Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - May 5, 2021

 

Fort Bridger museum

Continuing our discussion of Wyoming's museums ... 

If you're ever in western Wyoming, I highly recommend a stop at Fort Bridger. The collection of historic buildings which includes some bright orange and black garage camp cabins, is well worth the stop. And the museum itself is filled with fascinating displays.

In case you were wondering what garage camp cabins are, they're motel units with attached garages, making the early years of travel by automobile more pleasant ... at least for the cars. While the cabins had electricity, there was no running water.



Monday, May 3, 2021

Words for Writers - Avoiding the Pitfalls of Historical Fiction: Part Two

Welcome back! I’m delighted that you’re here for the second (and last) part of the historical fiction pitfall discussion. There’s no quiz today, because I’m certain that when you read the next selection, you’ll know immediately what’s wrong. This is the more than slightly modified opening scene of Paper Roses, the first of my Texas Dreams books.

March 1856

“It’ll be all right.”  Sarah Dobbs wrapped her arms around the child, wishing with all her heart that she could believe the words she’d uttered so often. The truth was, it didn’t matter what she believed. All that mattered was keeping Thea safe. And so Sarah knelt on the hard-packed dirt of San Antonio’s main street to wipe the tears from her sister’s cheeks. The child was hot, tired and excited by the unusual sights, a combination that turned normally sweet-tempered Thea querulous. 

Thea was too young to appreciate San Antonio’s rich history. The original Spanish settlement of San Antonio de Valero, named for the Viceroy, was founded in the same year as the French began New Orleans. Located just below the Balcones Escarpment, it had the advantage of a mild, dry, healthful climate; plentiful water and an abundance of limestone for building. In 1721 Valero himself sent a force of 54 soldiers to build a strong fort, what many would call a presidio, nearby. They named the fort San Antonio de Bejar, in memory of Valero’s brother, and by 1726 more than 200 men, women and children inhabited the area. Indians, of course, were not included in that count, although by the middle of the century, each of the five missions in the San Antonio region had more than 200 Indians.

The dominant tribes in Texas were the Apaches and the Comanches. The Spaniards were never able to conquer the first, and the second gave them the greatest defeat they ever suffered at the hands of natives in the New World. But all that had occurred over a hundred years ago. Now the city was part of the great state of Texas, the state that would soon be her home and Thea’s.

Are you yawning? Or did you decide that this was what a friend calls a wallbanger, a book that’s so bad that you hurl it against the wall rather than read it? I’ll admit that I’ve exaggerated the problem, but I’ve judged enough contests to know that including too much history is a common problem. 

It’s easy to understand why it happens. We do extensive research and we find so many fascinating details that we want to share them with readers. Unfortunately, heavy-handed infusion of history has the effect of boring readers, including those critical first readers: agents and editors.

      

So, how do you know what details to include and when? There are undoubtedly other ways to make that decision, but I suggest following three rules.

1. Remember that less is more. When you include historical facts, select the ones that are most critical. In many cases, these will be little-known facts that you’ve chosen to weave into your plot. If one of Sarah’s ancestors was one of the 54 soldiers who’d built the original fort, that would be the fact that I would have included, but rather than simply inserting the fact, I would have followed rule #2.

2. Ensure that each piece of history affects the character in some way. One of the problems with the passage above is that the paragraphs of historical facts have no tie to either Sarah or Thea. Consider the difference if I’d said, “Thea was too young to appreciate San Antonio’s rich history, but Sarah couldn’t dismiss the thrill that ran up her spine at the realization that she was only yards away from the fort her great-grandfather had helped build. Mother had raised her with tales of how Great Grandpa was one of the 54 soldiers the Viceroy had sent to build the presidio.”  In this case, there was a reason to have included that particular detail, and so the reader doesn’t feel as if she’s being force-fed history. 

3. And, most importantly, remember that you’re writing a novel. Your primary goal is to entertain. Readers do not expect a history lesson. As you edit your manuscript, look at each piece of research you’ve included and ask yourself, “Will the story make sense without this?”  If the answer is “yes,” delete it.

