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:


Writerly Wednesday–The Key to the Enigma

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: writing is weird. Being a writer is weird. As a writer, you spend most your time thinking about people and situations that aren’t real. You hear voices in your head and see visions. And yet, you aren’t schizophrenic or delusional. It’s a good thing. It’s encouraged.

The weirdest thing about a writer’s mind is, maybe, how it just bubbles away beneath the surface. How all the pieces hover there, just waiting for that bright, shining thread to connect them into something coherent. I’ve had the experience before, and I recently had it again with my current WIP. You’rr struggling with a plot knot, or with a character who just isn’t working. You beat your head against the wall. Nothing. And then! Then the idea is there-your subconscious has somehow worked through it and in a moment of calm, the subconscious pops into your conscious with a solution.

I had been struggling with one half of the setting of my WIP. Something just wasn’t working. It wasn’t anything I could name, but everything was coming out loosey-goosey. It didn’t cohere. I tried a hundred different things: I tried adding characters and switching up the particulars of the setting. It still just wasn’t working. One day as I sat on the bus reading some nonfiction research on the topic, it came to me in a blaze of understanding: move the MCs out of the relative quiet and isolation of an English country house and move them right up to the front lines of war. And bam, just like that, everything seemed to click. In a lot of ways, the setting wasn’t that different. But it was just different enough.

I had a similar experience with Channing. For the longest time, it was set in Baltimore. It took me a while, even after I moved to the DC area, to have that “duh” moment. I don’t know why it took so long, and it’s hard to say exactly what it was about Washington City (i.e., DC) that clicked. It just did.

More recently, as I was writing the prequel to Channing, I found myself battling with Emily’s storyline. Most of it worked, but it just didn’t come together properly. Then, I was reading one of the Outlander books, and there was a scene on a dock and, boom! I knew how to rearrange Emily’s story. Just like that, I found the winning formula. Then another revelation as I walked home from the bus stop one day: pride. That was Emily’s defining trait. That and the idea for a scene at the docks came together and, finally, I had a storyline I was happy with.

I think this kind of eureka moment is a sign that I’m getting better at this whole plotting thing (you’ll notice most my duh moments have to do with plot). It’s not my strongest point, and it doesn’t come all that naturally. I have to push and prod my ideas into a compelling plot. And it seems that my brain is learning how to work that out. It’s coming up with solutions. Years ago, on much earlier projects, it was just fumbling around, and those moments of clarity didn’t come. I was still learning how to make it happen. Now my mind, at least the subconscious part of it, has some idea what it’s doing. If only I could get my conscious mind to do the same . . .

Writerly Wednesday–Bouncing Around

This is going to be an informal kind of blog post, just an update of where I am in my writing. I recently finished editing a manuscript (The Prequel) in response to beta-reader comments. I got back one set a while ago and got the last of the second set of comments about two weeks ago. I was overall pretty pleased with the response. Both readers enjoyed the manuscript, and neither of them had any major problems with it. There was, funnily enough, some disagreement on a few points. One was the title, which one reader liked and the other didn’t. It came from a particular paragraph, which one reader noted she liked and the other noted she didn’t like. So, go figure! In instances like these, I go with my gut, which usually tells me to keep what I have! Both readers agreed that they didn’t like two of the four main characters, but they weren’t written to be likable, and both readers realized that, as well.

I sent the manuscript file off to my agent yesterday, so we’ll see what comments she has. This ms is a prequel to Channing, the story set in Washington DC and the Sea Islands of Georgia in 1854-1858. It’s titled The Cotton Wars and is about the parents of several of the characters in Channing (specifically Harry’s father, Everett’s father and mother, and Hannah’s mother). It takes place in Philadelphia and Georgia starting in 1829. For the record, I do have some very nebulous plans for a sequel, as well, set during the war and Reconstruction.

