Writing Tip

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Digging up History

I have never been inspired to write historical fiction, primarily, I think,  because I am intimidated by the idea of trying to write about a time in which I never lived.  I worry about getting it wrong and not doing justice to the people who lived then.  But that doesn’t mean history doesn’t inspire my contemporary stories.

I like reading history because it gives me real world examples of how people act and I can use those actions to build characters and their motivations.

As I wrote in a previous post, I have read a lot about the Victorian and Edwardian periods in England.  The relationships within Queen Victoria’s family could inspire dozens of plots.  For example, Queen Victoria was crazy about her husband Prince Albert.  They were both crazy about the oldest of their nine children, Vicky.  They devoted a lot of time and energy to groom and educate her into being the ideal queen consort.  Their second child, a boy nicknamed Bertie, was not nearly as well trained, even though he was in line for his mother’s throne.  Victoria and Albert were very critical of Bertie.  Their third child, Alice, was probably the most original thinker in the family but was overshadowed by Vicky.  She and Bertie were close.

This family dynamic can easily translate into modern times.  Mom is a celebrity CEO of a successful family business.  Dad is her right-hand man.  First daughter, whose personality matches Mom’s, is groomed to take over the family business.  Son and second daughter feel left out and become each other’s best friend in the family.

My historical inspiration doesn’t have to trap me.  I can change it.  I can make second daughter deeply jealous of first daughter.  I can make son a rebel.  By the time I’m through, my story may look like nothing like the historical inspiration, but the history was need to get my imagination working.

If you are interested in reading about the Victorian and Edwardian periods, these books are ones I have read and enjoyed: Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney, Victoria’s Daughters by Jerrold M. Brown, and Queen Victoria’s Family: A Century of Photographs by Charlotte Zeepvat.

Writing Tip

Placeholder ImageOld Photos

I double-majored in history and English.  Some people thought that was an old combination, but I always explained it this way, “One is about real stories.  The other is about made-up ones.”  The disciplines seemed related to me.

I have never seriously considered writing historical fiction, but my friend Sandra Merville Hart does and she has an article on how to use old photos for research. Click here to see it.

I have been interested in the late Victorian/ Edwardian ages since I discovered Sherlock Holmes at seventeen.  One reason, as another writer pointed out, is because the Victorian age is as far back in history as you can go and still find every day life somewhat similar to our modern era.  I’m also interested in it because it was the last hurrah of a way of life that disappeared during World War I.  One of the best books I have read on this period was actually a photo album.  Queen Victoria’s Grandchildren by Lance Salway shows photos with short histories of all 40 of her grandchildren.  The book would be confusing without the photos because it covers so many people.  But the photos also let these people become real to me.  Seeing their faces helps me make a connection to them.  Which is one of the goals of historical fiction.

I won’t be posting again until after Thanksgiving.  I’ll talk more about how history has directly affected my writing.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Fake Fridays

U.S. Brings Charges Against Phone Scams

A few weeks ago, I read an article by Eric Tucker of The Associated Press.  It was about how the Justice Department announced charges on Oct.27 “against 61 defendants in the United States and abroad in connection with call-center operations based in India.”

The crime?  Callers pose as officials of the I.R.S. or the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, threatening victims with immediate arrests or deportation if they do not pay invented penalties.  “The government says it’s a scam that’s tricked at least 15,000 people into shelling out more than $300 million.”

I was nearly hooked by one of these calls over a year ago when someone called, saying he was from the Treasury Department.  Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell states, “U.S. government agencies do not call to  demand immediate payments to avoid deportation or to avoid arrest.”

I have also had threatening calls from people posing as I.R.S. officials.  I didn’t know about the U.S. Immigration scam.  That one seems particularly vicious because the criminals prey on people who are even less familiar with how our official agencies work and may be terrified of deportation.  I am really glad to hear of the actions take by the Justice Department.

Writing Tip

img_6440Studying Actors

Watching actors ply their craft is the best way to study body language without being nosy.  Of course, some actors are better at it than others.  And sometimes even an Oscar-winning performance may come across as unconvincing.  If you want to study an actor, pick one in a performance that really moved you.  Then watch the performance again to try and pick out what he or she did that so stirred your emotions.  Was it the reading of his lines?  Or was it how she managed her face and body to work with the lines?

Warning: sometimes, with an art, if you study it too much, it loses its magic.  If you dissect a performance that you love, you may find the next time you watch it that it doesn’t touch you as it once did because you know now how the actor pulled off the trick.  But with this is in mind, I think you will learn a lot if you take the risk to analyze a performance.

Here are some examples that have made an impression on me:

Years ago, I saw a program with Michael Caine where he was giving acting lessons to a group of young actors.  He told them that a way to convey strength was to look into the camera with a steady gaze and not blink.  He demonstrated this, and not only did it convey strength, it conveyed a big dose of creepiness too.  Then he started to blink and explained how that action made him appear weaker.

In my writing, I can use words like “steady”, “fixed”, or “locked” to describe someone’s gaze as strong or intimidating.  To describe weakness or nervousness or timidity, I write that someone blinks or does not look other people in the eyes or has a gaze that wanders or darts around.

