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Horse Sense

Horse Sense for Your Characters-OCCgraphic2I’m teaching a workshop for OCC RWA starting June 1 on Horse Sense, so it made sense to talk a little about my experiences with horses. This blog might also have been called ‘horse mad’ for as the family story goes, when I was two, and before I was doing much walking, I crawled over to my brother’s rocking horse, and Pony Gray instantly became my first horse.

Now, I’ve got the excuse it runs in the blood—my grandmother never forgave, or ever stopped talking about, my grandfather trading her good milk cow for a riding horse. Back then a plough horse was a different thing than a riding horse, so you had to make that distinction. Long after Grandpa Erickson was in his grave, grandma was still bemoaning this loss. It always seemed a good trade to me.

My first memory of being on a horse was somewhere around the age of four or five when we took a trip to visit relatives. My mother rode—she grew up in rural Utah—so she got on a half-broke young Appaloosa just in from winter pasture and we went for a gallop. I do remember loving it. Mother always said I kept saying to make it go faster—that part I don’t remember.

When I was seven, my parents deemed me old—and tall—enough to take riding lessons, so the weekly trips to the stables started up. I learned on a wonderful, patient old fellow named Sunny who had two speeds—stop and walk. I have vague memories of getting him up to a slow trot at one point, but I’ve always had a “slow” seat for horses, so Sunny mostly just helped me into the saddle.

drakeAll this means horses have always been part of my life. My aunt—also a horsewoman—taught me to ride side saddle. I went to England to get my riding instructor’s certificate and learned to drive carriage horses—and I got to hunt (meaning vast amounts of time standing about, then galloping to a new cover and more standing about, but it’s all on horseback, so not a bad time at all). I’ve shown hunters, jumpers, dressage, three-day, and did a year of western riding, and now only ride the trail for fun—my show days are behind me.

woodyI’ve also been bucked off, rubbed off on a tree, had a horse fall with me, dealt with barn sour, rearing horses, dirty stoppers, and a load of other problem horses. I’ve galloped race horses (and you really do have to get up all too early for that), and then I’ve had wonderful horses who would do anything for me–including the splendid Drake shown in the photo above (who hated to be left out and insisted on always having his stall door open so he could join in the fun), and the handsome Woody (the photo on the left) who was a perfect hunter, but never got the hang of fast turns in jumper classes.

But I finally have my ranch in New Mexico and horses in my backyard—my earliest dream come true. And I’m going to be teaching a workshop on horses for writers because these days most folks are more familiar with their automobile. The lack of a horse in your life to me is a terrible thing—I’ve always ridden, even if I had to beg or borrow the horse.

Now the subject of horses is a big one, going back thousands of years. But let’s hit a few highlights from the workshop:

Common Myths and Mistakes

  • Side saddles are uncomfortable and insecure so any woman would rather ride astride. Wrong. If you know how to ride aside, it’s comfortable and the preferred choice. I adore my grandmother’s western side saddle, and would rather have that for a day in the saddle any day.
  • It’s easy and safe ride double on a horse and the horse won’t care. Nope. Most horses have no ribs over the loins, meaning someone sitting there is not comfortable. The only way to really ride double is with two kids (or really skinny people), or on a really big horse.
  • A six foot tall man can ride an Arabian stallion. This one is a laughable mistake—picture his feet dragging the ground and you start to get the picture. This has ruined more stories for me.
  • A rider can grab an unsuspecting person on the ground and drag them up to be carried off. If you really, really practice this a lot, you can do this with someone who is ready and willing to be grabbed. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up on the ground yourself.
  • You can tie a horse by the reins to a stationary object. Some horses are taught to ground tie—you just drop the reins. Some horses will stand if you loop the reins over something—you’ll see this in Western movies all the time. However, most horses, if you give them the chance, will get themselves into trouble—meaning tug back on the reins, break them, get loose and wander off.
  • Stallions are the most dramatic and dangerous of all horses. Well, they are pretty, but you want tough and mean, pick a mare that has a bone to pick with you.
  • An experienced rider isn’t able to stop a runaway horse. Been there, done that. You put them in a circle and make them keep galloping. Do that once or twice and they stop running away with you. The only runaway that’s tough is the habitual one, who also will usually try to scrape you off under a tree.
  • You can kiss another rider while on horseback. There are a lot of You Tube videos of the ‘romantic’ wedding with the bride and groom on horseback—a sure recipe for trouble if these horses have not been through rehearsal about a thousand times. If the veil doesn’t spook the horse, something else will. And if that’s not enough, lean in for that kiss is an invitation for the horse to step the other way, leaving you dangling. Even Roy Rogers and Trigger didn’t go for this one—but Roy did let Trigger kiss him!
  • You can ride a horse and not come away smelling of eau de equine. If anyone’s ever managed this, I’d like to learn their secret.

