Writerly Wednesday: When Novellas Attack

This one is a cross-post with my main author’s website, http://www.elizabethhuhn.com.

Go ahead, follow this link, if you dare, and find out what happens . . . when novellas attack. It’s the frightening tale of a novella that turned into a novel.

In the meantime, here’s a pretty picture to tide you over:

20160321_142524

Who Tells Your Story–Hamilton

img_0785In case you’ve been in a coma, you’ve heard about Hamilton: An American Musical by now. It’s a Broadway show that’s become a cultural phenomenon. First, let me get one important thing off my chest: it’s bloody brilliant. It is a work of genius that approaches a historical subject with real wisdom and insight, with humor and pathos (I think it’s impossible to have the one without the other). And yes, I am as obsessed as the next person with Hamilton. In fact, I have a rather possessive feeling about it, because it’s a piece of historical fiction and, well, I’m a historical fiction writer. Getting people psyched and enthusiastic about American history? Jesus Christ, yes please!

I saw Hamilton yesterday, and I was blown away (see what I did there?). I wasn’t fortunate enough to see Lin-Manuel Miranda or much of the original cast, but the entire show was spectacular. The audience was alive with shared enjoyment. It felt like everyone was holding their breaths, awaiting every moment they knew was coming, almost disbelieving that they were really there. A special once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I thought I’d write up a blog because writing is what I do (albeit not with Hamiltonian prolificness).

The Subtext

As a writer and consumer of historical fiction in every medium, as soon as I decided that Hamilton was genius (for the record, that happened when I first heard King George informing his colonists that they’d be back), I started pondering why. Not why I was drawn to it, in spite of the fact that I’m not really a fan of musicals or hip-hop. That was pretty clear: it was about American history, and I do like music, and everyone was raving about how wonderful it was. No, what I was wondering was why it was so effective. What made it tick? What made it, as historical fiction, connect so profoundly with so many people?

A short answer was the language, which I mean to talk about later. But that wasn’t all of it, because the language and music are entirely anachronistic, with a few notable exceptions. Yet, in spite of the words being from the wrong era, they feel right. They seem to paint each historical person with an accurate light, according to what we know of their character. Why?

It took me a while to puzzle out the exact mechanism here, but I finally came up with this: subtext. Obviously, Jefferson didn’t run around chanting, “Never gonna be president now!”, but one imagines that that’s what he thought. And Washington almost certainly never said, “Can I be real a second, for just a milisecond?”, but one suspects that it was simmering in his mind. That’s the beauty of it: although the characters are singing to us aloud, what we’re hearing is the workings of their minds, the messages that were passed back and forth through body language, through shared history, through the subtle texture of diction and grammar that, at the remove of two hundred forty years, would elude most of us if it remained in its original form. Yet for the living, breathing people being represented, it was clear as day: there was much more going on than just spoken or written words.

That’s where music comes in. What’s being expressed is the subtle interplay that was never put into words. It functioned at a level below verbal language. So by bringing this to the surface, you can use whatever language can best express it to you audience, which is what music does best. For Lin-Manuel Miranda, this was the language of hip-hop and Broadway musicals.

Perhaps most telling as regards this particular theory: there are a few (mildly altered) direct quotations from the primary sources here. And if you pay attention, you notice that almost all these quotations are spoken, not sung. Think of the Reynolds Pamphlet, or Washington’s Farewell address, or when Washington says, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” These are spoken, or at most said in a singsong. We’re pulled out of the melody, setting these bits apart, which of course delineates what was said from what was thought (which in this case is sung).

Also, the most glaring “subtext” is the giddily bitchy King George, who struts in and reminds us that running through and above and below everything the Founding Fathers said and did was the real possibility of failure, and the reality that they were treading new ground.

The Text

Of course, Hamilton is genius for using the subtext to illuminate historical figures’ conflicts. But the actual use of language is genius as well. Miranda uses idiomatic English to perfection, brilliantly mixing touches of 18th century formality with the no-holds-barred language of a rap battle. It’s pretty extraordinary, to dip in and out of such disparate registers and dialects so freely and effectively.

