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Regency England Winter Fare

In this modern era, we’re accustomed to a huge variety of foods year ’round—we have freezers for storage, air shipment to move food from one hemisphere to the other in any season so the usual fruits and the expected veg are always in stock, and we always have canned good. This was not the case in the Regency-era England.

While there was some cold storage in ice houses, and meat could be hung to be aged, the art of food storage was time consuming. It required skill, space, and money enough or land enough to purchase or grow the food. The most common means to store food were the age-old ways to pickle, salt, or dry. Canning food wouldn’t really take off until the mid 1800s—and would start off being an ordeal to get any sealed-with-lead can open. This meant the seasons mattered when it came to food.

For meats, besides beef and mutton which the English always seemed to have, there might be what was called “house-lamb” or lambs born late in the season and kept inside. Pork was a staple for many, as pigs were low cost to raise. Wild boar could also be had in the country-side. Venison might be served, if you had the land to hunt, and it was no longer held that all the deer belonged to the king. Goose was cooked for more than just the Christmas meal, and there would be turkey, pigeons, chicken, snipes, pheasant, duck, guinea-fowl, woodcock, larks, guinea-foul, and grouse to eat. Dotterals, or a type of plover, could be eaten (also came to mean an old fool), and widgeon, a fresh-water duck, another word with a double-meaning, coming to mean someone feather-brained.

Rabbit came into season in January, and in February there might be duckling, and chicken is noted as by Mrs Rundell in her book Domesty Cookery as “are to be bought in London , most, if not all, the year, but are very dear.”

domesticcookery

The months ending in “R” held that these were the months for shellfish, and cold months meant seafood would be kept cold as it was transported, so long as the roads weren’t blocked by snow or mud. Cod, turbot, soul, sturgeon, gurnets, dories, and eels joined the list of fish in season in December. Gudgeon might mean a person easily fooled, but it was a small whitefish often used for bait, and was eaten.

Lobster came into season in January, as did crayfish, flounder, plaice, perch,smelts, whiting, prawns, and crab. Oysters were very popular with the English, with oyster houses in London. Oysters were cheap, plentiful and even sold on the street.

Winter was the time for root vegetables such as: leaks, onions, shallots, carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, and potatoes. Hardy vegetables—and those from hot houses—included cabbage, spinach, cress, chard, endive, cress, lettuces, and herbs. Herbs could also be dried. Some of the vegetables that are not so common now were in season in the winter, including: skirrits, a white root vegetable similar to a parsnip; scorzoneras or black salsify, which is said to taste similar to asparagus or to oysters; cardoons or artichoke thistle, which tastes like an artichoke but you eat the stems.

Nuts are another crop easily stored, and were gathered in September. Walnuts and chestnuts would be available in winter and are native nut trees in England, along with hazelnuts. Acorns from oaks were consider a food fit only for pigs. Beech trees also produced a nut, but they’re tough and more work than considered worth the time. Other non-native nuts were not as popular and are not noted in many recipes from the era, although they could always be imported by those with the money and interest.

Forced asparagus added a delicacy to the usual winter vegetables, and could start to arrive in later winter. Stored apples, pears, and preserved summer fruit appeared on the better, richer tables. Besides the dried or stored fruit, the rich might have hot houses that might produce oranges, grapes, and pineapples, which had arrived in England in the 1600s. There were also medlars and bullace. The medlar is a member of the rose family and produces a brownish fruit that appears in winter and which can be eaten raw like an apple or used in recipes. It has been cultivated since Roman times. The bullace is another member of the rose family and is also called a wild plum. It can be used to make bullace wine, or can be used for pies, but was out of season by December.

By late winter, preserved fruits would be running low in all but houses with large orchards or those with greenhouses that could force fruits. Stored apples and pears would have to serve for families and guests until the expensive forced strawberries of February appeared.

December was also the month when all events seem to lead up to Christmas. Around the third century there was an attempt to fix the day of Christ’s birth by tying it to a fesival of the Nativity kept in Rome in the time of Bishop Telesphorus (between 127 AD and 139 AD). While it was believed the Nativity took place on the 25th of the month, which month was uncertain and every month at one time or another has been assigned as Christ’s mass. During the time of Clement of Alexandria (before 220 AD) five dates in three different months of the Egyptian year were said to be the Nativity. One of those corresponds to the December 25th date. Although various dates were questioned for several generations by the Eastern Church, the Roman day became universal in the fifth century.

First reports of people bringing holly and pine branches into their homes at Christmas-time date from the late Middle Ages. Symbols of life in the dead of winter were placed on windows, mirrors, and in vases, and may have served to keep evil spirits away. Over time, this mythical function of the greens became simply decorative. Evergreen ropes (garlands) were draped over staircase railings, mantels, picture frames, and along ceilings. Fearful that dry branches would catch fire from oil lamps or sparks from the fireplace or heating stove, families waited until almost Christmas Eve to hang the garlands.

Christmas cakes, puddings and mince pies are traditional foods of the season. According to one variation, plum pudding—an old English holiday treat—gets its name not from plums, but from the process of “plumming” meaning raisins and currants are plumped up by warm brandy then molded with suet and a bit of batter.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, “…Christmas pudding, the rich culmination of a long process of development of ‘plum puddings’ which can be traced back to the early 15th century. The first types were not specifically associated with Christmas. Like early mince pies, they contained meat, of which a token remains in the use of suet. The original form, plum pottage, were made from chopped beef or mutton, onions and perhaps other root vegetables, and dried fruit. As the name suggests, it was a fairly liquid preparation: this was before the invention of the pudding cloth made large puddings feasible. As was usual with such dishes, it was served at the beginning of the meal. When new kinds of dried fruit became available in Britain, first raisins, then prunes in the 16th century, they were added. The name ‘plum’ refers to a prune; but it came to mean any dried fruit. In the 16th century pudding variants were made with white meat…and gradually the meat came to be omitted, to be replaced by suet. The root vegetables disappeared, although even now Christmas pudding often still includes a token carrot…By the 1670s, it was particularly associated with Christmas and called ‘Christmas pottage’. The old plum pottage continued to be made into the 18th century, and both versions were still served as a filing first course rather than as a dessert…”

Mince pies made from mincemeat, which originally had meat in it but shifted from a savory to a sweet, were another traditional fare, with the tradition being that everyone in the household should stir for luck. From the Middle Ages and on it became common to stretch the meat in the pie or mincemeat by adding dried fruit. The reduction in meat continued until only beef suet was left in the mincemeat.

