Today I’m going to respond to a few comments that came in over the weekend. Tomorrow, I’ll be working on the next issue of the e-zine, so won’t blog. Wednesday, I’ll be starting a new series with a guest author. She’ll be talking about her scheme for designing a novel which appears to be the very opposite of my Snowflake method. More on that on Wednesday. In the meantime . . .
Tiffany wrote, regarding Dwight Swain’s book:
Also, when you’re looking at fiction from an intellectual or literary fiction standpoint, it can rankle to have someone say “Story about ideas is boring,” and “People read for excitement, not intellectual stimulation.” I agree with Swain, to a certain extent, though I’m positive I wouldn’t have agreed when I was studying English Lit and creative writing in college, and was wholeheartedly embarrassed by my addiction to pulp fantasy. Still, every time he makes a blanket statement like that, I find myself thinking of all the exceptions (one of my friends, for instance, who likes to unwind by reading some Kant or Plato or Hegel).
Randy sez: Right, Dwight Swain explicitly says at the beginning of his book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER that it’s not for literary novels. He teaches what works for genre fiction, not for literary fiction.
The complaint I’ve heard from some people is that Swain is boring. I never found him boring, so all I can say is that boring is relative. After all, there are even folks who have no interest in statistical inference! This appalls me, since I find it fascinating. After all, without some form of inference, you would know NOTHING. Yet there are a few people (you know who you are) who find the question of Bayesian priors just a wee bit dull. Conversely, I’m told there are people who LIKE accounting. (Snore…)
The truth is that no matter what you find extraordinarily fascinating, there is some philistine somewhere that finds it unutterably boring. Speaking of which . . .
Yeah Randy, you’re definately right about writer’s and their research. My husband thinks that I must be one of the foremost minds in 10th Century Irish History because of all the research I put into it. But I can’t help what I love. Plus I’m one of those worry worts whose always got to cross reference everything to make sure I get my facts straight. As a historical fiction writer, how much research should be put into your book? I was told by one author in that genre that you should have at least three different sources that agree on a given topic before you put it down as fact. That seems to be an aweful lot of sources to me! Especially considering all of the facts you have to verify!
Randy sez: Probably the biggest criminals (in terms of boring other people) are historical writers. They do all that research and so they figure they have to inflict it on their readers. No. No, no, NO! Do 100 times as much research as you need in order to write the book. Then put in 1 percent of what you know. This ensures that you won’t bore your reader and that you’ll have enough material for your next 99 books without doing any more research.
As for that rule that says you have to have at least 3 sources, I don’t believe it. Most of what we know about ancient history comes from a single source. And in fact, a lot of what we know about any time period is contradicted by at least one source. Want proof? Read tomorrow’s newspaper. I assure you I haven’t seen it yet. If you read it carefully, you’ll find at least one “fact” which you know perfectly well is false.
Historical sources were human and they had biases. So they disagree. The art of history is figuring out what probably happened in spite of those pesky sources, who exaggerate, prevaricate, fib, lie, cheat, and generally bend the truth. When you don’t know something, make it up. If you’ve done your homework, your guess will be as good as anyone else’s and better than most.
Just as an example, I write about Jewish history in the first century of this era. Our main source is the Jewish historian Josephus, who fought against Rome in the Jewish revolt, then got captured and switched sides to work for the Roman. After the war, he retired to Rome to write history. He produced two major works which contradict each other on a number of points, and which are clearly biased or implausible at many others. An unsolved problem is to deconstruct Josephus and figure out what REALLY happened. Yet he’s the best thing we’ve got: he covers the period up to A.D. 70 very well; after that, we know very little for quite a long period of time. No historian would want to lose this very valuable source, even though interpreting him is very difficult.
OK, on Wednesday we’ll begin a new series on the “Puzzle Method” of writing a novel. See ya then!
Gerhard J van Vuuren says
Love puzzles, looking forward to the new topic.
Christophe Desmecht says
Hmm, this “Puzzle Method” sounds interesting.
I’ll be on the edge of my seat until then!
Charlotte Babb says
Puzzles are good! I always think of coding as a kind of puzzle! I love the snowflake, but I get stuck about the third level down…but then I’m not all about accounting or Bayesian whatevers.