And there is another of my favorite mistakes, the obvious one that horses aren’t cars. You can’t really park them and expect them to stay put—they tend to see grass and go for it. You can’t park them—again, they have their own mind about things and a bored horse is one looking for food. And you can’t drive them 24/7—they need food, water and rest, just like the rest of us.

For more horse tales, come and take the workshop. Or get yourself to a local stable and start having some horse fun for yourself.

Developing an Idea or Characters?

proper-conduct-01I’m in the middle of teaching my “Plotting from Character” workshop and what always happens is that folks get frustrated. Which is actually quite normal. Learning something new is hard, and most people don’t want to really spend the time to break old habits and to the work to learn (or relearn) new ways of doing things. It takes not just persistence but also patience–with yourself and with the process. A lot of times you just have to do something over and over and over again.

I was reminded of this the other day–I’m learning something new. I’m struggling to learn how to play the mandolin. Now, the fingerings are the same as for a violin, which I used to play. But you have double the strings–and you have to pick (not bow). And eight frigging strings means one of them is always going out of tune. Took me an hour to tune it, then I broke an E string and it took me another hour to change it. Patience and persistence got be back to where I could do some chord and scale practice. It’s going to take longer before I don’t suck at it.

And that’s where I think a lot of writers have trouble. It takes patience as well as persistence to develop characters. I’ve had a few characters just show up on the page ready to go. Most of them take time and repeated work to really get them fleshed out and figured out. I had that problem in Proper Conduct–the heroine just took forever to show up. She was a difficult character all the way along, but after 100 pages she finally settled down and I was able to get her onto the page.

That’s where I see writers with less experience struggling–they jump into an idea and develop the heck out of the idea. But the characters don’t get development. It’s too easy to fall in love with an idea and forget the story is really about your characters. A great story won’t carry a book. And that’s where you end up with good writing and weak stories–and I see a lot of that in contests where there is a lot of cleverness but the characters are what my mother used to call ‘unbaked cookie dough.’

Now it is possible to overdevelop the characters–to spend too much time on details and not enough time on the main conflict and story arc. I used to do that and my characters came out flat. I’d written the life out of them. So it does take a balance.

And a lot of patience to go along with the persistence.

What’s Showing and What’s Telling?

cropped-top-bar.jpgI regularly teach Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop and I’m about to start it again, and two things always come up:

1-Folks want just to learn to show more in their stories.

2-Folks don’t really know what is showing and what is telling.

Now both showing and telling have a place in any writer’s toolbox. However, what I’ve noticed is that writers just learning their craft haven’t figured out how to show more, and their telling is just awful–they haven’t learned that good narrative takes a lot of work.

I don’t think any writer is really lazy–the work is just to hard to attract someone who wants to take it easy. But writing is more than hard work. It also needs smart work.

So, quick tips here:

Showing means you SHOW the character in action. Action includes someone who is talking as well as doing things. Any actor knows this–an actor cannot just stand around spouting lines. An actor must express emotions by what they do–and that means they need bits of business. So the writer must become the actor for every character and think up how that character expresses emotion (and not just with cliches of shouting or thumping).

Telling means you TELL the reader what the character is feeling. This can be done with phrases like ‘he felt’ or ‘she was angry’. The trouble with telling the reader this information is the reader doesn’t get a chance to SEE the character–there is no reveal through actions. So the reader tends to feel cheated.

Now the confusion comes in that all of this showing and telling takes description–also, showing and telling are not absolutes. You can blend them. It’s a matter of balance. Too much telling will flatten a scene. Too much showing if you’re trying to do a transition (not a scene with emotion) makes the story drag. So you have to learn when you need to show more and when you need to tell better. And all this takes practice and awareness. It also take reading the work of others with awareness so you start to understand the techniques–if you don’t know your tools it’s hard to use them like a true master craftsman.

And a few acting classes can also help any writer better understand the need to get a character on the page by giving that character more bits of business to reveal the character’s inner nature and emotions.

The Importance of Showing–and Telling

casI’m starting my Show and Tell workshop Monday and it always kicks off with everyone focused on showing more and better. Great stories do need great scenes with lots of showing, which has the characters on the page and expressing emotion. However, there’s a place for the narrative in any fiction–a writer needs both these tools.