In The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in the mid 1700s, Hannah Glasse gives this recipe:

“Take three Pounds of Suet shread very fine, and chopped as small as possible, two Pounds of Raisins stoned, and chopped as fine as possible, two Pounds of Currans, nicely picked, washed, rubbed, and dried at the Fire, half a hundred of fine Pippins, pared, cored, and chopped small, half a Pound of fine Sugar pounded fine, a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, a quarter of an Ounce of Cloves, a Pint of Brandy, and half a pint of Sack; put it down close in a Stone-pot, and it will keep good four Months. When you make your Pies, take a little Dish, something bigger than a Soop-plate, lay a very thin Crust all over it, lay a thin Layer of Meat, and then a thin Layer of Cittron cut very thin, then a Layer of Mince meat, and a thin Layer of Orange-peel cut think over that a little Meat; squeeze half the Juice of a fine Sevile Orange, or Lemon, and pour in three Spoonfuls of Red Wine; lay on your Crust, and bake it nicely. These Pies eat finely cold. If you make them in little Patties, mix your Meat and Sweet-meats accordingly: if you chuse Meat in your Pies, parboil a Neat’s Tongue, peel it, and chop the Meat as finely as possible, and mix with the rest; or two Pounds of the Inside of a Surloin or Beef Boiled.”

Gingerbread cakes were also a common holiday treat that had come to England from Germany. Seven Centuries of English Cooking gives this recipe adapted from Hannah Glasse’s book:

  • 1 lb. (3 1/3 cups) Flour
  • 1 Tsp. Salt
  • 1 Tbsp. Ground Ginger
  • 1 Tsp. Nutmeg
  • 6 oz. (3/4 cup) Butter
  • 6 oz. Caster (confectioner’s) Sugar
  • 3/4 lb. (1 cup) Treacle (or Corn Syrup)
  • 2 Tbsp. Cream

(Note: She gives tablespoon as Tabs, but this has been changed here to the more common tbsp.)

Eggnog possibly developed from a posset, or a hot drink in which the white and yolk of eggs were whipped with ale, cider, or wine. The nog in the name came from a noggin, or a small, wooden mug. It was also called an egg flip from the practice of rapidly pouring the drink to mix it, or flipping the drink. It was a rich drink with milk, egg, brandy, madeira or sherry and fit for any celebration but came to be associated with Christmas.

Trifles are also traditionally associated with Christmas, although they might be had for any special occasion in the Regency, or any elegant dinner. Elizabeth Raffald included a trifle recipe that is very modern sounding with macaroons, wine, cream, and sugar. The difference comes from adding cinnamon and “different coloured sweetmeats” which are not generally found in modern trifles.

Another English tradition were sugarplums, a confection traditionally made from sugar-coated seeds. The earliest mention dates to 1668. The Oxford Companion to Food also lists comfits as, “…an archaic English word for an item of confectionery consisting of a seed, or nut coated in several layers of sugar…In England these small, hard sugar sweets were often made with caraway seeds, known for sweetening the breath…”

Cakes of all shapes and sizes were included at festive holiday rituals long before Christmas. Ancient cooks prepared sweet baked goods to mark significant occasions. Many Christmas cookies we know today trace their roots to Medieval European cake recipes. According to foodtimeline.com, “By the 1500s, Christmas cookies had caught on all over Europe. German families baked up pans of Lebkuchen and buttery Spritz cookies. Papparkakor (spicy ginger and black-pepper delights) were favorites in Sweden; the Norwegians made krumkake (thin lemon and cardamom-scented wafers).”

Foodtimeline.com also notes, “The fruit cake as known today cannot date back much beyond the Middle Ages. It was only in the 13th century that dried fruits began to arrive in Britain…Early versions of the rich fruit cake, such as Scottish Black Bun dating from the Middle Ages, were luxuries for special occasions. Fruit cakes have been used for celebrations since at least the early 18th century when bride cakes and plumb cakes, descended from enriched bread recipes, became cookery standards…”

Households also celebrated not just according to the season, but also to the customs of the area. In the Regency, local customs in the countryside might well be used for the celebrations.

For one of my books, Under the Kissing Bough, I needed a Christmas wedding and customs that suited the countryside around London. In ancient days, a Christmas wedding would have been impossible for the English Church held a “closed season” on marriages from Advent in late November until St. Hilary’s Day in January. The Church of England gave up such a ban during Cromwell’s era, even though the Roman Catholic Church continued its enforcement. Oddly enough a custom I expected to be ancient—that of the bride having “something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her shoe”—turned out to be a Victorian invention.

English Christmas customs are those carried down through the ages: the Yule log from Viking winter solstice celebrations, the ancient Saxon decorations of holy and ivy, and the Celtic use of mistletoe on holy days, which transformed itself into a kissing bough. The wassail bowl—a hot, spiced or mulled drink—was another tradition left over from the Norse Vikings.

Celebrations continued to mix tradition and religion when the Twelfth Night feast arrived on January 5, which combine the Roman Saturnalia with the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men were said to have paid tribute to the Baby Jesus.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, Hogmanay is the special New Year’s celebration. But Twelfth Night celebrations for the Epiphany (when the wise men came to see the baby Jesus) are the big event. This is followed by Plough Monday, which is the traditional start to the new agricultural year. Since there’s not much work for a farmer in the winter, plough men would blacken their faces and drag a decorated plough through town asking, “Penny for the ploughboys.”

