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Friday, February 18, 2011

IS YOUR NOVEL REAL?

Odd question, isn't it?

Of course your novel's not real.

But it needs to be if you want it accepted by an agent and loved by readers.

You suspend disbelief when certain things in the book you're reading rings true :

Clothes :

Hamlet doesn't wear gold chains and zoot suits. Samuel McCord is a brooding, reflective man who does most of his fighting at night.

He, like Hamlet, wears black. Mark Twain, Sam's life-long companion, wears his all white suit to stand apart from his brooding friend -- as he does everything in his rebellious life.

{Twain's eventual death sends Sam into a spiral of depression from which it takes him years to recover.}

Maija, Meiliori's contemptuous of society twin sister, wears a skin-tight "Dragon-Lady" scarlet outfit -- even in 1853, when the mere showing of a bare ankle was scandalous.

She, like Twain, is rebellious.

But unlike the humorist, Maija is cruel and sadistic -- which is why whenever she arranges to meet Sam after her sister has left him, Maija wears an exact copy of the retro-Victorian dress Meilori wore on the night she stormed off into the darkness.

SPEECH :

Do all your characters sound the same? It might surprise you that they do.

Close your eyes. Have a friend read a rather common sentence from two of your characters from two different parts of your novel. Can you tell who is talking just by their speech patterns? You should.

Reporters and policemen both talk tersely. The reporter tends to go for the dramatic. The policeman keeps objective. In public at least.

Out of public view, the policeman usually is cynical of everyone's motives, having seen too many at their worst. The reporter tends to go for the underdog, having seen big business and big government swallow the little guy much too often.

Not all teens talk the same. The nerds have their own phrases. And jocks their own vocabulary, matching their interests.

The shy mumble. The quarterback smirks. Yet that can be overdone into a cliche. The thinking, reflective quarterback from an abusive home could be the magnet that holds the interest and heartstrings of your readers.

MINDSET :

Take physicians.

One of my favorite novels is CAPTAIN NEWMAN M.D. by Leo Rosten
http://www.amazon.com/Captain-Newman-leo-rosten/dp/2221036816/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1278471759&sr=1-1

It is a novel of a caring psychiatrist treating mentally bruised soldiers from WWII, told with wit and compassion.

But there are other mindsets among physicians. ( I am not talking Lydia Kang here, We all know special she is. She is of the Captain Newman, M.D. mold of caring physicians.)

Still it is understandable why they develop cold perspectives.

They're trained to prioritize, to emotionally detach themselves from their patients' pain and trauma, and to deal with crises as problems to be solved ... the solutions to be broken down into their component steps. Such a mindset works for them professionally.

In their personal lives, that mindset can be destructive. For many to become emotionally detached takes its toll. To step back from the trauma around them, they must cut loose in another phases of their lives.

On the other hand, become emotionally detached long enough, and you find it spreads like a drop of ink in a beaker throughout your whole life. You awaken one day to find yourself a stranger to your friends, your family ... even to yourself.

A few latent sadists are drawn to the profession. They channel their anti-social compulsions into socially approved actions. But like with scratching a mosquito bite, the more they stroke their sadistic natures, the stronger, the more demanding it becomes.

To make a physician real in your novel, you must incorporate all the above into that character and his/her environment. The same is true with every walk of life you have in your story.

CULTURE/CUSTOMS :

Now, this one is a bugger. There's real. And then, there's realistic.

I wrote a historical fantasy. Historical fiction is not a time machine.

Should you and I go back to the world of 1853, we would find the physical hygiene appalling and the moral consensus even worse. We would be walking around with our mouths open and clothes pins clamped on our noses.

Indigenous races were not considered even human. Women were thought of as a second-class, intellectually deficient breed. Slavery was applauded in most corners. The "science" of medicine was part butchery/part unfounded, faulty supposition.

Still, we would understand only 2 out of every 3 words spoken by the aristocracy : their vocabulary was extensive and littered with Latin and ancient Greek proverbs.

The Divine Right of kings was accepted in a third of the civilized world. And democracy was in its infancy.

Speech was more formal even in casual conversation, more elegant even.

For RITES OF PASSAGE, I had to create the illusion of 1853 in such a way as to root my reader in the reality of that age without tuning him out.

I made Samuel McCord a man educated by his Harvard professor father and inhuman Jesuit priests. His travels across the world has made him a more open-minded man. He has the sensibilities of a 21st century man at odds with his 19th century world.

Therefore, the reader can identify with him as he locks horns with the accepted status quo that offends his compassionate reasoning and the reader's modern sensibilities.
***
There was a TV series which highlights how the mindset and customs we take for granted are just a thing of the moment : LIFE ON MARS :

21 comments:

  1. Fantastic post, Roland.

    Your descriptions are so vivid. Well done.

    I particularly liked what you said about feeling the times. We never realize how different life had been back then. It shows you've done your research....

    This could be another wonderful excerpt for you book...

    Michael

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  2. This is some great advice to remember as I sit down to create a new story. If I can't feel my story is real, how can the readers?

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  3. Good advice! I think you've applied it well to your characters too.

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  4. Thanks, Michael. As I was driving rare blood all over creation, I was musing on just how to package that book. Did I make it two sections?

    I.) GHOST WRITERS IN THE SKY :
    With all the ghosts of famous writers giving me lessons on how to write well.

    II.) FROM THE WRITE BRAIN :
    With all my past posts pointing to suggestions that I believe might make their writing.

