Archive for the ‘Current (After 1999)’ Category
Posted May 17, 2013on:
How does a writer make an historical setting come alive? Good question, and one every writer faces no matter where her book is set. The answer is details–telling, precise details. And for many writers the problem isn’t having too few details, it is having too many.
Like most writers of historical fiction, I read a great deal about the time period of my novel. (I list some on my website.) I researched coyotes, rattlesnakes, rifles, prairie dogs, homesteading, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the Volga Germans settlers. I looked at old Vogue and Harpers magazines to see what young women were reading. I listened to vintage radio serials like Little Orphan Annie. I watched videos of swing dancing. I also had my father’s memoir of growing up on the prairie in the 1930s. Whenever my writing got stuck, I researched and came up with new ideas.
Well, after all that research I had too much information. In fact, I risked bogging the novel down if I loaded it with too many. How does a writer decide what details to leave in and which are better left off the page?
An inexact science at best, but here are some tools.
Use the filter of the point of view character. What details would the character notice when he walks into a room? The light from the window, the rifle over the fireplace, or the dust bunnies along the floor. How does it physically feel to be that character. Are his feet stuffed into outgrown boots or is he climbing a tree barefoot? Does his home smell of baking bread or horse manure? Is he hungry, cold, dirty? What are his wishes and fears? What is his typical day?
What details would someone else notice about the character? My main character, Myles, tells corny jokes and puns, a detail which reveals how he likes to please others. His neighbor, on the other hand, boasts about killing coyotes and putting their pelts on his fences. Another telling detail.
What details are important to the plot? As Chekhov said, if you introduce a gun in the first act it had better go off by the third. In COYOTE WINDS, a neighbor boy shows Myles how to taunt a rattlesnake into striking until it is too tired to fight. This is important information towards the end of the novel.
Pacing also determines what details to add. In a suspenseful scene, add details to drag out the moment. That is how the mind works. In moments on stress, we often become very aware of our surroundings.
A writer should also slip in details which are just too wonderful to leave out. For instance, I describe a blind man’s bluff game played by the Volga immigrant children, including the German rhyme. I described the frogs which disappeared during the years of drought, only to appear again when the rains returned. When Myles is caught in a tornado, I describe how the suction torn off his shoes. To capture the carnival-like atmosphere before a rabbit drive, I describe how “neighbors chatted with one another, catching up on marriages, babies, and deaths. A man from Burlington offered homemade ale in Mason jars. Boys tossed ax handles in the air like batons.”
Some of the most interesting details came from my father’s memoir. He told how they buried old farm plows and tied the corner of the shack to the plows to keep the shack from blowing away in the prairie wind, how they made ice cream using summer hail, and how in the last minutes before a dust storm hits, the wind dies down. The blowing dust blocks the wind like a sail. I posted my father’s memoir on my blog.
These details are gifts, precious personal gifts, which I pass on to my readers.
I have posted my father’s memoir on my blog. www.helensedwick.blogspot.com
At 13 years old, I was too nerdy to be a tomboy and too tomboyish to be a nerd.
As a middle child, I was too young to be a big girl and too old to be a baby.
In school, I did well enough to be called smart, but was too boisterous to be considered good.
I hated it—not knowing who I was and where I fit in. I was stuck in the in-between, and it felt awkward, frustrating, and terribly lonely.
I write for adolescents in the hope that I can help at least one young reader feel less lonely.
Helen Sedwick, taken from an interview at Sheila Deeth’s blog
Helen Sedwick is the author of Coyote Winds, an historical novel about the Dust Bowl. Check back the next two days when I’ll share an interview with and a guest post from Sedwick. As traditional, on Saturday, I’ll post my review. Save the dates: May 16-18!
Meet an author whose background is in theater! Helen Sedwick’s parents were theater people. Her father was a director. Her mother was an actress. For many summers, their family operated a summer stock theater. Sedwick and her siblings would build the sets, scrounge for props, and man the box office. Then night after night, Sedwick would watch the audience reactions. She grew up seeing the power of even a simple story to touch an audience and to connect a roomful of people to a common experience.
Sedwick’s parents believed that everyone had a story. At Three Guys One Book, Sedwick shared how a dinnertime sport was to speculate about people’s characters and their story: “What was hidden? What was percolating to the surface? How were their struggles revealed in a hesitation, a hand gesture, a choice of words? What villain hid behind a well-crafted façade?”
Because theater was a family affair, Sedwick tried acting but every role she ever got involved crying on stage and she found playing the role of an injured innocent to be dull. Well, Sedwick also apparently wasn’t any good. She told Three Guys One Book: ”I am analytical and distant, traits which are more useful to a writer than an actor. My on-stage tears were pathetically unbelievable. As bad as I was, I could still look out into the audience and see the power of the story.”
However, from those theater years and from reading countless books, Sedwick fell in love with the power of the story. She also traces her decision to become an author to reading Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan in second grade. Based on a true story, Snow Treasure tells of Norwegian children transporting nine million dollars of gold bullion past the noses of Nazi soldiers by hiding the gold on the sleds. At BookSnatch,she recalls sitting on the floor in her families’ apartment in New York and deciding that if she couldn’t live stories like Snow Treasure, then she wanted to make them up.
Sedwick majored in English at Cornell University and spent several years as an advertising copywriter. Then she attended University of Chicago Law School and moved to San Francisco where she practiced business law for almost thirty years, but she never forgot her dream to write. Over the years, Sedwick has also taken writing classes and participated in workshops. Her first major writing project was a play titled Telling Tales.
Described at Three Guys One Book as a light comedy about dating, Telling Tales explored the tension between trying to find one’s soul mate while still acting cool and disengaged. The play apparently enjoyed a short run in Los Angeles. Because Sedwick enjoyed seeing her worlds brought to life, she wrote another screenplay. It made the rounds in Hollywood but was never picked up. However, her short stories have won prizes in various contests and appeared in magazines and anthologies.
A few years ago, Sedwick took a step back from her writing to see if her work contained any recurring themes. To Sheila Deeth, Sedwick reports: “Characters were almost always in the process of figuring who they were and what role they played, or were expected to play, within a family. Would they live their lives hidden behind the masks they created or which were handed to them? Or would they find a sense of self other than that mask?” Having made this realization, Sedwick decided to write for the young adult audience.
Helen Sedwick told Maga Manic Cafe that she was inspired to write Coyote Winds by her father’s stories of growing up during the Dust Bowl. While there was plenty of blowing dust in his stories, he also talked about freedom and adventure. He hunted rattlesnakes and rabbits, collected arrowheads and grasshopper, and camped out on the prairie grass where he counted a thousand shooting stars. Sedwick wanted to contrast her father’s “unfenced boyhood with the over-supervised life of a modern, suburban boy who couldn’t ride a bike without a helmet, play soccer without pads, or ride in a car with a driver under thirty.”
As she researched the Dust Bowl, Sedwick also discovered that it is “a classic story about American optimism”. This positive attitude is what drew families to the prairie with dreams of owning their own land. They plowed up millions of acres of native grassland. Then the prairie winds blew, so constant that for time her father and others stopped noticing its presence. Unfortunately, what followed was one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history: the Dust Bowl. The howling wind is what Sedwick considered the “soundtrack” to her novel, which she describes as “good families doing what they believed to be the right thing, only to have the results turn out so terribly wrong.”
How is Coyote Winds for young adults? By the end of the novel, the two main characters of Myles and Andy come to question their parents’ choices and start to make their own. As such, they are moving past the in-between phase of adolescence.