Friday, January 30, 2015

Beautiful OOPS Day--Mistakes into Masterpieces

.
Howdy, Campers!

Happy Poetry Friday (link at the end, original poem's in this post)...and make sure to enter our latest Book Giveaway of Sherry Shahan's Skin & Bones (which ends February 6th)!

If you follow this blog, you'll remember the day we spent with author/illustrator Barney Saltzberg and his marvelous book, Beautiful Oops! (Workman). Well, guess what?

Now there's a worldwide Beautiful Oops! Day!












Tell me if this sounds familiar: you've wrapped the gift for your friend Julie, sealed it in a box, stuck stamps on it and then, as you're listening to the Beatles sing "Hey Jude," you address the package... to Jude. OOPS!

Now what?  Well, if you're Barney, you'll make a weird-looking cartoon heart over the word "Jude"...which sprouts legs and arms, a top hat and cane, and suddenly there's a host of fabulous creatures framing Julie's mailing address...a veritable celebration.  That's a Beautiful Oops...a mistake made beautiful.

The point of this book is to encourage all of us to allow "the magical transformation from blunder to wonder," and as schools all over the world celebrate Beautiful Oops Day (in any month, on any day; a school could decide to celebrate Beautiful Oops Day each month), I wish we'd celebrated it when I was in school!


The Beautiful Oops Day website includes project ideas shared by teachers from all over the world to get you started.  And here's a 1:41 minute video of Barney sharing with young students:


How does this translate to writing?  I just happen to have a perfect example.  Here's a new poem author Bruce Balan sent me just this week; beneath it is his "mistake" backstory:

THE PLAINTIFF CALL OF THE WILD
by Bruce Balan


I submit to the court
that this species
has ignored the proper protocol:
They’ve decided that it’s all
for them
and no one else;
Not fish nor elk
nor tiny eels.
Their ills are real.
They spoil and take
break and forsake
and maul
every spot and plot
and it’s not as if
they don’t know…
They do!
They just ignore,
which underscores
my call.

Please dear Judge,
I do not intend to fawn,
but
I pray the court
will look kindly on my call
before my clients all
are gone.

(c) 2015 by Bruce Balan. All rights reserved.
Bruce (whose newest book, The Magic Hippo, is available at the iTunes store, B&N, and Amazon) explains: "I was going to write a poem called The Plaintive Call of the Wild (it just popped into my head), but I misspelled plaintive and so ran with it…"

Perhaps today's Beautiful Oops lesson is RUN WITH IT!

So, thank you, Barney Saltzberg, for gifting us the space to make mistakes; to be human.Campers, stay tuned: next week, Barney will share a Wednesday Writing Workout (link goes live on February 4, 2015) on this very blog!




Poetry Friday's at Paul Hankin's These 4 Corners today...thanks, Paul!
 

posted with inevitable mistakes by April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wednesday Writing Workout: Characterization (Encore Presentation)

As a follow-up to last Friday's Guest TeachingAuthor Interview with Sherry Shahan, I'm repeating the Wednesday Writing Workout she shared with us in July 2014. After reading this post, I'm sure you'll want to enter for a chance to win a copy of Sherry's Skin and Bones (A. Whitman), if you haven't already entered the contest.

Sherry's young adult novel is a quirky story set in an eating disorder unit of a metropolitan hospital. The main character “Bones” is a male teen with anorexia. He falls desperately in love with an aspiring ballerina who becomes his next deadly addiction.

The novel was inspired by a short story Sherry wrote years ago, “Iris and Jim.” It appeared in print eight times worldwide. Her agent kept encouraging her to expand “Iris and Jim” into a novel. Easy for her to say!

                                                               *          *           *

Wednesday Writing Workout 
Tell It Sideways
by Sherry Shahan

During the first draft of Skin and Bones I stumbled over a number of unexpected obstacles. How could I give a character an idiosyncratic tone without sounding flippant? Eating disorders are serious, and in too many instances, life-threatening. 

Sometimes I sprinkled facts into farcical narration. Other times statistics emerged through dialogue between prominent characters—either in an argument or by using humor. Either way, creating quirky characters felt more organic when their traits were slipped in sideways instead of straight on.

