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–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 . . .

 

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.

Writerly Wednesday–Point of View Take 2

How many points of view is too many?

The answer is: there is no answer. Like a lot of things with writing, it all depends on the execution. In some genres there are norms. Fantasy novels often have a host of characters, each of which get some face-time (you know, some scenes from their point of view [POV]). Think Game of Thrones. In romance, it’s common to have two POVs, the guy’s and the girl’s. In other genres, it’s a little more up in the air.

In my opinion, it’s always best to restrict the number of POV characters. When you present a new character, you’re asking the reader to learn about and identify with that character. If you ask them to do that a dozen times, you’re asking a lot. And you can lose the story in the characters. First, every time you use a new POV, you have to spend time introducing the character and setting up where they are and what they’re doing and why. That racks up the word count and slows down the story. Second, with a host of potential characters, it’s hard to have a main character. Without a main character, your reader has no one in particular to root for. (This has been my problem with GoT.) Third, the POV switching becomes a kind of crutch, I think, especially for newer writers, who often feel the need to “write into” a scene–that is, start way too soon and spend several hundred words getting comfortable with the characters, setting, and situation. Introducing a new character ends up being a convenient way of writing into a scene instead of just writing the scene. You can camouflage it as just starting a new POV, but it’s still just settling into a scene instead of starting it where it needs to start.

Finally, you’ll hear writers say that they have to have this character as a POV character. Character X is the only one who could have seen Event Y, and we have to see that event because of Reasons. But that’s assuming a couple things: that we have to learn about an event first-hand, that we have to learn it about it as it happens, and that it has to be presented as an Event (instead of as Backstory or Offstage Stuff).

If we really must learn about Event Y, then 1) have Character X show up and tell our POV character about it; 2) have your POV character learn about it through the known-on effects the Event has on the world/people around him/her (and we the reader learn about it at the same time as the POV character); 3) or allude to it but keep the details mysterious.

You only need a POV character if they have something important to add that can’t be added any other way. Ideally, they’ll have an arc of their own that ties into the larger story-arc. It’s a bit like weaving with multiple threads. Each switch has to be deliberate and part of the whole.

There are many ways to get information across, and many reasons why “necessary” information isn’t always so necessary. Don’t default to adding a new POV just because it’s convenient.

All that being said, multiple POVs can work. Sometimes, the best option IS to add another POV, or many POVs. The aim may be a more intricate, varied plot. Sometimes, there really is no other way to get across a certain bit of plot.

Let me give some more concrete examples here from my own writing. Channing has two POVs: Everett’s and Caroline’s. We start with Caroline’s, then switch back and forth for a while. Then we stay with Caroline, then begin switching back-and-forth. We start with her so that we can meet Everett and his cousin Harry through her eyes and so that we don’t know certain things about Everett and Harry until later (for example, we don’t learn until later that Harry and Everett are cousins). Later, we stay with Caroline because I want readers to be surprised when Everett pops back up. Then, when everything starts heating up, we jump back and forth as their interactions become more intertwined. Everett and Caroline each have their arcs: Everett learns to be happy in the moment instead of giving up everything for his antislavery crusade, and Caroline grows up and figures out her feelings about slavery and life in general. But this is all part of an overall arc: girl meets boy, girl and boy are pulled apart, boy and girl come back together.

[Full disclaimer: I added four chapters, two each from the POV of Harry and Augustine, not to get across information per se but because I wanted to write from their perspectives. It gives a little more insight into them as characters.]

Another example: I wrote a prequel to Channing about the characters’ parents. So, from the beginning, it was natural to me that there were four POVs, as it was two couples (three if you count the brothers as a “couple”) who come together and then fall apart. I leaned heavily on Archie, since he was a common thread between the other three characters–lover, brother, and master. The overall arc is fairly simple: brothers start a feud, brothers try to destroy each other, one of them succeeds (actually, they both succeed in a way). Each of the four characters has an arc of his/her own: Archie loses his faith in his brother and loses everything, Emily’s dreams are crushed but she dusts herself off, Charles ruthlessly attacks his brother but realizes too late that there’s no joy in it, and Betty goes from naivety to taking charge of her destiny.

Of course, choosing who will act as POV character and when can be tricky. Don’t think that the above all came naturally. Especially with Channing, it took a lot of trial and error before I figured out how to approach the story. But taking the time to work it out was worth the effort.

A Literary Announcement

Anyone who has read this blog is aware that it has two distinct threads: there’s the history thread (which began with a focus on ancien régime France but shifted to 19th century America) and there’s the writing thread. I’ve blogged a bit about my writing process and given sporadic updates on where I stand in the querying game.

