"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

March 2011

The Mule Died!

Several days ago, I asked readers to suggest a way I could put a dead mule into my next book.  (If you missed that column, you can read it here.) There were some strange suggestions. Have the mule abducted by aliens? That's probably a bit anachronistic in a Civil War novel, thanks.  Have someone cook him for dinner?  Yuck! I want my readers to like my characters, not find them disgusting. Let him just drop dead? Well, maybe, but there's not much drama in that scenario. I'd prefer a bit of action, not a total stoppage of action. I was still searching, and you blog readers seemed to be having as much trouble as I was.

Then, lo and behold! A deus ex machina! (If you no longer remember your Latin, that's a reference to a miraculous event -- a solution that seems to drop without warning from a sky hook.)

I was moving on with my research, reading another book of letters written by some of the missionaries who worked in the Port Royal area during the war.  And there was my mule -- or to be more precise -- two mules!  The letter in question was written by Edward S. Philbrick on December 10, 1862.  He was describing conditions on St. Helena Island, just after a new regiment of undisciplined Union soldiers, the 24th Massachusetts, moved into the area.

"This island is very much more favorably placed than Ladies, Port Royal, or Hilton Head Islands, which are all much exposed to the depredations of the Union soldiers. I find on the north end of Ladies Island the pickets are changed every little while, and have killed nearly all the negroes' poultry. The people don't dare to leave their houses, and take all their hens into their houses every night. They shoot their pigs and in one case have shot two working mules! All these things are duly reported to General Saxton, but it does no good."

I felt slightly ashamed that I was rejoicing in the demise of two working mules, but they are exactly what I was looking for.  They provide a scene of dramatic tension between Union soldiers, who are supposed to be fighting to put an end to slavery, and the slaves themselves, who seem fated to be victimsReaders can mourn their loss all the more because they are working mules, and heaven knows a mule who will actually work is a rarity. And what could be more characteristic of a southern novel than two admirable mules who die as a natural development of the story?

I have commented elsewhere that I enjoy writing historical fiction because so many real stories are waiting to be told.  This is one of them, and it proves again the old adage that "truth is stranger than fiction."

An Open Invitation

April is going to be a very busy month for me.  Lions Leaders Weekend, the year's most important public relations event for Mid-South Lions Sight and Hearing Service, takes place on April 8th and 9th.  As the incoming first vice president of that organization, I'll be involved in preparations as well as hosting. The next weekend involves three days of State Lions Convention in Chattanooga.  Then comes a chance to get away for a short road trip with my husband — time to relax and indulge a bit. It leads me, however, to an invaluable research opportunity and a few days of access to documents I've been hunting for a long time.  Then it's Easter, and the month is about over.
I'm looking forward to it all.  Details are set, reservations made, maps assembled, and plans laid.  Even the house and cats are taken care of.  We're lucky to have wonderful house/cat sitters, who just take over, keeping the house lived in, dealing with mail and newspapers, administering meds to the 16-year-old cat, and endlessly entertaining the younger ones. No one will even know we're gone — except for my faithful readers and followers here in internet land. And here is where I need help, since I won't have much free writing time.
April is wide open with slots for guest bloggers.  I'm particularly looking for articles that offer tidbits of advice to new researchers, writers, and self-publishers.  Your experiences, your successes or catastrophes, your accumulated wisdom: all can provide helpful suggestions that my readers need. Here are some guidelines:
1. Blogs should fall into the range of 600 to 1000 words.
2. They must contain information that readers can use — not just blatant self-promotion of your own work. You may, however, provide links to  your own works or website.
3. They should be well-edited.  I reserve the right, however, to make spelling/grammar /punctuation corrections as necessary.
4. The blogs must be signed and should provide contact information in case a reader wants to get in touch with  you.
5. Small illustrations are welcome, if submitted as separate files in .jpg or .gif format. You may also send your own picture if you would like to have it included.
6. You must be willing to allow further publication of your materials in a proposed e-book of tips for new writers.
7. I will promote you and your writings during the month.  In return, I will expect you to link to my blog or website, so that your followers can find the blog.
8. The deadline for all potential blogs will be Wednesday, April 6th. That will just give me time to put you on the schedule and let you know when your article will appear.
Leave your offers and proposals in the comments section or email me at scribercat4@yahoo.com.

Has Anyone Seen a Dead Mule?