There are endless ways to introduce a character, such as telling the reader about personality:
"Mrs. Freeman could never be brought to admit herself wrong on any point." —      Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People."
Or by detailing a character’s appearance:
"The baker wore a white apron that looked like a smock. Straps cut under his arms, went around in back and then to the front again, where they were secured under his heavy waist ."   —Raymond Carver "A Small, Good Thing"
The art of creating fully realized characters is often a challenge to new writers of fiction. As a longtime teacher I’ve noticed:

1.) Writers who use short cuts, such a clichés, which produce cardboard or stereotypical characters.
2.) Writers who stubbornly pattern the main character after themselves in a way that’s unrealistic.
3.) Writers who are so involved in working out a complicated plot that their characters don’t receive enough attention.

In Skin and Bones I let readers get to know my characters though humorous dialogue. This technique works best when characters have opposing viewpoints. 

Consider the following scene. (Note: Lard is a compulsive over-eater; Bones is anorexic.)

“I’ll never buy food shot up with hormones when I own a restaurant,” Lard said. “Chicken nuggets sound healthy enough, but they have more than three dozen ingredients—not a lot of chicken in a nugget.”

Bones put on rubber gloves in case he’d have to touch something with calories. “Can’t we talk about something else?”

“That’s the wrong attitude, man. Don’t you want to get over this shit?”

“Not at this particular moment, since it’s almost lunch and my jaw still hurts from breakfast.”

Lard shook his head. “I’m glad I don’t live inside your skin.”

“It’d be a little crowded.”

Exercise #1: Choose a scene from a work-in-progress where a new character is introduced. (Or choose one from an existing novel.) Write a paragraph about the character without using physical descriptions. Repeat for a secondary character.

Exercise #2: Give each character a strong opinion about a subject. Do Nice Girls Really Finish Last? Should Fried Food Come With a Warning? Make sure your characters have opposing positions. Next, write a paragraph from each person’s viewpoint.

Exercise #3: Using the differing viewpoints, compose a scene with humorous dialogue. Try not to be funny just for humor’s sake. See if you can weave in a piece 
of factual information (Lard’s stats. about Chicken Nuggets), along with a unique character trait (Bones wearing gloves to keep from absorbing calories through his skin.)

I hope these exercises help you think about characterization in a less conventional way. Thanks for letting me stop by!
Sherry
www.SherryShahan.com

Readers, if you haven't already done so, head on over to Friday's post and enter for a chance to win your own autographed copy of  Skin and Bones (A. Whitman).

Good luck and Happy writing!
Carmela

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Rose by Any Other Name Can Be...a Heather: Naming Characters

     There are two things about writing that never get any easier for me. . .coming up with a good title and naming characters.  I still have a hard time with titles, but I have developed strategies to give my characters good names.

    I spent most of my pregnancy struggling to come up with just the right name for my daughter, a name that would be all her own. In writing, I do not have the luxury of spending eight months on one character name.

    I believe that name is the single most important aspect of a character. It is usually the first thing a reader learns about him.  The name should reflect the character's personality is some way, however subtle.  Sometimes that is a mysterious process that goes on in the author's head, unexplainable to anyone else.  I do not know how E.B. White decided on Charlotte and Wilbur, but can you imagine them named anything else?  A book called Barbara's Web?  A pig named Bob?  No, somehow Charlotte and Wilbur, along with Fern and Templeton and Mr. Zuckerman are so right, they could not be anything else.

    Since I write historical fiction, I have a second barrier to finding just the right name. My names need to fit the time period.  The characters in Yankee Girl were pretty easy.  The book was about my sixth grade class.  I used names that were popular in 1964, as well as names that were popular in the South.  Jimmy's Stars, which takes place in 1943, was a little more difficult.  I knew that my main character was born in 1932, and would have graduated from high school in 1950. I scoured libraries and second-hand stores for 1949-50 high school annuals. (There were an awful lot of girls named Betty.)

    Contemporary fiction isn't much easier.  Names change as quickly as any other fashion.  Some names scream a particular decade.  I am a baby boomer, and I was usually the only Mary Ann in a class full of Debbies, Karens, Cathys and Sharons.  When I was a middle school teacher in the late 80's, I taught more than a few Farrahs. My friends who had babies about then named them Ashley and Kate (not after the Olsen twins!)  When I had my daughter in 1994, I was the only one in my childbirth class who did not name their child Tyler or Taylor (regardless of sex).

   Then there are adult names. In children's books, they are usually not a central character but occasionally they are.  (Miss Gruen and Reverend Taylor in Yankee Girl come to mind.) How do you name adults?

