making sure your idea is sufficient to sustain a novel? Or do you just set off writing from the get go with the confidence that it will all come together and work out in the end? What’s your process?

 

 

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First Page Critique: Finn Slew

Happy Monday! Today I’m critiquing a first page submission for a novel entitled Finn Slew which begins in Afghanistan and appears to be the start of an intriguing suspense/thriller. My comments follow.

Title:   Finn Slew

MAY, 2011, Kandahar, Afghanistan

The phone was vibrating. Again. Alive and angry, like he’d stuffed a rabid weasel in the breast pocket of his ballistic vest. If Finn was going to be shot, it was small consolation the phone would die first.

The ringer was off. Best not to draw attention on the streets of Kandahar City. If the phone squawked his two soldier escorts, front and rear, would want to shoot him before the Taliban had a chance.

The first four messages this afternoon were from increasingly higher links in the Astral Media chain of command.

The fifth, just now, was a text from his direct boss, Kate Adachi, managing editor of his home newspaper, the Vancouver Journal, the westernmost outpost in Astral’s media empire: “WTF Finn? Supposed to file from the base newser on  plans for our troop withdrawal. Major heat from head office AND our publisher. Also fm Major Cahill, at CFB Kandahar, wondering where the hell you are. Call me. Now.”

He ignored that, too.

He’d written the ‘glorious farewell’ story weeks ago, with too much emphasis, in Cahill’s view, on those allies who felt Canada was cutting and running with the job unfinished.

Not that the job will ever be finished. Ask the Brits. Ask the Soviets. Hell, ask the Afghans. 

The news conference would play out as others he’d endured. Cahill, the public relations flack at Canadian Forces Base Kandahar, would lay on what soldiers cynically called “the Full Canuck.” A visiting general with a full display of chest candy would share Tim Hortons coffee and donuts with the troops as he declared the mission an unqualified success.

There’d be a moment of silence for those killed in the service of their country during Canada’s decade in Afghanistan, and a nod to the grievously wounded. Not a mention of those tortured souls carrying the war home in a nightmarish loop of pain and fear. Soldier suicides? What suicides?

Then, off to the ball hockey rink at Kandahar Airfield where the big guy would play enough shinny for network visuals before hopping a flight home.

They’d make damned sure a dead soldier wasn’t catching a lift in the cargo hold. Don’t want to go off-message.

No more press-release journalism. Finn was chasing bigger game: misappropriated aid money, corrupt military contractors, black market trade in weaponry. That’s why Cahill’s shorts were in a knot.

Comments:

I think this first page is off to a great start. I’m intrigued by the premise of a Canadian journalist investigating corruption in Afghanistan just as Canadian troops are being withdrawn. The voice of our main protagonist is strong, cynical, and determined and the short paragraphs, clipped sentences and snide comments all fit the protagonist well. This is an easy first page to critique as I don’t have much to say, except well done and I want to read more!

I have only three (relatively minor) comments:

  • The first is to reconsider the title of the book. Finn Slew (to me, at least) sounds strange and a little awkward. I think a stronger, darker title that gives a reader a better sense of the book would work better.
  • The second is to perhaps shorten the 4th paragraph as the reader gets some extraneous information here about the newspaper/media corporation that slows the pace of this first page. Something like: “The fifth, just now, was a text from his boss, Kate Adachi, managing editor of  the Vancouver Journal”  – it would be simpler and the extra information can be provided later.
  • Finally, the last line suggests Major Cahill knows the story the main protagonist is pursuing, and yet in Kate’s text he’s trying to find out where the protagonist is so I’m not totally sure if the author intends Cahill to know (and hence have his shorts in knots) or not. Maybe this could just be clarified.

Otherwise, I thought this was a terrific beginning and I would definitely want to read more. What about you, TKZers, any comments/thoughts?

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Empowering History?

In a recent lecture, Hilary Mantel, the bestselling author of the historical novel, Wolf Hall, berated her fellow female writers for what she considered ‘falsely empowering’ their female characters in their work. This lecture, detailed in an article by The Telegraph newspaper (see link here), raises an interesting issue for any historical fiction writer, or indeed any writer incorporating the social, political or economic landscape of a particular time or place. Characters, after all, must be viewed within a frame or context – even when that appears to weaken rather than empower them.

