Tag Archives: writing style

Your Ancestors as Fiction

This blog post first appeared as a guest post at Romance University on 15 May 2015.

My fascination with my ancestors’ stories was ignited when I was about twelve and my mother gave me her mother’s diary. In it, my grandmother Lillie May Beck captured a brief six months of her life from April to October in 1915 when she was eighteen and nineteen—but what a six months! Even then, I appreciated the lovely story arc of the diary. It starts out as my grandfather Ferd Voith is trying to wheedle his way into Lillie’s affections, and ends with her admitting that she is in fact in love with him. She begins the diary because she’s finally been asked to the Easter dance by one handsome, charming fellow who ends up playing a very small role in Lillie’s daily records. Instead, from the first entry to the last, there is Ferd, proving that persistence pays off. “What a great story that would make,” my twelve-year-old self thought. Forty years later, that story formed the basis of my debut novel, Up the Hill to Home.

By the time I finally started writing, I had collected an impressive amount of original source material from several generations of ancestors. Items included my great grandmother’s far more voluminous diary, and letters from my great-great grandfather, a surgeon who served during the Civil War. In the middle of the project, I unearthed an inch-thick folder in the National Archives that added eye-popping detail to the lives of these ancestors.

Along the way, I learned some valuable lessons about what it takes to fictionalize ancestral stories successfully.

Wide appeal is the name of the game.  If reading good fiction over the years has taught me anything, it’s that any story can be made broadly appealing: it’s all in how you tell it. But people forget that what makes a family story interesting to them doesn’t necessarily translate well outside of the immediate family. It’s as though the author is telling an inside joke and is surprised that no one else is laughing. My beta readers helped me to understand this when they protested my inclusion of large swaths of my great grandmother Emma’s diary. They were right, of course. While possibly interesting to her descendants and an historian or two, the diary got in the way of moving the story forward. I eliminated most of it, and carefully selected the entries that remain for the specific information they supply. For the people who might be interested in the entire record, I published the whole diary on my website.

Consider whether your ancestors’ lives intersect in some way with larger historical events. You may find that your family’s story is simply a good launch point for a wider-ranging narrative, and takes you in a direction you didn’t realize you were headed. Allowing the story to unfold organically is the path to writing appealing, engaging fiction, ancestors or not. This brings us to the next point.

Yes, truth is stranger than fiction. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction often makes the better story. This is a corollary to the point above. Often, people are motivated to write about their ancestors when they think, “Wow, you can’t make this stuff up. A book would practically write itself!” But it’s crucial to remember that you still need to structure your story using all the normal elements of good fiction: a protagonist who wants something, an antagonist who is blocking the way, an inciting event, rising action, a climax. So even though you know the story, you’ll probably need to step back and consider how to translate what you know into an effective story arc. It’s here that you sometimes discover that knowing what really happened—and sticking with that—can get in the way of discovering the better story that’s hiding somewhere underneath. Again, I learned this valuable lesson as I wrote my own book. At the beginning, I imagined that if I knew the “true” version of events, I would use that version. What I found as I spent more time inhabiting the story and getting to know the characters was that I needed to make a choice between relating a family history and telling a richly layered, nuanced story that wasn’t necessarily the way things actually happened. It didn’t take long for me to come down on the side of the better story. This was especially true of the story’s ending. Once again, it was my beta readers (bless them!) who made it clear that the original ending—whether or not it was true—was unsatisfying, and in fact undercut the story that had come before. I spent more time rewriting the last four pages of the book than I did on any other part of the novel, because I needed to discover the real ending, the correct ending, rather than the one I had carried in my head all those years.

 You’re putting your ancestors in the public domain. Remember that your ancestors belong to more than just you, and not everyone may be happy that you’re writing a story about the family of which they are members also. Generally, the closer your story is to the present day, the more concerned you’ll need to be about raising hackles, and you should think about whether anything you’re writing might be considered libelous. In particular, if the story you want to tell “belongs” more to other people in the family than it does to you, tread carefully. Consult with them ahead of the project and along the way, and do what you can to garner their support for your effort. After all, the rest of your family may be a great source of additional information. My uncle had done extensive, well-documented research into our ancestry long before the advent of the Internet. Having that information gave me a starting point of factual data that saved me years of work. Most crucially, he was able to capture childhood stories from the last generation I was writing about. By the time I started my book, a number of those folks were no longer with us. There were nine children in that generation who then produced a legion of offspring—me, my siblings, and all my cousins—and I put out multiple data calls in order to collect up the photos, letters, legal documents, and other artifacts that had been distributed among all those kids, especially to those whose parents had died. Finally, a number of my cousins were beta readers of my book, which allowed them to be close to the project. Plus, it was wonderful to hear their perspective on the stories we had all heard growing up.