   Here is a list of sources I have compiled that help me with The Naming Game.

   1.  Baby name books.  These often reflect the popularity (or lack of popularity) of a name, as well as give a cultural origin. (Warning:  I learned not to carry one of these in public unless I wanted to start rumors about a possible new addition to my family.)

   2.  School annuals.  These work for both contemporary and historical fiction.

   3.  School directories, websites, newsletters, newspapers, class lists.  Schools in my neck of the woods generate an enormous amount of student information. If you don't have access to your own personal student, read the school news pages online or in your neighborhood paper/website.

   4.  Obituaries.  Yeah, I know it's kind of morbid, but I have collected a number of "old-timey" names from them.  Around here, they usually include the person's nickname as well.

   5.  Observation.  I live a mile away from the fastest growing immigrant community in the country.  Call me nosy (or a writer), but I notice workers' name tags.  I ask the employee where they are from and how they pronounce their name.  No one has been insulted (yet), and I have collected names I would never have thought of on my own.

    6.  The Social Security Index of Popular Baby Names. This site is unbelievably cool.  It lists the top 200 names for boys and girls for each decade, from 1880 to 2010.  Not only is it searchable by decade, but by each state as well. (Apparently Mary and James were the hot names of my decade.) http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/decades

   What do I do with all these names?  I list them in a notebook, separate from my regular journal. Right now, the 1910 Social Security list is getting a heavy workout from me.  My characters are named.

      Now if I could just think of a title...

     Don't forget about our current book giveaway.  For more information click here.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Guest TeachingAuthor Interview and Book Giveaway with Sherry Shahan

I've enjoyed reading my fellow TeachingAuthor' posts on plotting and planning. That series ended with Esther's post on Monday. Today, I'm presenting a new topic: a guest TeachingAuthor interview and book giveaway! But first, I want to share some updates regarding our blog. The next few months will be a busy time for me due to a variety of personal and professional commitments. (If you live in the Chicago area and you're looking for a writing class, I hope you'll check out my class offerings, including one tomorrow on "Great Beginnings.") So, while I'll continue to work behind the scenes here, I'll be taking a blogging break. And I'm THRILLED to announce that the talented Carla Killough McClafferty will be blogging in my place. If you don't know Carla, do read her bio info on our About Us page. I hope you'll give her a hearty welcome when she makes her debut here three weeks from today.

Now, for today's guest TeachingAuthor interview, let me re-introduce you to Sherry Shahan, author of picture books, easy readers, and novels for middle grade and young adults. You may recall that Sherry contributed a terrific Wednesday Writing Workout back in July. I began that post by saying:

>>Sherry and I first met virtually, when she joined the New Year/New Novel (NYNN) Yahoo group I started back in 2009. I love the photo she sent for today's post--it personifies her willingness to do the tough research sometimes required for the stories she writes. As she says on her website, she has:
 "ridden on horseback into Africa’s Maasailand, hiked through a leech-infested rain forest in Australia, shivered inside a dogsled for the first part of the famed 1,049 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, rode-the-foam on a long-board in Hawaii, and spun around dance floors in Havana, Cuba."   
<<

Sherry's most recent young-adult novel, Skin and Bones (A. Whitman) required a different kind of research, as she shares in her interview below. According to Kirkus Reviews, she did her work well::
"Shahan tackles eating disorders in a fast-paced, contemporary coming-of-age novel. . . A quick read with a worthy message: We are all recovering from something, and the right companions can help you heal. The wrong ones can kill you."

The paperback edition of Skin and Bones will be released in March. Meanwhile, Sherry is generously contributing an autographed copy for a  TeachingAuthors' book giveaway. To enter, see the instructions at the end of this post. First, though, be sure to read the following interview:


Sherry, how did you become a TeachingAuthor?

In the 1980s I lived in a small town and didn’t know anyone who was a writer. I hadn’t even heard of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I heard about a local Writers Conference and signed up. At the end of the workshop focusing on children’s books, I asked the instructor if she’d critique my middle-grade novel manuscript. She agreed. Soon thereafter she told me she’d shared it with her editor (a school book fair publisher). They bought that novel and I worked with them on five more.
Fast forward: After graduating from Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, 2007) I was brimming with enthusiasm about writing. My friends soon tired of discussions of emotional subtext, objective correlatives, polyphonic elements, etc. When I heard that UCLA was seeking teachers for online writing courses I sent the department chair my resumé. I’ve been teaching for them ever since.