Mantel’s major concern is with some (unnamed) female writers who retrospectively make their female characters look stronger or more independent than they would have been during a particular historical period. “A good novelist,” she argues, “will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.” Fair enough – even though implicit within her statement is a criticism of predominantly female authors she obviously believe falsely attribute ’empowering’ characteristics upon their historical characters (even though I’m sure authors of both genders have been guilty of the same!). I also think Mantel’s criticism fails to address the expectations in the current book/publishing market and the demands for a more nuanced approached to historical fiction.

Many writers want to uncover forgotten voices in history – to give  a voice to people whose stories may not have been sufficiently examined in traditional historical textbooks or fiction. They also want to give readers a connection to these people – making them relatable as well as consistent with their time period. This can often be no easy task – as Mantel herself points out, many modern readers would find the beliefs and opinions of many historical figures unpalatable. That doesn’t mean, however, that writers shouldn’t be allowed to explore the commonalities that bind people together. No one, after all, would really want to immerse themselves in a world in which the characters have little or no redeeming features. Likewise, I think many women today would want to read historical fiction that relegate female characters to being weak, uninteresting or dull. In many ways it was the desire of readers to connect with female characters of the past that has created fiction that aims to have ’empowered’ female characters.

So how should a writer approach the delicate balancing act of appealing to modern readers, presenting an intriguing and relatable character, and yet remaining true to a historical period/place or social milieu? This is where Mantel could perhaps have been less strident and more forgiving of the challenges facing historical (as well as other fiction)  writers. With my own work, I know I want to portray strong characters even though I remain mindful of the social, political and economic constraints they would face during the time period I’ve chosen. To be honest, I’m not sure many editors would be interested in a completely ‘unempowered’ female character…it would certainly be a difficult book proposal to sell!

For me, history is not something that needs to be ‘revised’ in my fiction, but equally well, I want to explore the depths of my female characters that make them relatable to modern readers. I worry that Mantel’s view implies that somehow writers simply aren’t doing their homework even though the balancing act is a far more delicate one (in my opinion).

So TKZers, do you agree with Mantel that some writers have been guilty of falsely empowering their female historical characters? How do you approach the task of developing your characters against the context/landscape of their time period? If you are a reader of historical fiction, which do you value more, complete historical accuracy or characters who, despite the era, are still relatable?

 

 

 

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Faking it

I’m sure we’ve all done it – pretended to have read a classic book…agreed when someone gave an intellectual critique of an author we were too proud to admit we’d never heard of before (or never read)…even perhaps ‘faked it’ when asked about a book that we knew we ought to have read in our genre but never quite got around to doing…

Sometimes, no matter how widely you’re read or how many books you’ve written, one of the hardest things about being a writer (apart from the writing) is answering questions about other books and writers. I’ve had conversations that feel more like a grilling, as if I have to prove myself a writer by being cross-questioned about books and/or other writers. Most of the time I have no problem admitting I haven’t read a book or a particular author but sometimes…just sometimes…’faking it’ occurs. Like the time in book group when I pretended to have read the assigned book when in reality I’d just flicked through the remaining half in a last minute panic, hoping to pick up the main plot thread and wing it from there…or the time I was confronted in a ‘speed dating for agents’ event years ago by an agent who said ‘your work sounds just like Anne Perry’ and I merely nodded when in reality I had no idea who she was talking about (my bad! I did then research and read Perry’s mysteries but I am still mortified I didn’t even know her name at the time!).

The best antidote to ‘faking it’, for me at least, was having kids – kids that interrogate you on a subject and are quick to realize if you’re pretending. Like when they ask you if you’ve read the ‘classic’ book they were just assigned at school, and you know that, actually, you started it but never finished it because it was too dull… as a parent you really don’t want to admit that but within five minutes your kids are totally on to you (sigh).

As a writer, I know my (many) inadequacies and feel them more acutely the more experienced I get…so I fake less and admit more these days. But still, especially when giving a presentation or talking to readers, I don’t really want to come across as a complete ignoramus even though (drum roll) I might have to admit to having never read a Stephen King novel (or, for that matter, many other authors including biggies like James Patterson and Sara Paretsky).

TKZers, I hope I’m not alone in ‘faking it’ occasionally – so tell me when was the last time you ‘faked’ an answer on writing or books? What was your worst (or best, depending on your point of view) incident that may have involved a little ‘faking it’?

 

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First Page Critique: Strangled by a Cloud

Welcome to this week’s first page critique – today we have the first page of a historical mystery/thriller entitled ‘Strangled by a Cloud’. As always, my comments follow.