Molly dancers (a black faced Morris dancer) also came out in East Anglia on Plough Monday. And many towns, such as Whittlesey, had the tradition of men or boys dressing up as Straw Bears to add to the entertainment.

Shrove Tuesday fell in February (the last day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday). Traditionally, Shrove Tuesday was the day to indulge, so pancakes were a traditional food as the butter, fat and eggs might all be things to give up for the forty days of Lent.

Why You Need a Theme in Fiction

Theme is perhaps one of the most neglected areas of any writing instruction. This may be because it’s highly personal–or because some writers instinctively know how to weave in theme, while others don’t. I had to learn about theme, and its importance to make a story resonate.

I learned about them when I learned about story structure. It’s a vital element. Theme is a writer’s touchstone. It not only makes a story resonate, it tells you want needs to be in a story, and what should be left out.

Using theme in all major turning points makes a story structure work. It creates the main character’s arc.  Think of the movie Casablanca where Rick has the papers of transit–and keeps getting hit with choices about who is he going to give these to–and he starts off all hard-nosed and making choices about selling them, not giving them to anyone who is desperate….but at the end he gives them to Ilsa and her husband so they can escape–those papers are used to SHOW Rick’s changing through the choices he makes and becoming the hero we really want him to be. That’s theme at work.

I’m going to be teaching a workshop on theme for Hearts Through History this October.

We’ll cover:

  • What is theme—a clear definition.
  • Why does a story need a theme?
  • What is too specific, and what is too vague?
  • How to find your theme.
  • Distilling your theme to one sentence.
  • Relating theme to characters.
  • Developing goals and motivations around your theme.
  • Weaving theme into turning points in your story structure.

A great theme can be explored over a lifetime of work—but if you’ve never thought about what theme can do for your stories, or if you struggle with keeping a story on track, this workshop can give you some new writing tools.

Dialogue–What Your Character Doesn’t Say

V for Vendetta QuoteI’m teaching my workshop on dialogue this September, and so it’s a good time to bring up some tips on dialogue. A story can live or die just on dialogue. Bad dialogue will make a character flat and uninteresting, and may even send the reader running from the story–no amount of great action or terrific plot twists will save a story with weak dialogue. But great dialogue can make a reader forget to look for plot holes or poor pacing. That’s because great dialogue is where you characters can shine.

Now, learning to write great dialogue is no easy task. It takes time to figure out how to make fictional dialogue sound better than how folks talk in real life but still sound possible. All of this starts with your characters.

The workshop will go into detail on dialogue–and exercises to improve dialogue skills–but here are a few tips.

1-Get to know your characters. I don’t mean charts or lists, and I mean beyond a few scenes. How does that character lie? What are the verbal habits? Is this person a talker or not? Spend some time away from the story just getting your character talking.

2. Become a habitual eavesdropper. Listen to how real people talk–and jot down notes. Notice how real conversations usually make for terrible dialogue–there are pauses, jumps, repeated phrases and words. It is still useful to pay attention to all this stuff because this is what fiction mimics. Notice how rarely people stick to one topic. Notice slang, and how words are used as leverage. Notice how one person will speak differently to the different people in that person’s life.

3-Close your eyes in the next movie and just listen to the words. Pay attention to how dialogue–and the pauses–are used to reveal character. Listen for the emotional words. Use just your ears to get a sense of rhythm, and so you won’t be distracted by flashy visuals or the actor.

4-Take apart your favorite writers’ works. Yes, this means getting out some markers and marking up the book–ebooks readers also let you mark up books. Pause over the really great dialogue moments and look at how the words are used. Look at word choice, at sentence structure, at paragraphs and how they link.

5-Write a lot of dialogue. Write pages of the stuff. Write just dialogue–fit in any description later. Nothing helps you learn faster than writing–a lot.

6-Get the technical stuff out of the way. Dialogue can clunk with periods in the wrong places, or commas that are missing, or with quote marks that don’t make sense. All of this can trip up the reader. Buy a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and nail the punctuation so it becomes invisible.

7-Look to give your characters great lines. Think about your favorite actor playing that role–wouldn’t you want him or her to come up to you and gush about having wonderful lines. Let your characters be more witty and better than anything in real life.

8-See how long you can have a character talk and not mention the real topic. This is the art of subtext. Make what the character doesn’t say important. Make the reader want to know what the character isn’t putting into dialogue.

9-Punch and polish, and then polish some more. Great dialogue often comes with revision, rewrites, edits, and then even more edits. Polish those words. Say them aloud to see how they sound. Fall in love with those words and make them wonderful.

10-Keep learning. Some links to help you with that:

http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/crafttechnique/tp/dialogue.htm

http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Dialogue&Detail.htm

Writing Emotionally Layered Dialogue

Got Subtext? Writing Better Dialogue

Dialogue: Don’t Let’Em Say What You Mean by Shannon Donnelly

 

It’s About Craft – Showing More, Telling Better

I’m teaching my Show & Tell Workshop for OCC Romance Writers this March. It’s a workshop with a lot of hands-on, because I believe that learning to show more and tell better is a vital part of any writer’s craft.

Now, I know the advice is usually “show, don’t tell”. However, narrative has it’s place in fiction. Writers need to know when to show more, and how to make the telling (or narrative) compelling. Some tips for writers;

1 – Show more by eliminating dialogue tags that tell everything. This means no more tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are telling the reader an emotion. You want to show how a character expresses emotion–readers want to see the characters in action.

Replace every telling dialogue tag with an action that better shows the character expressing an emotion. To do this, you must know your characters. How does your character pout? Does she stick out her lower lip, or bat her eyelashes? Does she fold her arm, or twirl a curl around her finger? How does your character leer? Does he overdo it, making it into a joke, or does his stare strip a woman bare? Show the emotion with actions.

