flimsy characterization

I found this deliriously titled how-to for writing supporting characters just as I’ve been struggling with creating my own. The point about “characters make plot” really hits home as I find I’ve been trying to force one to satisfy my vanity.

Because my protagonist and most of the other characters who Do Stuff(™) are men, I really want to write a female friendship in here to alleviate the sausagefest. My excuse is my other POV character, the control-freaky gentry lady, is stressed, overworked, and about to get a long-term guest she doesn’t like, so I’d like her to have a confidante in the house.

Turns out I’m jumping through narrative hoops trying to make this happen. I want the characters to be near equals, but there were genuinely no other women in the family, so I’m thinking, maybe a high-ranking servant like a housekeeper? And if I can make her a closet heretic of some sort (proto-Quaker? Cunning woman? [I’ve been reading too much Religion and the Decline of Magic]), she’d be an excuse to show off my mad research skills…

But despite multiple test drafts she doesn’t end up doing anything apart from react to the gentry lady. My efforts to give her depth are failing because while I can imagine what she is I’ve not been clever enough of a writer to make her do anything (housekeeping notwithstanding).

Unfortunately (?) my research reveals that most 16th century servants were men, and the real-life gentry lady’s brother is perfectly positioned to take the role of lead servant: he was caretaker of the house when she and her family left England so it’s not too much of a logical stretch to have him as the “steward” (many younger siblings acted as servants for their elders during this time). Also, as he becomes caretaker I already have a built-in finale for the 3 “beats” Wendig describes.

So, not a woman confidante but he’s certainly in her corner, and he does stuff (like flub the accounts so the gentry lady gets to show off her mad skills). Also easier to write, because I’m more familiar with the sibling dynamic than the mistress-servant relationship: I’ve tried both approaches and wound up with one colorless, stilted scene with the housekeeper but a delightful bickering 800 word ramble with the brother.

The real problem is that I’m letting my own obstinate desire to write someone I WISH were there instead of someone who will move the story forward.

There’s at least other woman in the story I can have her turn to, a former employer who’s unimpressed with her husband’s spirit conjuring, so there’s fodder there for complaint and conflict, but I’m not sure I can get her in there 3 times. Back to the drawing board…

getting at it

For obvious reasons historical fiction and research go hand in hand.  Libraries are my friends and I’ve spent many hours in online databases and dusty stacks pursuing all facets of sixteenth century life, from the religious and political climate to such everyday details like food, clothing, housing, and travel.

Book research is valuable and has helped me discover and clear up some major plot and setting questions but sometimes there really is nothing like the real thing.

Case in point: I’ve been struggling with Elizabethan interiors. No matter how many books I read or pictures I look at, my imagination still wants to put my characters in modern rooms with artificial light, controlled temperature, prefab uniformity, etc.  Given that the first two-thirds of the book takes place in a sixteenth century gentry home outside London it’s pretty crucial I get this basic setting right. Simply reading wasn’t enough for me to “get at it”.

The solution was obvious: visit an Elizabethan gentry home.

In the past I’ve done historical costume and swordplay for the same ease of mental access: why wonder how heavy all those layers of clothes are when I can just put them on? Why take descriptions of parries and footwork at face value when I can perform them myself? I always end up wanting to experience my passionate interests in a more immediate way and this time I have a real need.

I thought I’d have to wait until I could afford to travel to Europe, but fortunately for me I live relatively close to a transplanted Tudor house. I visited it with friends a few weekends back and it made all the difference in the world!

I’d looked at floor plans of a house wrapped around a central courtyard, but it didn’t prepare me for the simultaneous feeling of intimacy and sprawl: the house spreads further than I realized, but with all the windows my characters can see a great deal of household activity without leaving their private rooms. This layout solves some narrative problems and creates others.

Courtyard at Agecroft Hall
Courtyard at Agecroft Hall

All those windows also meant that the house was better lit than I’d envisioned. Even with lower ceilings and smaller rooms it didn’t feel as closed in as I’d expected. It turns out one character might be able to prowl through the library using only the light of a full moon as I’d planned, but I’ll have to remember that the dark was truly DARK without streetlights and lightbulbs.

A dozen little observations sunk in as the tour wound through the upper floors. The study was small and crowded with furniture, so I  can well imagine how stressful it was to work in such a tiny place. I knew servants often shared bedrooms with their masters, but the small size of the rooms and the need for drapes around the bedsteads highlighted the different concepts of privacy and how very difficult it would be to hide objects or keep secrets.