      

There’s no doubt that there are challenges involved in writing historical fiction and pitfalls to be avoided, but from my perspective there’s nothing quite so enjoyable as being transported to a different time and place. 

If you’ve always dreamt of telling stories about times gone by, I encourage you to make that dream come true. I’m looking forward to seeing your books on the shelves!


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - April 28, 2021

 

Devils Tower red rock "alligator"
If you look closely at the top of the red rock hill near Devils Tower, what do you see? I think it's an alligator.


Monday, April 26, 2021

Words for Writers - Avoiding the Pitfalls of Historical Fiction: Part One

 Pitfalls. We all want to avoid them, don't we? Since I write historical fiction, I decided to talk about some potential pitfalls, but rather than give you a dissertation that will make your eyes glaze over, I thought we’d have some fun. My version of fun, anyway. It’s a little quiz. The object is to see what’s wrong with each of the following selections.

The first one is from a book set in 1170. Yes, the Middle Ages. 

“Can you not settle this peacefully?” Marguerite asked Alain. Surely he must see how conflicted she was by the situation. 

“Perhaps I was mistaken,” Alain said, not bothering to hide his scorn, “but I thought it was a knight’s duty to protect his lady.”

Marguerite sighed. She wouldn’t go there. Instead, she nodded stiffly, then took her seat next to Louise. The teenager’s enthusiasm for the fight stood in marked contrast to her own reluctance to see blood shed. But the fight was over almost before it began. With one deft stroke, Alain sent Henri’s sword ricocheting against the wall.

If you guessed that there were anachronisms in it, you’re right. There are at least four. “Conflicted” came into general use in 1967. “Wouldn’t go there” is a phrase from the 1990s. “Teenager’s” first usage was 1921, and – this one surprised me – “ricocheting” wasn’t commonly used until 1828. 

Why worry about anachronisms? 

The first reason is that they brand you as a sloppy writer. You spend weeks, months, possibly years researching a book. The details of daily life are accurate; the speech patterns are authentic; you’ve even ensured that your characters eat common foods from the era. Why spoil the effect with an inappropriate term? Consider this: checking a word’s first usage is simply another form of research.

The second reason is that at least some of your readers will notice the anachronistic terms. For some it may be a mild annoyance. Others may find the errors so jarring that they stop reading. In either case, the suspension of disbelief that we strive so hard to create is broken, if only for a second. Don’t do it. Don’t risk losing readers. 


Okay, are you ready for quiz number two?

At least it wasn’t raining. Normally he wouldn’t mind it. In fact, he preferred rain when going into battle. Unfortunately, today he wasn’t waging war, nor was he facing an opponent at the other end of a lance. It would have been easier if he were. Even a few hours at the quintain would have been preferable to the fate which was now mere minutes away.

The knight on the silver gray destrier let the reins slacken as he looked around him. Though the wheat field could not compare to the raw magnificence of Outremer, there was no denying its beauty. It spoke of fertile ground, of centuries of tradition, of home. This morn it also reminded Alain de Jarnac of the obligation awaiting him.

This is another selection from the same medieval. While there are no anachronisms in this passage, I would venture that some of the vocabulary made you pause. Admittedly, devotees of medievals are familiar with quintains (a post with a revolving crosspiece that knights used for training) and know that a destrier is a war horse. They’d also know that Outremer meant overseas and was a term used during the Crusades. 

But – and this is an important “but” – many readers won’t recognize those terms. If a potential reader picked up the book and glanced at this passage, the chances are she wouldn’t buy the book, simply because of the unfamiliar words. You don’t want that to happen, and so I urge you not to fall into this potential pit. 

Either use common words or include an explanation. For example, if the author had replaced the simple reference to a quintain with “a few hours of jousting against the revolving arms of the quintain post,” the reader would have understood what a quintain was and might have smiled over the fact that he’d learned something new. The key is never to make a reader feel stupid. 

That’s all for today, but I’ll be back next week with part two of the pitfall discussion. I hope to see you then.


