10 Ways to Write about War

10 Ways to Write about War

On the eve of Remembrance Day, veterans of war and those who fought and died are on our minds. November 11 is just one day but the solemnity and memories of the day carries an emotional intensity that many of us bring into our stories.

Writers have been chronicling battle stories since ancient times. Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, offers us a searing immersion: so all had one longing, to let the sword decide.

We’ve been letting the sword (or gun or cannon or bomb or laser beams or…) decide ever since. Naturally enough, we writers have mined (pun intended) humanity’s predilection to fight and there’s no end to the kinds of books – biographies, histories, poetry, stories, novels – that explore that motherlode of emotion and power. Here are ten possible approaches:

1.  Heroic battles – Here the writer has a vast landscape and nobody does it better than the ancient storytellers, such as Virgil, Homer and Sophocles. Their legacy can be found in all the epic scenes of warrior hordes (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) with clanging, clashing, slashing swords and axes hacking their way to the castle gates. Those scenes echo into modern history where swords are replaced with bayonets and rifles. Futurists imagine the same scenes but played out with visionary weaponry.

2. One-on-one Combat – Move beyond the broad landscape and get up close and personal with the dance between two enemies. It is a tension-filled moment that deserves a slow burn to reach a full roiling boil. Two characters, circling one another, gauging each other’s weaknesses, holding back until the moment to engage is clear. Now think beyond the battlefield and examine other kinds of fights between two characters: for example, a marriage falling apart. Warren Adler’s The War of the Roses chronicles the emotional costs of the legal battle and the soul-sucking aftermath.

3. The Homefront – Who’s left behind? How are they surviving? Pacifists, injured, too young, too old, too frightened – stories that focus on everyday people who can never forget what is happening in the wider world. Keeping the war in the background has been excellent inspiration for kidlit authors such as beloved writer Bernice Thurman Hunter and her novel The Girls They Left Behind. In adult fiction, the WWI Homefront is explored beautifully in Frances Itani’s Deafening. If you plan to write a novel set during our current and relentless pandemic, reading books about the Homefront might give you some needed distance.

4. From the Enemy’s POV – Writing through the enemy’s perspective is an exercise that can offer writers entry into their antagonist’s motivations. This is an excellent tool to breathe more life into that character. And sometimes, it might be more interesting to write the whole book with the villain as your Main Character. Oscar Wilde did it with the classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and more recently Gillian Flynn’s delightful Gone Girl.

5. Turf War – From schoolyards to neighbourhoods, boundaries real or imagined are instant tension points. Opposing gangs have a long history in literature: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a classic example. In Richard Scrimger’s Ink Me, Bunny, a mentally challenged 15-year-old, gets the wrong tattoo and that gives him entry into a gang about to do a high-stakes deal. Often funny but never patronizing, readers get a glimpse into the world of gangs and that of young adults who are differently abled. In Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, readers get a deep dive into complex issues of racism, police brutality, activism and social justice – all of it framed within the context of boundaries held by gangs, organizations, institutions and families.

6. Civil War – A nation divided, rebellion, cults, rumours and secrets. Any social unrest is pure gold for tension and a fascinating cast of characters. Suzanne Collins dove into that world when she created The Hunger Games and you know how that turned out for her. But if you want a lived-experience to flavour the writing, Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of the American Civil War, is great writing. Ahead of his time, Bierce has a speculative fiction touch that offers us more than battle stories.

7.  The Aftermath – From Ancient Greek playwrights (Euripides’ Trojan Women) to cold war novelists (Nevil Shute’s On the Beach) to post-apocalyptic authors (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) much of post-war life, real or imagined, is never easy. Trauma, starvation and uncertainty can be counterbalanced with resilience, foraging and rebuilding both physically and socially. It’s up to the writer where to place the greatest weight.

8.  The Peacemaker  Diplomats, politicians and kings. Historical fiction is rich with books about peacemaking in world history. Tolstoy’s War and Peace gives us a sweeping saga plucked from history. But writers have a way of taking the known and applying it to the unknown. Erin Bow’s masterful YA novel, The Scorpion Rules, takes diplomacy onto an intergalactic scale that holds hostage the lives of world leaders’ children. No war between worlds and no kids get euthanized. Simple genius.

9. Undeclared War – Nothing underpins a story’s tension meter with more energy than a seething simmering dance between two enemies. As up close as a divorce in the making (The War of the Roses) or as broad as worlds balancing on the verge (Peter George’s Red Alert, inspiration for the classic film Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). When the threat of war is constant, readers keep turning the page.

