First or Third?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Several weeks ago, I read a chapter from my current work in progress to my writers’ group, and it sparked a discussion on point of view. Here is a sample from the manuscript.

     Fannie Stewart stabbed her fried chicken with a fork. “Why does Julia have to come here? Why can’t she stay with friends in St. Louis?”

     [The conversation continues for several paragraphs, and her mother reminds Fannie that it is only for six months.]

     Even one month with snobbish cousin Julia was too long. Julia, who thought she was so grown up. Julia, who looked down on Fannie.

     Six months would be unendurable.

This chapter is written from Fannie’s third person point of view. We know it is third person because the chapter identifies Fannie by name and uses third person pronouns—“her” in the example, but also “she” and “hers.” A first person point of view would use “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine.”

But if you look at the last two paragraphs in the example, those are Fannie’s thoughts, not that of a neutral narrator. So shouldn’t I use first person or at least italicize Fannie’s thoughts?


Both first person and third person have the same major constraint—the reader can only know what the POV character knows. But it is easier to get around the disadvantages of that approach when using third person.

In first person, you are stuck in the character’s head. But third person is like a camera that can zoom in and out. It can zoom in on the person’s thoughts in a way that tells the reader that it’s a close-up shot. No italics required.

Or if you want to keep a secret, you zoom out. The reader still only sees what the character sees but doesn’t hear the chatter in the character’s head.

Large jumps are disconcerting, but small ones are barely noticeable. In the example above, the first paragraph is middle-distance or less. We are sitting at the dining room table with her, but we judge her feelings by her actions and her words rather than reading her thoughts. But just a few paragraphs later, we do. That lens adjustment is restrained enough that the change works. Or at least I think it does.

After our discussion, I did experiment with rewriting my manuscript in first person, but it sounded unnatural. Besides, I wanted my characters to have a few secrets from the readers until later in the story. If you are inside someone’s head, readers expect you to be honest with them and tell them what the character is thinking all the time. There are a few tricks a writer can use, but they wouldn’t work in my story.

I’m glad I tried first person, though, because now it’s not the right approach for this book.

But maybe my next one will be in first person.

Getting the Details Right

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sometimes I feel sorry for authors who write contemporary stories. Unless they generalize current trends (which some do very well), they run the risk that their stories will become as outdated as the technology and fads embraced by the characters. Who knows if Facebook or Twitter—or even cell phones—will still be around in two years?

Since I have been writing historical fiction, I don’t have that problem. People know that the story takes place in the past, and that’s part of the reason they read it. My technology doesn’t have to be up-to-date. In fact, it had better not be if I want to story to ring true.

So historical fiction solves one problem, but it creates another.

For the past week or two, I have been wrestling with fictional closets.

The story takes place in 1871 and has two protagonists, who are 12-year-old cousins. Julia has come to stay with Fannie’s family in Chicago for six months, and the girls share a room and limited storage space. When I wrote the first draft, Julia was upset at the size of the bedroom closet.

Then Roland and I took a short vacation to Savannah, Georgia, and toured a couple of historic houses. And I discovered that none of them had closets.

Instead, they had trunk rooms. Everyday wear may have been kept in dresser drawers in the bedrooms, but most clothes were neatly folded inside trunks. The trunks were stored in a room that was often reached by a door from the hall but not directly from the bedrooms. If a trunk room was attached to a bedroom, it was likely to belong to the parents but not the children.

Change #1 to my manuscript removed the closet from the bedroom and replaced it with a trunk room in the hall. But now I had another problem. When the Great Chicago Fire breaks out, Fannie throws on the dresses that are handy in her bedroom. For reasons I won’t go into here, I want to keep that scene.

Change #2 added back a closet but made it a very tiny space with a few hooks. (The hangers and clothes rods we are used to were mostly unknown at the time.)

But that didn’t seem right, either. Then someone from my critique group suggested a wardrobe (as shown at the top of this page). Unfortunately, wardrobes weren’t a common feature of children’s bedrooms in 1871, even among the well-to-do living in urban areas. I considered that solution but rejected it before making the next round of changes.

Change #3. I eliminated the closet again but added several pegs along one wall in Fannie’s bedroom. That’s where I’m at right now.

When writing historical fiction, authors don’t have to keep up with today’s technology and fads and hope they won’t pass too quickly. But we do have to get the historical details right.

And that isn’t easy.