The “common areas” are also much different from what I’m used to due to the more formal manners of the time. The great hall was surprisingly public by modern standards, but only family and intimates made it to the rest of the house. My con man will have to use all his charms to get to the great parlor, and from there to becoming a guest/servant.

The least obvious but most important difference was the flooring: during my time period they were typically covered with rushes to soak up spills and dirt, so as the con man sneaks around he has to worry about rustling as well as creaking floorboards.

The exposure to the space, distance, and light really makes it easier to feel how my characters would navigate the house, how difficult it was to hide anything and how noisy and busy a private home could be. I hope to visit again in the spring to see the gardens, because the lady of the house often kept a herb garden (as my protagonist’s master did) both for cooking and home remedies.

internalization

I’m having a hell of a time thinking of myself as a writer.

I know, I know – if you write, however casually, you are a writer. I write a bit most days,  I conduct serious research in pursuit of my book, I take classes and critiques, I tell people I’m writing a book. But I still can’t square these with having never been published, and only recently considering that this hobby could be more.

This situation is not entirely unfamiliar.

Fencing is my other great hobby*. I practice 3 days a week, take lessons, compete nationally, and have a rating (kind of like a belt in other martial arts). I may never be an Olympian, but I am an athlete. I wasn’t always though – when I started out 12 years ago I was a relative couch potato, fencing once a week to stave off weight gain.

What made the difference?

Among other things, getting good instruction and setting aside time for practice (instead of straggling to club only when I had “free time”), but I don’t think I would have done either of those things if I hadn’t been both obsessed with improvement and believed that I could improve. Simply taking my efforts seriously inspired more disciplined habits that helped the fencing: adopting a healthier diet, cross-training to improve strength and endurance, and finding the elusive persistence to keep going even when it was difficult.

Even so, it took me 12 years to call myself “athlete” without laughing:

photo of my "Athlete" pass from the State Games

doG only knows what it will take for me to ever feel worthy of the label “writer”, but at least I’m going through the correct motions. I may never be a bestselling author, but I will be (am?) a writer.

Rick Castle in "Writer" bulletproof vest.
Credit: http://castle.wikia.com/wiki/WRITER_bullet_proof_vest

*I also sew/costume, but lately it’s taken a back seat to the writing. File under: not enough hours in the day.

switching gears

My writer’s group critiqued my work for the first time last night.

I spent most of last week preparing the short (~1000 word) chapter I was submitting for review: writing, editing, rewriting, running through Autocrit, and editing until it was as perfect as I could make it. This is pretty standard procedure for me (every post you see on this blog has gone through a dozen iterations, including this one).

I have always worked this way because most of my shared writing has been episodic role-playing and fan fiction: once a chapter is out in the world I can’t take it back or edit it, so I aim for a finished product every time.

By the submission deadline I still wasn’t pleased with what I had. I wasn’t getting across the mood and clarity I wanted and feared my chapter would be seen as lazy writing, or just plain crap.

It turned out that nobody expected a completed work. Everyone could tell it was a first draft and liked it very much for what it was, offering some excellent tips how to fix some of my clunkier phrasing and ideas for giving it the emotional punch it lacks (more show, less tell – but that’s another post).

They also advised me against “over-polishing” because it hinders progress on longer (novel-length) works. Plot developments in later chapters mean I might have to rewrite those “finished” pieces or simply cut them, translating to hours of work down the drain. Besides, sometimes it’s good to get the blueprint on the page and then let it sit for a fresh look later.

It’s going to take a hell of an effort for me to write something and leave it in draft form – it goes against all my prior work habits and grates on my misguided perfectionism besides! But in the name of efficiency I’ll write my next chapter give it a once over, and then…stop.

It’ll be easy to stop typing. Stopping my mental editor when I should be working on the next thing will be the real trick.

On the upside, they liked my ideas and general plot. It’s heartening to know that I’m not the only person in the world who thinks a mixture of espionage, magic, alchemy, and madness would be a good read!

fuel

Ack! I’ve not posted in over a month! I’ve not been idle though:

I’m still sticking to my habit of cranking out at least ~200 words a day. Even if it’s another version of a scene or nothing to do with the book I’ve kept this up (except during travel: writing on the go is the next thing to figure out).

