Creating Sympathy for Characters with Unsympathetic Belifs

Monday, October 16, 2017


Our Mississippi River cruise spent a day at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where I visited two museums with steamboat displays as part of the research for my current work-in-progress. But the stop also had a second, unintended, result. During the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, the residents dug and lived in caves that served as bomb shelters. I had heard of the Vicksburg caves before, but the visit ignited my interest in writing a story about living in one. So that will probably be my next book.

Unfortunately, there were few, if any, abolitionists in Vicksburg at the time. I came up with several ideas of how I might make my character and her family secret abolitionists, but Roland wasn’t sure that even closet abolitionists existed in the deep South then. I’ll research it further, but if they didn’t, how do I make a character sympathetic when she condones slavery?

This isn’t an unusual situation for a writer to be in. Many stories start out with an unsympathetic protagonist, whose change in character or beliefs or even in situation is at the crux of the story. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, who starts out as a people-hating miser and ends up as an open-hearted and generous person. Or Jay Gatsby, who appears in the beginning of the story as a rich, flamboyant socialite; turns out to have obtained his riches illegally; and ends up getting blamed—and shot dead—for something he didn’t do. Then there is Heathcliff, anti-social and cruel throughout the entire story.

But readers don’t usually identify with unsympathetic characters, and they don’t like to read about people they don’t identify with. We must catch their interest at the beginning of the book, or they won’t read on. That means that one of our tasks as writers is to generate sympathy for unsympathetic characters or for otherwise likeable characters with unsympathetic beliefs.

Charles Dickens did it with humor; F. Scott Fitzgerald diverted our attention to the people around Gatsby; and Charlotte Bronte generated sympathy through backstory. Although, to be honest, I never did like Wuthering Heights.

Generating sympathy for a main character with unsympathetic beliefs is just part of the job.

So I’ll figure it out.

__________

The drawing at the head of this post comes from Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History (vol. 10), John Lossing Benson, ed. (New York, NY, Harper and Brothers, 1912). It is in the public domain because of its age.

Cruising the Mississippi

Monday, October 9, 2017



I just returned from a research trip aboard the American Queen, a Mississippi steamboat designed to imitate the ones that plied the river in the middle of the 18th Century. Obviously, there are many modern amenities these days, but I looked for—and hopefully found—the boat and the cruise that provided the most authentic experience.

My current work-in-progress is a middle-grade historical novel that involves a steamboat explosion, which was a common occurrence in the 18th Century. My main character, Lizzie, and her family sail downriver from Iowa to Louisiana in the autumn and back upriver in the spring, which is when the tragedy occurs. I didn’t want to experience a boiler explosion, of course, but I was hoping to get a general feel for what the trip might have been like.

I wasn’t just looking for the experience, however. During the trip I visited three museums that had ties to steamboat history. And Lizzie and her family spend the winter on a bayou in Louisiana, so Roland and I took a bayou tour at one of our stops. Still, it was the time spent cruising the river that was the most helpful.

It isn’t just steamboats that have changed in the last century and a half. The Mississippi River itself is different. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain notes that it can change in days, let alone years. Still, I got a general idea of what the banks south of Memphis might have been like when Lizzie would have traveled the river. For example, Mark Twain talks about trees hanging over the river with roots exposed by the action of the Mississippi wearing away the banks, and I am using that in my story. I can picture those banks when I imagine how the landscape in the second photo would have looked without the manmade barrier to prevent erosion.


It’s impossible to get the full historical experience on a present-day research trip.

But every little bit helps.

Flavor-Added Telling

Monday, October 2, 2017


I recently discovered a new author or, more accurately, an old author who is new to me. Her name is Elizabeth Cadell, and the first book I read was The Fledgling.

In some ways, I’m surprised that I liked the book. It begins with an omniscient narrator and long passages of “telling” rather than showing. Omniscient narrators have gone out of style because it is hard to do them correctly, and most sound like failed efforts at third-person point-of-view. Fortunately, Cadell gets it right.

She also manages to succeed with her “telling.” The longest passages come at the beginning of The Fledgling and soon give way to mostly showing. But the telling in the early passages did not bother me, probably for the same reason that I don’t mind the telling that often begins books by classic authors such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens. It’s what I call flavor-added telling because it is seasoned with salt and pepper and other spices.