This takes more than Ancestry.com. Depending on the historical period and geographical setting, you’ll need to do a lot of homework to get the details of time and place correct. Historical fiction is very popular now, and fans are sticklers for accuracy. My own book covered almost one hundred years, which demanded a lot of fact-checking. I found that Wikipedia was my best friend for avoiding anachronisms when I needed to know when zippers were invented or when petroleum jelly started being called Vaseline (answer: that was its original name). The Internet is truly a boon for historical writers, if you use it prudently. Many historical archives are now digitized and available online so that you don’t always have to visit them physically. Online access to these original artifacts, like those available through the National Archives, as well as to information about different libraries, databases, historical societies, and other source material is the best use of the Internet for historical research. The key is to find original source material. I recommend against relying upon other people’s online interpretation of historical events without additional reliable verification. To the extent that you can, visit archives in person that may contain source material about your ancestors and the time period or events you’re describing. I am lucky to be writing about Washington, D.C.—a document-heavy town if ever there was one—and I live nearby so it was easy for me to spend a lot of time culling through original source material. As I mentioned, I found a treasure trove of information concerning my great-great grandparents from his Civil War records and post-war government records, and from her application for a pension from his war service. The most surprising discovery from the official archives? That their daughter, my great grandmother, held a patent for a device she invented early in her career with the Post Office. No one in my family knew that story before, but we all know it now.

What story about your ancestors do you think would make a great piece of fiction?

Five Traits that Make Characters Memorable

This blog post originally appeared as a guest post for Fresh Fiction on 12 May 2015.

When you think about the books you’ve loved over the years, usually the book’s characters are the reason why. Setting, tone, plot, and themes all contribute to making a novel stand out, but I find that characters stick with the reader most. In a good book, characters come to life for us. They are fully realized beings we feel we know almost as well as any flesh and blood creature—they’re not always people, after all—in our own lives. For me, it is almost always a book’s characters that make me truly love it and remember it.

In my own book, Up the Hill to Home, every one of the main characters is an ancestor of mine. They were real people. Often, I’ve read diaries and letters that they wrote, and have heard many stories about them. Still, it was up to me as an author to breathe life into them and make them completely three-dimensional, and, I hope, memorable.

What are the traits that make a character memorable for you? Do you want your characters perfect or flawed? Larger-than-life or Everyman? Exotic or familiar? Let’s explore the five traits that make characters memorable.

1. Characters You Love—or Love to Hate: Mysterious, scary, heroic, fascinating, aggravating, evil, charming, sexy: no matter the character you’re looking for, the best ones get a visceral reaction from their audience. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s “I loved her!” or “Oh, I hated her!” Think of Gone, Girl. Author Gillian Flynn went for and achieved the “love to hate” reaction in her readers, who couldn’t wait for friends to read the book so they could discuss their enthusiastic loathing of the characters without spoiling anything. The worst thing you can ever say about a character is not that you hated him but that you found him uninteresting.

2. Characters You Can Relate To: When a character is familiar to you, especially when she reminds you of a person you already know and love, you’re primed to find that character memorable. Some of the most memorable are the ones who remind us of ourselves. I think many women identified with Bridget Jones, the hilariously flawed heroine of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. As a kid, I loved Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women primarily because she so reminded me of me, or at least the “me” I wanted to be.

3. Characters You’d Like to Know: Often a favorite character is one you’d really like to know in real life. You can picture trading stories over a glass of wine or cup of tea or just having a great conversation. As I got to know my own characters in Up the Hill to Home, I found myself wanting to spend time with Charley Beck, a funny, easy-going guy who takes life as it comes. It’s also not uncommon to fall a bit in love with that one character you find oh so appealing. Edward Rochester, the mysterious and distant hero of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, was the first character I ever remember swooning over.

4. Characters who are larger than life, perfect, or ideal: Many readers want to spend time with a character who’s bigger or better than the people they actually know; after all, as a friend said, “I spend all my time with real people. I want to spend my reading time with someone better!” Often, these are the characters we find in genre fiction like romance (Rhett Butler), spy (James Bond, Jason Bourne), and sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian lit (pick one). A “perfect” character can have flaws—typically exactly the right flaws that make him even more attractive.

