A Pre-Turkey Post

There’s something to be said for writing about the history of holidays, and the one that’s nearly upon us is a great example.

Just about the time your Halloween pumpkin rots down to a puddle of orange slag, Ta-Da — it’s time for Thanksgiving. Second only to Christmas in popularity, Thanksgiving is one of those rare holidays which doesn’t focus as much on religion or patriotism as it does on over-eating and football.

Even the Canadians have Thanksgiving, though they choose to celebrate it earlier than we do, most likely because they know the snow’s coming, and they’d best get in one last celebration before they’re forced into hibernation. As we’re prone to saying here in the deep, (warm) south, “Bless their hearts; they’re mounting their snow chains.”

But, back to Thanksgiving on this side of the border. There are some little-known but curious facts which bubble up during a search of historical references to this holiday and its American traditions. Since we’ve been discussing history, this is probably as good a time as any to share them.

Many of us focus solely on the traditional Thanksgiving feast. A vast amount of time and energy go into the preparation — and consumption — of this annual nod to gluttony. Don’t believe it? Then explain why we serve up about 535 million pounds of turkey on Thanksgiving Day. That’s over two pounds per adult. [Burp!] It’s serious business. In fact, according to the National Turkey Foundation (a real thing, by the way), the American turkey industry boasts an economic impact on the US of $97.5 billion bucks.

With so much turkey on the table, the great majority of Americans are doing their part to eat it. In fact, the average American will gobble down 4,500 calories on T-Day. That’s broken down by food: 3,000 and snacks: 1,500. Estimates for the number of calories in beer, wine, and sundry other spirits are not available.

And what Thanksgiving meal would be complete without green bean casserole? Thank Campbell’s soup for that. They put the recipe in a cookbook half a century ago and now harvest $20 million annually selling cream of mushroom soup.

After the meal, many of us waddle to the nearest sofa and settle in to sleep through an NFL football game on the tube. But the tradition of  NFL games played on Thanksgiving day didn’t start until the 1930s. The “real” first Thanksgiving day football game was in 1876, between Yale and Princeton. The latter’s cheer, by the way, “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Tiger! S-s-s-t! Boom! A-h-h-h!” dates back to the following year and remains in use with slight modifications today.

Eventually, we’ll succumb to what we misguidedly believe is the effect of the tryptophan we’ve ingested thanks to the turkey. Not so. There’s more of that sleep inducer in the average chicken. We get dopey because of all the other stuff we ate and mostly drank, and digesting that takes energy.

We then drift off to sleep dreaming about turkeys and/or cheerleaders. With any luck, we won’t dream about “Turkasaurus,” the recently discovered, prehistoric critter more correctly called the anzu. Some clearly delusional reporter types referred to it as the “Chicken from hell.” They obviously failed to look at the skeleton or the artist’s renderings. This was no chicken as anyone can plainly see.

And while domestic turkeys usually weigh twice as much as wild turkeys and are too large to fly, the anzu had all the necessary ingredients to terrify the average clan of cave-dwelling proto-humans, if only they existed back in the late Cretaceous.

Anzu stood over 11 feet tall and probably weighed around 600 pounds, maybe more. It had the body of a raptor, the head of a turkey, and the crest of a cassowary; it sported big sharp claws and, almost certainly, feathers. That’s enough to keep me awake!

But, lest we end on a carnivorous note, this is probably a good time to toss in something less creepy. Like, oh I dunno, a poem. How ’bout “Mary Had A Little Lamb?” Most of which was written by Sarah Josepha Hale. Why is that important? ‘Cause she’s the one who convinced Abe Lincoln in 1863 that declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday would be a good idea. “Black Friday” retailers should have been thanking her ever since.



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Thinking and Feeling

What is it that’s so hard about getting into a character’s head? It’s a problem many of my writing friends and students encounter, and it happens all too often, or so it seems to me. I suspect in most cases it’s merely the author’s eagerness to finish the work. Lord knows I’m guilty of the very same need to be done.

The thing is, reader’s don’t feel that way. In most cases, they’re eager to know more. Why did she say that? What’s he thinking? Didn’t he realize doing that would hurt her feelings or make him look like a complete jackass? What prompted that? What’s behind this?

As writers, it’s our job to detect these moments and to supply the necessary detail. The trick, if there is one, is in finding those moments. About the only thing I can guarantee is that it’s a great deal easier to do when looking at someone else’s work.

