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Settings & More

ballroomtuilarisIt’s always tough to figure out where to start a story–and I find a lot of this applies to the setting for the story. Some settings automatically suggest themselves. The opening of Lady Scandal seemed automatic–if an English lady is fleeing from Paris when the peace of 1803 breaks down, the story is going to open in Paris. For the follow up book, Lady Chance, the setting wasn’t so obvious.

Lady Chance takes up Diana’s story–she was a secondary character in Lady Scandal, and she met a French captain and they sparked. But in taking up Diana’s story, the question was when would she have a chance to meet up and have a happy ending with her captain?

With England and France at war from 1803 to 1814, that’s a long time. Would Diana meet her captain when he was a prisoner of war in England? Or what about meeting during the Peninsular war in Spain? Could there be any good outcome in either of those situations, and did I want to get into Spain and the problems there–particularly with things going badly for the French army.

I did have some scenes I wrote, with the idea of Diana and her captain meeting up after the battle of Vitoria–there was a thought of having some fun chasing after the Spanish treasure that went missing. However, those scene stalled out early on. The setting was fun…but it wasn’t really working. Which led me back to Paris.

paris_russiansParis in 1814 was a lot of excitement–and fun. It was a city overrun by armies, and by the English arriving, and the possibilities seemed vast for any story. There was also the glitter factor–let’s face it, slogging around the muddy Spanish countryside or being able to use the settings of Paris left me wanting to write about Paris.

Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of Paris, but then I visited–I won a trip there, which is another story–and fell in love. Paris isn’t just a city of light, it’s a city dense in history–it escaped the destruction of many wars, and you can turn a corner and see how a street looked exactly in 1814. Paris loves its museums–and the art, oh, the art! And since Paris only made a brief appearance in Lady Scandal, with Lady Chance I’d have time to dive into more of the city–the old gates, the houses, the cafes, the gaming salons and the shops. The setting proved to be as much fun as the story.

I’m thinking ahead to the next book in the series–Lady Lost–and I think Paris will again be part of the story. There’s even more to dive into with that setting. But we’ll see if we take up with Napoleon’s hundred days, or just after Waterloo, for both times are again rife with plots and schemes, and plenty of great dramatic material.

Lady Chance 01_smREAD AN EXCERPT FROM LADY CHANCE

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“That is a deathtrap! An explosion waiting to go off!” Diana put her hands on her hips.

Taliaris turned with a startled glance. “What? Where is the girl who once traveled with Gypsies? Who rode a donkey cart? Who did not seem to mind anything that was a new experience?”

“She, thankfully, had her adventures and learned to set idiotic notions aside.” She let her hands fall. With a shiver, she pulled her cloak tighter. “I did not think you knew about the cart.”

“Oh, we followed you and your aunt most diligently—from Paris to the coast. A pretty girl is always remembered.”

Diana gave a huff. “Flattery will not get me into that.” She gestured to the boat moored at the riverside quay. It was not a large ship, perhaps thirty feet from bow to stern, but steam puffed from the back where a boxed engine of some sort squatted. Metal gleamed in the moonlight, and a soft, chugging sound came from the boat . She gave a sniff and asked, “Why can you not have stout watermen to row us?”

Taliaris stepped from the quay and into the steam ship. It swayed but did not sink—not a point it its favor, Diana decided. He held out a hand for her. “I have already paid for our tour. And the Seine is the best way to see Paris. Besides, we are not stepping into an untested invention. In France, we have had steam in use for years. You English will soon be wanting nothing but its more reliable power.”

She grimaced. “Rely upon it to explode, you mean. I read about just such a contraption tried upon rails in London years ago which ended in disaster due to too much power trapped in too small a space.” She tried to stand her ground, but since he kept his hand out, his eyebrows arched and his expression expectant, Diana could see no options. Oh, she could abandon the evening with him, but that was not a choice. Jules wanted her close to Taliaris. She gave another sniff and she put her hand in his.

He didn’t wait for more. Putting his arm around her, he swept her into the steam ship. She gave a squeak and closed her eyes tight, clutching at him, her heart beating quick and expecting… Well, she had not expected him to be so strong. Taliaris set her down, but she was reluctant to let go. She like his scent, how it clung to her. She liked how she felt in his arms—sheltered, an unusual sensation for her. The boat rocked under her feet, and water lapped gently against the stone quay. The scent of water—and burning coal—gave a tart tang to the air, mixing with the spice from Taliaris. She opened her eyes and peered around Taliaris’ broad form to where the steam engine puffed and hissed.