Unfortunately I’ve come to a point that I’m rehashing the same material which is not only boring but isn’t moving the book forward.

I’m finding that once I’m in a rut it’s best to stop writing and start reading. Research is preferable but fiction is good too – really, anything that shakes up the brain pan.

The research is, as ever, essential because it provides not only more information but new ideas. For example, one name I pulled out of the source material and used as a placeholder for a minor character turns out to have been a spy with ruthless methods and uncertain motive. Using this discovery makes this character both more interesting and better rounded, which in turn makes his interactions with my protagonist both more layered and easier to write.

Fiction introduces rhythm of prose and familiar words used in new ways (I’ve always been a reader, but I’m finding that my work uses an embarrassingly small vocabulary). Descriptions are also helpful, because for all I can see scenes “in my head” they never turn out on the page the way I envision, so it’s good to see how others do it.

So, still always the student.

In the new year I’m going to have my first writing group critique, so I’m spending some time hammering that out into something I’m confident sharing. Keep you posted.

it’s too much

I’ve been having one of those weeks with the writing.

It’s been a struggle to cough up more than a couple hundred words a day, not because inspiration is lacking but because I can’t complete a thought without having to put in placeholders for something I haven’t researched yet:

…the large table in the center of the room. It groaned with food, [what kind? how much?]

or

He shifted to and fro in an attempt to keep his blood flowing. “Besides it’s cold as [16th c. equivalent of “a witch’s tit”]-“

or

Approaching the throne, Jane dropped a low curtsey [how does one correctly greet the Queen?]

And so forth. These pauses not only derail my thinking but illustrate the gaps in my knowledge that I need to place the story in a concrete-feeling time and place. This doesn’t include the list of general questions I need to answer before I know if some of my plot points are even possible.

Currently I have over 80 sources but it still doesn’t seem like enough; my fear of anachronism looms large but I don’t want to put off my narrative ideas until the research is complete (opinions on how much research to do pre-writing differ).

Even so, this often feels like too big of a project to face, as though there are too many details and dependencies to get my head around to do the story justice, and the temptation to just quit is great. But that’s not how books get written so I press on, trying to break it into manageable pieces and keeping my […] in to address in the next draft.

I’m also giving Scrivener a whirl to try to impose some order on this beast. Currently the book is in a series of Word files in a single folder on my desktop, none titled clearly enough to know their content or sequence. Hopefully this will also help with the dreaded outlining.

I don’t even know these people

Last week I gave another friend my “elevator pitch” about the novel and the historical characters on whom I’m basing my story. While most people express surprise at how strange and unlikely the reality was, she asked a question that I’d not heard before:

“Do you like any of your characters?”

It’s a good one, especially considering that part of what made me want to write this story is that none of the people involved seemed like they’d be overly pleasant to deal with, even before taking fictional liberties. As it stands now my protagonist is an unstable con man, the man he is conning is pious and obsessive, the pious man’s wife is an angry control freak, and the con-man’s wife is shaping up to be timid and naive.

As such, these people are lots of fun to write (because happy, stable characters are boring), but I can’t say I’d want to hang out with any of them!

Having said this, I have compassion for them as well: the con man gets in way over his head, the pious man’s needs drive him to compromise his principles, the control freak is lonely and frustrated, and the milquetoast may well be the sanest person in the room.

I suppose it’s good that I appreciate their strengths as well as their weaknesses. After all, if readers unconsciously emulate their favorite fictional characters, imagine what it’s like for those of us who write them.

My mixed emotions also come from the fact that all of the characters embody aspects of myself, and not always my best points. I suppose this is inevitable because the only head I’ve ever been in is my own. I’ve been obsessive, angry, questioning, and out of my depth; incredibly I’ve even been the sanest person in the room at times. While this may not make my characters pleasant, I hope it makes them relatable.

And they continue to take shape as I write them. Just this week I wrote one making a gaffe that embarrasses another and I’m still not sure how their different personalities are going to deal with the aftermath. I just keep referring back to my character profiles for cues and hope that something believable comes out in the narrative wash.

In short – do I like them? Sorta and not, but honestly I’m still getting to know them.

coming up to speed

On Thursday I went to my first local writer’s meet up.