2 – Show more, also, by eliminating places that simply tell the reader information. This is where you the author slip in to add a note.

For example, maybe you want to say something about a man’s grin, that it’s infectious, so you write: His grin widened and Sally found it infectious, so she smiled back.

This is you, the writer, are telling the reader the exact information instead of showing and letting the reader figure things out. Again, you have to know your characters—and this is where you show the grin being infectious, as in: His grin widened. Sally’s lips twitched, lifted; laughter rose like a bubble in her chest. Now you are showing Sally smiling back instead of telling the reader.

3 – Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.

For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blonde hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blond, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of showing the enmity between these women. This is where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for information that shows these two women being bitchy with each other.

4 – Do remember to show; get the emotion onto the page. A lot of novice writers forget about this vital part of the story. This is where you’ve got action, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about all that action.

For example, maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story has jumped out to save a small boy from being hit by a car. She jumps out, grabs the boy. Great stuff. But…what’s she feeling? Is she frightened? Amped up on adrenaline? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go into the street after his baseball? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops should show emotion?

Again, you have to know your characters—and you have to give your readers a chance to get to know your characters, too, by putting in those emotions. Once you’ve finished the book (or any scene) go back and look to see if you wove in all those emotional reactions—or did you get just the action?

5 – If you show, don’t tell. Repetition shows insecurity—it means you are the master of your story. Trust the reader to get the information you’ve shown. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. Trust your readers to get what the actions mean.

6 – Cut the clichés. We’re back to needing to know your characters—and needing to know them as unique individuals who do not have cliché actions and reactions. You want to show who your characters are by having them reveal their personalities with their actions and reaction—if you go for cliché actions, the characters become walking clichés, too.

This means no stalking into the room like a panther. No gazing into a mirror and doing an inventory of hair, eyes, and the standard description. No women (or men) who had their hearts broken once and so that person has vowed never to love again.

7 – Show your character in action right away. This is vital. If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super right off. This is why a crazy cop has to do something crazy right off so that everyone “gets” this is one crazy dude.

Start off by showing your character’s strengths and weaknesses right away—get those onto the page. It’s no good saying your hero is a healer—you have to have the guy heal someone. And it’s no good saying the healing costs him some of his own life each time—you have to show him aging or losing strength each time he heals.

8 – Use narrative to slow the pace. Telling will slow the pace of any story, so it can be used to help you transition the reader into a new scene, or to convey passage of time, or it can be used to set a mood.

9 – Revise, revise, revise. Remember that if anything that is first draft (and sometimes even second) may be rough, and will lean on your own habits. Do you habitually overwrite–that means you need to cut. Or do you habitually underwrite–that means you need to flesh out your scenes.

10 – To quote Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug in a jar.” This goes back to editing your work, and in particular your narrative passages. Is every word the right word? The right mood? The right meaning? And, yes, even the right spelling. Read your work aloud to catch errors, places where a reader will trip up, and just awkward spots.

More tips and tricks in the workshop, but these ten will help bump up your writing.

Wounds & Warriors Workshop

Early AmbulanceThe idea for a Wounds & Warriors workshop for writers after I became an EMT in New Mexico–because too often our characters get hurt and either recover ridiculously fast or have injuries that are just not plausible. What I realized was that most of us get our ideas from movies and TV–and boy do they get it wrong. Which means if a writer wants more accuracy it helps to know what are the common misconceptions and how do you go about better research.

In the Wounds & Warriors workshop I’m teaching in February for the Hearts Through History writers, we’re going to go over a lot of different information—and you’ll have a chance to ask about specific situations, including how your protagonist might care for himself or herself after something bad happens. But it’s good to know a few basics:

  • A person can bleed out quickly. The average person has about five liters of blood—loosing even one liter (one large soda bottle) of blood is bad. Confusion and weakness sets in. That person the bleeding to stop and fluids to be put back in.
  • Head traumas are dangerous—some of the most dangerous ones are those where the person feels fine but was unconscious. This can mean there is an internal bleed and that could kill within forty-eight hours.
  • Almost everything causes nausea—hit on the head, you wake up throwing up or wanting to throw up. Getting shot—your body tries to dump the stomach so it can focus on other things. This is never pretty and so gets skipped over in most fiction.
  • One issue can hide another—and people aren’t always honest about what is the real problem. As Dr. House said, “Everyone lies.” And not always intentionally. Sometimes folks just forget, and this is particularly true when stressed.
  • Children are not small adults—their bodies can’t compensate as well, so when they use up their physical resources, they’re going to crash fast. A sick kid is often a critical kid.
  • Extreme heat and extreme cold are deadly elements—and any injury makes them even more so. If you want to add more tension to a scene, use the weather.
  • CPR can and does save lives. Even more importantly it can mean the difference between someone coming back fully functional or with permanent damage. But a lot of folks are afraid to dive in and help—it take training to make sure you just do what you’ve trained to do.

Ultimately, you want to know what’s plausible for your situation—even if you’re writing about vampires and werewolves, know the rules so you can know how you can break them. Research your injuries before you write them and never assume. You’ll be able to get away from the cliché of that flesh wound in the shoulder that the protagonist survives or the knife fight that somehow ends up with no one disfigured or with permanent damage.

The other thing to keep in mind is for your own safety. What should YOU know (just in case)?

1-Document your medications and history (and get your loved ones to do this). Paper, phone, whatever—just have it written down (VialofLife.com)

2-Keep your document/medications handy! It is so hard in an emergency to make sure these are not forgotten.

3-Do an DNR if you do NOT want CPR or extreme life-saving measures.

4 –Wear a medical ID bracelet and/or necklace for those REALLY important things (as in allergic to penicillin).+

5-Put “ICE” in your phone—“In Case of Emergency” contact, just in case you are in an accident and cannot talk.