(Oh, and, yes, Cas–our dog–will be  napping during the workshop in his favorite chair.)

Now, I like to say that what most writers really need to look at is how to tell better in the right places and show more of the character expressing emotion. It’s usually emotion that gets left off the page (and out of the scene). How do you do this?

There are some technical tricks that can help. (Cas doesn’t care about these, but he does like a good bone to chew on.)

1 – Tell when you need to get some quick information on the page—or to shorten what you need to convey to the writer. Telling is a great way to compress time, handle a transition to a new scene, or simply put some info that on the page that you need for the reader. Nothing is worse than exposition put into a character’s mouth. That makes your dialogue stiff and often makes the character sound stupid for stating what is probably obvious.

2- Show more by eliminating ‘telling’ dialogue tags. 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 your characters express emotion on the page—that’s where you need to show more.

3 – Use telling to alert the reader that the character is relatively unimportant. This is where a lot of writers get it wrong by telling too much about the main character, which makes that person seem unimportant. This sentence makes it clear that the cab driver is not a main character: The cab driver dropped her off at the train station. If you spend three paragraphs describing what that cab driver looks like, how he drives, and how he acts, you are showing that character is important. Keep things clear for reader—what you give pages to matters most.

4 – Show you character in action right away to get a reader’s interest and sympathy. This is key to creating likeable characters, or at least character that a reader is willing to settle down with for a few hours. If your main character is supposed to be smart, show that person doing something smart. If your main character is an ace magic user, show that character using that magic in an amazing way. A lot of writers feel like they have to show the character in a tough situation—that’s fine. But really look at what you have shown—is the situation all that tough or is the character just being stupid? You may get the reader’s scorn instead of sympathy.

5 – If you tell, you don’t need to show; if you show you don’t need to tell. This is about trusting your readers to ‘get it’. You do not need to hit the reader over the head. You don’t need to say: He was angry. And then show that character being angry. Repeating information can blunt the impact on the reader—your writing starts to feel dull and the scene sags. Sometimes repetition can be used for a certain impact, but use this technique carefully and with intent.

6 – Do remember to get the emotion onto the page—either show it or tell it but put it on the page. It’s easy when you’ve got a lot of action to get lost in getting that sorted out and forget that the reader really wants to know what the character is feeling. This is something I see a lot of in contest manuscripts. The writing is good, there’s plenty of action, but I have no emotional involvement because I have no idea if the character is frightened, amped up on adrenaline, angry, or covering up feelings. Know your characters, and get their emotions on the page!

7 – Cut the clichés in both your showing and your telling. Readers want a familiar read, but not a duplicate of something read a hundred times before—cliché actions and reactions flatten your story. Cut or change every cliché. 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. Put a fresh spin on every cliché—whether it is narrative or a reaction to a situation. To do this, you need to know every character and your character must react in character—this means no making character take actions to make a plot work.

Work on your telling so it’s tight, brilliant writing—no one’s going to tell you to cut writing that is wonderful, even if it’s all telling. And then in scenes get more emotion on the page by showing how your characters express emotion. It’s that simple—but simple is always hard work. (Harder than burying a bone, according to Cas.)

For more about this–and some great exercises, check out the workshop.

Regency Holiday Traditions

christmaspuddingWe tend to treat things such as Christmas trees and holiday gift giving as if they’ve been with us forever. While these are old traditions, they were once far more localized. In this world of media everywhere, we tend to forget that customs were once far more specific to the area.

In England, many areas held to older customs, dating back to Saxon days (and sometimes earlier). The word Yule meant mid-winter and came to use from the Saxons. It was converted to mean Jesus’ birthday, and Christmas (or Christ’s mass) was not used until the Eleventh century.

In England, Advent was the day that began the celebrations leading up to Christmas.

The Feast of St. Martin, or Martinmas, fell on November 11, and St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, had his day on November 30. St. Andrew’s day also marked the beginning of Advent to celebrate the four weeks before Christmas.

In late fall and November, the landed gentry still dined on wild foul as well as domestic poultry—which was now getting a bit old and aged (meaning tough and needing sauces to make the meat palatable). They also had beef, venison and pork with their meals. Fish could still be caught and served, and winter vegetables graced the dining room, including: carrots, turnips, parsnips, potatoes, leeks, cabbage, celery and lettuces. With November, walnuts and chestnuts came into season.