“The devil’s own noise. How can this be the best of anything?” Still gripping his arm, she glanced up at him and asked with a small amount of hopeful pleading, “Are you quite certain you do not have watermen?”

A smile twisted up Taliaris’ mouth. He pulled away from her hands and left her. “Abandoned already,” she muttered, shivering a little under her cloak. She swayed again as the boat bobbed. Sitting down before she fell down seemed a wise idea, so she did. The wooden bench was only a little damp, and she had her cloak and gloves to save her gown from ruin and her skin from the worst of it. She turned to look back at the stern.

Taliaris stood talking to the three sailors who obviously managed the boat—rough fellows all of them, with dark hair and eager eyes once Taliaris produced a coin purse and coins coming out of it. One sailor scrambled to cast off the moorings, another headed to the belching engine, and the ship turned its bow into the river. Diana gripped the edge of the bench and bit down on another panicked squeak. She began to honestly think this was a devilish invention, and Taliaris a beast for bringing her onto it. Was he testing her? Trying to terrify her? Or simply inured to danger from too many years of battles?

Easily making his way to her, Taliaris took her hand and pulled her to her feet. A brazen thing to do, she thought. He ought to wait for her to offer her hand, but then she had already quite made up her mind he was utterly and refreshingly lacking in the qualities of a gentleman. He guided her to the bow and settled her on seats with cushions. That was an improvement. The boat chugged along with a not unpleasant, rhythmic sound. She lifted her face into the breeze. Spray from the water touched her cheeks, but she preferred that to the faint, oily smell that came off the engine.

Stretching out on the seat next to her, Taliaris began to talk about the steam power that was become so popular. “Andre Dufour—a man I know—it is his cousin who owns the Mirabelle. He built her two years ago and she has had no accidents.”

“Yet, you mean.” She threw out the words with a challenge and glanced over her shoulder to the white steam, winding its way up from a funnel. “At least it also provides warmth—a pleasant thing on a night, but what of a hot summer day?”

“You are determined to see nothing but bad in this.”

“And you are an optimist when it comes to new contraptions. I did not expect that of you.”

“You think a man who fights knows only how to fight? That was not the example set by the Emperor. Innovation. That is the key to win battles in these years. To build nations. The Emperor sought to make Paris—to make France—first among all.”

Diana locked her hands around one knee and leaned against the back of the bench. She tipped her head to the side. Might as well dig a little to see if she could pull out information that Jules would find useful. “You still admire Bonaparte even though he is now banished to a small island?” she asked.

“Politicians gave him up. He would have fought for France still, would have defended Paris. I know he wrote to the Convention to tell them so. I had friends on his staff, but the cowards in Paris…” Shaking his head, he let the words trail off. His mouth had pulled down, and she could sense the impatience flowing off him. He obviously did not care much for politicians.

“But what?” she prompted.

He glanced at her, his eyes dark and unreadable in this dim light. Shadows danced over his face, easing the lines the years had put on him, but showing the hard edges he had acquired. “This is not a night to speak of sad things. You wished to see Paris, did you not? Let us see what is good and right before us.” He swept out a hand, and Diana turned to stare at the city. Perhaps that was better—safer. For that old tug of attraction to him still pulled on her. She drew in a sharp breath and stared at Paris.

Music floated to the river from nearby great houses, and illuminations for the new king still flickered on some of the buildings. Taliaris gestured to the lights. “Candles or carbonic gas is lit within transparencies affixed to the windows. Would you call that a danger, too? Another unsafe invention?”

Diana slipped a sideways glance at Taliaris. She found him watching her, his arm slung across the back of the bench behind her. If she shifted an inch, his fingers would touch her shoulders. She stayed still. She was not quite certain she wanted to forget anything between them—not the bad, or the good. “Tell me more of what innovations you would have. Would you back them with your own investment?” And do you need funds from others for that—would that tempt you onto the wrong path?

He gave a snort that might have been a laugh. “My family will be lucky enough to keep our lands, I think. But others will come out of these times with titles to their names and money in their pockets.” She could not see his face, but he sounded tired and a little frustrated.

“Oh, do not be so surly.” She waved a gloved hand at him, brushing off his tone and his words. “Bonaparte restored titles and lands to those he favored and those who kept him in power. Do not chide your new king for planning to do the same.”

“Spoken like a true daughter of a monarchy.”

