Sunday, September 26, 2010

Language of Historical Fiction

By Bonnie Stanard

When Shakespeare, in his play Julius Caesar, had Cassius say “The clock has stricken three,” he committed a faux pas which is so common among historical fiction writers a word has been invented to describe it—anachronism. The clock is the anachronism, for no clocks existed in Caesar’s day.

Recently I read the antebellum novel Jacob’s Ladder by Donald McCaig in which a character orders a sandwich in a tavern. Though the word sandwich dates back to 1762 in England, it doesn’t appear in antebellum diaries and cookbooks I’ve researched. From that misstep by the author, I read the story with an eye of mistrust (which was compounded with his reference to a “rubber tarp,” for rubber wasn’t in common usage at the time).

The writer’s challenge is to avoid not only anachronisms but also a modern English tenor of speech, in other words try to be true to the history and language of the time. An example of a novel that takes place in history but reads like a modern story is Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Though you’re supposed to believe you’re in 16th Century England, the modern sound of the language transports you to the 21st Century.

In writing of slaves and their owners in the South in 1857, I have compiled my own lexicon of white and slave idioms which I’ve taken from diaries and slave narratives. I’ve found this useful in writing not only dialogue but the narrative as well.

Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain uses language effectively to put the reader in the antebellum South and to bring the characters alive in their time. If you open this book to any page and read, you will guess from the language that it is a 19th Century story set in the South, even if you know nothing about the book. If only I can capture that sense in my manuscript.

There are 19th century words which hardly anybody has heard of today, some because an entity no longer exists—e.g. calabash (vessel made of gourd shell) or banyun (slip-like dress) or osnaburg (coarse material). Others disappear because usage has changed—e.g. counterpane has become quilt; chilblain became sore; and snood, hairnet.

If I’m in doubt about a word, I look it up in the Merriman-Webster dictionary (CD copy) to check on the date it was introduced into the English language. I have found that some words dated earlier by Merriman-Webster don’t appear in 19th Century diaries, words such as diaper, moonshine, and toddler. The Merriman-Webster dates would be even better if the dictionary provided the original definition, for many contemporary words date back centuries, but mean something entirely different now.

I’ve tried to avoid even questionable words, some of which I really miss. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to talk about meals without using the word left-overs (introduced in 1891). Pregnancy is mentioned by antebellum doctors, but lay persons described the condition in veiled tones such as confinement, lying-in, or a delicate condition. Teenager dates from 1921 and I wish it had come into our language much earlier. And if one of my characters broke his wrist watch, the reader could justifiably mistrust me as a writer of historical fiction.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

O.U.R. B.L.O.G. R.O.C.K.S.

By Tiem Wilson

Our blog rocks, let me be clear.
Unlike any other, it’s a place to share
Relevant information for those who care.

Books, bound & electronic, blogs, ball-point pens.
Lines, letters, lyrics, and literature
Opinions, and observations
Genre gossip on Google galore

Read thru the entries and be amused
Of how our members display their muse.
Come back often for new insight and
Knowledge to help facilitate the need to write.
Show the web how our blog rocks!!!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Blue People, Billions and Basic Writing

By Kimberly Johnson

I didn’t pay the $7.50 at the ticket window last Saturday. That’s right; I’m the only one who didn’t see Avatar. You know, the flick with the blue people flying on dinosaur-looking creatures. The flick that made billions of dollars.

To borrow a phrase from Drew Barrymore’s date night film: I’m just not that into it—science fiction, that is. My history with science fiction is checkered, spotty at best. I did munch popcorn to the Star Wars trilogy. I smiled through E.T. I curled up on the couch to Close Encounters on DVD.

Again, not a fan of space, the final frontier.

I didn’t pay the $7.50 at the ticket window last Saturday. That’s right. I blew it. After watching James Cameron’s insightful interview with PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, I realized that blue people and quality writing equals big bucks. The Smiley-Cameron exchange revealed the director’s vision on creativity, the use of computerized imagery and the writing process. I also realized Cameron is a prolific screenwriter with box office notables such as The Terminator, Rambo: First Blood Part II and True Lies under his belt.

I did pay the matinee price to see those films.

That interview got me thinking… Cameron must be a darn good writer.
I drove to the public library and checked out three screenwriting books. (There is an iceberg and leading man in my future.) Hal Ackerman’s, Write Screenplays That Sell, is a keeper. Ackerman states that you don’t need to take a screenwriting course to write professionally. Did I tell you he is a former screenwriter and film instructor? Well, his former UCLA film students give him high praise for his simple, yet effective techniques to write and to format scripts.

So, I rolled the dice and decided to skim the book.

Then, I decided to read it.

Finally, I decided to incorporate some of his ideas into my writing. (I liked Ackerman’s take on character descriptions--- Keep the language fresh and vivid. Never leave your reader wanting less.) Overall, Ackerman wants the reader to develop strong writing skills. He does a good job on providing the nuts and bolts. For example, Ackerman believes that “dialogue must function as a part of a character’s efforts to accomplish his or her immediate objective”. He offers helpful hints such as:
• It’s never a character’s objective to give information to the audience.
• Characters ought not to be complicit with the writer’s intentions for them.
• A character’s objective is not to tell the story or to supply biographical information, back story, mood or psychological diagnosis.

I didn’t pay the $7.50 at the ticket window last Saturday. That’s right. I didn’t blow it. I used my library card to check out a reference guide to improve my writing—and to find some blue people.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Independents and Independence

By Mike Long

I'm not sure where I'm going with this—it feels more like venting than advising potential writers. It seems to me that we, the public, are subjected to a regular barrage of pleas to support indies, the independent booksellers of America. I understand and agree with their arguments, and there's that David vs. Goliath thing too.

In fact I do support them; for example, for about ten years I drove past the “big guys” to shop at Litchfield Books, when we had a place at Garden City Beach. This year I called them to ask about putting my new novel there on consignment. The “lady” who answered interrupted me to ask if I was self-published, then said, “We do not stock self-published novels.” End of that conversation.

I had the same brief talk with a large indie in Charlotte (not Park Street Books-they've stocked me and are allowing me a signing this month). I sent an email query to 20 Texas indies, and only received two responses—one was folding, the other wanted a 45% discount. True West Magazine accepted $1540.00 from me for an ad, then declined to review my novel as they “have to stick with established authors and publishers in these troubled economic times.”

I have had great luck with some of the few indies left in SC, like Indigo (John's Island), Swift (Orangeburg), Fiction Addiction (Greenville), Java Nook (Ridgeway), and Blue Bicycle (Charleston). The manager at Ravenous Reader (James Island) was absolutely rude, even though I had stacked up $184.00 worth of books to buy on her counter. I left them there, drove over to Indigo Books and bought them from nice people, the owners Nat and Linda.

I guess that's my point. We, the independent writers, are sometimes treated to a different standard than the indies wish for themselves. I, as an indie writer, plan to keep spending money with fair-minded folks, and to keep identifying those with double standards. My True West subscription will expire.