6-Educate yourself! Take a CPR class! Know how to stop a bleed. Keep children’s aspirin around if you’re not allergic. (1 in 20 deaths from stroke, heart attacks are the no 1 cause of death in the US, what do you do for allergic shock?) The life you save may be your own.

7-If you—or a loved one—is allergic to something (anything), keep an EPI pen on hand.

8-Keep a “survival/emergency” kit around and fresh! (www.ready.gov/sites/default/files/documents/files/checklist_1.pdf and http://www.redcrossstore.org/item/321406)

9-Remember your pets! They have emergencies, too, and in a disaster they’ll need water and food, and possibly first aid.

‘The Past is Prologue’

BoomI usually blog only about writing, but the RWA debacle deserves comment—and it has applications to writing. If you’re not familiar with what’s going on in RWA, there are a dozen or more sources out there, including:

RWA IMPLOSION

HAS RWA LOST ITS WAY

And others, including…

https://nypost.com/2019/12/26/romance-writer-courtney-milan-suspended-over-racist-mess-claims/

https://www.houstonchronicle.com/entertainment/books/article/Houston-based-Romance-Writers-of-America-sees-14935112.php

Other writers have also commented upon events—some to say they are leaving RWA, some to pull out o the RITA awards, some to return their RITA awards, and some to bring up past problems of discrimination, some to say they are simply sick of the whole mess, and some who think this is Twitter-bullying.

Basically, the whole thing started when one writer criticized another’s book. Now, that’s nothing new. It goes on all the time, and certainly readers in general are apt to say if they think a book is good or bad, or racist, or whatever else they think of it. Here’s the thing—this was an opinion expressed about a book. A book depicting Chinese and half-Chinese characters in stereotypical ways, which is a racist thing to do. So, calling the writing racist is a valid opinion, particularly when the person expressing that opinion is half-Chinese.

Instead of the author of that book either sucking it up, (let’s face it, all authors get reviews and criticism) or saying “yeah, I did that, I’ll do better,” or pushing back straight to the person who said this is racist with her own reasons behind what she wrote, the author filed a complaint with RWA, and RWA acted on that complaint. Which brings up the next problem—in acting, RWA violated it’s own policies and procedures (there is nothing in the bylaws about slapping down a member for posting on social media or for expressing an opinion about a book—the writing, mind you, not the author, was called racist).

And that brings us to the next problem, and why this is not just a tempest in a teapot. RWA presents itself as an organization of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” which is the exact quote off the RWA website. This statement is undermined by the actions RWA undertook. The response from RWA of a ban for social media comments on a book has the appearance—if not the actual intent—of trying to silence an author who called out racial insensitivity. Meaning it is the exact opposite of supporting diversity.

On the other side are those now fearing that their writing might be also put to the test of are they, too, portray stereotypes. And how is that a bad thing? Getting called out for writing racial stereotypes is going to make anyone a better writer—if that writer is open to critiques. This applies to getting called out for having characters that come across as one-dimensional, for having poor dialogue, and for setting up situations and scenes in a story that smack of discrimination.

All of this to mean means that it is a very, very good thing to have a little fear when facing the blank page. You may have to think more, dig deeper into creating real characters, and you may even have to pull in readers of greater diversity to make sure you’re getting it right and keep from falling into the pit of wrong assumptions.

It is also far too easy to go for the stereotype and think we’ve got an archetype instead. Or to think we’ve avoided anything because we’ve not gone to the extreme of blackface—racial and slights for others different than us can be so minor we don’t even realize we’ve had so much exposure to them that we now believe that is a truth.

It’s also too easy to skip lightly over the research and think you’re okay with what you know. Write what you know applies not just to your personal experience, but also to where you’ve gone looking to find out what it is you don’t know. That is the bigger problem—very often, we don’t know that we don’t know something. We’ve not been made sensitive. Which means getting slapped down can be a great wake-up call.

I love the stories of others pulling in more experience into their writing by pulling in readers who better know that world and that experience. Even more, I love it when writers dig deep into their own lives to bring the truth of what they know to the world. I love it when writers do not go for the common assumption but look for the deeper truth.

I’m also of the opinion that writers need to be a little uncomfortable in general. It’s a good spur to make us want to write about either a better world, or to make us want to write to know what it is we really believe. And if we’re in this for more than a paycheck, our art should make others a little uncomfortable.

Which brings us back to RWA and its problems—it is now a very uncomfortable place for many. Personally, I think this is a good thing. Comfort can breed complacency—as in just let us go on doing what we’ve always done, as in it’s good enough. Well, it’s not good enough, and this is an opportunity to do better. This is a chance to stop smoothing things over. RWA had controversy over the RITAs and the stench of discrimination in the judging and seemed to be making strides to correct that. But this blows the lid off the appearance of doing better and shows there is even more that must be done.

That decision won’t be one I’m making—at least not on my own. But I am hoping the RWA membership demands better. I am an RWA member—have been for many a year—and I am hanging on in the hope of better, so that I can be there to vote for better, and to demand better. (Yes, I signed the recall petition, too.) RWA has put forward brave words. Now it is time to live up to them.

This event has created a split in RWA—but it has also pulled out into the open much that has been wrong in RWA, and to say otherwise is to be aligned with that wrong. This is not about personalities. It is not about Courtney Milan’s personality—it’s not about whether you like her or loath her. It is not about the other personalities involved, and taking sides because you happen to like someone. This is about RWA living up to the principals it has said it upholds, including that the organization is one of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is about RWA saying policy and procedure was not followed, here’s why, and here’s how it is being fixed. And it is about removing those from leadership who are tainted by the actions undertaken that damaged RWA.

There now must be actions to support that diversity, equity, and inclusion. Words are a great place to start, but as every writer knows, it is in action that character is revealed. So what actions are next?