I am pleased to announce that I have signed as a client with Erin Niumata at Folio Literary. I am now one that rare bread of exotic and elegantly plumed birds: an agented author.

The work that snagged me representation by the wonderful Erin Niumata is a historical novel, Channing. It’s set in the Antebellum south and is about a young woman who ends up married to the owner of a large Georgia plantation, and a Quaker who ends up in Georgia for very different reasons.

Now, before I go any further, an explanation of what getting an agent does and does not mean: It means that I have cleared that first, crucial hurdle in the pursuit of becoming a real-live published author. Agents are the primary gatekeepers, and they get (electronic) piles of queries. For a writer, querying agents is a monumental, soul-sucking effort. It’s hard just to get a response, no less an offer of representation from (more on the numbers below). Suffice it to say, it’s kind of a big deal to get an agent. It is, however, just the first step. It means I get to pass on to the second round of gatekeepers: the editors at the publishing houses. They will decide whether to buy the book and publish it. Getting an agent means that I’m a step along a very long road. It could take years before the book is in bookstores near you. And no, there is almost no chance I will get rich (that seems to be something that people think who aren’t familiar with how publishing works). First-time authors generally don’t make enough to live on, so I’m not going to be the next J.K. Rowling.

Alright, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Channing.

Channing began in 2010. I was studying abroad in England, getting my Master’s degree in Publishing. I had recently finished my most recent project, Grove of Venus, about ancien régime France and had been querying agents. I was getting good responses but needed to start on something new (I can’t not write). For some reason, I hit on the idea of a duel. That was the spark of an idea that became Channing.

(For the record, Grove of Venus wasn’t my first manuscript. I wrote a 120k word novel set in Roman Britain, but that one is permanently trunked. As for Grove of Venus, it is on the back burner but definitely not forgotten. My response rate for that novel was pretty good, better at least than for Channing. It was, I think, the name “Marie-Antoinette” that attracted attention.)

At first, Channing (which of course wasn’t called that at the time) was going to be set in Georgian England. Mostly, I think that was because there is a limited number of times and places where dueling—of the kind I was picturing—actually happened. I chose England in the late 18th century because, well, I was living in England and dueling was a Thing there in the 18th century. My original idea was something like: girl falls in love with guy, girls and guy are secretly engaged, guy is killed in a duel right before they’re married, and—well, that was as far as I got, really.

Two things changed my mind: a book titled Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln by Janis Cooke Newman, and a memoir by an English actress named Fanny Kemble who ended up married to the owner of a large Georgian plantation. As it happened, Fanny Kemble’s memoir, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation had a much greater influence on me and, consequently, on Channing (by the way, the title is the name of a plantation, not a person, and has no special significance). The memoir inspired me to place my duel not in Georgian England but in the state of Georgia before the Civil War. It was April 2010 when I started thinking about placing the story in Georgia. In July of that year, I returned to the United States. It’s also the first time I labelled a file as “Channing”.

After I returned to the U.S., I lived with my brother in the old house where I grew up. I’ve always loved that house, and I think it influence me deeply as I started forming an actual plot around my idea of a duel. During that year back home, while I was trying to get a “real” job, I read Gone With the Wind. It was a very different vision of slavery than what was represented in Fanny Kemble’s Journal and from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I’d read while in England. I enjoyed the romance and escapism of Gone with the Wind, and I liked Scarlett’s pluck. But I also loved Fanny Kemble’s clear moral stance and her sympathy with the slaves. I wanted to meld these influences into something that was not quite any of them.

It took time to sort it all out. I have files named things like Greenlynch and populated with odd, nebulous characters that barely resemble any of the characters who ended up in Channing. Some names remain, though the characters have changed entirely.

Everett, the male main character, started out as a real Rhett Butler type and became a Quaker (ha!). Augustine was once the surly slave owner (that role was taken over with gusto by Harry, who was once a mild-mannered suitor). Caroline, the female main character, remained for the most part unchanged: she was always a young woman who hadn’t taken sides yet and who found herself pressured into doing so.

Over the next two years or so, I wrote, rewrote, edited, agonized, refined, and agonized some more. Meanwhile, I queried Grove of Venus on and off. And in August of 2011, I got a full-time job and moved to the Washington, D.C., area. Previously, the early parts of the novel had been set in Baltimore. In fact, for several months after I moved to D.C., I continued to research antebellum Baltimore. Yet, as I wrote these early scenes, something just didn’t click. Finally, it hit me: why not set the early bits in Washington City (known as Washington, D.C. today) instead of Baltimore?