She stiffened. His words held a harsh bite, and she found she resented them being thrown at her—by him of all people, a…a mere soldier. “Your last king would have done better if he had acted with far harsher measures when his troubles first began. He might have kept his head, or at the very least saved his wife and son and prevented his daughter’s suffering!” She bit off the rest of it. She was saying more than she should—and she was here to pull words from him. Instead, she was flinging opinions at him. That would get her nowhere.

But it seemed it had.

Taliaris’ mouth curved in an inviting and warm smile—he looked honestly amused and some of the tension in him seemed to ease.

Overhead, stars glittered bright, splashed across the sky in lush abandon. The moon glimmered pale on the eastern horizon like a fat bowl tonight. It seemed a night for the romantic—for forgetting the past perhaps.

Taliaris’ voice dropped to a low murmur near her ear and his breath brushed her skin. “Meaning he should have sent those who talked revolution to prison, as does your king and your princely regent? I have heard you like to tout how free you are, you English. But I also read of how you treat those who print complaints—anyone who speaks or writes that kings are a thing of the past is soon locked away. Your England fears any real freedom.”

“And it worked so well to have a Committee for Public Safety instead—to behead anyone who dared speak against your glorious Revolution, to call everyone citizen even when more than a few were using that as an excuse to gain enormous power. When you killed your king and queen you invited a war upon France and paved the way for a dictator. What sort of freedom is that?” Skin hot and pulse quickening, Diana threw her hands wide. Taliaris gave a short laugh, and she glared at him. “You think it amusing for a woman to express her views? Of all the patronizing and—”

“Hush.” He put a finger to her lips. “I think you sound a woman who bottles what she thinks up far too much, so it comes all out in a burst. Tell me, do your Englishmen not want to listen to you speak of politics?”

Diana pressed her lips tight—they tingled slightly from his touch. Taliaris did not wear gloves and his skin had been warm, his finger slightly calloused. She sank back upon the bench. Just who was pulling words out of whom this evening? Her shoulders brushed against Taliaris’ hand, but she had her cloak between her skin and his touch. She did not move away. It was too chilly an evening, she told herself, and then danced away from that lie.

Settling back into a flippant tone, she told him, “First off, they are not all my Englishmen—well, one was, and yes, he did listen, but I do not think he particularly cared. Chauncey was not the least political.”

“And second?”

She gave a wave of her hand. Let us get back to trying to know what you think and plot—or if you plot anything, she told herself. “There is no second. Do Frenchwomen not speak their minds? I had heard your emperor did not much care for intellectual women, or so Madam de Stale has told the world.”

“I speak of the women of the Revolution. They fought for freedom. Or they tried. My mother was one of those who embraced the principals—liberty, equality, fraternity. She held those to be everyone’s rights, rich or poor, titled or not.”

Ah, now we get to someplace interesting. She tipped her head to the side. It seemed that he came from a family of revolutionaries. Her parents would have been horrified if she had ever brought him home—her father had been a staunch Tory from a family of even stauncher Tories. She only said, “I cannot think that gained her much. It is far easier to join one group by hating another.”

“That sounds as if you have experience of such a thing.”

She lifted one shoulder in a small shrug. Why not trade him something of her past in the hopes he would say more—so far he’d been maddeningly vague, meaning either he was very good at keeping his secrets or he had none to share. She glanced at him and said, her voice light with scorn, “Politics are everything when it comes to angling for a marriage during the London season. One learns the art of compromise, the ability to negotiate under pressure, and the value of hiding one’s true desires in order to advance one’s long-term goals. And, of course, family must be put first.”

“So the individual is sacrificed? What you want does not matter? And there is no such thing as equality.”

She gave a laugh at such an idea—equality within the London marriage mart, where wealth and beauty mattered most? Absurd! “Not much fraternity, either, not amongst too many ladies with too few eligible gentlemen. I hold France to blame for that.” She drew off one glove and tapped a finger on his arm where the gold braid and buttons of his uniform glinted in the light from the illuminations on the river’s shores. “How can any young man resist the lure of a dashing uniform? You should know about that. It left London’s ballrooms—and most of the bedrooms—frightfully empty.”

“Yours was not.” He threw out the words in a flat tone, and she could not tell if he was mocking her or not.

She turned away and folded her hands in her lap. This was not a direction she wanted to take in any conversation. “That is an assumption.”

His voice dropped so low that she barely heard it over the thump of the steam engine. “Do you say your husband did not love you? He did not want you?”

Lips pressed tight, she glanced back at the engine and the shallow wake arrowing out behind the ship. Traces left behind them—that all they had now, an imprint from the past that faded almost as soon as it had been made. She was done with this line of questing—Jules would have to wait to find out if Taliaris wanted his emperor back or not. Although she was starting to think he was as little a political animal as she.