For me, one of the actions is joining the Cultural, Interracial, Multicultural Special Interest Chapter of Romance Writers of America—CIMRWA.org. This chapter has been leading the petition to have president-elect Damon Suede recalled from office. He put himself in the middle of this mess. For RWA to even begin making a start to clean things up, they’re going to have to start following procedures for this recall. CIMRWA is also following up with a letter to RWA to confirm the petition has been received and is being handled according to RWA procedures.

The other action I’ll be taking is to stay abreast of developments. Things may happen slowly or fast—but one thing must be made clear. This is not going to be forgotten. This is not a minor problem. This is about RWA’s future and if RWA does indeed live up to its brave words.

But can RWA recover from this series of blunders? The organization has lost members, and relationships with other organization. It’s recived more than a little bad press with just about every major new organization covering this story. As RWA has noted, trust has been damaged. Can RWA rebuild and rework it’s future? Is the past but a prologue to even more issues? I would like to think that the more apt quote is, ‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.’

Writing Workshops 2020

UPDATE–2020 is almost full!

February 3- 28, 2020 Wounds & Warriors, HHRW

March 16 – April 12, 2020 Show & Tell: An Interactive Workshop, OCCRWA

May 4- 29, 2020 Horse Sense For Your Characters, HHRW

June 1-26, 2020 The Sexy Synopsis, Contemporary Romance RWA

August POV: It’s More Than a Point of View, YRW

September 1-25, 2020 Dialogue: Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean, Contemporary Romance RWA

October 5-30, 2020 THEME: A Vital Element of Fiction, HHRW – NEW WORKSHOP!

There also might be a workshop coming for November!

I’m starting to plan writing workshops for 2020. It was nice to take a year off in 2019, but I find I miss the interaction of the workshops–it’s enjoyable to help other writers find their path.

So far, I have scheduled:

  • February 3- 28, 2020 Wounds & Warriors, HHRW
  • May 4- 29, 2020 Horse Sense For Your Characters, HHRW
  • June 1-26, 2020 The Sexy Synopsis, Contemporary Romance RWA
  • September 1-25, 2020 Dialogue: Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean, Contemporary Romance RWA
  • October 5-30, 2020 THEME: A Vital Element of Fiction, HHRW

I’ll be adding a few more, but in the meantime, for anyone interested in taking a workshop, here are a few tips to get the most from any workshop:

Interact. This may seem obvious-and I’ve lurked in a few workshops, too–but I find that those who ask questions and post exercises get the most from the workshop. You may have to clear the decks to participate. It is hard to juggle too many things all at once, but it can give you better value for your time.

Don’t worry about your ideas. I’ve known many people who are paranoid about ideas being stolen. What I’ve found is that if you give the same idea to two writers, you’re going to have two different books. Don’t sweat the ideas. It is your voice that matters. And if you are still worried, do the exercises with made up stories–it might even spark a new book.

Make mistakes. A workshop is a great place to experiment and learn. I find many people, however, come in with the idea of ‘doing everything right.’ That actually won’t help you learn anything. Use workshops as a place to try new things, to push beyond your comfort zones, and to make mistakes. You’ll get more from the workshop by doing so.

Have fun. Many folks come into workshops with grim determination (this goes along with not making mistakes). Again, workshops are a safe place to let loose, try new things, and be creative. They are places to reconnect with experimentation, which can often get the creative juices flowing.

Use what works for you. In any workshop, if you come out with one great thing learned, that’s a positive. You will find that every writer has a different process–including you. This means what works for one writer may not work for another. This is okay. If something doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to shoot down the idea–just don’t use it. Take what does work, and feel okay about abandoning the rest.

Try new things. If you’ve never written first person, try that. If you’ve never written third person, try that instead. Try out new techniques. This goes along with making mistakes. Yes, what you try may not work, but it may lead to new discoveries.

If you don’t post, do the exercises at home. I am a great believer in writing exercises. I’ve used them to discover my own comfort zone for what I want to write. I’ve used them to improve my viewpoint control, to work on dialogue, to do better narrative. Writing exercises to me are like warm-up for a dancer–they’re vital to improve technique. All my writing craft workshops include exercises–and the writers who get the most from the workshops do them and post them for feedback. However, even if you don’t post the exercises, you will learn a lot by doing them.

And that’s it–some tips on how to get more from an online workshop, particularly one that I might teach.

Plot, Character & Theme

I’m doing my Plotting from Character workshop this November and as usual before a workshop I’ve been thinking about the elements that go into the workshop–and into a story.

Too often what I see in manuscripts is that “stuff happens.” Now, that’s not bad in an action-packed story, except it can end up not being very satisfying to a reader. Ideally, the stuff that happens has something to do with the main character having tough choices that reveal the character of the character, and has even more to do with theme. So let’s start with theme.

The importance of theme is often overlooked. Theme is what the story is REALLY about–it is what is going to resonate with the reader and create a greater satisfaction. Theme is the touchstone for the writer, too. If you get lost, look to theme to get back on track. So…without theme, a story tends to wander. You might even think of theme as the core phrase or question that puts a focus into the story.

This focus helps you set up a core goal that will lead to conflict and then a crisis (or dark moment, where the protagonist must face his or her greatest weakness, and either overcome it, or not, leading to death of the old self, or in a tragic tale, the character’s death for failure.

What does this have to do with ‘plotting from character’?

With theme in place, the writer can start asking–“What characters do I need to explore this theme?” And also–“What needs to happen to face my protagonist with tough choices related to theme?” In other words, it is no longer about coming up with general stuff, but now coming up with events that will test the protagonist based around the theme, or core ideas the protagonist needs to learn.

This helps greatly in avoiding cliches, such as the heroine gets kidnapped, or the hero and heroine have a misunderstanding after the hero’s ex tells the heroine some lie about the hero. Theme and a specific character will generate a very specific story–and this brings a freshness to the story.

How do you apply all this?

