Details can make or break a story

Have you ever watched a movie where someone missed an obvious mistake? Maybe you saw a Roman soldier wearing a wristwatch in some sand and sandal epic, or there were high tension power lines on the horizon of a Civil War scene. For the casual viewer, such boo-boos are a source of amusement. For the folks who did the editing and proofing of those films, mistakes like that could be career killers.

For writers, especially those doing historical fiction, similar blunders are possible, and the consequences can be similarly harsh. Independent writer/publishers can absolutely be fired–by their readers. And once a writer loses credibility with his audience, getting it back is difficult, if not impossible. Science fiction readers can be particularly brutal when it comes to recognizing errors of fact. But history lovers expect accuracy, too.

Suppose you’re writing a period piece set in the early days of the United States, say in the middle of  Thomas Jefferson’s administration. The President decides to send a cheerful holiday greeting to the families of Lewis and Clark, the intrepid adventurers he dispatched to explore territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Your fictional character volunteers to carry out the missive mission and procures a selection of greeting cards for the chief executive’s use.

The very first Christmas card.

Suddenly you’re on shaky ground, historically speaking, even though greeting cards have been around in one form or another since ancient times and were used back then by both Chinese and Egyptian well-wishers. Europeans didn’t get on the bandwagon until some enterprising Germans started using handmade and hand-delivered New Year’s greetings and Valentines in the 15th century. Actual Christmas cards didn’t show up until 1843, and that was in England. Mass produced cards didn’t make their debut until the 1860s.

That being the case, perhaps you’d be better off having Jefferson dictate letters instead, which your character can dutifully deliver. That process, by the way, offers the opportunity for mischief, mishap, and mayhem–any or all of which can befall your hapless player and thereby complicate your plot, always a desirable outcome.

And while we’re thinking about writing something during the Jefferson administration, let’s consider what sort of instrument your character might use to take notes. A pencil? A fountain pen? Stylus and tablet?

Pencils were common in the colonies long before there was a USA. Benjamin Franklin advertised them in his Pennsylvania Gazette prior to the revolution. Your character would likely have preferred ink. That would mean using a quill pen since reliable fountain pens weren’t invented until 1884.

The history of the ballpoint pen, by the way, is an interesting story in itself, for writers anyway. The first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued in 1888 to John L. Loud, an American banker. Loud, it seems, was better at banking than inventing, and his device didn’t catch on. That didn’t happen until 1938, when László Bíró, with help from his brother, invented the pen we’re using today.

With the advent of WWII, Bíró sold his interest in a company he started with Andor Goy, left Europe, and eventually settled in Argentina. There he was awarded a patent on June 10, 1943 (National Ballpoint Pen Day), and later made a deal with an Englishman named Henry Martin to promote the invention. Martin sold it to both the British and American governments for use by their air forces. Within months, the pen appeared on the commercial market as the Reynold’s Rocket. Though pricey at $12.50 each (or roughly $150 today), the pens sold like crazy–over a million and a half were rung up in the first half year of production.

Back in Europe, László’s former business partner, Andor Goy, sold his pen holdings in 1945 to Marcel Bich who created the now ubiquitous Bic pen. (Can you imagine running to the office supply store for a package of Goy pens?)

Though László Bíró never achieved fame and fortune for his invention, his birthday, September 29, is celebrated in Argentina as Inventor’s Day. Incidentally, the Argentine word for “pen” is birome.

Details are important; they may harbor stories we never dreamed of.




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Historical fiction story starters

Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. Ridiculously easy, no? The blueprint I use for my fiction breaks those parts down a bit more. In the beginning, there’s a person in a place with a problem. In the middle, good and bad stuff happens. In the end, the biggest and baddest thing happens, and we find out who survives.

Historical fiction isn’t any different, except that the story occurs in a documented time and place other than here and now. As the creator of this fiction, you get to choose who your characters are and what they do. If you stick with the documented version of history, you’re likely writing historical fiction. Any changes you make to what actually happened will push your book into the alternate history pile. That’s not a bad thing; it’s merely a distinction that will save readers time when they’re looking for something new to read. Those who thrive on reliving past events generally avoid reading alternate versions.

Writing alternate history can definitely have a positive effect. Some people like to speculate about what might have happened if only… Use your imagination to see how this plays out. What might have happened if:

  • Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated
  • Henry VIII remained happily married the first time around
  • Jesus had been female
  • England won the American Revolution
  • Julius Caesar and the Romans were conquered by the Celts
  • Italy used atomic weapons in WWII

Conjuring up scenarios like these is exquisitely easy. One simply needs to look at the historical record, and alter something significant. What if the defenders at the Alamo had been able to hold out until reinforcements arrived? What if Spain had won the Spanish American war? What if… Well, hopefully, you get the picture.