I finished writing The Cotton Wars ages ago now. I edited the hell out it, especially Emily’s story line, which took forever to get right (the key to Emily, I came to realize, was “pride”). I, however, couldn’t stand not writing new material, so I began a new project. This has been one bear of a project, let me tell you. After banging away at it for months, I finally came to the end of a horrible pile of dreck that weighed in at a whopping 125k words. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t entirely dreck, but it was massively flawed. I allowed it to sit for a while and have finally gotten back to it over the last two months or so, having worked out some of the kinks (funny how the subconscious works away at these problems while you go about your daily life). I’ve been rewriting it and am up to about 65k words. There’s a ton more story to go, but I’m going to hope for the best in coming in under 120k.

You’ll notice that I’m thin on the details. That’s because of the “dreck” thing. This manuscript is a departure for me, as it isn’t exclusively historical and since there’s a framing story. Most the story is historical, but it’s not an era I’ve written in before. All of that is why the project has been such a bear and why I don’t think it’s anywhere near presentable. In fact, this one might end up abandoned in that lovely trunk where sad little novels go to . . . well, maybe not to die, but to molder. We’ll see. This’ll be my last major attempt at a rewrite of it. If I’m not content with where I am–a bit of smoothing-over notwithstanding–then I’ll abandon it. I have at least two other projects to fall back on, projects that are more in my comfort zone (though challenging in other ways).

Time will tell.

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 . . .


Cotton Prices–A Research Coup

Sometimes, small details trip you up, especially when you’re writing historical fiction. You might find that the story demands a certain esoteric fact. You know all about this, that, and the other thing, but what you really need to know is the color of a particular bottle or the name of a very specific medicine: something super detailed but super important to the story.

You can either go hunting for the detail, or you can write around it.

As I wrote what I affectionately call The Prequel (even though its working title is The Cotton Wars and has been for a while now), I had a blast writing about the feud between the Daniels brothers. At one point, the price of cotton (by the bale, to be sold to factories) becomes important. Suffice it to say that Charles has a particular reason for wanting to sell his cotton harvest at a particular price, so he discusses it with his overseer-and-factor. He asks what the usual price is, then what the highest and lowest prices might be. But I didn’t have the least idea what the price of a cotton bale might have been in 1830. I could have cut out this discussion, or written around the numbers, but the scene was important and wouldn’t have the same impact without the numbers. So, as a place-holder, I plugged in my best guess–around a hundred dollars per bale–and told myself I would fact-check later.

Many moons later, I still had those numbers bolded as a reminder to myself to check them. I kept putting it off because I thought it would be a hard nut to crack. But this past weekend, I was reading a guide to Philadelphia (as some additional research for The Prequel) and found mention of the cost of storing cotton. This got my interest piqued, like a bloodhound on a scent. So I began to poke around Google Books, searching for “cotton” and “Savannah” (which is the port to which my characters, living on the Sea Islands, would have sent their cotton to be sold and shipped to factories in the North or in England).

And lo! I found what I was looking for: cotton prices! I was ecstatic.

What I found was in Niles’ Weekly Register, a newspaper that contained all sorts of shipping news from around the country and the world. There are fascinating details about ships being burned and confiscated, of prices of corn (and other commodities) rising and falling, and shipments of hats etc. coming into port.

The first bit of information I found was about a ship confiscated in 1814, 20151201_204510during the War of 1812. It was a very helpful start: The ship Victory was captured, including 464 bales of cotton at 300 pounds each, worth some
$41,760 (according to the article). Doing the math, that meant $90 per bale and $.30 per pound. This, however, was some fifteen years before my story, so I kept looking.

From April 1826, I found two helpful bits: At Charleston, upland cotton 20151201_204536bound for Liverpool would “not bear more than eleven cents per lb.” Keeping in mind that the cotton in my story would be the finest Sea Island cotton, the above means about $33 per bale. The second bit of information was that in New Orleans, the price was “from 8 cents ordinary, to 14 ‘fine'”, meaning that even the best cotton was selling for perhaps $42 per bale.