What's a common problem that your students have and how do you address it?

It’s simply the overuse of passive verbs—and that’s across the board, no matter what the person’s writing experience. As an exercise, I post a short paragraph that’s riddled with ‘was,’ ‘seems to be,” ‘must have been,’ ‘would,’ ‘had,’ etc. I then ask them to reconstruct the paragraph using active verbs. Happily, writings submitted after the exercise shine with lively, active language.

Back in July you shared a terrific Wednesday Writing Workout with our readers and talked a bit about Skin and Bones. You mentioned then that the novel started out as a short story. What inspired that original story and how did you expand it to a novel?

I had a crazy idea about a love story from the perspective of a teen guy with anorexia, which I set in an Eating Disorders Unit of a hospital. The short story sold right away to a major literary journal. Later, a London publisher included it in their YA anthology, and after that it appeared in their Best of collection. So far the 1,400-word version of Skin and Bones has appeared eight times worldwide.

My agent kept encouraging me to expand the story into a novel. But I wasn’t ready to spend a year (or more) with young people in the throes of a life-threatening illness. I weighed the pros and cons.

Pros:
* The short story would serve as an outline since the basic story arc was in place.
Each character already had a distinctive voice.
The hospital setting was firmly fixed in my mind.
The subject matter had proven itself to be of interest to readers.
Proven ground is attractive to editors and publishers, as long as the topic is approached in a fresh way.

Cons:
* The story would require an additional 60,000 words.
I would have to create additional characters.
Every character would require a convincing backstory.
I would need compelling subplots.
Every scene would require richer subtext.

Well, the "Pros" obviously won out.J We don’t often hear or read of boys having anorexia. How did you go about researching this story? What kind of response has it received from readers and teachers?

My primary research was memoirs about teens with addictions. There were striking similarities between the mindset of say, someone with anorexia or bulimia, and a young person addicted to drugs. Shame and guilt effected both addictions. I wasn’t prepared for the skillful manner in which teens—males and females—manipulated friends, family, and the environment in order to keep their obsession secret.

I’ve been visiting high schools and libraries talking about Skin and Bones and the dangers of eating disorders. Many people have known a male with anorexia. According to N.A.M.E.D. (National Association of Males with Eating Disorders) approximately ten million males in the U.S. suffer with this disease. Sadly, there are too many heart-breaking examples on the Internet.

Do you have any suggestions for teachers on how they might use one of your books in the classroom?

My Alaskan-based adventure novel Ice Island (Random House/Yearling) is used as part of the “IDITA-Read” program, a fun reading race from Anchorage to Nome.

Goal:
Read *1,049 minutes or pages appropriate to student’s reading level.

Procedure:
1.  Explain to the students that they will compete in their own Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Their race will be a reading race.
2.  Each student draws a musher from entries on the Iditarod website (which includes trail maps, mushers’ diaries, etc.). Students try to read faster (pages or minutes) than the distance their musher travels on the trail.
3.  Teachers track each student’s progress on a large map of Alaska by daily visits to the Iditarod website.
4.  Students select their books before the “vet check.” (Dogs are checked before the race to make sure they’re healthy.)  Teachers decide if students’ books are “healthy” (grade/ability level).
5.  As students read their way to each checkpoint, they are responsible for logging in their time and having it checked by a race marshal (teacher or librarian).
6.  Provide prizes or special recognition for those who compete in the reading race.

Materials:
1.  Large map of Alaska with Iditarod Trail & checkpoints clearly marked.
2.  Legend listing distances between checkpoints.
3.  Name pins/tags to mark students’ reading progress on the trail.
4.  Sleds or dogs (felt or construction paper) to mark progress of mushers.
5.  Iditarod “Reading Log” for each student.
6.  Lots of books!

Objectives:
1.  Encourage recreational reading.
2.  Develop an interest in history and geography of Alaska.
3.  Encourage completion of a project.

Wow, what a fun activity! I hope some of our blog followers who are teachers will give it a try and report back to us. Finally, Sherry, what are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a very rough draft of a YA novel that explores the emotional and psychological trauma of abduction. My protagonist is a sixteen year-old girl who’s kidnapped on her way to meet her boyfriend. The kidnapper isn’t someone the readers will suspect.