Feasting over the holidays might include game—both wild and tame birds—seasonal fish such as flounder, plaice, smelts, whiting, prawns, oysters and crab. Broccoli made a welcome change from the other winter vegetables, as did cress, herbs, cucumbers, beets and spinach. Preserved fruits would be running low in all but houses with large orchards, and stored apples and pears would have to serve guests. Roasts were popular Christmas fare, usually of beef if it could be afforded, or possibly goose.

Many decorations came from ancient times: Druids, Celts, and even the Romans used evergreen branches made into wreaths in winter solstice celebrations. Holly and ivy were also pagan symbols which remained green (a promise of life to return in dead of winter) and were adopted by the Church. Holly–prized for its ability to bear fruit in winter and its healing uses–became a said to be the thorns Christ wore on the crucifix and the berries were stained red by his drops of blood.  From the Norse and the Druids, Mistletoe (which was often found growing on the sacred oaks and featured in several old myths) was held to be sacred and associated with fertility, which led to kissing boughs. There are several local variations on the kissing bough custom. One holds that a woman who refused the kiss would have bad luck, and another is that with each kiss a berry was to be plucked, and the kissing must stop after all the berries were gone.

Strict Methodists might scorn such customs as smacking not of the pagan, but of the Catholic Church. During Cromwell’s rule, Christmas was even banned. Charles II restored the holiday in England. However, the Parliament of Scotland officially abolished the observance of Christmas in 1640, to purge the church “of all superstitious observation of days”, and it was not restored as a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.

coachsnowOn Christmas Day, and Boxing Day on December 26, which was St. Stephen’s Day. Boxing Day did not get its name from gift boxes, for the exchange of gifts was a German custom still new to Regency England (and only practiced by a few families). Instead, Boxing Day got its name from the older tradition of it being a day in which pleadings could be placed in a box for a judge to privately review. (It’s also said that Boxing Day’s name comes from the boxes given to the poor, or from boxes of goods given to servants–so there are several stories about this day’s name.)

In December, besides beef and mutton to eat, pork and venison were served. Goose was cooked for more than just the Christmas meal, and there would be turkey, pigeons, chicken, snipes, woodcock, larks, guinea-foul, widgeons and grouse to eat. Cod, turbot, soul, sturgeon and eels joined the list of fish in season. Forced asparagus added a delicacy to the usual winter vegetables. Stored apples, pears and preserved summer fruit appeared on the better, richer tables. Mince pies made from mincemeat, which has no meat in it, were another traditional fare, with the tradition being that everyone in the household should stir, for luck, the mix of dried fruit and spices before it was baked.

But households also celebrated not just according to the season, but also to the customs of the area. In the Regency, while some traditions were widespread such as caroling and church bells ringing (or ringing the changes), local customs in the countryside might well hold to the old ways and be more individual.

In Cornish, Christmas is Nadelik, and the Cornish custom of mummers and the “lord of misrule” was very popular, as was caroling, Morris dancing, and the lighting of the Mock or Block. The Cornish tradition was to draw a chalk man on the Christmas or Yule log to symbolize the death of the old year and then set it on fire.

In Devonshire, instead of a Yule log, the tradition was to burn the ashton fago, a bundle of nine ash-sticks bound with bands of ash. Devonshire traditions also hold with eating hot cakes that are dipped into cider (hard cider).

Like most of England, Wales had the traditional caroling but y Nadolic (Christmas) would be celebrated with an early church service held between three and six in the morning known as plygain or daybreak.

Yorkshire held to many old Norse customs, including the lighting of the Christmas candle by the head of the house (which was also to be extinguished by him, but never fully bunt), and the frumety (a dish of soaked wheat, milk, sugar,  nutmeg or other spices). Along with this would be peberkage or pepper-cake or gingerbread or Yule cake and the wassail-cup. In a Yorkshire village, even today, the Morris men might be longsword dancing in celebration.

Under the Kissing Bough_200For 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.

For Christmas customs, I relied on those that have carried down through the ages: the Yule log from Saxon winter solstice celebrations (which gives us Yule Tide celebrations), the ancient Saxon decorations of holy and ivy, and the Celtic use of mistletoe on holy days, which transformed itself into the kissing bough. Carolers might well travel from house to house, offering song in exchange for a wassail bowl—a hot, spiced or mulled drink, another tradition left over from the Norse Vikings.