The Fledgling is the story of a ten-year-old girl who was living in Portugal and is now being sent to school in England. Illness keeps her original travelling companions at home, so an acquaintance of Tory’s father is substituted at the last minute. Here are some examples of the flavor-added telling that Cadell uses to introduce her protagonist.

Tory, sent down before dinner to be presented to [Mr. Darlan], disliked him on sight, and resented being spoken to as though she was six instead of ten. But she had long ago perfected the art of concealing her feelings, and reminded herself that if he had not offered to travel with her, she might have been sent by air in the care of a TAP hostess, thus missing the novel experience of two nights on a train. After the exchange of a few polite sentences, she was permitted to retire, and Mr. Darlan, having no powers of divination, filed her as a mousey, well-mannered little thing, not pretty and certainly no conversationalist; one of those tongue-tied children out of whom monosyllables had to be dragged.

* * *

Young as [Tory] was, every servant in the house knew her discretion to be absolute; their secrets were as safe with her as hers were locked within herself.

* * *

[Tory] sat motionless but relaxed, her expression serious and attentive, her mind elsewhere, lending as always a dutiful eye and a deaf ear. She never fidgeted, never interrupted; she had never been heard to contradict. She agreed with everything that was planned for her, and made her own arrangements later, for she had discovered that the easiest way through life was to set out obediently upon the appointed path and then slip away down a side turning.

Cadell could have said, “Tory was a quiet child who kept her thoughts to herself.” That is pure telling, and it’s boring. Or the author could have shown Tory acting compliant in public but doing something contrary in private, but that would have taken more time. So she uses flavor-added telling to draw the reader in. Cadell announces Tory’s personality, as in pure telling, but also gives us examples that help us see her as a person rather than a description. And this element of “sight” nudges the passage closer to the showing line.

I believe in showing rather than telling most of the time.

But flavor-added telling has its own charm.

Agatha Christie's Writing Process

Monday, September 25, 2017


Several months ago, Roland gave me a copy of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran. The “secret” notebooks of the title are the ones she used for plotting her mysteries, and they contain many insights into her writing process. Although I enjoyed Curran’s book, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t a big Christie fan. The notebooks are way too numerous to print in their entirety, and much of the material is apparently of little interest. So Curran selects passages and adds his own comments and analysis. Still, much of the information in the book is in Christie’s own words.

Some of those words are placed in the mouth of Christie’s alter ego, a mystery writer named Mrs. Ariadne Oliver. Mrs. Oliver is a recurring character, and when she talks about her writing process, we can be confident that she is speaking from Agatha Christie’s own experience.

Getting Ideas and Following Through

In Dead Man’s Folly, Mrs. Oliver voices my own problem, both with getting initial plot ideas and with dealing with the ones that pop up within the story.

“It’s never difficult to think of things,” said Mrs. Oliver. “The trouble is that you think of too many, and then it all becomes too complicated, so you have to relinquish some of them and that is rather agony.” (Chapter 2)

Later in the same book, Mrs. Oliver talks about how she deals with the ideas she keeps.

“I mean, what can you say about how you write your books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and then when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all.” (Chapter 17)

Plotting

Christie used a basic outline. It wasn’t a chronological outline or one that followed the action of the story, although she might have used one of those, too. But she started with six questions: Who? Why? When? How? Where? and Which? (See page 93 of Secret Notebooks.)

While the questions were etched in stone, however, the notebooks make clear that the answers were not. Even the identity of the murderer could change as she developed her plot.

But that doesn’t mean she had a new plot every time. As the writer of Ecclesiastes noted, there is nothing new under the sun. All writers reuse plots—both our own and somebody else’s. The trick is dressing them up in different clothing.

Cue Mrs. Oliver again, although this time the quote comes from Chapter 8 of Cards on the Table.

“Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?” asked Battle.

The Lotus Murder,” murmured Poirot. “The Clue of the Candle Wax.”

Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation. “That’s clever of you—that’s really very clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody has seen it. One is stolen papers at an informal week-end party of the Cabinet, and the other’s a murder in Borneo in a rubber planter’s bungalow.”