Sounds like a real thriller, Sherry. Good luck researching that one! And thanks again for today's interview.
Readers, here's your opportunity to enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of Skin and Bones (A. Whitman). Use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options specified. If you choose the "comment" option, share a comment to TODAY'S blog post answering this question: 
What will you do with the book should you win: save it for yourself or give it away?

If your name isn't part of your comment "identity," please include it in your comment for verification purposes. Comments may also be submitted via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com

If the widget doesn't appear for some reason (or you're an email subscriber), use the link below to take you to the entry form.

The giveaway ends on Feb. 6. 
After you've entered, don't forget to check today's Poetry Friday roundup over at Tara Smith's A Teaching Life.
Good luck and happy writing!
Carmela

P.S. If you've never entered a Rafflecopter giveaway, here's info on how to enter a Rafflecopter giveaway and the difference between signing in with Facebook vs. with an email address. Email subscribers: if you received this post via email, you can click on the Rafflecopter link at the end of this message to access the entry form.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, January 19, 2015

Happy Driving!

We TeachingAuthors have been posting about our intended plotlines for 2015.
I so appreciate my fellow bloggers’ insights and their willingness to share their experiences, smarts and intentions for this coming year.

Like JoAnn, I’ve been walking a dog too this past week - my GrandDoggieDaughter Maggie, in the soul-freeing coatless-bootless-hatless-gloveless-scarfless clime of warm and sunny mountain-surrounded Phoenix.
I’ve been thinking on what I need/want/wish to share in this post and it is this: when it comes to plotlines, the character’s in the driver’s seat.

It took me forever - as in countless rejected manuscripts showcasing countless puppet-like characters - to understand this truth.
And not just as it applies to the plotline of a story I’m writing…but also to the writer’s plotline I’m living every day.
I need to know my character’s need/want/wish … and I need to know mine.
Otherwise neither of us can act, re-act, grow and triumph as we drive the twists and turns of our stories’ highways.
Digging deep within – my characters and myself - reveals the answer, always.

Fortunately, we’re but 19 days into our new year.
So as I work on my own writer’s story, I’m digging away, hoping to uncover my need/want/wish, helped by the following three insights I came upon the first week of January.

Marketing guru Seth Godin’s January 1 post – “USED TO BE” – set off non-stop sparks in my mind and heart.
The phrase “used to be,” it turns out, connotes neither failure nor obsolescence.  Instead, it signals bravery and progress.
“If you were brave enough to leap,” Godin posited, “who would you choose to 'used to be'?”
Hmmmmm…..I pondered.
The possibilities intrigued me.

In her January 4 Chicago Tribune column, writer Heidi Stevens suggested we skip declaring New Year’s resolutions and instead write a mission statement.
A mission statement, she wrote, “was less about what she should tackle and more about the shape she wanted her life to take.”
I liked that insight.  What struck me most was her own mission statement: to focus on what she knows to be true.
Hmmmmm….I pondered further.
More possibilities to consider.

Finally, Stevens’ fellow Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich shared an idea in her January 7 column that April Halprin Wayland echoed in her January 9 post:  choose one word to live by in the coming year.
Having to select that one word that would guide your new year was akin to “being dropped inside a Super Target,” Schmich wrote, “and asked to pick one object, and only one, that you would carry with you for the next 12 months.”
Once again, I pondered intriguing possibilities.
Embrace?  Flow?  Risk? Grow?  Leap?  Simply, be?

What and who I used to be.  My mission statement.  My one word for the coming year.
I believe knowing all of the above will help me finally nail my need/want/wish for 2015.
Just like that, I’ll be traveling my plotline, both hands on the wheel, eyes open and focused. 

Happy Driving to our TeachingAuthors’ readers!

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
Saturday, January 24, from noon to 4 pm (in respective time zones) is the first-ever National Readathon Day, a nation-wide reading session that allows you to promote reading while pledging and fundraising to support the National Book Foundation. Think of it like “a walk-a-thon charity drive, only you’re turning pages instead of walking laps.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

More, More, More

Today, I continue our Teaching Authors “What Are We ‘Plotting’ for 2015?” series. Deadlines loom for two educational publisher projects as well as a couple other things I hope to accomplish soon, so I promised myself I would keep this short. What I’m plotting is mostly more of the same: more writing, more submitting, and—this is the new part—more sticking my neck out.