10. Tools of War – Speaking of loving the bomb, a war without weapons is a schoolyard turf war. Come to think of it, even that situation has its own weapons: taunts and gestures can ignite a war of words; fists, knees and teeth can up the scale. So, as much as big shiny boom machines can have an impact on a battle, remember that your reader’s emotional journey will accelerate with the smell of sweat, taste of blood, squeeze of skin and screams of battle, not to mention the look on combatants’ faces: jubilant in celebration or horrified in defeat.

No matter how large or how small the scale, a story of war offers writers so many possibilities and these ten musings are merely a long view with a pair of binoculars. It’s up to you to find the emotional heart in your story’s battle and bring it beating and alive for your readers.

On November 11, you will be asked to offer “a moment of silence” at 11 a.m., the date and time the Great War officially ceased in 1918. Writescape suggests that “a moment” as you well know, it merely a breath, a blink of the eye or a swallow. Those who have given their lives for their country need more than a moment to be remembered. War, no matter the cause, is hardly a reason to celebrate because the human cost is far too great and death is forever. Keep that in mind with all your war stories.

Quirky websites for historical fiction writers

Quirky websites for historical fiction writers

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m a genealogy junkie. I admit it. Digging into my past is my favourite procrastination tactic. But in the process, I’ve come across a few quirky sources of historical information, that are useful not only to geni’s but to writers of historical fiction too.  We all know about Google and Worldcat and History.com, but have you ever explored these sites?

David Rumsey Map Collection

This site has over 64,000 maps and cartographic images. His focus is on rare 18th and 19th century North American and South American maps, but you’ll also find materials from Africa, Europe and Asia. Not only can you view maps side by side, but you can also overlay historical maps over modern ones to see how an area has changed over time.

Facebook

Did you know that there is a Genealogy on Facebook list, a 173-page PDF file containing 5,700-plus links, published by Katherine R. Willson. A Canadian version by Gail Dever includes French-speaking groups and pages.

These genealogy groups are great for requesting help with foreign record translations or asking about specific eras and ancestral villages like Ballymena, County Antrim in Northern Ireland during the Irish famine of the 1840s.

HistoryPin  &  WhatWasThere

If you’re looking to compare a modern UK street view with an old one or see if an historical site survives today, try Historypin. This is a free collaborative site with over 400,000 old photo and story submissions plotted on Google Maps.

For North America, try What­WasThere. It works the same way. For instance, a search for Pueblo, Colorado gives images of the late 1800s and early 1900s and then the aftermath of a 1921 flood.

WolframAlpha

Need to know the weather for a specific date? What about calculating a birth date based on a death date from a gravestone? WolframAlpha is a computational knowledge base that accesses more than 10,000 databases to return information based on your calculation requests.

IrelandXO

Ireland Reaching Out website is a treasure trove of all things Irish, from westward Trans- Atlantic crossings records during the great famine to why the names Flan, Florry, Finn and Fitheal are actually all the same name. Similar websites exist for many countries. I have South African ties, so I use the South African sites eGGSA.org and Stamouers .

Cyndi’s List

Cyndi’s List is a cornucopia of useful information arranged by topic on EVERYTHING, not just historical information. In the genealogy category alone, you can find everything from records of Canadian Military casualties to South African gravestones search sites, from information on workhouses in the UK to transcribed diaries.

So there you have it. Hours and hours of procrastination facination. This list is of course, by no means exhaustive, just some of my favourites. Share quirky historical sites that you use in the comments below.

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

In a few weeks, writers around the globe will commit to writing 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in 30 days. Will you be one of them? National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo begins on November 1, and if you don’t know much about NaNoWriMo, check out our previous blog post NaNoWriMo 101.

That means that October, affectionately known as “Preptober” is a month for getting all your ducks in a row, so you’re ready to actually write on November 1. Below are 10 ways to get ready to write, for NaNoWriMo or indeed for any new novel project.