Audience Matters

Monday, January 16, 2017

This year’s vacation will take me back to a place where my family spent several weeks when I was a child, so I pulled my father’s unpublished memoir off the shelf to look up his comments. From time to time I wonder about editing his memoir and getting it published, but it would take more work than I have time for. It isn’t that Daddy couldn’t write—he could. But some parts of the manuscript would appeal to one audience and others to another one. Unfortunately, they are often interwoven, and my opinion is that they would have to be separated before appealing to either audience.

Daddy loved to travel, and his travels are the focus of his memoir. However, he was also a Biblical historian and a theologian, and his account of his travels is both a story and a dissertation. The story is my favorite part and could be written to appeal to a wider audience, while the dissertation would appeal only to amateur or professional theologians and historians. Unfortunately, most readers would find the extended discussion dry and uninteresting, and they would either skim over it or, more likely, skip the entire memoir.

For instance, Daddy tells about an overnight walk he took during his first trip to the Middle East. He picked up a couple of unwanted “guides”—boys who were looking for adventure and possibly an excuse to skip school. The night-time hike along little-used paths and the boys’ attempts to find food along the way are interesting and even amusing. But Daddy keeps interrupting the story with Biblical references. For example:

     From this point the road became practically non-existent and the descent increasingly difficult until soon we found it almost impossible to climb down the rocks from level to level. We frightened up large numbers of partridge as we went along that rocky way—birds common even in those days when David was a fugitive from King Saul as I Samuel 26:20 bears witness: “The King of Israel is come out to seek a flea, as when one doth hunt a partridge in the mountains.”

A theologian or a Bible scholar might appreciate the diversion, but most readers would not.

If you had asked Daddy, I think he would have said that the theological and historical discussions were his favorite part of his memoir and the one he was most interested in publishing. I couldn’t do it justice, though. If that part ever gets reworked for publication, one of my brothers will have to do it.

But someday I might pull out the story and prepare it for a different audience.

Magic Bookshelves

Monday, January 9, 2017

I have magic bookshelves. Black magic, that is. They are like overgrown gardens. Every time I weed out the books that I’m not going to read again, others sprout up to take their places. It gets so bad that shelves break under the weight of the books, as happened Friday. Then there was the flood of 2008, when books that were above the water line fell off the shelves and were ruined because the books below them became waterlogged, expanded, and blew the bookcases apart.

Fortunately, I do have a white magic bookshelf. It’s called a Kindle, and it can hold an unlimited number of books. (That’s probably not technically true, but I haven’t reached the limit yet.) It also ensures that I don’t run out of reading material on vacation.

I love my Kindle.

Even so, there are times when I purchase good old-fashioned hard copies. Sometimes it’s because I buy the copy at a writer’s conference. Or maybe the book I want isn’t available on Kindle or the paperback is a lot cheaper than the electronic version.

At other times, I want to mark in the book and refer back to the marked passages from time to time, whether as research for my current work in progress or because the book inspires my writing. I can do the mark-up with the Kindle, but I find it easier with a hard copy book.

So what I really need is a magic bookcase for hard copies that expands when it gets full but doesn’t take up any additional room in my already crowded office. Preferably, the shelves would also strengthen themselves when loaded with heavy books.

Does anybody have one of those to sell?

Count Your Blessings

Monday, January 2, 2017

I don’t make New Years’ resolutions. I count my blessings, instead.

I’ve heard a lot of people expressing the hope that 2017 will be a better year than 2016, and some even say it can’t possibly be worse. But 2016 was actually a good year for me. As with any year, it wasn’t perfect. It was the first year without my mother, my older brother had some serious health issues, we had a presidential race where I didn’t like any of the final candidates and ended up voting against somebody instead of for somebody, and I’m still looking for a publisher for my middle grade novels. But on the positive side, Roland and I have been in good health, we have two great children and a wonderful son-in-law, we had the resources to take a trip to Germany and another to Savannah, Georgia, and I’ve been writing steadily. And, oh yes, the Cubs won the World Series.

More importantly, I know that God is in control. He lets us make mistakes, and sometimes they are pretty terrible, but He will have the last say. God is in control of the world, and He is also in control of my life. That’s the greatest blessing of all.

History tells us that presidential politics—and even World Series wins—tend to have a fleeting effect on most people’s everyday lives. So as you look back on 2016, ask yourself this question. Did you really have a bad year, or did you just forget to count your blessings?