“But the essential point on which the story turns is the same,” said Poirot. “One of your neatest tricks. The rubber planter arranges his own murder; the cabinet minister arranges the robbery of his own papers. At the last minute the third person steps in and turns deception into reality.”

Research

If we were to continue the above passage, you might think that Christie doesn’t care about accuracy. Here are the next three paragraphs.

“I enjoyed your last, Mrs. Oliver,” said Superintendent Battle kindly. “The one where all the chief constables were shot simultaneously. You just slipped up once or twice on official details. I know you’re keen on accuracy, so I wondered if—”

Mrs. Oliver interrupted him.

“As a matter of fact, I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favorite Labrador, Bob, good-by, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing I don’t see what it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more.”

So it is probably true that Christie wasn’t upset if she got the minor details wrong. But the notebooks show that she did care about the major ones.

First, as I mentioned in my blog post two weeks ago, Christie used maps and diagrams to keep her facts consistent. In addition to the three I listed in that post, she drew maps showing where the players were during the murder in Five Little Pigs (published in America as Murder in Retrospect) and Towards Zero and a seating diagram for the dinner party in Sparkling Cyanide (published here as Remembered Death). Those are just the ones mentioned in Curran’s book, so there may have been more.

And there are other notes that show her attempts to get the facts right. Many of her murderers used poison, which she knew something about because she worked in a hospital dispensary during World War I. But when she was dealing with a stabbing and struggling with a seeming medical impossibility in Ordeal by Innocence, she checked the facts against cases reported in the British Medical Journal. She checked legal possibilities with lawyers. And when setting a story in ancient Egypt (Death Comes as the End), she got much of her information from a professor of Egyptology.

Agatha Christie wrote popular fiction and, like many prolific writers, some of her books were better than others. But writing was her life.

And we can learn from her.

Book Cover Fail

Monday, September 18, 2017


I hate it when book covers misrepresent the contents.

My first middle-grade historical, Desert Jewels, is about the Japanese-American incarceration during World War II. So of course I wanted the cover to be historically accurate. And since the book is about an ethnic group I don’t belong to, I also wanted to make sure that I didn’t promote any stereotypes or do anything else that the Japanese-American community might find offensive.

I failed. I haven’t heard any complaints from the Japanese-American community yet, but I’ve been told that the girl on the cover is Chinese, not Japanese. When a Caucasian woman said that about a week ago, I puckered my brow and said, “but she looks a lot like some of the girls and women in Dorothea Lange’s pictures from that time.” (See the two photos below for a sample, and imagine them both in profile.)


Since the comment came from another Caucasian, I was inclined to brush it off as mistaken. But then I remembered an earlier response from a Chinese-American friend.

Several weeks before the book came out, I showed a proof copy to my writers’ group. Helena said, “Oh, I see you have an Oriental girl on the cover.” She suggested a change to the back-cover copy but didn’t tell me that the girl was Chinese, so I didn’t think anything about it. Or not much, anyway. I did have an uneasy feeling that the way she said “Oriental girl” meant something, but I didn’t ask about it at the time.

But I saw Helena on Saturday, so this time I asked. Helena said yes, the girl was Chinese, but many people confused Japanese and Chinese and Koreans. I asked if the cover was a problem, and she said no. But although Helena thinks it’s no big deal, it is a big deal to me. And I still don’t know how the Japanese-American community will react.

Knowing my shortcomings as an observer, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at my error when viewing this design. Despite being Caucasian, I can’t tell someone of Italian descent from someone of English descent. And I expect a lot of variety within any ethnic group. After all, my mother had 100% German ancestry but her brown hair and eyes didn’t fit Hitler’s ideal of a blond-haired blue-eyed Aryan race. (Thankfully her beliefs didn’t, either.)

There is one thing I did right. My book cover designer gave me one alternative that included a drawn or computer-generated image highlighting all the stereotypical features, and I rejected it immediately for that reason. But I didn’t realize that the option I did choose got the ethnicity wrong.

At this point, I can’t afford to change the cover, so I’ll have to live with it.

But I wish I’d gotten it right.

__________

Dorothea Lange took both pictures in 1942 as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because they are government documents, the photos are in the public domain.