My favorite part of Southern Living Magazine comes in the form of a one-page journal entry on the last page.  After wallowing through glorious gardens that I could never grow, designer kitchens too beautiful to make a mess in, floor plans that resemble a medieval labyrinth, and holiday menus replete with impossible gourmet tidbits and edible flowers, I welcome a touch of humor to bring me back into the reality of my comfortable but definitely lived-in little Tennessee condo. The issue that arrived today, however, offered me more than just a smile at the curious things that make life in the South special.  This one brought me a challenge as well.

In his article, "The Quill and the Mule," Rick Bragg suggests that anyone who aspires to be one of the great southern writers must include a dead mule in his work.  Then he goes on to cite dozens of examples, starting with Faulkner, whose niece has a lovely interview in this issue. Now, I don't really expect to ever be called a great southern writer, but if I insist on setting my books in South Carolina during the Civil War, I suspect I had better start looking for my own dead mule.

My first thought was that this would be easy.  After all, I'm writing about slaves on cotton plantations this time. They must all have had a mule or two, either their own or one they cared for. The trouble is, as Bragg points out,  there have already been so many dead mules in southern novels that there seems to be little hope of finding a new way for my particular mule to perish.

So I'm looking for help. In a setting full of newly-freed slaves and northern abolitionist missionaries, greedy cotton agents, restless Union soldiers, and Confederates lurking in the woods, how can I murder my mule? I need a plausible motive, a weapon, and an opportunity.  Here's your chance to commit the perfect crime. If you come up with the most appealing plan for this dastardly deed, I'll give you full credit in the "Author's Note" at the end of the book. Leave a comment below, or email me with your idea.

Speed-Dating Your Characters

Some time ago, I talked a bit about the resources I use to learn about the characters I’m getting ready to portray in historical fiction.  I thought I’d pretty well covered the topic.  But after this week’s discovery that the characters in my new book don’t really stand out  yet as individuals, I’ve decided to think about the question in more detail.

Most writing guides will devote a chapter or more to characterization.  They offer good advice.  Make the people in your novel believable. Avoid stereotypes, which are, by definition, boring. A chatty librarian is more interesting than a sternly silent one.  And a neatly-dressed plumber might be fascinating simply because of what you don’t see when he bends over.  Don’t force a character to perform super-human feats, unless, of course, you’re into writing fantasy. Reveal personalities a bit at a time.  Don’t overwhelm the reader with lengthy descriptions at the very beginning. Let the reader get to know your characters gradually, in much the same way as you get to know real people in your life. But how do you do all that?

One way is to imagine your characters in a speed-dating setting. Visualize each one sitting  across from  you. You have only a few minutes to decide if you like or distrust them. You’re taking notes, so that you can remember them later.  Besides noting the usual hair and eye color, height and weight, ask each of them a series of questions. Make them sweat a little, and they may tell you a great deal.

1. What is your name? Does it have a special significance to your family? Do you have a nickname?

2. How old are you, and where were you born? Have you stayed in one location or moved around? And if you have moved, at what point in your life?

3. What was your family like when you were growing up? Did you have brothers and sisters, and where do you fall, age-wise, in the list of your parents’ children? Are you still the responsible one because you were the oldest?  Or are you the forgotten middle child, or the spoiled youngest one?

4. Did you have pets as a child? If  you could choose just one pet, would you turn out to be a cat-person (independent) or a dog-person (eager and friendly)?

5. Do  you have a large circle of companions, or only a couple of close friends? Have you moved in the same small circle all your life, or have you reached out to meet new people? And how do you choose your friends?

6. What is your greatest strength?  Your greatest weakness?

7. What do you dream of doing? If you could be someone else, who would you choose?

8. What beliefs do you hold most tightly? Which ones would you be willing to carve on a rock?

9. What is your idea of a perfect day? Where and with whom would you spend it, and what would you do?

10. Why do you dress the way you do? Are you usually neat or disheveled?  Are you stylish or old-fashioned? Are you uncomfortable in a suit and tie — or in high heels and a fancy dress?

11. What are your favorite expressions? Do you use the latest slang, or do you show off your extensive vocabulary? Do you slip into a more pronounced accent or dialect when you are excited? Do you have a verbal tic, saying “um” or “uh” or “like” or ”you know”?

12. What does your posture say about you? Do you slouch, or hunch your shoulders, or keep your arms crossed? Do you keep your eyes on the ground when you walk? Or are your shoulders thrown back as a sign of confidence?

13. What about eye contact? Do you keep looking away, or are you giving me a belligerent stare? Are you squinting at me or raising a skeptical eyebrow? Are you avoiding eye contact because you are nervous or because you are bored? Does your smile reach your eyes?