Once I made that switch, everything seemed to fall into place. I still had some issues with structure (chronological? flashbacks? alternating chapters?), but I had my story, and it began with a duel. I think my structure problems actually were down to a slight mental block: I wanted the duel to begin the novel because it was the spark of the entire novel (it also is the crucial point of no return, and it also mirrors nicely with the show-down at the end). But in any case, by June 2012 I felt confident enough in what I had to send it to beta readers—that is, to other writers who could comment on the writing and the story. I took feedback, revised, rinsed, and repeated for about a year before I started sending our queries.

And what a daunting experience that can be! I had a relatively poor response rate. For those who don’t know, it’s not unusual to never get a response from agents. I got quite a lot of silence. I ended up with several requests, though the reception was hardly overwhelming. For the record, here are the numbers:

75 queries sent

2 partial requests, rejected

1 full, rejected

1 partial that turned into a full, rejected

1 partial that turned into a full, that turned into a revise-and-resubmit, that turned into another revise-and-resubmit, that turned into an offer of representation

So, that last one obviously is the most important one. In February 2014, I received a request from Erin Niumata for the first several chapters of Channing (that’s what a “partial” is). She liked it enough to request the full manuscript. In April, I received a note from Erin declining the manuscript, but providing some extremely valuable (and spot-on) feedback. I felt I could address all of it, so I asked whether she’d consider a revision. She said yes, so I set to work. I sent the revised manuscript back, and Erin had some more input (again, it was great stuff). So I got to work on another revision. I sent it to her, and. . . . waited. Now, publishing is slow, but I started getting anxious and discouraged only after several months. Then a feeling of foreboding started to set in. Was this her way of declining the revised manuscript? Were my revisions that bad?

I sent a few follow-up emails but got no response. Eek. I was getting that familiar, sinking feeling that this whole trying-to-get-an-agent thing was just an endless game of trying, trying, trying, and never succeeding. I’d been trying for a long time, and hadn’t succeeded yet, so the feeling of dejection was somewhat familiar. On something of a hunch, though, I sent an email from a different email address. And lo and behold, I got a response. I was so incredibly relieved. It so happens that my emails had been trapped by Erin’s junk email folder. She’d been wondering what had happened to me! She asked me to resent the latest revision, so of course I sent it asap.

That was in February of this year. At the very end of March, I got an email from Erin saying she wanted to call to talk about offering representation. I cannot say how ecstatic I was. It has been five years since the story first began to grow in my mind. It had been two and half years since I first asked for beta-reader input. I had been querying for over a year and a half. And I had been writing all my life, querying various projects, always trying to get to this point, always knowing I had it in me somewhere. And finally, there it was: that rare prize, an agent. Validation, a sign I wasn’t crazy, someone who cared about my writing.

Now, by some strange cosmic irony, I had planned a trip to go to Georgia and see the Sea Islands at the end of March. The previous spring, an airline had screwed up my flight, and I got a travel voucher to make up for it. I’d determined to use it to see the setting of Channing. I didn’t know at that point whether I would get an offer of representation from Erin or anyone else, but I didn’t care. I wanted to go to Savannah, and not only because of Channing. I also wanted to see Butler Island, the place where Fanny Kemble stayed while in Georgia, and I wanted to experience the beauty of Savannah. My trip had been booked for months. Then, just a few weeks before the trip, the offer of representation came. I received the paperwork (electronically) while I was in Georgia. It’s eerie, how the timing worked out. I was heading on an exciting trip to see the setting for Channing just as I was signing a contract with an agent for the manuscript . . .

You might wonder why I’ve kept all this under wraps for so long. After all, it’s now August. Well, there are a lot of reasons, but partly it’s because I haven’t gotten around to it, and partly it’s because there wasn’t much happening yet. There were two more rounds of revision after I signed the contract, and we haven’t yet sent the manuscript out to publishers. Why now, then? Partly because I got around to it, and partly because it looks like we’ll be sending the manuscript out on submission next month.

To be clear, not a lot is likely to happen soon. Publishing works at a glacial pace, so it could be several months or longer before a publisher makes an offer (if that happens—sometimes it doesn’t). It could then be a year or so until the book was actually published. But I now have an agent and we’re almost ready to send it out into the world. So . . . buckle your seatbelts!

I’ll leave you with the first sentence of Channing:

Not long after the robins returned that year, Caroline Hanleigh received an invitation from her dearest friend Ellen McIntyre to a house party.