The need to study the period you’re writing about doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing historical fiction or an alternate version; the starting point is the same, and you must get those details right.

Imagine opening your story in San Francisco. It’s a lovely spring afternoon in mid-April, 1906, the day before the great earthquake which all but leveled the city.

Your characters must deal with all the subsequent emergencies using only those tools available at the time. Will this require some significant study of the period? It certainly should, unless you’re already an expert. The more accurately you portray the era,  the more real the story will feel, and the more likely your readers will be to finish it.

Very basic questions come into play. What did people wear? What did they eat? Where did they live? What were the schools like? What sort of politics existed then? The possibilities for questions are endless.

What if you’re writing a book aimed at middle-schoolers and you decide to plunk your hero or heroine in a public school somewhere in the South — Alabama maybe, or Georgia — smack in the middle of The Great Depression? It’s not enough to know there wasn’t much that was “great” about it, except for the almost universal misery. But you’ll need to become ultra-familiar with that, because even though you’re writing for 11 to 13-year-olds, your book will inevitably land in the hands of someone old enough to remember those days. And if you get the details wrong, they’ll be only too happy to point out the errors. Publicly. In a review. That the entire world can see at their leisure.

The sound you’ll hear next is your credibility swirling down the old flusheroo.

So, where do you go for those details? Can you just Google it? Who can you trust?

Stay tuned. We’ll deal with some of that in a later installment.





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Write *Something* Every Day

Writers write. It’s as simple as that. Good writers tend to write a lot. That’s a big part of how they became “good” writers. If you aspire to become a writer, or if you’re already a writer and you want to improve your craft, the only way to ensure you’ll make progress is to put your butt in a chair and your fingers on a keyboard.

That alone isn’t a magical solution. You won’t learn proper techniques for grammar, punctuation, or anything else. But if you do some actual writing, you might just get your story out of your head and into some format that will allow you to work on it even more later. The important part — usually the hardest part — is writing down the tale that’s been needling you for the past few weeks, months or even years. The story sure as hell won’t tell itself! You have to do it. 

While this is certainly true of fiction, it’s absolutely true of memoir. You’re the only one who knows your story the way you do. As simplistic as that sounds, I’ve talked to people who are perfectly capable of telling their own story, but they complain that ghostwriters cost too much. Here’s a thought: write it yourself!

The reasons people toss off for why they aren’t writing are absolutely legion. “I’m too busy” is a great favorite. Most of the too-busy people I know, myself included, are too busy because we’re lousy at organizing our time. Find a half hour a day — morning, noon or night, it doesn’t matter — and set it aside as writing time.

Another one I just love to hear: “I’m waiting for inspiration.” Right. Like the Muse or the Goddess of Literature is going to appear to you in all their radiant glory and whack you upside the head with the inspiration stick. What a crock. Remember Thomas Edison’s take: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” (Right now I’m channeling the Muse ripping into someone’s gray matter to whisper something inspiring.)

Yet another favorite is, “I don’t have a place to write, a place all my own — a hideaway, a garret, or a cell in a monastery — where I can work undisturbed.” Seriously? How ’bout the back seat of your car, or a table for two (you and your laptop) at the nearest Starbucks? They’ll even provide free Wi-Fi, not that you’ll need it because you’ll be busy working on your masterpiece. You won’t have time for Solitaire, or Facebook, or E-mail, or Amazon, or any of the other bazillion distractions provided by the web.

“Who’s gonna watch my kids?” I dunno, maybe your spouse? Your next door neighbor? The grandparents? Check local churches for a “Mother’s Morning Out” program, even if you’re a dad. Worst case: load up the car — or a wagon, or a city bus — with kids and laptop, and cruise over to the local playground, or the schoolyard, or some other place where the little ones might be able to entertain themselves while you sneak in a half hour of creative “me” time.

What you need to be striving for is the habit. Write every day, even if what you write isn’t part of your magnum opus. It could be a blog, or a journal, or a rant to the editor of the local newspaper. It could be a letter to your dear, old Aunt Edna for that matter. Whatever. Just do some writing every day that isn’t required for your job. It must be writing that comes from inside you.

Why? Because that’s where the magic begins. That’s where the stories live. It’s your job to find a way to get them out and share them with the world.


PS: And lest I forget… Congratulations to the Auburn Tigers for their stunning win over archrival, and formerly #1 ranked, Alabama. War Damn Eagle! 


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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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