Well, theme and character go hand-in-hand. It’s really hard to develop just one of these, so you have to do them together. For example, if you’re story is REALLY about how there is only fear and love, and the stronger of these will overcome the other, then you know you will need a character who has deep fears to overcome, and faces the need to overcome these in order to have a great love. You’re also going to have a character who doesn’t overcome fears, and a character who is fearless. Those combinations will let you best explore that theme. With that in place, you still need to develop the characters–starting with the protagonist–so that the characters do not come across as flat (or cardboard). And you’re going to develop tougher and tougher choices for that protagonist that fit into the main turning points of the story.

This means the action of the story is going to come from your characters–from facing characters with tougher and tougher choices. Because your characters are yours, this helps you avoid any cliche action in the story. That’s plotting from character. But it’s hard to do this without some idea of theme.

Now I will say some writers know how to do this instinctively (I’m not one of them). I also hold that if you know your theme up front, it is a lot easier to weave it into the story–not with a heavy hand, but a light touch that makes the theme (and the story) stronger. Is this easy–no, not really. But it is well worth it for the reader in that you’ll end up with a stronger story that makes the reader keep thinking about that story long after the last page has been read.

Show More, Tell Better

“Writing well is the best revenge.” — Dorothy Parker

We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell” but I prefer to tell folks “show more, tell better.” This is something I use in every Show and Tell workshop I give (and I’m doing one for the RWA FF&P Chapter this July.) There’s a good reason for this. Narrative is actually vital in fiction—there are places where you need to smooth a transition or introduce a scene or a character and ‘telling’ or narrative works best. However, within a scene, it is vital to ‘show’ more of the character’s emotions through the character’s actions.

Like much of the craft of writing, you have to learn how to balance showing and telling by doing—meaning you have to write—and the amount of showing or telling you do varies by the story and the intent of the author.  This is part of your voice as a writer. However, there are some good guidelines that can help you with all of this:

– Where are we? A reader needs to be placed into the story and into every new scene. Do not throw your readers into the deep end without giving them some help, and that means use some narrative to set the story, and you can use narrative to set every scene. This is VERY important if you are writing a story that is set somewhere other than our own reality. The reality of your world must be woven into the story. Use vivid details, meaning weave in as many of the five senses as possible—smells, sounds, tastes, touch, and not just sights.

– When are we? This is just as important as where, and this does not mean not just the era. Think about the details of the time of the year. What’s the weather like? Is it day or night? Is it cold, warm, windy? What are the smells? All these details help the reader settle into the scene as if this moment in time really exists.

– Who is here? An introduction to the characters, particularly to the main characters for that scene and for the story, is important. I’m not talking a laundry list of descriptions, but the reader does need more than tall, dark and handsome. Think about what makes THAT character stand out. What is different about him or her? Is there a scar or a limp? How about height or weight? What about hair? What is the first thing that anyone would notice? Use unique features to start to make characters come to life for the reader. Think of your description as brush strokes of a watercolor that suggests images.

– Why are we here? This doesn’t have to be greatly detailed information, but you need enough background to make a reader care. It’s one of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writers: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

As with all writing, you want to edit, polish, revise and make your narrative wonderful. Cut every extra word. Use active voice. Use the right words in the right way. Brilliant narrative is invisible—if a reader is noticing your writing, that reader has fallen out of the story.

Now all this needs to be woven together, stitched in with careful threads. Do not dump tons of narrative into the story—unless it really is brilliant. Narrative can also be woven in with a scene—in other words, it’s never show or tell. These two things can go together.

But what’s good ‘showing’ in a story?

– Punch your dialogue so it’s strong. Know that your dialogue is weak if you find yourself leaning on tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are TELLING the reader an emotion. You want to get your characters onto the page by showing how that person expresses emotion. That includes making the dialogue so good that the reader knows the emotion in the words without having to be told. Another way to think of this is to imagine you are writing a script for your favorite actors—give them great dialogue to speak.

Eliminating every “feel” or “felt”. That is a spot where you flat out told the reader the emotion. Let your characters take actions that express their emotions, and trust the reader to figure things out. This goes along with those tags being used to prop up dialogue. When you say, “He felt angry.” That’s weak to the reader because the reader has nothing to visualize. Every person gets angry in different ways—some folks bottle it up, some turn red, some go pale, some folks yell, some start to cry, some shout. Get your characters onto the page by having them express emotions. It takes more time and more words, but it makes the characters come to life for the reader.

– Keep asking ‘what am I showing the reader about this character’? If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super. Readers will believe what you show a character doing, not what you tell the reader.

– Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.

For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blonde hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description—lovely telling. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blonde, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of SHOWING the enmity between these women. That’s where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for showing these two women being bitchy with each other.

– Do remember to get emotions onto the page. This is where characters are doing a lot of things, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about events. Maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story jumps in to save a boy from zombies. Awesome! She grabs the boy and chops up the zombie with an ax. Great stuff. But what is she feeling? Is she frightened? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go out on his own? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops shouldn’t show emotion?

You have to know your characters to get this onto the page and to do so without resorting to telling the reader a flat “she felt angry that he hadn’t listened to her and had almost died.”

Above all else, if you show, you don’t need to tell. And if you tell, you don’t need to show. Repetition can be useful in places, but with showing and telling if you do both, it conveys to the reader that either you don’t really know what you are doing or you don’t think the reader is very smart. Readers do not like being hit over the head with endless repetition. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. See—even me repeating just a little bit here starts to become boring. Trust your readers—they are actually very smart. And take to heart the phrase—show more, tell better.

What’s Not to Like?

HHRW-slider11I’m doing a workshop this June on Creating Likeable Characters for Hearts Through History.

The workshop came about because I kept seeing a classic mistakes that is often made. The writer gets caught up in creating a character with problems—with challenges. Yes, you want there to be some conflict and you want a flawed character. But go too far with that and the character comes across on the page as someone that’s not likeable. End result is that the reader bails on the story because the reader doesn’t want to identify with that character.