5. Characters who are completely believable: This is the trait I’m most often drawn to in books that I truly love, and the one I strive to achieve when I write. I want to spend time with fully realized, three-dimensional people. Perhaps my favorite character of all time—and I know I’m not alone—is Atticus Finch, hero of Harper Lee’s timeless To Kill a Mockingbird. For me, Finch hits all five of these traits: we’re viscerally drawn to him, he’s someone we’d like to know, he’s the best version of the person we’d all like to be, he is heroic in the best sense of an everyday person who stands up and does the unpopular right thing, and yet he is still completely believable.

Who are your all-time favorite characters?

In Praise of Nuance

Are you one of those people who finds it impossible to look up a single word in the dictionary? I am. For me, opening a dictionary is a shiny-pebble adventure in which my eyes constantly race ahead of my lumbering brain—“Ooh, look at this one! Oh, and this!”—and it is the rare occasion that I don’t have to squint mentally to recall the word I was originally searching for. Though the impulse is sometimes aggravating, typically because I don’t have time just to sit and read the dictionary, there is still something wonderful in aimlessly splashing about in a sea of words.

Now let’s take a moment to consider how adorably quaint the preceding paragraph must appear to perhaps the majority of readers who are, after all, reading an online blog. “A dictionary. Really?” Yes, I’m describing the physical act of pulling a book from a shelf, using the helpful thumb tabs to orient myself somewhat close to my objective—the better to limit that inevitable distraction—and then using a finger to navigate through the inviting sea to the intended destination. “Oh, great,” I can hear some of you thinking, “you’re going to be one of those.”

No, I promise I am not here to rail against technology or bemoan the loss of whichever things it’s normal these days to bemoan the loss of. (Perhaps the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition, which I’ve done twice now. Or using sentence fragments, also twice.) For example, I am without question a lover of physical books, reading for me having a tactile dimension that adds to the joy of the experience, but I applaud the advent of the tablet. Anything that encourages people to read more is aces in my estimation, and let’s face it, how else can you really read while brushing your teeth or drying your hair?

Okay, so if I’m not railing or bemoaning, what am I doing? I am praising. I am praising nuance, the subtle shades of meaning, hint, implication, freight, and history that words carry, that make them unique and therefore necessary, that allow each one the opportunity at a given time and place to be exactly the right word. I am not suggesting that there is something nefarious going on just now that is draining nuance out of language; complaints of that sort have been around since folks were working in cuneiform. Instead, I’m suggesting that it is worth the effort, that there is reward to both the writer and the reader, for the writer to know what she means to say, and to find just the right way to say it so that the reader knows exactly what she means, too.

I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s wonderfully useful and thought-provoking book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. (And now you’re laughing doubly hard at the concept of my reading a style guide, as though the dictionary were not bad enough.) Pinker doesn’t have much use for the pinched and brittle self-appointed guardians of the language who approach the world with a red pen and a humorless inflexibility toward applying rules, many of which he shows to be misguided, contradictory, and typically not absolute. He shows rather than insists to his readers why one approach communicates better than another in a given context, based on how both our brains and English syntax work. I appreciate his measured, fact-based but still humorous approach to a subject too often addressed in overheated, bug-eyed invective about how wrong everyone else is.

I understand that impulse, of course; people who love language have trouble not getting their collective backs up at what seems like willful ignorance or just plain laziness in its general handling. My personal hot button is usage. Much as I love dictionaries, it’s worth remembering that dictionaries offer common usage, not necessarily proper usage. Word meanings are crowd-sourced, and the crowd isn’t necessarily all that concerned about what might seem too-nice distinctions among different words—that is, in the nuance. This is hardly a modern phenomenon: open the Oxford English Dictionary to any given word with a long history and you can trace the evolution of its meaning. Hence, common usage becomes accepted usage, which eventually becomes proper usage. The only difference these days is that the interconnected crowd works faster now and meanings can shift more quickly.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find that Steven Pinker is fine with the use of anxious to mean eager, one example he uses in his discussion of word usage that people should stop fretting over. For me, it’s impossible to separate anxious from its obvious root in anxiety, which has little to do with eagerness. So while I understand that the use of one for the other is common, I’m pretty certain the careful reader feels how the substitution changes the tone and sense of a scene, and the careful writer makes a specific choice based on the tone and sense he means to convey. That’s the nuance I come to praise. And I know Pinker gets it, too. I’m right there with him when he says, “Style, not least, adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.” Amen, brother.