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - April 21, 2021

 

Devils Tower circle of sacred smoke sculpture
The Circle of Sacred Smoke would be impressive anywhere, but when used to frame Devils Tower, it's even more memorable.

What's it all about?

The sculpture represents the first puff of smoke from a newly lit pipe and is designed to highlight the importance of Devils Tower to the twenty affiliated tribes for whom this is a sacred spot.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Words for Writers - Historical Research

Research. As a writer, you either love it or hate it. In either case, one of the facts of life, or at least of writing historical fiction, is that it’s an essential part of the process. One of the reasons readers choose historical fiction is that they enjoy learning something new. They want to be swept away to a distant time, and they want that time to come alive for them. The only way that will happen is with the judicious use of historical details. 

Note the word ‘judicious.’  A common mistake of beginning writers is to include what one author calls the dump truck. You’ve all seen that, where an author gives so much background information in the first chapter that your eyes glaze over with boredom. The trick is to use only snippets of information, enough to set the scene but not so much that your book reads like an encyclopedia. That’ll be the subject of another discussion.

First you need to discover all those fascinating details, and that’s where research comes into play. The problem with research is that it can become endless. One book leads to another, or if you’re on the Internet, one site leads to another. Before you know it, you’ve spent days – maybe weeks – reading, but your book still isn’t started. 

How can you avoid getting caught in the sinkhole of research? I can’t guarantee that this technique will work for you, but I’ve found it useful. I call it layered research. The idea is to do only as much research as you need for the particular stage of the book. Planning requires one level (normally a cursory understanding), while the final draft will demand specific details.

The resources I’ve found most valuable are:

The children’s section of the library. 

One of my publishers asked me to write a trilogy set during World War One. At the time, what I knew about that time period could be described in two words: not much. The adult section of the library had huge tomes, detailing each day of the war. I could have spent weeks reading them, but instead I went to the children’s section. The books I found there were considerably shorter. Even more importantly, they gave me the basic information that I needed to plan the trilogy, namely the causes of the war and the major battles. 

Later, when I knew exactly when each book would take place, I consulted the ten-pound tomes to see what was happening on specific key dates. My advice is to always begin with children’s books.

Historic diaries and letters. 

What I like about diaries is that they tell you how real people lived, and as such, they’re a valuable source of details. For example, when I was researching my 2012 release set at Wyoming’s Fort Laramie, I read excerpts from an officer’s wife’s letters. In them I learned that the dried potatoes the post store sold were considered virtually inedible. An interesting fact, and one you can be sure made its way to the manuscript.

Costume books. Readers want to know what people wore. Oh, they don’t need to have a gown described down to the last furbelow, but knowing that women wore bustles in the 1880s and that skirts often had panels draped over the hips and continuing into trains in back helps you add authentic details to your story. I find costume books, particularly those with extensive illustrations, valuable. There is also a growing number of web sites with pictures of clothing from various eras.

Recipe books. 

Like diaries, these help you understand what people ate during your chosen time period. Just as importantly, they provide clues to what people did not eat. If you don’t find a recipe for ragout, it’s probably because the term wasn’t used then. To be true to the period, simply call it stew. And that leads me to what I consider one of the most important research tools.

Dictionary with date of first usage. 

I hate anachronisms. For me there’s nothing so jarring as to be reading a book set in the Middle Ages and read, “The sword slid off his shield as if it were covered with teflon.” Admittedly, that was an extreme example, but I found myself wanting to use the word ‘camouflaged’ when writing about the 1850s. My trusty dictionary saved me from that by pointing out that camouflage came into usage during World War One.

Why worry about anachronisms? They brand you as a sloppy writer. You spend weeks, months, possibly years researching a book. The details of daily life are accurate; the speech patterns are authentic; you’ve even ensured that your characters eat common foods from the era. Why spoil the effect with an inappropriate term. Consider this: checking a word’s first usage is simply another form of research.

Research isn't easy, and it isn't always fun, but it is essential. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - April 14, 2021

 

prairie dog warning sign
One of the first signs visitors to Devils Tower encounter is this one, warning them not to feed prairie dogs. Why?

prairie dog
Those cute little rodents are everywhere!