Sadly, it isn’t just a question of locating spots in the text where one can take a momentary look into a player’s gray matter. One must also consider the pace of the story. If things are happening left and right, and the action is all important, a pause to find out what someone is feeling won’t work. At best it’ll reduce tension, and that’s the last thing a writer wants to happen during an action scene. It’s not enough for poor Sisyphus to roll that boulder up the mountainside; someone needs to grease the path, or the boulder. Or, if this is a Hollywood story, both. In any case, he doesn’t need to be ruminating about his spot on the bowling team.

If the action isn’t fast-paced and non-stop, there should be moments when the character will naturally wonder about events and their impact on him and those important to him. An alternative to such introspection is emotion. What does Anita feel as she sees a car slowly rounding the corner while her child, Bertram, is crossing the street? That could depend on a number of things: does she recognize the car? Does she know the driver? Does her child see it, too? Since there’s no sense of impending disaster, she has time to think, and if the issue is important to the story, she should think about it. What if it’s a loved one returning from overseas duty? That would get her pulse going.

But alter the situation just slightly, and have that car careening around the corner, and everything changes. Unless there’s something profoundly wrong with Anita, she’s going to react in a major way. It’s easy to show these actions, but harder to expose the conflict inside. It could begin with a sharp inhalation of breath, followed by a scream or a shout, followed by an attack of nerves or a short but profound mental blackout during which she is so narrowly focussed on little Bertie she’s unable to do anything but race toward him, oblivious to everything else.

The thing to avoid is a mismatch. If one of your characters thinks inappropriate things during chaotic events, readers will laugh at him. If you’ve done it intentionally, that’s fine. But if not, they’ll likely develop ideas about that character you’d rather they didn’t have. As suggested at left, this character is a complete idiot.

Please, don’t let your characters be idiots.



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Historical tidbits revisited

Q: What, exactly, is a historical tidbit, and if not used as a plot point, what good is it?

A: It’s merely a history writer’s gold.

If you click on the illustration to the left, you’ll see a larger version. Wikipedia says this is the “Musei Wormiani Historia,” the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm‘s cabinet of curiosities. In other words, it’s an entire collection of historical tidbits, or at least the physical kind.

If you’re writing a story set in a specific historic period, tossing in a reference or two about something common back then but obscure now does at least two things: it provides an interesting glimpse into the day-to-day business of living in that period, and it suggests to the reader that the writer knows whereof he or she speaks.

Consider a story set in the early 20th century, just over a hundred years ago. Even though motor cars had been around for a good 20 years, paved roads were still largely a novelty.  In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Ramsey, an adventurish gal from New Jersey, climbed into her brand new, 30 horsepower Maxwell and headed due West. She became the first woman to drive completely across the country. She covered over 3,600 miles, and yet barely 150 of them were paved.

As late as the 1930s, streets in Manhattan were being paved with bricks. Imagine how such travel conditions might impact your story. Imagine traveling without a map or directions, let alone a GPS!

Here’s another thought, especially if you’ve got something of a political thriller in mind, and you’d like to use that same period. Imagine you’re standing outside the White House, smack in the middle of Washington, DC, when all of a sudden the lawn mowers appear. They’re pictured below.

The point here, of course, is to use these details to your advantage. If your character must walk across the White House lawn, there’s a better than even chance that he’ll arrive at the portico with something unpleasant on his shoes. Wouldn’t that make for an interesting scene?

Step back less than a generation, and sideways a bit to reach New York City, and you no longer have to worry about sheep droppings. Instead, you’ll have to navigate streets populated with about 170,000 horses pulling wagons, trolleys, and a wide range of other wheeled vehicles.  Assuming these animals were reasonably well cared for, each one would produce several pounds of manure and a quart of urine each day. Where do you suppose it all went? According to published reports, the city had no sanitation department in the 1800s.

And when one of those poor creatures died, the carcass was left where it fell until it rotted down enough to make its removal more manageable.

Knowing such details is one thing, using them is another. It’s not a writer’s job to hammer historical facts into the reader’s head. Just because you dug up these tidbits doesn’t mean your readers must review them, too. Tidbits work best when they become part of the setting. What might be natural to someone living in New York at the turn of the 19th/20th century may have been shocking to someone from the future. But you don’t have to write science fiction to take advantage of such gems. Someone living a few hours away from New York might have a similar reaction.

