Monday, February 8, 2016

Something I Love About Writing


In the month of February, TeachingAuthors are giving a nod to Valentines Day with posts about something we love about writing.  April Halprin Wayland wrote about how her “writerly peeps” keep her going with their support. Bobbi Miller wrote about the humanity of villains and the critical role they play in fiction.  JoAnn Early Macken wrote about creative thoughts that circle around in an authors mind and find their way onto the page. 

I exclusively write nonfiction books, so what I love about writing is the research.   I love finding details about my topic in countless places.  Recently I explained it like this:  

I’m looking for a single needle in each haystack, 
and there are thousands of haystacks to look through.  

I love the challenge of figuring out how to weave random facts into a book form and knowing that it is original and unique. 

One example of a research moment that will live on in my memory happened about a week ago.  I just returned from a long research trip to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic home.  I’m working on an upcoming book titled BURIED LIVES (Holiday House) about Washington’s slaves.   At the amazing Fred W. Smith Library for the Study of George Washington, at Mount Vernon, I was allowed to see rare collections that are not digitized.  I needed to see material relating to what happened to the slaves after the deaths of George and Martha Washington.


In the document room at the Fred W. Smith National Library
for the Study of George Washington, at Mount Vernon.
To see a virtual tour of the library:
To see a virtual tour of the library, click here.
I saw many incredible documents during my research, but the one that meant the most to me was the actual handwritten document that listed where the enslaved people who belonged to Martha’s estate went after her death.   I’ve already done a lot of research into the lives of individuals.  So when I saw this document, it brought tears to my eyes.  Among many other names, I saw the names of Caroline (Martha’s housemaid) and her children, as well as Christopher Sheels (George’s valet).  Both Caroline and Christopher were in the room as George Washington lay dying.  After Martha’s death, they were given as inherited property to Martha’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis-who built Arlington House (now part of Arlington National Cemetery).   Beside their names on that list was their monetary value.   

For every nonfiction book I write, I must emotionally bond with the people I write about.  And I have surely bonded with Caroline and Christopher and Billy Lee and Frank Lee, and Lucy, and Oney and Hercules and many, many others.  No longer are their names just an interesting fact to me.  Now I know their families, and what sort of work they did, and who was eventually freed and who was never free.   

Now that they are real to me, I want them to come to life through the pages of my book. 

To make that happen, 
I’ve got to search through a lot of haystacks. 


I was snuggled in at Mount Vernon through BLIZZARD 2016!  




Carla Killough McClafferty

Friday, February 5, 2016

One Thing I LOVE About Writing

Sometimes when I put my purple Pentel pen to a page in a spiral notebook, something happens that’s greater than the sum of its parts. A chemical reaction. Fusion. Synergy. Okay, call it Magic. Thoughts pour out that I’m not even aware of thinking.

That’s my favorite thing about writing.

Long ago, in a lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Ron Koertge told us about someone who called himself an amanuensis to the air. An amanuensis is someone who takes dictation. I love that concept! I don’t remember who that inspired writer was, but I thought about him when I wrote this poem.

Staring Out the Window 
I’m staring out the window,
but I don’t see a thing.
I’m searching for that fresh perspective
staring seems to bring. 
I hear a quiet whisper
right into my ear.
I feel that welcome tingle.
A new idea’s here! 
It circles round inside me,
from mind to heart and then
it lingers in my fingers, and
it pours out from my pen.

I’m the third Teaching Author to address this February Valentine-themed topic of One Thing I Love About Writing. April started us off with a tribute to those writerly peeps who support us and tell us the truth. I am all in on that subject—in fact, I think I might have chosen it if I had gone first.

Bobbi sang the praises of villains in a post that made me look at bad guys in a different way. I love when that happens!

Don’t forget about our 30-Day Boost Your Productivity Challenge. More details are here. Procrastinators like me can start any time. Please join us!

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at The Miss Rumphius Effect. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken

Monday, February 1, 2016

Villains are People, too!

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
 (Fair Use; Copyright owned
by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (film) )






April began this discussion on what we love about our writing. One of my favorite writing things is – believe it or not – the villain! As we know, fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels her story. Madeleine L’Engle (“The Heroic Personality,” Origins of Story, 1999) offers that the heroic personality is human, not perfect.


Not infallible or impeccable or faultless. Human. This sense of authenticity is important in keeping the reader connected to your story.


But a hero is only as good as the villain of the story. You could say that you cannot have a good story without a good villain. Who would Beowulf be without Grendel? Frodo with Sauron? Oliver Twist without Bill Sykes? Peter Pan without Captain Hook? Jim Hawkins without Long John Silver?