    Thanks for liking that part about feeling the times. Many slam Samuel Clemens for apparently being a racist -- when in fact, aside for the common name he used for blacks, he was opposed to slavery and a proponent for their rights

    Melissa : I'm glad my post helped in some small way. I bet you feel your characters are real -- and they come off that way, too, Roland

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  5. Charmaine : Good to see you back here again. I try hard to make my characters "real" on the page. I'm glad you think I pull it off. Come back again, Roland

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  6. "art is a lie telling us the truth"

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  7. Yes, isn't that true, Amos? Mark Twain, Leonardo da vinci, and Wyatt Earp, of all people, said the same thing in only slightly different ways. Thanks for visiting again, Roland

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  8. Another amazing post, Roland - I love coming over here and reading your wisdom. The writer C J Sansom writes about a lawyer in London at the time of Henry VIII and the atmosphere (and pong!) he creates is marvellous. Language and speech style is difficult but so important. Have a lovely weekend.

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  9. Hi, Margo : Thanks for liking my post. I rather backed into what wisdom I have in writing. I'd write a passage, and upon re-reading it, go -- "This doesn't draw me in at all. Why?"

    And if I studied hard and long enough, it would become what I had done or not done. So I just try to keep my cyber-friends from making the same mistakes I did. And you have a lovely weekend, too. Roland

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  10. What a descriptive sage you are. Thank you for sharing such wonderful advice. Have a great weekend! :)
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

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  11. ...good morning, Roland.

    My editor once told me that the top reason agents turn down manuscripts, some potentially worth their time, is because when reading, they find it difficult differentiating one character's voice from another. You touched on the trick to overcoming this error...have someone else read your work aloud, while you listen.

    In my case, I had my oldest son read the passages I was concerned with, the ones involving youthful conversation, as I listened nearby. It worked. Corrections were made...the story improved.

    It's funny how subtle tricks of the trade can change everything:)

    Well done, Roland. Your words ring true.

    EL

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  12. "He has the sensibilities of a 21st century man at odds with his 19th century world."

    This is actually precisely what I dislike about historical fiction. Every historical fiction writer seems to do this and it seems to totally defeat the purpose for me. If a story is set in a different time period, why would I want the characters to act like people around me everyday? No, I want an intelligent and sympathetic view of how people thought and lived back then. I want to be able to try and identify with the unique viewpoints and values of that society. THAT is open-minded, to me. Not assuming that "modern sensibilities" are better than any other centuries sensibilities and shoving our values onto people of another time.

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  13. Roland- you're inspiring me to get back to my fiction. Wonderful observations that I've duly taken note of. Thank you! :-)

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  14. After reading your comment about the 1850s, I wonder what folks in the 2200s will think of us?--if humanity is still clunking about.

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  15. Great post, Roland, and excellent advice. Hope you're having a good weekend.

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  16. Good post and happy President's Day weekend.

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  17. Excellent advice in this post--I can definitely see how these points influence the way a book seems "real".

    Have a great weekend!

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  18. Jules : I just try to help my friends avoid the bruises and bumps I've gotten. May your weekend be everything you hope.

    Elliot : You had a Young Adult to bounce off -- how great that it occured to you to have your words come out of his mouth to see if they rang true.

    Yes, it's scary the way if we err in a subtle way in our dialogue or in our characters' social interactions that it sinks our chances with agents. Brrrr. Thanks for the praise.

    Subcreator : I'm always glad to see your name in the comments. I know I'm going to have a delightful discussion :

    I see your point. You read historical fiction to see through the eyes of the "natives" so to speak. Those who like to read of alien worlds read for the same reason.

    But fiction must be "reader acessible". You must give him or her someone to attach themselves emotionally in viewing this different society.

    I do not assume that modern sensibilities are any better than those of any other time periods. I know that I am writing for readers with those sensibilities. I have to give them a touch stone so to speak.

    I did an enormous amount of research in that period. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Ada Byron (creator of the 1st computer language a 100 years before the computer was designed), Horace Greely, Sir Robert Peel (founder of the British police force known as the Bobbies), and Daniel Webster are all on board the cursed transatlantic steamer bound for Paris.

    The words that they speak and their mindsets expressed are direct quotes from their letters, journals, newspaper articles.

    My novel is a fantasy so I made McCord a man who had been thrust out of his time into the Trojan War, sailed down the River Styx, conversed with damned souls who had believed their was THE way, and clawed back to his time.

    His is the perspective of a man who realized that life and reality are not the simple, straightforward concepts he once thought.

    I thought it made great fodder for dramatic, ironic interplay that his sensibilities that we would have ourselves made him a Jonah and a pariah in his time.

    In essence, we could walk through the famous personalities and common folks of the cursed DEMETER through McCord and view the life, culture, habits, and mindsets of that time period with semblance of grounding within McCord.

    McCord is a Texas Ranger trying to understand the minds and motives of those around him, some of whom are murderers and some potential victims. I tried to write a book where no one was put down and everyone was portrayed true to those times.

    Thanks for a most delightful discussion.

    Jayne : I'm glad I'm getting you back into your fiction. I hope all this idea exchanges is helping you to grow as it is helping me.

    Terry : They'll probably have a flawed, incomplete picture of who we were, depending upon what survives. If Mozart is lost, and only Lady Gaga remains ... brrr.

    Talli : I am slowly recovering from this terrible virus and the mutant outbreak of poison ivy all over my protesting body! May you have a wonderful weekend. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

    Michael : Thanks and a great President's Day weekend to you, too.

    Golden Eagle : I'm so happy that you got something useful out of my post. The small human details of our characters and their worlds will help us draw the reader into feeling as if this were somehow truly happening. May this weekend treat you nice, Roland

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  19. I love coming over here Roland. Your adice is priceless and you always give me something to think about. Thanks from this new kid on the block :-)
    ~M

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  20. And I love you coming over here, Poetic Justice. I try to be helpful to those fighting the rapids of the turbulent Publishing World as it is today.

    I'm only a new kid myself -- just been blogging a year. I hope both our publication dreams come true this year! Roland

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