Lynn Squire says
I agree about your comments regarding historical research. Recently I researched the Puritans and Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1649 AD. In particular, with respect to religious differences within the colonists. I am amazed at the variety of opinions even of how people dressed. For myself, the best information I could find were the articles or court accounts written at that time. I learned so much about the people and their thoughts through these original accounts. Then I found it amazing how different what I learned was from what I thought I knew about the era.
I’ve also been researching another historical period (turn of the 20th Century, Alberta Canada) and found myself delightfully swimming in the colorful (not in the swearing sense) language of the letters and memoirs of that time. I discovered, as I began writing my story set in this period, that people bring to a story their perspective of that period and place, which often is inaccurate. Through the help of my critique group I am finding ways to bend that perspective to be more consistent with the truth. Each time they see something they think is historically incorrect or inconsistent with the region, I know I need to work to make what I write believable based on fact. I discovered something as simple as mentioning a helmet can help the reader picture a sergeant in the NWMP versus a sheriff typically found in American Westerns. Its been fun!
Lynn Squire says
Puzzle Method? Oh dear. I’m just now getting the hang of your Snowflake Method.
Okay, but I’m all ears, and ready to learn.
Robert Treskillard says
I ran across this very interesting article about bacteria being the start of most snowflakes:
Does this mean at the heart of our “Snowflake” novel designs that there must be a “germ” of an idea?
Just having fun! Can’t wait for the “Puzzle Method”.
Kristi Holl says
Can’t wait to hear about the Puzzle Method–although I’ve had such good success with the Snowflake that it would have to be REALLY good for me to bite. 😎
M.L. Eqatin says
Josephus is first-century pulp fiction. Did you see the really brilliant marketer who put out his works under the subtitle ‘Thrones of Blood’?
I once taught a class on Josephus, and only three people showed up. If I ever do it again, I’m going to call it ‘Sex, Death, and Taxes in the first century’. That should bring them in. There’s a lot in a title. I just did a talk on global trade patterns during the 1500s, but I have learned enough not to call it that. It was ‘Pirate Sails and Caravan Trails-the deadly intrigues of exotic trade’. That worked!
Sharon Lavy says
I have one of Josephis’ books. I didn’t know he had written two. sigh. What is the name of the other one? The one I have says JOSEPHUS Complete Works published by Kregel in 1974
Melissa Stroh says
Thanks a bunch, Randy! That’s how I’ve always thought. I prefer my stories to be character driven anyway. The history’s just the added bonus. It was at my first writer’s conference that I was told that stuff about research and I was a real newbie then(grant it I’m still learning and not published). But even then it sounded excessive to me. I was just too chicken to say so because she was the published author and I was just a beginner.
I haven’t yet had a chance to read Josephus’ work, though I learned much about him in Bible school/college. One day I hope to get around to reading his works. But my plate’s a little full right now. Thanks again!
Eva Ulian says
It was such a relief to read your views on historical writing- all good common sense stuff. I was particularly relieved because it was confirmation of what I had been doing but could not be sure it was okay. Furthermore, you added one or two points which enlightened me somewhat about figuring out what happened when all else is blank. It was also nice to know that you are into this history stuff- I fell into it by accident- and I’ve been there ever since- I know it’s asking a lot but if ever you get a chance to read an extract of my work (entry no 48 of my blog) I would consider myself a very lucky lady indeed! I hope this will not cause you problems and you become swamped with similar requests.
I enjoy reading your blog and have put into action quite a number of your tips.
Hmmmm…. as for what someone said about literary novels not being exciting because people don’t like to read about ideas, I kind of disagree. The thing is how your character changes througout the novel is going to determine your theme/premise, so really, the book is about that. Books can be exciting and symbolic at the same time. A perfect example of this is the Lord of the Flies which is full of meaning, but still enthralling, in my opinion.
Can’t wait to hear about the puzzle method. I personally, like the snowflake’s idea, but when it comes down to it, I’ve mofied it so that many of the first steps are just me brainstorming in the shower :P.
I got a grin out of MLE’s titles. I wonder if that would work with casseroles.
Karla Akins says
Josephus rocks. Another source I use is The Annals of the World by James Ussher. And believe me, most sources contradict one another, especially when it comes to ancient history. I always let my students know this, too. “We weren’t there,” I tell them. “So there’s no way to know for sure.”
I also use children’s books when I need just a general explanation of something. They put things succinctly and save me a lot of time.