“Do we turn around now?” she asked and forced a bright tone into her voice. “I think I have seen enough of Paris by night. I think it must be prettier during the day. At least now that spring is come perhaps some flowers may bloom. But it has grown chilly.”

“No.” He took her chin in his hand, his fingers gentle, but his touch still forced her to face him. “You do not get to evade my questions.”

It’s the Characters!

tablettypeI’m just heading home from the California Dreamin’ Writers Conference, and as usual there was talk of craft and marketing, and much other stuff. Sylvia Day, of course, talked about writing the book you really, really have to write–the book you want to write. I find that best-selling writers often do that–they may be marketing smart, but they also don’t follow the market. They make it. They also write great characters, which I think is the real secret.

So how do you get great characters on the page. First, you need talent. But a few other things can help, and I’m going to cover this in detail in my Plotting from Character online workshop starting on April 1:

Twelve steps to create the story from the inside out.

  1. Start at the deepest point: for every character, find that person’s core internal need.
  2. When looking for motivations (the why) for a character’s core need, discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés). Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
  3. Create one main external goal for the main character—needs to be tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal—failure should be personally costly to the main character.)
  4. Look for the motivation for why the character needs this goal—this is strongest if it’s a specific event in the character’s formative years. (Theme will come from the main character’s needs and goals—that will be the heart of the story.) The WHY for the external goal should be WHY this person must do this and WHY now–as in most folks don’t suddenly decide to go out and catch a murderer without a strong reason WHY that person must do that and WHY they most do this NOW.
  5. Decide if your character recognizes his or her needs and motivations.
  6. Focus the story on one character’s specific growth. That is at the heart of the book and will relate to your theme.
  7. For a romance, set up a potential mate who can’t provide the main character’s need—and who has goals that are in conflict. (But make sure this person is fully developed.)
  8. Know each of your character’s sexual history.
  9. Layer strengths and weaknesses into each character–compliment and contrast.
  10. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character. (These can be opposing goals for what the main character wants or needs–or the same, with approaches adding conflict, or conflict from only being able to reach the goal).
  11. Give every character a secret–maybe even one that stays hidden during this story.
  12. Leave room for characters to surprise you. And remember, even bad guys need love.

With all the above, play the “what if” game – what if this happens to this person? What would he or she do? Create many “what ifs” and use the “what ifs” that resonate most with you and that make life worse for the main character—test your characters.

Remember:  Character is revealed through obstacles and the character’s reaction to those obstacles as he or she tries to achieve his or her goal. That is story. Plot is the construction of the obstacles in any character’s path.

 

 

Dialogue and Subtext

lietomeI loved the show Lie to Me for its use of micro expressions–small facial ‘give aways’ that revealed the truth no matter how someone tried to stop it.  But what do these facial tics and bits of body language have to do with dialogue? Isn’t dialogue about putting down what someone is saying in your story?  Well yes–and no.

I’m doing a workshop on Dialogue for Outreach International Romance Writers starting this next Monday and I chose the title to be “Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean.” The title applies to a common mistake that many beginning writers make–the dialogue is too “on the nose.” That phrase is used to describe dialogue that is clumsy–it’s too specific and not the way anyone really talks.

This kind of dialogue crops up when a writer has a character explain his or her actions, give too much information about his or her past (with no motivation for providing all those details), or explain the plot to another character so the reader will catch up. Now, all of this can be done in character and brilliantly–but for most of us, the goal is to weave subtext and have characters not really say what they mean.

You want your characters to lie–and tell white lies. You want them to exaggerate. You want them to duck questions and change topics. Above all, you want emotion to drive most of what a character says. And this brings us back to those micro expressions and bits of body language–because what a character does while he or she is talking is a tip to the reader that something more is going on.

Do you really believe the story the wife is telling while she also fidgets with her wine glass and licks her lips and keeps looking away? Do you really think the guy likes his brother’s pal–even if the guy says he does–if the guy’s smile looks more like a grimace and he’s giving narrowed-eyed stares at the brother’s pal? Do you really think the little boy did not take the candy when he swears he didn’t if he hides chocolate-stained hands behind his back? Yes, those are all lies, but they’re also giving sub-text–more is going on underneath the dialogue than just the words that are spoken.

Now sometimes you do want your characters to be blunt–and honest. But even then, a character needs good reasons to be that blunt. Maybe it’s a habit. Maybe they’re fed up with the other person and want to drive them away. Those motivations have to be made clear to the reader.