The holidays were a time of games as well, and the game of Snapdragon is a very old one. It’s played by placing raisins in a broad, shallow bowl, pouring brandy over them and setting the brandy on fire. Players then must show their courage by reaching through the spirit-flames to snatch up raisins. And the game even comes with its own song:

Here comes the flaming bowl,

Don’t he mean to take his toll,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Take care you don’t take too much,

Be not greedy in your clutch,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Celebrations continued to mix tradition and religion when the Twelfth Night feast arrived on January 5, which mixed the Roman Saturnalia with the Feast of the Epiphany (a much bigger celebration in the Middle Ages than was Christmas), when the three wise men were said to have paid tribute to the Baby Jesus.

iceskatingBeside family gatherings, the Christmas hunt might well meet up for December is the height of fox hunting season. Large house parties would be held, and of course, attending church was almost required of everyone.  If local ponds or rivers froze, there would be ice skating and with snow on the ground, the sleigh could be taken out.

For those less fond of the cold, there would be indoor games as well as amusements, which was one reason why young ladies were meant to have accomplishments such as singing or playing a musical instrument, which might pass the time.

Is the Narrative Voice Dying Out?

title1I’m teaching my Show and Tell workshop in October and that got me thinking about the narrative voice. The two things that always happen with this workshop is that everyone comes in wanting to know more about “showing”–as in they’ve been beaten over the head in various critique comments to show more. The other thing is that I try to convince folks that good narrative is as important as good showing–each has it’s place in fiction, but I do worry that writers are being pushed into too much showing. What–is such a thing possible?

My answer is yes, and here’s why showing can be a bad thing at times.

1-Narrative can set a reader into the world. Too often I’m reading manuscripts and the description is more than sparse–it’s nonexistent. As a reader I want to know where I am, when I am and I want to experience the world. This means weaving in details to make the world vivid–sights, sounds, textures, tastes, smells. This can be done through a character’s viewpoint to show the world, but sometimes narrative can be a lot more effective to set your scene and put a reader into the story.

2-Narrative can weave in backstory. Yes, you can clog the opening of any story with too much–but too little can be just as bad. It’s like throwing someone into the deep end of the pool–the reader is left struggling. Too little information and the story becomes confusing and right after that the reader is going to check out of the fiction. Telling the reader a few things can keep the reader interested, particularly if you bait the hook with interesting bits of background so the reader wants to know more. And narrative can keep the backstory clean and crisp, so there’s no clunky exposition in dialogue.

3-Narrative can help introduce new characters. Again, this can be overdone, but a few bits of telling can help a reader “see” a person and helps keep the cast of characters sorted out. This can be done in a character’s viewpoint, but a lot of times a little bit of telling the reader something important or “telling” about the character is a better way to keep the pace moving and keep the reader involved.

4-Narrative can help the writer’s voice stand out. This is perhaps the most important part of the narrative voice–of telling. Beautiful writing is a wonderful thing. Again, this can be overdone and the writing becomes “writerly” or so self-conscious it throws the reader out of the story. You don’t want to step all over the story–and your characters–to leave thumbprints, but a lovely turn of phrase here and there is not a bad thing. It adds to the overall experience.

Notice with all of this, the important elements of telling are to not overdo it, and to use the narrative voice to help the reader into the story. I like to say it’s about showing more in scenes that need emotion, and telling better between scenes. The narrative voice has it’s place in fiction–I just hope writers will continue to learn how to use it better.

 

Better Stories

cakeI read a lot of manuscripts as contest entries and a lot of them have the same basic problem–the story doesn’t start on page one.  It’s far too easy for a writer to get caught up in the details. Those details are necessary to make the fictional world come to life. You can focus so much on the right word or the right sentence or fixing the paragraph that you forget that readers want a great story. That’s the most important thing.

A few years back I noticed there were workshops on all parts of writing–dialogue, pacing, showing and telling, viewpoint. I teach a few of those and they’re important. But even more important is how to make all of this come together in a way that makes for a great story. Think of it this way–you can have flour, sugar, eggs, milk, salt, baking powder and still make a terrible cake. It takes knowing not just the list of ingredients, but how much do you need and when these should be added, and how to mix and bake them–you can’t just throw them all in a bowl and expect something wonderful.

That’s why I do a workshop on storytelling. I’m teaching it again this September for RWA’s OCC. It is a dense class with a lot of information but the focus is on story–on getting a great story onto the page. Meaning it’s about looking at the list of ingredients–viewpoint, dialogue, pacing, showing and telling–and how to mix them together into something tasty.

So…are you focusing on story? On your characters? Or are you too focused on details?