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:

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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.