The Original GPS

Monday, September 11, 2017


I love GPS, but sometimes it takes me way out of my way or even leads me to the wrong place. Those are the times I prefer a good old-fashioned map, and that’s why I carry several in my car.

The book I’m working on right now has several settings, but a significant part of the action takes place along a Louisiana bayou. I bought a state atlas to help orient me, but it didn’t provide enough detail. So after the atlas helped pinpoint the area I wanted, I purchased a larger-scale map used by fishermen. It isn’t the perfect resource, because my story occurs in the mid-1800s, and the bayous have surely changed their courses and depths and many other characteristics since then. But it gets me close enough (I hope) to make my setting authentic.

When I was writing the just-published Desert Jewels, I studied diagrams and aerial photographs of Tanforan Assembly Center and the Topaz War Relocation Center and read memoirs that described those locations. In my recently completed book about the Great Chicago Fire, I studied maps showing the spread of the fire and highlighting the burnt-out areas. Desert Jewels and Inferno are both fictionalized accounts of events occurring at real places, and it is important to get the details right.

Maps even help when the setting is made up. J.K. Rowling drew a map of Hogwarts to make sure that she didn’t make any continuity errors. Someone might notice if Harry and his friends exited the castle on the way to play Quidditch and turned right, but the next day they turned left on their way to the same place.  Of course, Hogwarts is magic, and it could have had a floating Quidditch pitch, but that wasn’t Rowling’s plan. So she drew a map to keep everything consistent. I did the same with the campus layout for the fictional Dewmist Indian Boarding School in Creating Esther.

Agatha Christie also drew maps. In Evil Under the Sun, for example, Christie created an island and set the murder in a cove away from public view. She drew a map to help her work out the details, or perhaps to make sure the details she had already envisioned worked. Either way, the map helped make sure the plot functioned the way it was supposed to.

And it isn’t just maps. When working on Death in the Air, Christie created a seating chart showing where each person sat on the airplane. For A Caribbean Mystery, she drew out the components of what at first glance appeared to be a red herring but was actually a vital clue. [The word “glance” is itself a clue, but I won’t say anything more in case somebody plans to read the book.] For myself, I have often drawn out floor plans to ensure that the rooms in a house remain in the same place.

GPS tells me to go right or left or to stop here, but it doesn’t give me the same bird’s- eye view that a map does. And it can’t help me when I’m sitting at my desk at home. I hope today’s generation learns to read maps and diagrams and understands their importance.

Because they are valuable resources for keeping our stories authentic.

Comparing Stories to Plants

Monday, September 4, 2017


Stories are like plants. Give them a little care, and they grow, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Each summer, Roland and I buy two or three pots of flowers for our balcony. This year we were on vacation during late May and early June, so we decided to wait until we returned. But when I went to the nursery, the best ones had been picked over.

The best flowers, that is. I saw two pots of mostly foliage plants that I liked, so I got those. Both are nice, but we especially like the one pictured above. It was already on the large side when I got it, but since I brought it home it has taken over its corner of the balcony.

Usually plants have little plastic tags sticking into the soil to identify them and describe the care they require. This one didn’t, so I asked the clerk if it would work in partial shade. (Unfortunately, I forgot to ask her what it was, and I still don’t know.) The clerk said the plant should be all right if I gave it plenty of water, and she was correct. If I let it go more than a day in the hot weather, it begins to wilt. But if I take care of it, it grows faster and stronger and beyond what I expected.

That brings me to my writing point, although I should start with a caveat. Every writer is different, and what works for one may not work for another. But I start with a short outline, and the basic idea behind the story never changes. As I water my story by sitting down and writing, however, it grows faster and stronger and beyond what I expected. Actually, it has occurred enough by now that I would be surprised if it didn’t happen, but I am still surprised at the actual direction the story takes.

I just finished the first draft of a middle-grade historical novel that takes place in 1850 and 1851. The main storyline deals with a riverboat disaster on the Mississippi. That is how I conceived it, and that is still the main plot. As I wrote, however, a minor character turned into a significant one (although he appears only in the middle of the novel), and slavery introduced itself as a dominant subplot.

The story will change even more as I write the second and third drafts, and I’m excited to see where it takes me.

Because a story, like a plant, only needs a little care to grow in unexpected ways.