Above all, a story must interest and keep a reader’s attention–and to do that you need dialogue that sparks with tension and conflict. It doesn’t have to be world-shattering conflict, but you want more going on underneath your words as characters work to get what they want in each scene. You want characters who don’t say what they mean, who go the long way around to get to a point, who offer indirect statements, and who sometimes never answer any questions. Always look for better ways to get more of your characters’ emotions on the page and less of their explanations.

And for more dialogue tips you’ll just have to take the workshop.

Are you a writer or a storyteller?

When I first started out with the idea of writing for money I though I wanted to be a great writer. I soon realized I was wrong about that. Great writing is lovely–I get sucked into it all the time. I can get drunk on words. Great writing usually is found in great literature, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I also quickly realized that great writers aren’t always the one making the money.

erbTake Edgar Rice Burroughs–not the world’s best writer. Or Dan Brown, who gets slammed for his writing all the time in various circles. Or even Twilight author Stephanie Meyer–she is not someone who usually gets “great” and “writer” in the same description, unless the word “not” is added. However, these folks all know how to tell a story. They’re more than good at that–and that’s what we all want. A great story.

With a great story a reader will often overlook a lot of things. Frankly, I’ll skip past typos, weak sentences, poor description, and even clunky dialogue if the story is pulling me along. I cannot read any book by Burroughs without thinking, “What happens next?” The characters can be cliche, the plot can have holes, but if the story sweeps me up I don’t think about those things until later–that’s when my brain engages and I think, “Wait a minute.”

So what is it about story that can be so utterly compelling? It’s not just the characters–although as Robert McKee says, “Story is character and character is story.” It’s also about pacing and action. It’s about the whole idea of spinning a good yarn. I’m doing my storytelling workshop this September for Outreach International Romance Writers. It’s a workshop I started doing when I realized other writers were getting sucked into the “good writing” vs. “great storytelling” trap. I kept reading a lot of really beautifully written contest entries that just didn’t keep me wanting to turn the page–a huge problem for any writer of fiction. So I figured let’s figure out what you need to be a good storyteller–what are the elements of that craft.

A good storyteller juggles:

Characters And Hooks: Act 1

•   Stage Presence — you have to have characters that the reader wants to spend time with

•   Letting The Reader Play Too: Non-Verbal Communication (what’s otherwise known as showing more)

Basic Structure: Act 2

•   Pulling the reader in: clear and engaging openings — hooks!

•   Pacing — sequence of events

•   Ending — a sense of closure to give the reader that happy glow from any good story

Craft And Voice: Act 3

•   Clarity, Clarity, Clarity (as in don’t lose your audience)

•   Story presentation — Keeping Listeners’ Interest

•   Voice: Choice Of Language — which is what makes your stories stand out from others

Emotion and Innovation: Endings

•   Unique or Creative Use Of language

•   Presenting The Sequence Of Events

•   The Meaning Of The Story Artfully Expressed Or Suggested (what’s otherwise known as theme)

All of these elements add up to a good story. And the art is putting them together in a way that doesn’t come across as being too cookie-cutter or too out-there, but somewhere in the happy middle ground.

Story Telling — or Just Telling

What do all these opening lines have in common?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

They’re all telling more than showing the reader anything. They also happen to intrigue the reader, show off the author’s voice, and be really compelling openings to strong books. So why does telling–the narrative voice–have such a bad rap?

Show and TellI think because it’s usually badly done.

These telling lines I’ve listed are all strong writing. The prose is clean. The authors clearly have something to say. I think a big reason why more writers are not told to “tell, don’t show” is because this would be viewed by many as an excuse for bad writing.

Strong narrative takes a lot of work. It takes revisions and edits and also it takes a strong voice–if you don’t have anything to say then telling can quickly become the written blah, blah, blah.

The second reason why I think the advice is usually “show, don’t tell” is that a lot of writers apply too much telling to emotional scenes. This is where the reader generally wants the writer to get out of the way–the reader wants to be with the characters. So in strong scenes, too much telling is like standing in front of the TV screen when the big love scene or action scene is taking place–you’re getting in the way.

I keep telling folks the advice should be “show more in your scenes and tell better in set ups and transitions” but that’s pretty wordy. But the world would have a lot more good books if folks listened to that advice.

NOTE: Show and Tell my book on stronger showing and better telling is available on Amazon.com.

 

Regency Triva

mealI’m going to be teaching a workshop in June on Regency Food and Seasons because when you write historical romances you tend to end up knowing a lot of odd things. And I love this kind of trivia.

