Relaxing on the Water

Monday, September 28, 2015

When I was a young attorney, I was assigned to monitor the activities of an outside law firm that was representing my employer in a lawsuit. The billing statements showed one associate working 14-hour days. I had no reason to believe that the law firm was padding the bill—in fact, the total number of hours seemed reasonable. But I couldn’t help wondering if the long hours made the tired associate less efficient and whether she would have done a better job in fewer hours if she had been fresh.

Flash forward thirty years. I’ve been working long and hard revising my very first book for its second edition, which I am trying to get ready for a conference in October. I’m tired and probably cranky, although you would have to ask Roland about that latter part. So when Sunday’s weather was favorable for a sail, I wasn’t sure I could afford to take the time.

Unfortunately, we haven’t had very many good sailing days lately. And with the season drawing to a close, we will probably get in one more after this—if the weather cooperates. So rather than disappointing Roland, I kept my thoughts to myself and went.

If I had remembered those billing statements, I wouldn’t have been so hesitant. There was just enough wind for a peaceful sail, and I came back refreshed. Then I went back to work with renewed energy.

Sometimes I think I don’t have time to take a nap or go sailing. But the truth is that I don’t have time not to do those things. And yes, the double negative is intentional.

Because sometimes the best way to work efficiently is to spend time relaxing on the water.

Jane Austin and Deep POV

Monday, September 21, 2015

As I take my regular walks, I listen to lectures from the Great Courses. Right now I am doing a series called “The English Novel,” and Friday’s lectures were on Jane Austin.

During the second lecture, Professor Timothy Spurgin talked about how Austin improved on the novelists of her day by finding a way to combine emotional immediacy with narrative control. By having her narrator use a central character’s speech patterns and vocabulary, the narrator remains on the scene without crowding the character out.

Professor Spurgin called the technique “free indirect discourse” or “free indirect speech,” but it sounds a lot like what many writers call “deep POV.”

Austin did not use deep POV all the time. She moved between distances frequently within a scene and sometimes within the same paragraph. They weren’t large leaps, but they were there. And if she did it, that gives me permission to do it as well.

I won’t use the same passage that Professor Spurgin used to demonstrate the technique, because that might be a spoiler for someone who hasn’t read Emma but intends to. So instead I’ll use two passages from around the middle of Northanger Abbey

The protagonist, Catherine Morland, is an avid reader of gothic novels. When she is invited to the Tilney’s country home, her imagination turns it into a mysterious mansion with a dangerous secret. Alone in her room, she spots a chest that seems out-of-place. Notice how this passage starts inside her thoughts but attributes them to her by the use of quotation marks, moves outside while still acknowledging her presence by the use of “Catherine” and “she,” and then ends with a totally unattributed sentence that comes from within.

“This is strange indeed! I did not expect such a sight as this!—An immense heavy chest!—What can it hold?—Why should it be placed here?—Pushed back too, as if meant to be out of sight! I will look into it—cost me what it may. I will look into it—and directly too—by day-light.—If I stay till evening my candle may go out.” She advanced and examined it closely: it was of cedar, curiously inlaid with some darker wood, and raised, about a foot from the ground, on a carved stand of the same. The lock was silver, though tarnished from age; at each end were the imperfect remains of handles also of silver, broken perhaps prematurely by some strange violence; and, on the centre of the lid, was a mysterious cypher, in the same metal. Catherine bent over it intently, but without being able to distinguish any thing with certainty. She could not, in whatever direction she took it, believe the last letter to be a T; and yet that it should be any thing else in that house was a circumstance to raise no common degree of astonishment. If not originally theirs, by what strange events could it have fallen into the Tilney family?

When Catherine finally has a chance to look inside, the chest contains nothing but ordinary bedding. So then she turns her attention to an old-fashioned black cabinet that fights her attempts to open it. When she finally does get it open, drawer after drawer is empty. Except one. Back in a corner, as if shoved out of sight, is a roll of paper. Events intervene and keep her from reading it until the following morning. But when she does . . . well, here’s what happens.

Her greedy eye glanced rapidly over a page. She started at its import. Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false?—An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! . . . She felt humbled to the dust. Could not the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom?

Again, we go seamlessly from outside to inside within a single paragraph.