Knowing your historical setting, and immersing yourself in it, gives you the opportunity to bring it to life. It’s normal, everyday stuff to your characters, but to your readers, it may well be the most interesting thing they encounter all day.


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Okay, so where does this fit in?

Imagine you’re going to write some historical fiction. It could be a short story; it could be a novel, or it could be something in between. You’ve got a great idea: wrap the story around a compelling but little-known smidgen of history. Your intent is to rescue that tidbit from obscurity and use it as a fulcrum on which to lever your vision of events to dizzying heights.

The whole enterprise is so tempting, you all but drool in your eagerness to begin. Except for one tiny detail: you don’t have a clue what that tidbit might be.

Ahem. Allow me to suggest a few possibilities gleaned from an entirely cursory stint of online browsing.

1) Back in the day — during the Industrial Revolution, but before the invention of the alarm clock — a squad of peculiar markspersons was employed to shoot peas at the windows of factory workers to wake them up in time to report for work. And work like that was hard to pass up, even if you left a finger down at the factory.

I can imagine several scenarios where an interruption in this service might lead to catastrophe or at least some amount of conflict. And let’s not forget, conflict is at the heart of every good story.

2)  In the middle ages, people believed that sperm coming from the left testicle produced girls. Men who wanted only sons had it removed. Keep in mind, that during this time the folks doing the surgery were more commonly employed as barbers.

I can only begin to imagine how many truly awful outcomes such misguided notions could generate, but a story told from almost any viewpoint could be quite interesting.

3) The Law Of Unintended Consequences: While Pope Gregory IX was in power in the 1200s, he declared that cats were linked to devil worship and had countless numbers of them killed. It’s thought by many that the disappearance of those cats caused an explosion in the rat population which in turn aided in the spread of the bubonic plague or Black Death which in turn killed hundreds of millions of people in the 1300s.

I’m thinking of an “I told ya so” sort of character.

4)  At the beginning of the American Civil War, the commander of the Confederate army, General Robert E. Lee did not own any slaves. The victor of the conflict, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, did. Furthermore, the constitution of the Confederate States of America banned the trade of slaves while the Union constitution did not. Oh, and just so you know, the first slaves in America were the Irish.

If you can’t find a story in there somewhere, you’re just not trying hard enough!

5)  Red rover, red rover: In WWII the Russians trained dogs with bombs strapped to their backs to run under tanks. At the appropriate time, with German tanks advancing, the dogs were released. Alas, they were only trained to run under Russian tanks and ignored the invader’s armor entirely. Instead, they did as they were taught, running under Russian tanks and blowing them up instead.

For someone who loves dogs, like me, there’s a delicious comeuppance in that. There may not be enough story stuff here for a novel, but it’d sure make for an explosive short story.

6) Though credited with many cultural advances and military victories, Peter the Great had a seriously “less than great” side. Many scholars believe he had his wife’s lover, Willem Mons, beheaded. He then had the head preserved in alcohol and put on display where his wife would always see it. (The head now resides in the Kunstkamera, Russia’s first museum.)

I’m not sure whose point of view I’d employ in the retelling of this, but it could be interesting.

History, it’s way too weird to be made up!


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Historical fiction, or hysterical?

I’ve been approached to teach a new class: How To Write Historical Fiction. Flattered at first, and confident about teaching in general, I agreed to give the idea serious thought. How hard could it be? After all, I co-wrote a trilogy of lengthy novels set in the first century BC and followed those with two more written entirely by me — one set in colonial America and the other set in Georgia during WWII. If the reviews the books have gotten are any measure of success, then all five are doing quite well. Readers like them.

Then, just as I’d convinced myself I’d become something of an expert on the topic, I thought of a film which came out about five years ago based on a book which came out two years earlier. The title: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

Was this historical fiction, too? Would I be expected to teach folks how to take real historical characters and set them to doing things that couldn’t possibly have ever happened, at least not in the world I inhabit? The answer, I suppose, is yes. Sure. Why not?


Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book or watched the film about Lincoln’s vampire adventures, and I doubt I ever will. Vampire stories just don’t do anything for me. The old Bela Lugosi films were enough. But the very idea had me thinking about the role of history in fiction. What would be the point of trying to put limits on it? Why should historical fiction be limited to someone’s arbitrary constraints? Just because the books I write don’t portray actual historical characters doing bizarre things, doesn’t mean everyone else should follow suit. Why not write a story about a 19th century, American politician who chases vampires? Or Werewolves? Or unicorns? Hell, why not Pokemon, too? (Uh, no. Bear with me, and I’ll explain.) Evidently, werewolf and vampire stories sell pretty well.

I will venture to guess, however, that Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the Lincoln story (and collaborated on the screenplay), took a great deal of care with the setting. Lincoln may be chasing vampires, but I’ll bet he isn’t doing it from the back of a Ford convertible, or checking his wristwatch to count the hours before midnight. And I’m certain the ol’ rail-splitter never tripped over Pokemon. All other fantasies aside, some things just didn’t exist in the 19th century. Something in the story must be historically accurate, and I imagine Grahame-Smith made sure there were plenty of such somethings. That’s what makes this kind of story fun. Is it great literature? No, but who cares?

There’s a great deal of charm in the idea that the history we know may not have happened quite the way we learned it in school. Maybe George Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree. Maybe it was something far more sinister, something that merely adopted the appearance of a cherry tree. <cue evil laughter>

Does this revelation change my thinking about teaching the class? Nope. On the contrary, it opens up an array of possibilities — and possible stories — and anyone who wants to may write one. My job will be to help them write a better story, something I already do.

At its core, fiction is about entertainment. I like historical fiction because it adds the opportunity to educate and challenge preconceptions, too. That’s a wonderful thing. Books don’t need to provide the same mind-numbing pablum we get from television. More and better writers will generate more readers, and hopefully, more enlightened ones.

When I review my own history, much of which was spent in the company of heroes from books, movies, TV, and even a few 78-RPM records, I have questions. Who dreamed up the backstory for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans? Why couldn’t the bad guys ever hit a target? It’s a mystery to me. Do you suppose it was the presence of vampires which prompted the Lone Ranger to use only silver bullets?


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Formula for fiction? Back to the beginning…

formulaI had been writing fiction for several years before I had the chance to attend a workshop presented by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. This husband and wife team has achieved near legendary status in the speculative fiction writing world. They have both produced a prodigious volume of high quality fiction across several genres and under a variety of names. Fortunately for me, in addition to their professional editing and publishing efforts, they found time to lead workshops for writers at all levels of achievement. I didn’t get much sleep that weekend, but I sure learned a lot.

Arguably the most valuable instruction I received was on something called 7-Point Plotting. It was originally devised by Algys Budrys, himself a legend among Science Fiction writers. I have used it ever since and offer it to anyone interested in producing well-rounded stories.

Every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s easy enough. Budrys, known to his friends as “AJ” broke this down further. He postulated that a good Opening (the beginning) consisted of three distinct elements: Character, Setting, and Conflict.

I find it easier to summarize these as: a Person, in a Place, with a Problem.

Beginning1. Person — Usually, but not always, the primary character in the story. People work best, although there’s no law against starring an animal, alien, machine, or vegetable.  Most folks like reading about… folks.

 2. Place — Where does the action take place? In a courtroom?  A spaceship?  In Captain Kangaroo’s basement?  An interesting setting will often grab a reader when the conflict is weak.

3. Problem— This could be the primary focus of the tale, or it could be a lesser issue. But every opening must have an element of Conflict, because that is what grabs a reader.

Next up is the Middle. According to Budrys, this consists of one or more paired concepts:

Middle4. Try — This is the effort usually made by the protagonist to resolve the main Problem of the story. Each such effort is paired with item 5: a Fail.

5. Fail — Not all fails are fails! Sometimes a protagonist will succeed, only to find that the original problem has gotten worse. As expected, failure will lead to more difficulty, too. Most short stories use one or two Try/Fail sequences. Novels often go through dozens.

At some point, the story will reach the End. Budrys broke this down, too.

End6. Climax — This is the result of the final Try/Fail, the most dramatic and far-reaching. Success or failure here could mean life or death for the protagonist.  It is the culmination of all the efforts of all the characters to force a solution to the Problem.

7. Denouement — This is what Mark Twain called the “Marryin’ and the Buryin’,” and that’s a very succinct way to describe it. It amounts to a summary of who survived the Climax.