Strangled by a Cloud

My part in the Tenant’s Harbor affair began on the last day of January in 1878. That morning I was at my usual station: peddling hand-penned calling cards in the lobby of one of Boston’s many hotels; this time it was Young’s, in the financial district. A dozen cards for a Harvard toff had already bought me a hearty breakfast; a dozen more – perhaps with some flourish – for a Court Street banker would carry me through the rest of the day.

As the clock and the thermometer waned and the clouds began to spit sleet, my mood soured:  I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah. To lighten my mood, I left the outer crust of the lobby and strode towards the warmth of the core – the front desk – where I was greeted with the welcome smile of my friend, Adam.

“Cold is it, Mr. Merryweather?” he asked

“As colde as eny froste,” I replied, in an ersatz Middle English tongue.

“Ah, Chaucer – very good, very good,” he said (Adam was also the hotel’s unofficial man of letters and always appreciated a well-placed quote from the Tales).

I pulled the hotel register at his hands my way.  Now and then I made a sport of guessing at the age, nationality, personality, or occupation of guests based on their handwriting. I traced my finger down the list of guests until I reached the name “Charles Goodword.”

“Now here’s a bad character, Adam,” I began. “I’m guessing a gambler by profession, maybe something worse…he’s about forty years old, broad-shouldered, perhaps five feet ten or eleven…stout…and mean.  You’ll want to be rid of him, and soon.”

“Mr. Merryweather, it’s remarkable!” Adam said, truly surprised.  “As to age and height and build, you are quite correct, sir, quite correct. But as to his character, you are very mistaken: he’s a clergyman, you know – here to preach for several weeks – the Benevolent Society for something-or-t’other is paying his board.”

“A clergyman, is he?” I asked, adding, “Well, he’s a thief to boot.  Humor me and send for him,” I said, handing him one of my cards.

Adam obliged and sent a valet to call on Mr. Goodword.  The valet returned swiftly, confirming that he had successfully delivered the card and invitation, with my compliments.

“You think he’ll come?” I asked Adam. He nodded in assent.  “We shall see,” I said, shaking my head. “We shall see.”

Overall Comments:

Overall this first page was cleanly executed with an initial voice and style emerging that I think is pretty engaging. It appears to be emulating a Sherlock Holmes detachment and narration which I think could work well. What it initially lacks, however, is a bit of ‘oomph’ to set our story in motion and build intrigue. It also teeters, I think, in terms of credibility (see my specific comments below), but overall with some editing this first page could be an effective one.

Here are my specific comments:

Credibility

I think in this first page we need more background regarding the main character, Mr. Merryweather, as I’m initially skeptical that a man who makes his living penning calling cards in hotel lobbies would be educated enough to quote Chaucer and have even peudo-expertise in handwriting analysis. I’m also a little doubtful that a front desk clerk would be even an unofficial ‘man of letters’ without a bit more background. I’d be more willing to believe all of this if we got a sense that either Merryweather is an educated man that has fallen on hard times or that he is deliberately masquerading as someone he isn’t. Likewise I need a little more to buy into the fact that Merryweather has uncanny, Holmesian powers of deduction based on viewing Mr. Goodword’s handwriting.

Oomph

I wanted a little more intrigue from this first page when it came to the set up re: Mr. Goodword. I was expecting the valet to discover his dead body! The pay off on the initial page wasn’t really there and I was also skeptical as to why a clergyman would be interested in meeting a man who penned calling cards (or why the main character thought if he sent the valet up with his card the clergyman would respond – to be honest I’m not sure I even believe a man who makes his living hand to mouth by making calling cards would present his own card to anyone).  I feel that on this initial page, more intrigue would set the story on a stronger footing and would entice readers to keep turning the page.

Minor editorial issues

There were a few moments where I was taken out of the story. The first was when the main character said ‘I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah’. I didn’t feel this reference worked, mainly because the name ‘Merryweather’ doesn’t exactly sound like a surname from biblical times. Perhaps a middle ages reference would be more appropriate but at the moment it sounds awkward. Likewise the reference to the ‘outer crust’ of the lobby sounds strange – even though I understand what the writer was trying to get at and how the main character moved to the ‘core’ of the lobby – It didn’t work for me in the context of this story. In addition, the clock and thermometer ‘waned’ didn’t seem quite the right expression either – as the clock ‘waning’ would surely mean going backwards if the numbers got smaller (?).

I also found it odd that Mr Merryweather would call Adam by his first name but Adam didn’t reciprocate, but called him the more formal ‘Mr Merryweather’ in return. I’m assuming they are on the same social level and know each other well enough (as Merryweather calls him a friend) so the formality of Adam’s response doesn’t seem to ring true.