As a historical novelist, I envy Miranda. Not only does he get to use music–which gives emotional cues and amplifies the meaning of the words–but he also is free to–or rather, freed himself to–use whatever words he wants, historical accuracy be damned. Because we’re being presented with subtext, and because frankly this is a musical, he can really let loose with all the linguistic skills at his fingertips (to great effect). The audience sees a stage and hears music and knows this is an interpretation.

Novel-writing is a different beast. You set down words on a page in a book, and people assume and expect it to be literally accurate. There’s no stage or music to draw attention to the fact that it is staged. There’s less leeway for novelists because, except for certain genres, your audience is expecting an accurate depiction of the world as it is–or was. Historical fiction in particular carries the expectation that the authors is presenting the real world, not a version of it. Take one look at the stage or cast for Hamilton, on the other hand, and you know that what we’re seeing is a version of the story.

So, yeah, I kind of wish I could get away with having an eighteenth-century character say “okay”, but then again . . . there are a million ways to say the same thing. A modern vernacular is effective, but it’s only one way to get that subtext across.

Pulls no punches.

One of the most striking things I noticed when watching the play last night was that the characters pull no punches. A disadvantage of having a great control of language is that you can lacerate other people with it. (I’m thinking of a story about Abraham Lincoln cutting down his political opponent so ruthlessly as a young man that he had to apologize for it later; not a naturally cruel man, he couldn’t really control his tongue at that point in his life.)

And here, Miranda is able to use language viciously. “Daddy’s calling.” “Call me son one more time!” “I’m not here for you.” These are cutting, cringe-inducing phrases. They work precisely because they’re so cutting. It feels like a lot of television and movies these days are afraid to use language as a tool, to really show how cruel people can be to one another with words. It takes a lot of wit to be that brutal, and a lot of wisdom to use it in the right places. One imagines that Miranda has to contain a lot of smart-ass remarks in real life.

The History

There’s a hell of a lot of historical fiction out there, and a lot of it’s about the Revolutionary War. But the Federal period has been given short shrift. I’ve thought for a long time that it was a fascinating time, particularly the period around the creation of the Constitution. What these men were doing, and what they accomplished, is truly remarkable. From where we stand, it seems inevitable and immutable, but for them it must have felt like they were bumbling through a thicket in the dark.

It’s refreshing to have a piece of popular historical fiction address such a fraught time period with such thoughtfulness and devotion to historical accuracy. No, not everything is accurate, but within the framework of a Broadway musical, that would be impossible. What is shown is faithful to the historical record, and especially to the spirit of the record. No major events were changed or greatly rearranged. What was changed had particular narrative purposes. It’s clear Miranda respected the history and wanted to do his best to represent it onstage.

The Historiography

The most interesting and important part of Hamilton, though, isn’t even the history it gets right; it’s the approach it takes to history, the historiography. Anyone who studies history knows that how we understand the past alters with the present. Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. He’s undergone a lot of ups and downs in the eyes of the American public; currently, he seems to be on something of a downswing. It’s also important to recognize that there is a lot that we will simply never know, which Miranda clearly recognizes. Hell, there’s a whole song about how “no one else was in the room where it happened.” We’re reminded that, like Burr, we are on the outside looking in, that not even the people of the time necessarily knew all the details.

Then there’s the recurring theme of legacy: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story. Hamilton died relatively young, and his rivals ended up telling much of his story for him. Again, those familiar with history will know the importance of sources. Here on this blog, I’ve talked about Jeanne de La Motte’s memoirs. She’s not exactly a reliable source. She tended to make up stories from whole cloth. What’s interesting is that in her own time, she was listened to and believed, while the queen, who never directly addressed the suspicions that she stole the diamond necklace in question, was widely believed to be culpable. Yet, today, the reverse is believed.

What we leave to future generations will be interpreted and reinterpreted, and we have no control over any of it. That’s a caveat for consumers of history, as well as for those who believe they themselves are making history.