To some people, Jane Austin was just another romance writer. To me, she was an innovator whose novels are timeless, whose techniques are still in use today, and whose writing teaches me how to improve my own.

Thank you, Jane.      


The picture is a watercolor and pencil drawing of Jane Austin by her sister, Cassandra Austin, around 1810. The picture and the quoted passages are in the public domain because of their age.

Advice to the Research Challenged

Monday, September 14, 2015

As I update my first book for its second edition, I am reminded just how much research it took. So I thought this would be a good time to reprint a blog post that I wrote for the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog, published on February 14, 2010.

* * * * *

Advice to the Research-Challenged

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, bad facts make readers put your article or book down before they finish it. But over-researching wastes time you could spend writing and tempts you to include unnecessary facts that bore the reader. So how do you find the right balance?

Unlike many people, I love doing research. But I learned long ago that inefficient research wastes valuable writing time. Here are some tips on researching that use examples from my experience while writing In God We Trust, which was originally published by FaithWalk Publishing in 2006. The second edition will be coming from KP/PK Publishing at the beginning of October.

1. Have a general idea of where your book is going before you start the research. In God We Trust was my response to the ongoing argument over the meaning of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. As I listened to both conservatives and liberals, I became concerned that neither side was painting an accurate picture for the general public. The object of the book is to give laypersons the information they need to draw their own conclusions about what the First Amendment means and how well the Supreme Court has applied it.

2. Tailor your research to the book’s goal. I could have researched and discussed the country’s religious history from the time the Pilgrims reached Plymouth, but that would have overwhelmed my audience with more information than necessary. So I limited my historical research and discussion to the years during which the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written and adopted.

3. Select your sources, then use them wisely. Depending on the topic, libraries, books, magazines, interviews, location visits, and the Internet can all be helpful resources. Interviews and location visits wouldn’t have worked for me, but I made extensive use of the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago and of the Internet. I focused on original sources such as the Supreme Court’s written opinions and James Madison’s notes on the discussions in the House of Representatives. Internet research is tricky unless you use sites you know are reliable. Otherwise, use the Internet as a starting point but confirm your information from more dependable sources.

4. Don’t be afraid to go back and supplement your research. After I started writing, I realized I needed to address two federal laws that Congress adopted in an attempt to overrule the Supreme Court. So I found them and read them.

5. Or to leave some of your research on the cutting room floor. Although I believe in researching efficiently, it is better to err on the side of too much rather than too little. Some of the Supreme Court cases I read were decided on other grounds that avoided the First Amendment issues, so I didn’t use them.

Learn to research efficiently, and you might discover you enjoy it.


The picture shows the Harold Washington Library, where I spent so much of my time.

Hidden Meanings

Monday, September 7, 2015

Our newspaper incudes the “Crankshaft” comic strip by Batiuk & Ayers. I particularly enjoyed the Sunday one from August 23. One character approaches another and says, “It looks like you’ve started a new book, Lillian.” But Lillian has decided not to finish it. In the last frame, she explains why: “The author was bankrupt of ideas by chapter eleven.” My first reaction was that it was cute, and that was good enough.

But then I looked again. I don’t know why it took the lawyer in me several seconds to get the deeper meaning, but it did. Then I realized how clever the strip was.

For those of you who haven’t figured it out yet, Chapter Eleven is shorthand for a particular type of bankruptcy proceeding. So when Lillian said the author was bankrupt by chapter eleven, the phrase had a heightened meaning for those who understood it.

Technically, that’s not a hidden meaning but simply a heightened one that not everyone gets. Still, in some ways it is like the picture at the head of this post. If you look carefully, you will find a bird in the branches. But it’s an interesting picture even if you don’t.

That’s how hidden or double meanings should work in fiction. Illusions that some readers will miss work if—and only if—the surface story is interesting without them. But if my enjoyment depends on specialized knowledge or Mensa-level thinking, I don’t want to read it. I recently read a book like that, and it was so forgettable that I don’t even remember its name.

Disney handles this issue well. Its animated films are filled with adult humor that children won’t get. But that doesn’t matter, because the story is also told at a child’s level.

If you want to infuse your manuscripts with allusions that show how smart you are, make sure they work on an everyday level as well.

Because it isn’t very smart to write a story nobody wants to read.