Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dismal River

If you know me, you know I write historical fiction, dark (with a smidge of dark-funny) historical fiction set in Appalachia that tries to answer this question:

How did people maintain hope when life seemed so hopeless? 

I realize that sounds like a terrible and pessimistic question to ponder, but I have a good reason to ask it.  When I began doing genealogical research about years ago, I was shocked that one generation was poorer and less educated than the one before.  I think the thing I hoped to find when I began researching my ancestors was evidence of someone like me.  Instead, I found plenty of evidence of the things that are supposed to be only stereotypes of Appalachians: poverty, lack of education, and a tendency to partake in the moonshine.

Instead of writing about my family in the towns they lived in, I prefer to create fictional towns that exist near real places and tell fictional stories of what could have happened, especially when there's no evidence of what actually did happen. 

I'm currently researching coal towns in Buchanan County, Virginia, that were in operation from 1940-1960.  When I was looking on a map for the location of these mines, I couldn't believe what I saw on the map.

The actual river that runs through the region is Dismal River.  Dismal River.

I couldn't have chosen a better name.  This restores my faith that there was someone in that region at some point in time (even if he or she wasn't in my family) that shared my dark sense of humor and love for language and decided on that name with a smirk on his face.  

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I apologize for my extended absence.  I am taking two graduate classes, one of which is a grant writing class where I am attempting to acquire funding for my research.  It's turning out to be a part-time job.  The problem (besides the huge volume of chapters to be read every week) is the fact that I don't have a solid plan for my research, so my work for this assignment is more than doubled because I also need to document my plan (and figure out what it is).

I will probably only pop in two or three times a month until the end of April.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

IWSG - January, 2014

In my experience, the only thing that's more difficult than writing historical fiction is writing historical fiction with multiple points of view.  I have the choice of writing anything I want, and yet this most difficult thing is what I must write.  It's my compulsion, my obsession, the thing I think about every day.  It's my white whale.

I wrote the first draft of this novel about a year ago in third person with minimal description of things related to the time period (since I hadn't finished doing the research).  I figured that would be easy enough to add in later.  Last spring I did a huge amount of research and began rewriting the story in first person.  If told in first person, this story has to be told with multiple points of view because no one is present for all parts of it.  To complicate things further, the story cannot be told from the main character's point of view because of what happens to her in the story.

This morning (it's actually Monday that I'm writing this), after getting feedback from my teen (who would make a brilliant editor some day if she didn't loathe the idea of it so much), I figured out precisely how to execute it. 

Insecurities to me means things we doubt about ourselves or our abilities.  I never thought this was something I couldn't do; I just hadn't figured out exactly how I was going to do it until this morning. Part of the job we have as writers is to experiment with different ways to tell a story until we find the one that's just right.  So instead of feeling insecure this morning, I feel incredibly excited to resume work on this very challenging novel. 

I'm very grateful for the brutally cold weather this morning (-1 with -30 wind chills) to keep me and my kids inside.  I'm declaring it a writing day punctuated with lots of fun (puzzles, animated movies, and Nerf gun wars in the living room).

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This post is part of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh.  If you aren't already a member, it's never too late to sign up. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

First Post of the Year - On Writing Like Poe

I want to be more organized with my writing this year.  Toward the end of last month, once I could see and read again (see post about shingles on my face if you're interested), I decided to start writing Write Despite style, 20 minutes a day no matter what.  At the same time, I got an enthusiastic approval from my Poe professor to write some Poe-inspired stories for my literature class that starts in January. 

It turns out that if I sit down to write for 20 minutes, it turns into 30 or more, depending when my small person interrupts me to ask how to spell words for his story. 

When I did write (which was not every day because of interruptions), I wrote more than 1000 words in one sitting.  If I were to write 1000 words a day for this entire year, that would be 365,000 words.  Holy crap, right?  Even if I don't hit that mark every day, I think it's a worthwhile thing to try. 

I don't want to write only to accumulate words.  I want to write more deliberately to improve my writing technique.  Writing the Poe-ish stories turns out to be a fabulous exercise in getting into the heads of the deranged and/or mentally ill and to practice unfolding character in a gradual way.  In all of the Poe stories I've recently read, the first few paragraphs explain what the character thinks of himself and other people - and gradually he (always a man) reveals more and more of what he doesn't understand about himself, the crazy he feels but can't see.  Awesome.

One of the characters in one of my historical novels is a horrible person and is unapologetic about it.  When I read my opening chapter in my class, the visiting professor told me that I need to soften him. She said he's not believable.  She said something like, "He's seems too much like a monster." The irony is that he's based on a composite of real people who were horrible, worse than monsters because they were real.  When one of my relatives recently spoke of one of the people that inspired my character (and only because I asked), she said, "He was a monster."  Some people are.

Last week after reading a lot of Poe, I wrote a story where this same character appeared to another character who was hallucinating.  My intent was to figure out a way to explain the horrific behavior of the character without making excuses for him. 

When my husband read my story, he interpreted it completely different than I intended.  He thought it was a horror story, not a tale of mental illness.  When we read Poe or watch our awesome collection of Vincent Price movies, we have the same reaction.  I see the stories as glimpses into the minds of the mentally ill.  He sees them as sinister horror stories.  I'm definitely on the right track.

Over the last few years, I've read a lot of tips about characterization and writing novels.  The consensus seems to be that the characters, particularly the main characters, need to be likable.  Some of mine aren't the tiniest bit likable.  Neither are Poe's.  That's why I think studying Poe's characterization techniques will be really useful for me. 

What's your opinion about creating characters that are likable? 

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A Note  (in case you saw my deleted post on the blogger list that apparently doesn't update itself although it could be self-updating rather easily if someone bothered to do it):

I am so removed from blogging lately that I didn't realize Insecure Writer's Support Group day was pushed back a week. 

I woke up late, realized I hadn't finished my January post, decided to post my December post since I missed December and the post was more done than my January one.  I published it, realized it still said December in the title, changed it, republished it, read it and realized it wasn't really done, edited it, posted it on Google+, went to the IWSG site to start reading.  And then I saw it's not today.

So I'll save my posts for another day - and maybe I'll edit and then schedule them for the correct day.