Thursday, February 18, 2016

To Believe or Not to Believe

The suspension of disbelief—sometimes called the willing suspension of disbelief—was first discussed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge—in 1817. Right in the middle of the Regency, which, I suppose, matters not at all. But, of course, I noticed the date.

The suspension of disbelief has frequently been assumed to be the responsibility of the reader, who must make an effort to give the author the benefit of the doubt and enter into the world presented in a poem or work of fiction. But, the writer must not overburden the reader with challenges that make suspending disbelief too much of an effort for the enjoyment of the plot, characters, and setting. The genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy come to mind immediately when the suspension of disbelief is mentioned. But every genre, and even the most “realistic” literary fiction, must permit, if not encourage, the reader to become immersed in an imaginary world without being rudely awakened by an alarm inserted by the author.

 In all writing, typos, grammatical, and spelling errors, serve as irritants that distract from the enjoyment of a story. I suspect that the average reader of historical fiction might be a bit more aware of such lapses than readers of some other genres. But that is just the beginning of the details that writers of historical fiction need to get right.

Obviously, historical facts must be accurate. Did the character’s father die at Trafalgar? Even if the date and location are not stated in the story, the writer had better know them, or other details of the narrative might not make sense. Are Pilgrims celebrating Christmas in your novel?  Some readers might breeze through such a scene with no hesitation. But you can bet that some readers will close the book and never read another book you write. The intricacies of post-reformation English religious beliefs and practices might sound arcane, but knowledge of them is essential to any fictional portrayal of Colonial America.

In Through the Lookinglass, the White Queen tells Alice, “Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Would that all my readers were so generous! But, one assumes, that even if the White Queen generously grants the writer six impossible things, a seventh could very well induce her to slam the book shut and toss it across the royal room. So I might ask you to believe that little green men with antennae have just landed on Earth, or that my heroine has red hair, but no freckles. Perhaps I have as many as five more unlikely assumptions to ask you to believe. But at some point, one more impossible thing will break the spell. The trick for the writer is knowing what that is.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Naming Names

Since I am beginning a new novel, I am engaged in the serious matter of naming a number of characters—six or seven at last count—about whom I know very little. I have a general idea of their relationships to the main characters in the story, but not all their motivations, or even their physical appearances. Naming characters has become a challenge, a challenge which increases the longer I write.

It wasn’t always so. Naming characters in my first book, A Match for Lady Constance, was something of a lark. I wrote Constance largely for my own amusement. Even the name of the heroine was slightly tongue-in-cheek. One does not think of a spoiled beauty as the source of reliability that the name Constance implies.

When I named Constance, I was unaware of the understanding among writers that using names that end in an “s” sound should be avoided. It was bad enough for me to name my heroine with a name that ended in “ce”, which sounds like “s”. But in my second book, A Sensible Lady, I named a main character, Augustus, “Gus”. The name was perfect for him. I still think it is. And I’m glad I didn’t know enough to pass over that name, even though he is a main character in my current Work In Progress, and I’ll be dealing with “s’s” for about twenty chapters. What joy!

However, I did learn one important lesson about naming characters in the process of writing A Match for Lady Constance. I learned that once named, a character can develop a life of her own, transforming herself into someone quite different from her intended function. Drusilla Fortesque is the most dramatic example of this phenomenon. I thought Drusilla Fortesque was the perfect name for a frumpy nonentity with a minor role early in Lady Constance. But, before I knew it, Drusilla Fortesque became a lady of sophistication and wit and made herself essential to the story. Eventually, she required a novel of her own, the novel that became Boston Tangle. Had I known I was naming a character who would become the heroine of her own story, I doubt I would have dubbed her Drusilla Fortesque.  But if she had the wit and fortitude to defy the dull, limited assignment I gave her, she certainly had the wit and fortitude to carry off her name, Drusilla Fortesque, with panache.

The heroine of my new novel is named Jane Hamilton. Sounds like a subdued, easy going sort of lady. We shall see about that.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Big Scene

There are many reasons for a writer to feel stuck in the middle of writing a novel. I’ve discussed the Wall and the Cul de sac. But a third seemingly insurmountable barrier can be paralysis in the face of writing a Big Scene. There can be any number of important scenes in a novel. But there will be a minimum of three pivotal scenes: a scene that introduces the conflict, a scene that raises the conflict to its highest intensity, and the scene in which the conflict is resolved, either happily or unhappily.

Since the first of these scenes comes in the first chapter, if not in the first pages, it is unlikely to be the primary source of a block. But it’s never wasted time to take another look at the first chapter of a novel. It’s the equivalent of a contract with the reader. It should say: If you continue reading, you will want to continue reading. Are your characters alive? Is the setting convincing? Have you opened up sufficient potential for conflict and challenges for your protagonist? Some writers continue to re-write the first sentence of a novel until they are satisfied that it is as strong as possible. If you are halfway or three quarters of the way through your story, you might discover that you know more about the main characters than you did when you began, and you might want to make adjustments to the first chapter accordingly.

I write Regencies, and it is hard to imagine a Regency without social events such as balls, musicals, dinners, or house parties. These are big scenes in both importance and number of characters, and the prospect of writing one can be daunting. These scenes include multiple conversations and multiple observations of multiple characters and their actions. If tackling this type of big scene has you stymied, take some time to think about each character who will be participating in the scene. Look at each character’s motivation and relationship to the protagonist. What is the relationship of each character to other characters in the scene? How do all of these elements contribute to the dilemma or conflict? The challenge of “show don’t tell” is particularly important in this type of scene. Is Agatha jealous of Henrietta? Rather than just having Agatha cast dagger looks at Henrietta, have Agatha share a juicy tidbit of gossip about Henrietta with Angela, the heroine.  If that bit of gossip also intensifies Angela’s conflict, so much the better!  

Sometimes, a major social event will require a series of important scenes. Think about the sequencing of the scenes in order to maximize the conflict.

In contrast with a social event, which includes a number of characters, some scenes are “big” because they are so intense.  It’s understandable why it’s easy to postpone writing these scenes. It’s a gloomy Monday morning. The dog has just chewed a shoe that you should have remembered to put in the closet. Or, perhaps, you just keep checking your email. Guess what? The longer you postpone writing that scene, the longer the odds are that you will ever find the perfect moment to write it. Do you usually write at a computer? Try writing with pen and paper. Set a timer and write for twenty minutes. You might find that you don’t want to stop writing, even to turn off the buzzer. The important thing is to get the first draft of the Big Scene written. You can worry about revisions later.