The point of all this is NOT to suggest that you should address each of these elements specifically while working. I’ve found the most effective way to use the scheme is to wait until you’ve finished a story. If it works, and you’re happy with it, move on. If it doesn’t work, then break out the 7-Point chart and see if there’s something missing.

Finally, here’s a visual interpretation of the 7 Points when fully incorporated:

Tension timeline

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A whole nuther chicken dance

Most of the fiction writers I know would rather work on new material than spend their energy promoting completed projects. I’ve had agents; I’ve had publishers, and I’ve generated material independently, but no matter how my stories went public, they all required that I do the chicken dance (imagine arm-flapping, squawking, and other anti-social behaviors) in the hope that readers would find them.

And, just so you know, the chicken dance is tiring. It might not be if I were any good it. But despite reading countless “How-To” articles on self-promotion and agonizing over a useful definition of my target market, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be smarter to invest in lottery tickets on the off chance that I’d win big and be able to afford to hire a public relations agency to go out and honk my horn for me.


But then I’d worry about blasting out some poor schlub’s eardrums and thereby earning his eternal enmity. It’s not that I’m noble; I simply presume the guy who owns the damaged eardrums is bigger, meaner, and younger than I am. He’s probably got better insurance, too.

Still, I keep crankin’ out books. I’ve got two new ones this year, a novel and a textbook. And, since this is my primary marketing channel, I guess it’s time for yet another chicken dance or two. (Please be kind; don’t laugh too hard. I know I’m a lousy dancer.)

I started working on the manuscript that eventually became Oh, Bits! at a writer’s retreat in the North Georgia mountains. We had running water and electricity, but no TV or internet. My writing companions all had work in progress, but I was starting from scratch with neither electronic diversions nor excuses. At the time I didn’t have a clue what to write about. For reasons I’ll never understand I decided to do a bit of dialog between a gossip columnist and a gravedigger. I thought it might be fun to see some hoity-toity writer type kowtowing to a manual laborer in hopes of finding out some hidden secrets of the recently deceased. It didn’t dawn on me that a gravedigger would be the last person on earth to know anybody’s secrets, short of their casket’s dimensions. Blissfully ignorant, I started writing.

Very quickly, I had the gravedigger taunting the columnist with promises of juicy tidbits about the dearly departed, provided the columnist paid for them. I had no idea where said gravedigger was getting his information. After all, the guests of honor had all assumed room temperature long before he got near them.

And then it hit me; he had to be talking to the dead. Why and how came later, mostly as a result of the continuing dialog between the first two characters. I kept switching between their viewpoints and quickly realized I needed more people if I hoped to expand the story. As I added them and continued to fiddle with the idea of a gossip columnist with otherworldly contacts, the larger story evolved. Motives became clearer for all of them, and the difficulties they needed to face had to be planned and choreographed. In the process, I learned a lot about both urban and rural life in Georgia during WWII. There were POW camps housing German soldiers in my home state! Who knew?

Due to my teaching, blog writing, and editing schedules, I had less time than usual to work on the book, so progress came in spurts. I wrote while we traveled; I wrote when we weren’t packing up our belongings to move to the mountains after living in the same suburban house for 30 years, and I wrote when I had an occasional break between editing gigs. With about a fourth of the book still to be written, I decided a final push was needed. So I recruited a few friends and neighbors to start reading what I already had while I worked on writing the rest. The faster they read, the faster I had to write to stay ahead of them. Somehow, I got it done. I even managed to give our new pup a role in the tale, and a piece of the title and cover action as well.

The textbook was a different story. Like its predecessors in the series — Write Naked! and The Naked Truth! — it’s composed of sanitized versions of posts from this blog. The graphics have been converted to grayscale, and I had a cadre of talented people go over it to help me find and fix the errors I knew were in it. Fortunately for me and my readers, their efforts paid off. The resulting book, The Naked Novelist! is, I think, the best of my three textbook efforts.

So here I am again, right where I was when my very first independently written novel came out. I’m talking to many of the same folks, saying many of the same things. Buy my books, please. If you like fiction, buy my new novel. If you want to learn how to write novels of your own, buy my new textbook. Don’t make me fill up your email with offers and coupons; don’t force me to buy targeted ads that’ll pop up when you least expect it.

And please — puhleeze — don’t make me do the chicken dance next time.



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