“Lafayette’s a smart man; he’ll be fine”; or Minor Miscues

While Miranda’s faithfulness to history is laudable, and his clear message about the nature of history itself is remarkably astute, there are a few historical inaccuracies that I would like to point out. There are others, but bear with me:

-Jefferson’s personality. Now, I enjoy the character of Jefferson, and I can see why he was written as he was. But, Thomas Jefferson considered himself a man of the people, and though he picked up some French habits while minister there, he didn’t dress flamboyantly, and he certainly wasn’t the type to strut around a cabinet meeting. He was a soft-spoken man who did not give public speeches and avoided conflict like the plague. He was unfailingly polite and charming. Rather a far cry from how he’s presented in the musical.

-Jefferson in France. This one really gets to me. In the musical, Hamilton calls out Jefferson for not fighting in the war because he was off in France. But Jefferson became minister to France after the war. During the war, it was John Adams and Ben Franklin who were in Paris. If you recall, Jefferson penned a little thing called the Declaration of Independence in 1776, so he was in the new United States during the thick of things. In fact, he narrowly escaped being taken prisoner when Redcoats arrived and drove him and his family from Monticello in the middle of the night. He was governor of Virginia during the war. So while he didn’t command troops in the field like Hamilton did, he was very much a part of the war. He wasn’t off getting high with the French (and if he were, so what? someone had to wine and dine them to keep their support).

-“Lafayette’s a smart man, he’ll be fine.” Sigh. No, not really, unless you count being imprisoned for many years to be “fine.” Lafayette was caught up in the madness of the France’s own Revolution after he returned home from the American one, and though he tried to roll with the ever-changing tide, it eventually caught up to him. He was frankly lucky to survive.

Those are the ones that really bug me. There are smaller ones (like the fact that Alexander and Eliza Hamilton had eight children), but often there are clear narrative reasons for them (what on earth would one do with all those children?).

Everything else about Hamilton is basically pure magic. The show was amazing, and if I had another pile of cash to throw down, you bet I’d go see it again. If you are the oddball who hasn’t listened to Hamilton yet, please do so. Now.

Writerly Wednesday–He Said/She Said

Generally speaking, there are two parts to any piece of fiction writing: the exposition and the dialogue. The interface between the two is the dialogue tag: “he said”, “she said”, and any and all variations thereof.

Exactly what to do with those tags is a hot topic among writers. Seriously. Fur flies sometimes over what constitutes a “saidism”, how many adjectives are too many, whether “beats” are annoying ticks or not, and so on. The way I see it, there are a few things that go into effective use of dialogue tags.

Clarity. The most important bit of information we need to know is who’s talking. A lot of the time, this requires a dialogue tag. Sometimes the dialogue tag requires a name instead of a pronoun. This is really dependent on what’s going on around the dialogue. If we’ve just had a paragraph talking all about Bill’s thoughts on XYZ, and he then opens his mouth to echo what he was just thinking, then we know it’s Bill. If, however, we’re listening on Bill’s thoughts, and those thoughts are interrupted by Susie, then we’re going to need a dialogue tag telling us it’s Susie who’s speaking. Sometimes, you have two people going back and forth, and we don’t need names because it’s clear who’s saying what (though a tag here and there helps to keep the reader on track). And if there is a “he” and a “she”,  you can just use the pronoun (convenient!).

We also might need to know a bit of information about how the word is being said. Is Bill shouting, whispering, or otherwise saying his words in some super-special way? If this isn’t entirely obvious from the surrounding exposition, use a tag.

Now, this is where “saidisms” might creep in. A “saidism” is using a slightly silly word instead of “said”. “Said” is basically invisible to your reader–they don’t notice it. To say someone “grinned” or “laughed” their words is nonsensical (how can words be “grinned”?) and overwrought. It should be more-or-less obvious from the situation and the words themselves what’s going on. When you pile it on using tags, it comes across as trying too hard.Again, I want to emphasize how illogical some “saidisms” are.

Variety. Yes, “said” is invisible, but it would get boring pretty fast if every big of dialogue were tagged with “said Bill”. You can switch it up a bit by breaking up sentences in different ways (“‘What,’ said Bill, ‘do you think you’re doing?'” is subtly different from, “‘What do you think you’re doing?’ said Bill.”) You can use some tags that aren’t said (though they have to make sense! and don’t use them all the time!). (“‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Bill yelled,” is different from, “‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Bill said.”)