On the newest version of the TV show “Nikita”, the character Amanda was a great villain.  I didn’t see the show much, but I picked up quickly that this was a villain you could really boo for.  I began to wonder why and paid more attention to the performance of the actress Melinda Clarke.  As Amanda, she was very, very still and usually had a blank face.  When Amanda move, it was in precise, robot-like movements.  If her face changed expression, you immediately noticed because it usually didn’t.  The stillness and blank face signaled strength, but also strangeness and evil, someone so unemotional that you did not want to be around her.

I can use words like “still”, “unmoving”, and “stiff” to describe someone strong and evil.  But if I want my character to be strong and good, I can use words like “calm”, “tranquil,” or “quiet”.  Same body language, but different words clue in the reader about how to imagine it.

I didn’t know the actress’s name, so I went to the IMDB – International Movie DataBase.  The biggest photo of Melinda Clarke shows her with a wide smile.  She looked so unlike her character on “Nikita” that I had to check her credits to make sure I had the right person.  Now that’s the way to act with body language.

Writing Tip

Placeholder ImageBody Language

I am writing about using body language and facial expressions to help tell a story because it ties in with why I observe animals.  I often describe characters in comparison to animals.

Body language plays a central role in my book.  My main character comes from a family who has a gift for reading body language and facial expressions.  His relatives use it to con people.  My main characters uses it to protect his family.

In real life, con artists read body language to pick out marks. Since not all cons work on all people, it is essential for a con artist to judge if his lies are working.  Body language and facial expressions of the mark  clue in the con artist on how he is doing.   In The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova, the author cites many studies about how we reveal our thoughts and moods through body language.

I have read books on body language to help me describe familiar emotions in new ways.  The book may say that most people register surprise by lifting their eyebrows, widening their eyes, and opening their mouths slightly.  When I write about a character being surprised, I don’t have to put down all three of those facial actions.  I can select one, such as lifting the eyebrows, and try to describe it in a unique way.  The reader will understand the emotion with one example of how the character looks.  When another character registers surprise, I can describe a different facial action, like the open mouth.  The reader will still understand that the character is surprised, but it will be a new description of the same feeling so the reader doesn’t get bored.

I also learned from my reading that when I like or am comfortable with a person I am talking to, I will automatically mimic his or her body language or facial expressions.  Just think how awkward it is to smile at someone and that person doesn’t smile back.  Mimicking others’ facial expression and body language is second nature to humans  So when it doesn’t happen, it sends a clear signal.  In writing a scene with a group of people, having one character standing out from the others because her body language doesn’t match theirs is a great way to highlight a feature of that character.

If you are interested for my ideas on how use body language in your writing, click here for a great article about it.

Writing Tip

Placeholder ImageChoose the Write Words

My friend Sandra Merville Hart writes historical fiction and wrote piece on researching words that are appropriate for her characters to say in the time period she is writing about.  She describes how modern words and phrases in the mouths of characters living hundreds of years ago will ruin the effect the author wants to create.

She lists two sites that help authors research words and phrases.  For example, it is “okay” for Civil War characters to say something is “okay”.  But those characters can’t “okay” something because using “okay” as a verb wasn’t done until 1888.

Click here for Sandra’s article And click here to visit her website.

Writing Tip

img_5390img_6428More About Animals

If I really want to use animals as an inspiration for my writing, nothing beats observing them in their natural habitats.  I have tracked turkeys between corn fields and taken pictures of them taking off.  One spring, I watched a fox family grow up.  The books say that red foxes are active at dawn and dusk, but apparently the foxes hadn’t read the books because I watched baby foxes play in our orchard at almost noon one day.  Observing animals in their natural homes gives me insights that books or documentaries about them can’t provide.

With exotic animals, zoos are as close as we can get.  I like visiting zoo, especially on days when there aren’t many visitors.  Then I can linger at exhibits and not feel like I have to let someone else have a turn.  I pick up a lot more details about animal behavior when I take the time to sit and watch.  Watching a snake slither up the glass front of it enclosure allows me to see how the light plays on its scales, how its muscles work, and what a snake’s eyes really look like.  They might not do anything remarkable for ten, fifteen, thirty minutes, and then the animals will something so unexpected, or beautiful, or amazing that I forget how long I have been waiting.

A lion’s roar sounds feeble on TV.  Hearing it at the zoo is an unforgettable experience.  I got a hint of the  power of the animal.  I also got a sense of an animal’s power at a gorilla enclosure once.  A silverback ran up to the floor-to-ceiling window and slammed both his massive arms against it, sending thirty junior high kids running and me almost out of my shoes.  If I had seen a gorilla charge on TV, it would have been interesting.  Seeing it in real life was terrifying.  And I was safely standing on the other side of the window.

But I can also get inspiration from pets, even though millions of words have been written about them.  Each writer who takes the time to get to know a particular pet can get some new insight into its behavior.  We have a hamster.  I have read a lot about hamster behavior.  But when our hamster began blocking his only tube to his water and food with bedding, I didn’t know what it meant.  He did it for a few months in the spring, after we had had him for three months.  He packed the bedding so tightly that I would remove the tube to clear it because I wasn’t sure he could push it out of his way.  We had to have a neighbor stop by every day while we took a short vacation to make sure he could get to his food and water. I can’t find a definitive answer for why he behaved like this and then stopped.  But if I was writing a story about hamsters, the incident would give me a real world example I could invent a reason for.  Maybe our hamster was protecting himself from an alien invasion.  Maybe he smelled something new and was afraid.  All sorts of possibilities come to mind, and I think what makes the inspirations so interesting is that they are based on fact.

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