This is different from my occasional Sunday writing get-togethers with friends, where the goal is simply to write. The  members of this group largely work alone but meet bi-monthly to critique each other’s work and do writing prompts.

It was interesting, but I felt inadequate to the task. I’ve got a bit of a learning curve if I want to offer decent beta reading, or learn from any criticism I receive:

1) I need to get familiar with the proper names for different parts of language. I know when something feels “off” to me in a reading: the pace is too fast, or it feels repetitive, but I don’t have the vocabulary to adequately explain what I mean. Until I understand these my critiques will be vague at best. Not sure where to learn this as I’m not even sure what to plug into Google: “parts of language” finds more about speech than writing. Work in progress.

2) I need to learn proofreader’s marks. Some of the members provide their reviews as marked-up printouts, and these aren’t useful to me if I don’t know what they mean.

3) Better reading aloud. I put as much expression as I could into the small bit I read but self-consciousness and unfamiliarity with the text gets in the way. I’m referring to Mary Robinette Kowal‘s tips for reading aloud videos (part 1, part 2) but I suspect mastering this will come down to practice. I may have to face my speaking in public phobia sooner rather than later (shudder).

4) Formatting. Evidently some publishers won’t even look at a manuscript that isn’t in the preferred justified alignment, .5″ paragraph indent format. I’m new enough to the writing party that I can’t judge anecdote from evidence, but reformatting is simple so I’m putting this in my “can’t hurt, might help” box.

The writing prompt was fun: start a story, after a set time pass your paper to the person on your right so they can continue. It’s like the RPGs I used to play in, where everyone had permission to write everyone else’s character and take them in places I couldn’t imagine.

I think I will be attending this meet up again as time permits, but only if I can be of some use to the other members.

 

short circuit

I am easily distracted. There, I said it.

This is a big problem when I’m trying to buckle down and produce prose because writing is such a motionless, solitary activity that almost anything becomes more appealing if the muse doesn’t strike instantly: getting a drink, tidying my workspace, surfing the internet…

Ah yes, the internet. It’s a fantastic research tool but also a diabolical time suck that people made of sterner stuff might be able to tune out, but given the opportunity I will click through useful information to trivial amusing junk Every. Damn. Time.

The solution is obviously to turn it off, and working away from my local wireless does help but I like the convenience of working from home. By sheer luck I was reading an interview with author Malinda Lo in which she revealed that she had the same problem and provided her solution for it.

Mac Freedom is a tidy little app that does only one thing: it cuts off internet access without having to cut the connection, in time intervals up to 8 hours. No web, and no email notifications either.

I’ve been using it all week and was finally able to get a difficult scene written because I turned off interference. This isn’t an ad – I’m just a satisfied customer.

What’s your worse writing distraction, and how do you handle it?

reticence

There are times when I find it uncomfortable to write.

I don’t mean physical discomfort or run-of-the-mill writer’s block, but a sort of anxious distress that has me doing everything from laundry to reloading Facebook to avoid having to face the work in progress.

What I always want (what I suspect all writers want) is that perfect state of flow where the words just pour out like water, the imagery and emotions so clear in my mind that I am merely describing the unfolding events and the character’s reactions to them.

For a long time I assumed “real” writers were in that state all the time; through discussion and experience I’m learning that this is definitely NOT the case and that part of learning to write is plowing through the times when you’re not “in the mood”.

I’m finding that the two main things that make me want to flee to the cuddly vapidity of YouTube cat videos are 1) I can’t get inside my character’s head, or 2) I feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Dealing with the first is easier – I created elaborate back stories and personality profiles of my main characters that I can refer to when I just can’t “go there”. It’s not the same but it does give me some direction when I’ve written them into a corner.

The other is harder because even though everyone says to “write what you know” it’s impossible to stick to my own narrow range of experiences and inevitably I wind up in uncharted territory.

This is especially true with historical fiction, and even though none of my potential readers have lived through the 16th century either I still cringe at the thought that someone who has done better research than I will read something I’ve written and realize I’m winging it.

This is my critiquing Kryptonite – I’m more self-conscious about someone catching me being clueless than I am about lousy grammar, poor plotting or anything else.

Of course I’m (over)doing the research to avoid that possibility, but I suspect the real lesson is how to get over my flailing and find a way into “the zone”. I know what to do once I’m there – it’s just the getting there I’m struggling with.