Color. I’m talking about the occasional adjective in addition to the occasional tag like “cried” “shouted” or “whispered”. Yes, adjectives! They are not a cardinal sin. It’s somewhat modish to shudder at the very idea of adjectives being tacked on to a dialogue tag, but that’s an overreaction to a few bad eggs. Adjectives are useful. Saying that someone “said quietly” isn’t the same as saying “whispered” and “said petulantly” might just be more effective than trying to convey petulance in other ways. Whatever gets across the meaning most vividly to your reader is the best option.

Beats. I love beats in dialogue. I do. My characters are always saying things “with a shrug” or “as he/she picked up the cup of tea”. Or they stand up and walk across the room and then talk again. Hot tip, giving your characters a prop can be useful–though you have to make sure that the way your character interacts with that prop actually says something about them as a person (a shrug can carry a lot of meaning; tapping a tea cup with the tip of your finger conveys impatience, while sliding it around on the table conveys distraction). Beats also help stave off the dreaded “talking head” effect, where it seems your characters are just voices in a void.

Rhythm. This is so hard to define. But where you put tags, how long they are, and how much information they convey are all part of how quickly the conversation rolls along. And how long you want it to roll along depends on the mood. If we’re in the middle of the action, or it’s a particularly tense conversation, then we want to keep the outside stuff like beats and adjectives to a minimum. If we’re lingering over some old memories or getting to know our characters, then we can slow down and notice things like body language and what Bill or Susie are fiddling with as they speak.

So, those are just a few thing to think about when writing dialogue tags . . .

 

Writerly Wednesday–Notes to Self

Inspiration is a persnickety thing. It doesn’t come when bidden and often comes when not 20150421_132851wanted. Take for example all those time I’m brushing my teeth, taking a shower, or just sitting on the toilet, only to have an idea come to me out of the blue. It’s like a piece of me that’s been missing. Aha. There you are, I think. The solution has always been there, or it feels like it has, lurking under the surface. When the idea strikes, it’s not always possible to run to a computer and write. Sometimes, it’s an idea for much later in the story, so it isn’t time to act on it yet anyway. So, in order not to forget things, I keep a notebook in my purse that has bunches of notes about various things, as well as lists for edits and important dates I need to keep straight. Anything I may forget–and I do have a tendency to forget things–has to be written down.

Aside from my notebook, I also have sticky notes stuck to the walls around my desk, which is in a corner. Some are plot ideas or bits of dialogue, some are questions to myself. Here is a sampling:

"The smoke and noise of battle had faded away into memory and __ lay in the grass before his house with a cigar, looking up a clear blue sky."

“The smoke and noise of battle had faded away into memory and __ lay in the grass before his house with a cigar, looking up a clear blue sky.”

This one is an opening to a novella. The beginning of the sentence stayed the same, but I added the character’s name (Hamilton) and slightly changed the end of the sentence. This novella came to me pretty well-formed already. I only had to fill in the (admittedly large) gaps. One of the clearest things that just came to me, like a bolt of lightning, was this opening.

20150610_211013

Caroline and Augustine have guns, both shoot at Harry, who’s threatening them. Everett dives to protect the children. –Everett gets beat up by a posse. –Caroline wants to help a pregnant lady. Mr. Day beats her for complaining, H and C get into a huge argument. –Jack teaches C to row. –C collapses in tears on E’s shoulder.

These are ideas for Channing. So as not to spoil anything, I will only say that a few of these things happen in the story, and the rest did not.

"Everett: 'You just want to grow up, don't you?' Ellen doesn't approve of the match with Everett. Everett played piano at the hotel--the only place he could get music outside of singing.

Everett: “You just want to grow up, don’t you?”
Ellen doesn’t approve of the match with Everett.
Everett played piano at the hotel–the only place he could get music outside of singing.

And none of these things ended up in the story.

And here, for fun, is one of the quotes I have on my wall for inspiration:

"We will nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth." --A Lincoln

“We will nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth.” –A Lincoln

And here’s a view of my wall:

20150607_160430

From the top, that’s Abraham Lincoln (duh), the unfinished Capitol, Thomas Jefferson, me at Monticello, and Julia Ward Howe.