I had to ask myself, how could cotton be worth twice as much in 1814 as in 1826? I think this might have to do with the note in the 1814 article: the price they give is for cotton “clear of duties”. Meaning, this is before taxation. The two numbers20151201_204547 I got from 1826 might be after duties. The writer of Niles’ Review reckoned
that the duty on the entire cargo of the ship (including indigo, coffee, and wood) would be about $18,000, so no small sum.  I *believe* that is the solution here, though I’m still slightly uncertain. I’m guessing that it could partly be explained by natural fluctuations in prices. There is also the fact that the prices cited in 1826 were clearly not the good Sea Island stuff.

Another issue is the size of a bale of cotton. You’ll notice that I based my calculations on a bale of 300 pounds. Today, a standard bale is 500 pounds, but (no surprise) things weren’t as standard in the early 1800’s. The usual bale, apparently, was closer to 300 or 400 pounds, as evidenced by the statement above in Niles’ Review whereby the bales of cotton are reckoned at 300 pounds.

So, I had what I needed to put (accurate) words (or numbers) into my characters’ mouths. A bale of good cotton would be somewhere around $75 a bale, going with the number that’s closer to my date. For the best stuff, let’s say $100, for the rotten stuff, $50. These are rough numbers, based partly on the numbers above and partly on the fact that Sea Island cotton was better quality and worth much more than other cotton.

I wasn’t far off in my original guesses, especially given the slightly high number I found from 1814: I put the price of a bale of cotton at around $100 per bale.

So, that my friends, is a “day in the life” of a historical fiction writer…

Writerly Wednesday–I Hear Dead People

I was thinking about how exactly to explain what goes on in a writer’s head without sounding like a crazy person. And what popped into my head was the title of this thread: “I hear dead people!”

Of course, the creative process is a little different for everyone, between writers and non-writers and even among writers. I’m not going to think of things in the same way that a visual artist would. They don’t need to attach actual words to the story they’re trying to tell, and likewise I don’t need to attach actual images to my words. Even among writers, though, the amount to which the writer visualizes his/her characters, setting, or events varies.

For me, it’s a distinctly non-visual affair. I try to create a rich environment, but it doesn’t necessarily come naturally. I do best with creating landscapes, because landscapes capture my attention and imagination, and I enjoy rendering them in words. Getting down to a smaller scale, though, I don‘t see the immediate environment of my characters photographically. I see snippets of it, like a candle being wielded by our POV character and illuminating just what’s in front of them.

And as for the characters themselves? Well, I rarely get an actual image of them. What I have is a list of traits in my mind that add up to them as a character. I do not necessarily see a face, though I have a hazy idea of how that face is animated by the person within. I do not necessarily see a body, but I see how the character uses his/her body to express things in the moment, or how that body reflects who they are (scars? a limp? an athletic build?). I’ve only rarely had “glimpses” of my characters. Otherwise, they’re a bit like figures from a well-plotted dream: you know they are what they are, but you don’t know why and you never really see the details.

Mostly, I hear voices. Conversations go on in my head, not necessarily at the moment I’m writing, but often as I’m daydreaming. Snatches of dialogue come to me, and sometime entire conversations play out in my mind. They are actual words–complete sentences. And the voices in my head answer one another. It can be a bit startling, because I’m not always necessarily thinking of the story at the particular moment, but then boom! there’s a pithy line, or an exchange between two characters. That’s part of the reason there are sticky notes all over my wall with two or three lines on them: one of these lines of dialogue or exchanges between characters has come to me, and I have to get it down before it disappears.

[As a side-note, plot points sometimes come to me this way, in the form of dialogue, but more often they come to me in much the same way–in flashes of understanding–except not in the form of words. It’s more like a connection. A “duh” moment.]

Sometimes, I wonder where these voices come from, but I know it’s just the working of my unconscious. My unconscious probably believes these stories are real and is working out for me how to respond, just as it works behind the scenes to help me respond to the real world. The voices in my head are my brain’s best guess at how a person with Character X’s traits would respond. It’s trying to figure out these characters as if they were real. I guess that’s another way of saying it’s my imagination.

And of course, I write historical fiction, so all these “people” are long-dead.

Ergo, I hear dead people . . . and it’s not even creepy, I swear.