Why does this happen?

Look, if you have a choice, are you going to spend the evening with folks you like or with people who make you grind your teeth? I’m going to bet on the former unless you are being forced to be there by blood ties or a job. This holds true in a book, too. Readers (all of us) want to spend time with folks we like.

The Cardros RubyThis is a huge issue in any book—it was one I faced in A Cardros Ruby. In an early draft, the heroine came off as too cranky and hard-edged. She was not likeable. Now, she had her reasons for being how she was, but she wasn’t someone you wanted to root for. That meant she needed major work to bring in some things to make her likeable. I had learned about this when I wrote the heroine of A Dangerous Compromise.  She’s a spoilt girl who eventually redeems herself—or at least shows a good side—but that came too late in the story for many readers who just didn’t warm to her. And I can understand that.

If I’m going to pay money and spend my hours with some folks—even fictional folk—I want to have fun. I want to be with people I like. If your characters aren’t likeable, you’re not going to sell that book. That’s the voice of experience talking.

As a reader, I want characters I can root for, characters I can laugh with and cry with, characters with whom I sympathize. I want to spend time with folks I like.

Which brings up the question—what is likeable?

This is where subjective opinion gets into it. Even the most beloved characters have their detractors. And good characters are like people, or they should be. This means not every character will be liked by every reader. However, there are some basic things you can do give a character a better chance of being someone that a reader wants to spend hours with, as in give your characters:

Mad Skills – We tend to like folks we admire. We like people who are good at what they do. This is why we like sports figures at the top of their game. We like to see folks doing amazing things. Think of Indiana Jones—we like him because right off, even if things don’t go his way, he’s shown to have extraordinary skills. This is something I use in The Cardros Ruby—the hero’s shown as being able to handle a tough situation right off.

Good Intentions/Actions – We tend to like folks who mean us (and the world in general) well. We like characters who have good reasons for what they’re doing—as in a mother who is out to protect her child. She may do bad things, but if she’s got really good reasons (as in Sarah Conner of The Terminator) we’re going to be on her side. We like folks even more when they do good thing. The guy who rescues a stray dog is likeable. The woman who goes without movies for a month to buy her niece the prom dress the poor girl has been longing for and can’t afford is likeable. Little acts of kindness can mean a lot to a reader—and will put the reader on the character’s side. This is another one I use in The Cardros Ruby—even though the heroine’s heard bad things about the hero (and some of the gossip is deserved), she stands up for him because she recognizes she owes him and that helps put the reader on her side.

Underdog Status – We like characters that don’t start out with everything going their way—folks who are behind the eight ball and have had nothing but bad luck tend to stir our sympathy. If the main character has everything else stacked in his or her favor, that’s not someone who is earning our praise and sympathy. This is another one I use (and notice that you can layer these on—just don’t go heavy handed with this). However, the important thing is we want to see a strong underdog. That means someone being strong against overwhelming odds. Make your underdog whiny or weak and you’ll lose the reader’s sympathy—most folks just don’t like weaklings.

Grit – This could be called strong moral fiber—or even just stubbornness. These are folks who don’t quit when things get tough—characters who preserver, because it’s nice to see that works (even if only if fiction at times). This is a trait most admire. Again, don’t take it too far. If this turns into someone being stupid, you can lose the reader.

Humor – Let’s face it, we like folks who make us laugh. This is what keeps comedians in business. These are the witty types, folks we admire for having a fast mind and a way with words.  I actually try to have all my characters be funny and quick because I love people who are sharp—so that’s a personal choice. A wry wit has turned many a bad guy into someone we love (as in Loki in the Avenger movies).

Quirks – Every character needs some flaws. No one likes perfection. A few quirks and a character is both more memorable as well as more likeable. An odd physical trait—a scar, or a handicap overcome such as being very, very short. Or a metal quirk, as in Monk, the OCD detective. Again, if you go too far, the character may come across as just crazy, and most folks shy away from that. Even Monk has mad skills to balance out his oddities.

Empathy – Characters don’t exist in isolation. They need to be aware of the world around them. Characters who demonstrate empathy for others earn our empathy—we are prone to like these folks. This means you do not want a character who is all about me…me…me.

Now this is not to say that all characters must display all these traits. That would be too much for any reader to believe. But pick three or four things. Or even a couple. Demonstrate that your main characters—your protagonists—are likeable. This means you do not tell the reader others like this person, you SHOW the character DOING things that make the reader think this character is likeable.

Keep in mind that if a character is going to have to do bad or stupid things in the story, that character needs the reader on his or her side early and to a great degree. Even give some of these likeable traits to your antagonists. They need to earn the reader’s sympathy, too, if the conflict is going to be strong. Even Hannibal Lecter has the admirable traits of being a cultured man—and mad skills (emphasis on the mad there).

Let your readers get to know and like your characters before you start having your characters do terrible things—and then think long and hard about if a reader can forgive that character.

Think about making sure your character demonstrates he or she is likeable—it’s not enough to tell the reader these things. The character has to be shown doing things that are worthy of the reader. (If you’re not sure about this, read Dick Francis, he’s a master at making you like a character in less than a page.)

Use viewpoint to your advantage—not to your character’s disadvantage. If a character thinks about her long, raven hair, she comes across as vain. If a guy is eyeing another guy and thinking about that other guy’s muscles, the character comes across as gay. Now all of that is fine if you want the reader to believe one character is vain and another is gay, but KNOW what you are conveying to the reader with those internal thoughts. Don’t just stuff description into thoughts because it’s easy—you may be sending the wrong signals to the reader.

Above all, remember you’re asking a reader to spend time in your world. Make sure readers want to stay, want to root for your characters, and start to like them. It all starts off with creating characters you really like—and making sure they show up right off doing some admirable things.