Also when Adam says: ‘ But as to his character, you are very mistaken’,  I feel that this should be either ‘very much mistaken’ or just ‘mistaken’ (‘very mistaken’ sounds weird to me).

So TKZers, what comments do you have for our brave submitter today?

 

4+

Where History Comes Alive

It’s Spring Break so I will be visiting Teothihuacan outside Mexico City when this blog posts, so my apologies, I probably won’t be able to respond to your comments until later in the day/Monday evening. I’ll be showing my boys these amazing pyramids as they have been studying Mexico’s history in their social studies class. We will also visit the  Anthropology museum in Mexico City as well – when traveling with me no one gets to avoid history!

One of my favorite parts of research is visiting places and immersing myself in a sense of history. Some places are able to evoke the past easily – as if the past remains stored in the stone walls, cobble stones or timbers of the houses. Other places, however, feel more inaccessible. I find Teothihuacan, with its vast avenue and towering pyramids, is a place that evokes awe but is also so alien in many ways that it is hard to picture what life must have been like way back then. It’s more challenging to imagine the past here but nonetheless the echoes are still there, if you listen hard enough. Likewise, I used to find the Australian landscape much harder to ‘read’ – the aboriginal past seeming to be more elusive and the colonial overtones a little too blunt. By comparison, somewhere like London the past really is omnipresent. For me, the voices of the past are all around and it is easy to imagine the sights, smells and sounds of history.

So TKZers where has history come alive for you? What places have you visited (for research or pleasure) that have evoked the greatest sense of history?

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Backstory Fatigue

Maybe it’s just my own declining attention span (thanks Jim for another reminder of the issue in yesterday’s blog post!), but I’m increasingly growing weary of complicated, anguished backstories in crime shows. I admit I haven’t been reading much in the way of mysteries lately, as I’ve been focusing on research for my latest WIP, but I often turn to TV crime shows (usually of the British variety) to relax. Lately, however, I’ve found my interest waning as the backstories in the latest crop of shows I’ve started (but not finished!) have become increasingly overwrought and intrusive.

I like to watch as characters take shape slowly over many episodes, evolving alongside their cases, rather than having a backstory thrust upon me right from the get go in a way that I find intrusive and (often times) underwhelming. The current show that’s got me peeved the Netflix original series Paranoid. In the first few episodes we get an intriguing murder but also (in my opinion) a rather heavy handed introduction to the backstory for each of the main protagonists – a panic attack ridden investigator, a know-it all junior officer with a lying alcoholic lying mother, and a female investigator who goes from cocky to crumbling wreck after her boyfriend dumps her (she wants children, she’s in her late 30s. etc. etc.). While I will probably persevere with the show, I feel like I’m already experiencing backstory fatigue and I’m only up to episode 3!

The best crime/mystery shows and novels allow the protagonist’s backstory to unfold and inform the story as well as intrigue the reader. I wonder, given the crowded marketplace, whether we’re currently experiencing a bit of ‘backstory overload’ as a means of trying to differentiate the show/story/characters. For me, however, this often feels like a character’s backstory is being foisted upon me right from the start in an effort to either impress or unnerve me (neither of which usually work!). In Broadchurch, I was willing to buy into the multitude of character ‘issues’ because their stories evolved alongside the case and thus felt organic. I’m not sure the same can be said for Paranoid (for me the jury is still out).

So how does this help inform the writing process when it comes to character development and backstory? For me, my current irritation has helped solidify the following advice…

  1. A character’s backstory needs to evolve rather than be rammed down a reader’s throat. That means no huge exposition dumps or digressions too early on and no ‘overloaded’ backstory for a character that feels imposed rather than organic.
  2. The ‘iceberg’ approach works best – let the reader know there is far more beneath the surface of the character than the tip that the reader sees initially. Let the water recede to reveal the extent and depth of the backstory as the plot/story unfolds.
  3. Make sure to consider the multifaceted nature of human beings. Sometimes genre characters can feel too ‘one note’ (the classic depressed, alcoholic loner as a detective for example) but sometimes they can also feel way too overwrought and unnatural…so make sure you feel like you’re creating a real person.
  4. Don’t try too hard to create the world’s most anguished or unusual detective. Again, this seems to be evident in TV shows more so than novels, but after a while, backstories can start to feel like gimmicks rather than genuine human foibles.

So what do you think about when creating your characters’ backstories? How do you approach backstory development? Which TV shows or novels do you think have explored backstory well, and which have given you (like me) a bit of ‘backstory fatigue’?

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