On the first of the year, I wrote about my schedule for 2015. I blocked out more time to exercise and added in some time every week to focus on long-term goals. I have been walking more, which is good for my writing because something about the rhythm makes me think differently. I find myself jotting down notes and dictating text messages to send to my email. When I get home, surprise! Ideas!

my walking companion, Bea
One way I hope to stick my neck out is by participating in Poetry Friday more often. Today, I posted a poem on my blog in response to a challenge Joyce Sidman issued last week in an interview with Michelle Heidenrich Barnes on Today’s Little Ditty: a “Deeper Wisdom” poem, modeled after Joyce’s thoughtful “What Do the Trees Know?” in her gorgeous new poetry collection, Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold. I really enjoyed the process, especially with such an inspiring model poem.

I’m also researching editors and trying to submit more manuscripts more regularly. I’d love to participate in conferences. And my web site desperately needs updating. I’d better get to work!

JoAnn Early Macken

P.S. Today's Poetry Friday Roundup is at Live Your Poem. . . with Irene Latham. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

WWW: Demystifying Setting

I meet the Best People doing what I do –
for example Chicago writer, colleague, fellow teacher and SCBWI kin Barbara Gregorich who authors fiction and nonfiction for adults and children in a variety of formats on a variety of subjects.

Barbara's titles include more than 150 educational activity books, a score of School Zone Start to Read and Read and Think books, two Houghton early readers – Walter Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories and Walter Paints Himself into a Corner and Other Stories, She’s On First, Jack and Larry and her most recent book, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies (Create Space, 2014), which Midwest Book Review called “an accessible primer for writers of all skill and experienced levels.”
You can read a sample chapter of Guide here.
To celebrate Barbara’s newest book, I invited her to share a Wednesday Writing Workout and lucky us – she agreed!

Scroll down to read, enjoy and try Barbara’s exercises that demystify the all-important narrative element SETTING.

Thanks, Barbara, for so generously sharing your smarts!

Esther Hershenhorn

                                                         . . . . . . . . . .

Give Me Place, Lots of Place

Two summers ago I taught a week-long course on novel writing to 25 students: the youngest was fifteen, the oldest eighty-five. On our last day of class, three students read the first three pages of their novels-in-progress to all of us. All three novels were fantasy: two had human characters, one did not. Even now I remember those three stories vividly. Through skill, serendipity, or maybe even through my teaching, each of the students offered a piece in which the sense of place was palpable, and I’m convinced that one of the reasons I remember these three stories, their characters and conflicts, was because the settings were so well depicted.

One of the three was set in a dungeon, and the writer (the 15-year-old) was able to make us feel the environment. The prison cell was dank: we felt the chill and the damp. We saw the gray-green moss clinging to the wet stone walls. The bars were thick, rusty, and unbendable. We felt their tormenting power just as we felt the cold sea air that entered at will, just as we recoiled at the thin, gray, tasteless gruel delivered through the food slot each morning.

In fiction, place isn’t just something for the reader to experience vicariously — though it is partly that. Place is the world the characters live in, and it helps shape these characters. Put your characters in a different setting, and they will behave differently.

A writer who can create lifelike places through a few carefully chosen words that appeal to the senses is also well on the road to creating empathetic characters. When we see how place affects a fictional character we empathize, probably because we realize how real-life places affect us — isolated windowless work environments; cluttered, dog-hair-covered, stale-food-smelling cars; un-shoveled, foot-high hummocks of ice on city sidewalks; the welcome coolness of wet sand just below the scorching top layer on a summer day.

Place, as I explain to my students, should never be depicted in such a way that it  seems more important than the characters within that place. No description for description’s sake. Setting lets readers enter the world the characters live in and helps readers understand where the story is taking place. More than that, the more palpable the place, the better readers can see how setting influences character and how character modifies setting. In the dungeon story, for example, the place limited what the prisoner could do, but the prisoner also had an impact on the setting: he nurtured a small plant inside the cell, and he moved one of the stone blocks to where he could stand on it to look out the high, barred window.

Here are some exercises I gave my 15-to-85-year-old students.

Perhaps these, or modifications thereof, will inspire your and/or your students to think about the importance of place in fiction, and how setting and character shine light on one another.

Keep the Character, Change the Place
Ask students to take an existing story and change the setting completely. Have them rewrite the first two or three pages of the story with the new setting. Then compare the two stories: how does the character change? What is it that setting does to character?