The hero needs opposition to make her story worthwhile. While the antagonist may simply be one who disagrees with the hero’s tactics, the villain is dedicated to the destruction of the hero. Christopher Vogler (Writer’s Journey, 1992) describes the difference: “Antagonists and heroes in conflict are like horses in a team pulling in different directions, while villains and heroes in conflict are like trains on a head-on collision course.” 

Like the hero, villains need motivation. If the plot is what happens to a character, then motivation is the force that sets it into motion and keeps it going. It’s why the villain goes after her goal in the first place. Villains have a history. And this history influences her motivation. Unless the villain was born evil, and few people are, villains are born human. Dean Koontz once offered that the best villains evoke pity, even sympathy, as well as terror. Sympathy for a villain, according to James Scott Bell (Revision and Self-Editing, 2008), deepens a story. A bully doesn’t pick on someone just to be mean. Why did he become a bully?

 Remember, Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies wasn’t always evil. In the beginning, he was an innocent, precocious and enslaved child, who grew to a teenager losing faith in his parental figures as he feared for the survival of his love, followed by his ultimate downfall when he was seduced by the dark force. We see the evolution of his evilness. But that’s not the end of his story, as we also witness his redemption when he meets his son, Luke Skywalker.

And remember Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster was a sensitive, emotional creature driven by despair and loneliness to acts of cruelty.


In the end, villains are people, too! 


One of my favorite villains is smooth-talking Long John Silver. He’s so personable, but Long John is greedy and cunning to the core. Ruthless and violent, he has the brains behind the scheme to recover Captain Flint's treasure. Had it succeeded he probably would have found a way to make off with the loot and leave his shipmates to face the gallows. Except, he developed a soft spot for Jim. He saved Jim. A villain with a heart.

Jim, Long John Silver and his Parrot by en:w:N. C. Wyeth from 1911 edition of en:Treasure Island

Another of my favorite villains is found in Gar-Face, from The Underneath written by Kathi Appelt. He is as mean as they come. Kathi didn’t back away from the hardness of such a broken character. Kathi once shared the backstory of her character Gar Face. He was actually based on someone Kathi knew as a child. Both Gar Face and the real person didn’t have an easy life growing up. The hardness of life broke the character, and the man that inspired him. As she explained, “I don’t think [the real man] sought [redemption] at all, and there’s a part of me that feels that redemption must be sought. I lost track of the real person behind Gar Face, but I don’t recall him ever seeking anything like kindness, nor did he offer much of it. Of course, my memory of him is that of a little girl, so I’m sure there were things I never knew.”

Another favorite villain is Harry Potter’s Severus Snape. Snape’s love of Lily, Harry Potter’s mother, is at the core of his motivation. Snape’s early involvement in Voldemort’s world, as a Death Eater and as Dumbledore’s spy, created the backstory for his choices, with tragic results.


“I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter —” (JK Rowling, Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

This spy-role meant that he would never have the chance to move on from his love for Lily. It was this capacity for love that made him so heroic, a villain who sacrificed the most important things in life to protect the son of the person whom he loved,  a person who could never return that love. Snape remained the bitter, sour-faced man, but he is set apart from Voldemort by his courage and his ability to love. It was his love that redeemed him. As Harry told his son, Albus Severus, Snape was one of the bravest men he had ever known.The villain was the hero after all!

Peter S. Beagley once wrote, “Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.” Sometimes not only are the villains the most interesting characters, they are the most important, for the hero cannot begin her journey without the villain.

And perhaps this is why it takes so much courage to write a story. As Anne Lamott suggest (Bird by Bird, 1995), “One way to do this is to look within your own heart, at the different facets of your personality.” Be brave, she warns, because you never know what you will find: a con man or a preacher, an orphan or a king, a child or a crone. When you explore the depths and shadows of your characters, including your villains, you are touching upon your own shadows. This becomes the paradox in storytelling: when we tell stories, we are making things up. This is, by definition, a lie. But every lie is wrapped in some emotional truth.

Ralph Keyes (The Courage to Write, 1995) explains:

Gripping writing results from intensity, and intensity is the flip side of fear … Daring is always more riveting then skill. Any juggler knows the real crowd pleaser isn’t his hardest task, such as keeping five balls in the air. The biggest oohs and ahhs are reserved for feats that look as they could maim him…Bold writers have the same relationship to readers that a juggler has to his crowd. When they seem to catch an errant machete by the blade, their readers stay glued to the page.”

Three cheers for our villains, who dare our heroes to become better than they ever imagined themselves to be!

Bobbi Miller