14. Does sitting or standing close to someone make you uncomfortable?  Do  you instinctively pull away from others? Or do you frequently reach out to make physical contact?

15. And what do your other gestures say about you?  Do you play with your hair or brush it back impatiently? Do you have a “twitch” or unconscious mannerism? Do you pick at a hangnail, chew your lip, shuffle  your feet, or bite your fingernails?

We all send out signals with our body language, and most of us are able to interpret those signals, if only subconsciously. If your characters  behave as real people do, your readers will judge them accordingly.

True Confessions

So how did my 2010 venture into National Novel Writing Month turn out? Well, here's how I viewed it at the beginning of the process:

"The NaNoWriMo process is easier this year.  I find I'm better able to just sit down and let the words flow.  What's developing on my computer screen is by no means a finished product, but it's going to serve as a great base from which to build a real novel. I won't promise you that "Gideon's Ladies" will write itself in the next month.  Truth is, I'll still be reading and researching much of the time.  I find it easiest to write dialogue, so I'll be concentrating in creating scenes from various spots in the story.  They can always be rearranged and polished later. As I write, I'm getting a feel for the characters, and I find that some of the individuals have begun to speak in their own voices, which is always a delightful turning point. I'm anxious now to find out what they are going to do next, and how they will handle the problems they have set for themselves."

By the end of the month, I sounded exhausted and not quite so sure of what I had managed to accomplish:

"Finished! Yes, that's right! after 27 grueling days (actually 25 work days and 2 days of utter slackerness) I have managed to write the first 50,417 words of my next novel, tentatively entitled "Gideon's Ladies." Was it worth it? Well, sometime after today, I'll realize that it was.  The writing phase is always hard, and putting a word counter on every morsel  you manage to crank out is a definition of cruelty.  But now I know that this story has legs.  it can someday become a novel, and when that day comes, I'll be delighted that I spend November 2010 in this effort. For now, however, it's off to start Christmas preparations (and a good stiff drink, too.)"

And now it's true confession time.  Although I dutifully sent my "winning" 50,000 words off to CreateSpace -- to take them up on their offer to produce a proof copy of every book that qualified at the end of the month -- I couldn't bear to look at it in the new year.  The thin little volume arrived -- some 178 pages in all.  But it still looked pitiful.  It was full of typos and half-finished pages, with thoughts that started off bravely and went absolutely nowhere.

I began re-reading "Gideon's Ladies" just two days ago, as a direct result of my last blog post.  I'm still embarrassed by the number of typos and the layout.  Once in a while I have been pleased with a particular turn of phrase, but more often I've cringed. I have, however, learned a bit more about myself and about the writing process.  Here are five rules I would now be willing to carve on a stone:

1. Don't start writing until you have some idea of where you're heading.  These little chapters utterly fail to provide direction.  An impartial reader can not tell who the important characters are, or what the book is all about.

2. Have a timeline.  My events are confusingly out of order.

3. Don't confuse "show and tell." My academic background reveals itself all too clearly when I fall into lecture mode.  I thought I was writing conversations, but the result all too often sounds like a typical schoolmarm telling a class of students what they must know for the test. I wrote so quickly that I forgot to let my characters show what was going on through their words and actions.

4. Know your characters. Each one needs a distinct personality, recognizable in both their actions and in their speech patterns. If the reader can't tell the characters apart, the author has failed again.

5. Write because you have something important to say.  The reader deserves to understand what is important about your story and why you care.

So where do I go from here?  I've already made a start by changing my title from "Gideon's Ladies" (too over-used) to The Road to Frogmore. And that title reflects one other decision -- to make Laura Towne and her efforts to establish her own school at Frogmore Plantation the center of my story. My research efforts for the next several weeks will focus on obeying my other new rules.  I want to fill out my character sketches, pinpointing those traits that make each character an individual. I need to finish the timeline I have started, so that the events of my story are both logical and historically accurate. Then I can re-arrange and refurbish some of the chapters I have written. Most important, I need to make some decisions about point-of-view and recurring themes.

As for NaNoWriMo, I probably will not be participating in 2011.  Speed-writing is a wonderfully useful exercise.  It gets the creative juices flowing, and it reveals  (make that PAINFULLY reveals) what kind of writer you are.  It's a great start for those who question their own ability to write a book.  It does not, however, produce a finished product.  The sense of accomplishment it touts is basically flawed.   There is simply no substitute for the long, hard process of producing a book good enough to justify its readers' time and interest. For me, the warm-ups are now over. It's time to get to work.