Comfortable Place or Not?
Do your students tend to place their characters in places where the characters are comfortable? Say a dancer in the dance studio, or a great basketball player on the court? Or do they place their characters outside the comfort zone? Say a boy who has never, ever helped in the kitchen suddenly finds himself obligated to work in one to help his best friend. You might ask students to write a
comfort-setting story first, and then rewrite it as an outside-the-comfort-zone story. It’s instructive to note how happy or sad setting can make characters feel, how good or bad, how confident or unconfident.

Same Place, Different Characters
Yet another approach to place is to have students write a two-different-POVs story, first from Character A’s POV, then from Character B’s. Both characters are in the same place at the same time. But are their reactions the same? How does setting impact each character? My experience has been that when students are asked to treat the setting as more than background information, they excel at bringing places to life and at showing how characters function in a particular setting.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Doctor Who and Historical Fiction

 
http://morguefile.com/
As Mary Ann Rodman suggests, there is plotting and there is planning. But sometimes, especially when one reads and writes historical fiction, there’s the wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.

Historical fiction is the coming together of two opposing elements: fact and fiction. The controversy is grounded in conveying the ‘truth’ of history. Other popular genres have distinct rules that govern basic premises. Dystopian fiction, for example, features a futuristic universe in which the illusion of a perfect society is maintained through corporate, technologic, or totalitarian control. Using an exaggerate worse-case scenario, the dystopian story becomes a commentary about social norms and trends.

 But, historical fiction defies easy explanation. For some, historical fiction is first and foremost fiction, and therefore anything goes. Others condemn the blending of invention with well-known and accepted facts, and consider the genre a betrayal.

 Perhaps a better way to understand the genre is to take a lesson from The Doctor. Yes, that Doctor: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause and effect…but actually, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.” Perhaps the same thing can be said of plot and the historical fiction.

 In historical fiction, setting is usually considered ‘historical’ if it is at fifty or more years in the past. As such, the author writes from research rather than personal experience. But as an old turnip, my personal history dates back to the years prior to Korean War. The Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Riders, the Bay of Pigs, the JFK Assassination, the Landing on the Moon, and the first Dr. Who episode are not some fixed points in history but a function of my experience. Yet, for the last generations, these are often just dates in a textbook. And the plot is a linear expression that begins on a certain date. The award-winning book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995), depicting the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing of 1963, is often listed as historical fiction. Yet I remember vividly watching the events unfold on my parents’ black and white television.

 Defining the ‘historical’ in 'historical fiction' is a bit wobbly, depending upon the age of the

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researcher and author.
 Historians work within a broad spectrum of data-gathering, gathering volumes of primary sources coupled with previous research. They use footnotes, endnotes, separate chapters, appendixes and other textual formatting to clarify their observations. Plotting and planning resemble Venn diagrams and flowcharts, looking similar to the opening credits of Doctor Who as the Tardis moves forward and backward in time. But the artistic nature of historical fiction presents several challenges in books for children. Events must be “winnowed and sifted”, as Sheila Egoff explains, in order to create forward movement that leads to a resolution. Authors choose between which details to include, and exclude, and this choice is wholly dependent upon the character’s goal. More important, resolution rarely happens in history. The same with happy endings. Because of the culling process, critics often claim that historical fiction is inherently biased.

Yet, nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered factual that the world was flat, that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease, that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. In fact, some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. As such, no history is without its bias. The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

 Some facts, such as dates of specific events, are fixed. We know, for example, that the Battle of Gettysburg occurred July 1 to July 3, in 1863. The interpretations of what happened over those three days remains a favorite in historical fiction. My interpretation of the battle, in Girls of Gettysburg (Holiday House, August 2014), featured three perspectives that are rare in these historical fiction depictions: the daughter of a free black living seven miles north from the Mason-Dixon line, the daughter of the well-to-do local merchant, and a girl disguised as a Confederate soldier. The plot weaves together the fates of these girls, a tapestry that reflects their humanity, heartache and heroism in a battle that ultimately defined a nation.


Critics and researchers can be unrelenting in their quest for accuracy. The process of writing historical fiction, like researching history itself, is neither straightforward nor a risk-free process. As the Doctor tells his companion, and in so doing reminding everyone,  through those doors...


“… we might see anything. We could find new worlds, terrifying monsters, impossible things. And if you come with me... nothing will ever be the same again!” 



Bobbi Miller