For example, sugar used to come in cones–you’d scrape off what you needed. And recipes usually did not have measures–a goodly handful is often give as amount to use.

Or did you know tea used to be locked up in lovely tea boxes for the tea leaves were far too valuable to leave lying about.Enameled tea box

Or that in the early 1800’s Nicholas Appert won 12,000 francs when he invented a method to preserve food in glass–Napoleon had wanted this for as a means to better preserve food for the French Army. However, this method was not widely used, and canning would not come about until well after the Regency.

Food preservation, however, is ancient, with the more common techniques being salting and smoking, or the use of vinegar to pickle food.

It amazes me, too, how modern folks often don’t think about an era when food was not always available. I garden so I’m always looking forward to my seasonal produce–but what you can grow in England during its seasons is a different world from California or New Mexico where I now live.

Food tastes, too, are quite different.

Captain Gronow remarked on how London Inns always served “‘the eternal joints, or beef-steaks, the boiled fowl with oyster sauce, and an apple tart.'” Hmmm…maybe that’s not too different from modern London pub grub. The English at one point used to eat a lot of lamb (and mutton), too.

For Leg of Mutton, Mrs. Rundell’s recommendation is, “If roasted, serve with onion or currant-jelly sauce; if boiled, with caper-sauce and vegetables.” Personally, I would swap in lamb for the mutton and opt for roasting it. My grandmother who came from Yorkshire insisted on boiling all meat, and nearly made vegetarians out of all of her sons.

hannahGBut I also love digging out bits and pieces such as a “recipt against the plague” given by Hanna Glasse in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy. She also offers not one, but two certain cures for the “bite of a mad dog, one of which is both given to the “man or beast” bitten as well as recommending to be bound into the wound. Makes you wonder how big of a problem were mad dogs? Perhaps a large one given that there were no rabies shots.

Back in the 1800’s the day had a different pace to it–lunch was not a common meal, and you have servants for almost all classes except the poor. This makes for a lot of advice coming out in the mid 1800’s for how to deal with servants–one of those lovely problems we all wish we had. Oh, to have to supervise the house maid and oversee the cook instead of having to do for oneself.

All of this makes for a lovely bit of trivia to share.

 

 

The Art of Narrative

showandtellI’m about to do my Show & Tell Workshop online for OCC this May, and I always put in a pitch not just to show more, but to tell better.

Narrative seems to have gone out of fashion. It doesn’t seem to be taught, and no one seems to really get what it is. So let’s make it easy.

Merriam-Webster gives us the root for narrative/narrating as the “Latin narratus, past participle of narrare, from Latin gnarus knowing; akin to Latin gnoscere, noscere to know.”

This means it’s basically the author telling the reader the information the author knows, which the reader also needs to know. And now you ask, what does the reader need to know, and when does the reader need it, and how much does the reader need. This is where narrative becomes an art.

Look at this passage from Delta of Venus by Anais Nin:

They fell on this, the three bodies in accord, moving against each other to feel breast against breast and belly against belly. They ceased to be three bodies. They became all mouths and fingers and tongues and senses. Their mouths sought another mouth, a nipple, a clitoris. They lay entangled, moving very slowly. They kissed until the kissing became a torture and the body grew restless. Their hands always found yielding flesh, an opening. The fur they lay on gave off an animal odor, which mingled with the odors of sex…

That’s beautiful, evocative writing–and it’s all narrative telling. But it works!

Or from the Dubliners by James Joyce:

Then late one night as he was undressing for bed she had tapped at his door, timidly. She wanted to relight her candle at his for hers had been blown out by gust. It was her bath night. She wore a loose open combing-jacket of printed flannel. Her white instep shone in the opening of her furry slippers and the blood glowed warmly behind her perfumed skin. From her hands and wrists too as she lit and steadied her candle a faint perfume arose.

Now, I’m not saying you have to strive for great art–although that’s not a bad goal. But narrative can be some of the most beautiful writing you’ll ever do. The trick here is when do you use narrative, and do you make it wonderful? Or do you slap down descriptions to hurry forward in the story, terrified that your pace is flagging?

I read too many manuscripts these days from young writers (and I mean by writing age, not their real age) which seem rushed. They  hurry into scenes without setting up the world and the time and the true pace of the story.

Showing can be a great too–but so can  narrative. Don’t neglect this invaluable tool! And to learn more about how to do this, check out the workshop. We’ll be doing a lot of hands-on work.