  1. Create a project hold-all to keep all research, writing, notes and ideas for your new novel. This could be a new folder in your computer, or a “new project” in Scrivener. Try a three-ring binder scrapbook, with sections for research notes, character sketches, random ideas, checklists lists etc. Handy for quick reference, for validating research used, for trying out rough writing, for reference as you write. More than that, though, it is a tangible way to make the project real and a good way to stay focused and organized.
  1. Decide what you are going to write. Easier said than done. We all have stacks of ideas of what we could write about, but choose something that interests you. If you’re not passionate about your project you will find it hard to live with it daily and write productively. Choose a story you are spilling over to get out, or write a story that involves something you really want to spend time with. If you love Russian history, set a story in Russia during the revolution. If you’ve always wanted to know about perfume making, write a story where the protagonist is a perfumer. To help make it more real, choose a working title.
  1. Start with sketching interesting characters. If you’re a character-driven writer, begin with writing profiles of your protagonist and antagonist. Then as you work through your plot ideas (step 5) and new characters emerge, do character sketches of them too. If you’re a plot-driven writer, you may want to do step 5 first and return to this step afterwards. Remember these profiles are not just physical, but include your character’s history, flaws, emotional baggage, hopes, dreams, fears and relationships. You might find yourself returning repeatedly to these sketches to add details as you get to know them better.
  1. Ask yourself whose story you are telling and how it would best be told. Whose POV will best tell that story? One POV or multiple? What tense and person? Who is the reader you are aiming at? What genre? As you start to write, you may change these decisions, but start with a plan.
  1. Write your book jacket blurb. This may seem like it’s putting the cart before the horse, but it’s not. The book jacket blurb answers the all-important question “What is this book about?” The answer to that question helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc. It also helps define what age group and genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
  1. Brainstorm story ideas. Outline potential plots. Ask yourself the simple but effective “What if?”, or use the base of all ancient myths and tales: the three act structure. If you know how you want your story to end, consider working backwards too. You might want to check out these tried and true variants of the three act structure too.
  1. Define your story world: place and time. This could be as simple as “Russia pre 1917 revolution” or “Haliburton 1956”, or as complex as a new fantasy world or imagined planet. Or it might be a mix, say a fictitious town called Halbury based on Haliburton. Setting is important to ground your story and your readers. The more complex your setting, the more up-front “world-building” you need to do: Government? Religion? Rules of magic? Climate? Etc. Prep work can include maps and floorplans.
  1. Outline potential subplots. Make sure they serve the thrust of the main story, that they have their own story arc and that there are no dropped threads.
  1. Sketch important secondary characters. Make sure they exist as a counterpoint or foil or supporter of your main characters. Like main characters, they too should have their own wants and needs and motivations. Ask yourself if one secondary character can do the work of two to keep the number of characters to a minimum, and to make each one stronger.
  1. Work on character arcs for all characters, primary and secondary. Each character must have their own motivations for doing what they do.

And one thing more

Get support. We all have lives to live and people in those lives. Talk to them about what you want to do and get them to realize you are serious. Enlist their help, whether it is to honour the time you set aside as uninterrupted writing time, or whether it is practical help like supervising a session of the kids’ online learning, cooking dinner or creating a separate writing space for you during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

Foreshadow the Future

Foreshadow the Future

Ruth E. Walker

I enjoy the outdoors. I get pleasure in working in the garden, especially at my cottage. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty or derive pleasure when my plants flower or produce fruit. Nighttime calls of spring peepers in the far-off swamp or critters hopping under the shade of the hosta remind me of renewal. Even the cold hand of winter offers pleasures, albeit frigid and at times, deadly.

I tell you this – my affection for the natural world and my respect for it — to set the stage for what is to follow. In fiction, this is referred to as foreshadowing.

Humane Humans

Nature has a way of reminding cottagers that flora and fauna were here first. Anyone who has struggled with fallen trees, poison ivy infestations or rodent incursions can confirm that. As much as is possible, we avoid herbicides for irritant flora. We use live traps for the rodents, my kind husband trekking over to the swamp to release the pesky mice.

It’s not to say we don’t target poison ivy with Round Up when the hillside is awash in the stuff and there’s been no deer around to help control it. And yes, snapping traps and even Warfarin has been pulled out when humane methods can’t keep up. But it’s never the first choice. And we hate the result.

A Murder Most Foul

Despite knowing that death is part of nature, I get upset when I find a dragonfly crushed on the sidewalk or drive past roadkill on the highways. Poor things, I think.

Nonetheless, I became the dealer of death at the cottage. Those gardens I like to tend? They’re all edged with a variety of rocks. Attractive to look at until the grass grows up around them. The lawnmower can’t trim that. So I get up close and personal with my garden shears.

Last month, I crouched down by the rocks, snipping away at the green growth. Until my shears cut through something else. Something that felt like bunched fabric. Or worse. And it was. I decapitated an adult frog. A split second before, it was crouched in the shadow of a rock overhang, unseen. Then it sprang out at the precise moment the two sharp edges of my shears met and severed its head and life in an instant.

Man, I was sick at heart. Still am, in fact.

I’ve spent weeks trying to blot that image out of my head. Today, while once more trimming the rocks, I was so careful. I made a lot of noise, knocking my shears against the rocks. I called out: “Foreshadowing. Here I am. Pay attention, critters.” And weirdly, that got me thinking about how important foreshadowing can be in writing.

Why Foreshadow

Dropping clues into fiction arouses the interest of readers and that’s a primary benefit for any writer. Laying a foundation of foreshadowing creates anticipation that pulls readers through the story. Writers have a full set of tools to inject foreshadowing: images, character action/reaction, dialogue and setting elements, for example. From concrete objects to shadows and colours, the important part is choosing the right tool in the right place.

When you foreshadow, you tickle readers’ curiosity. When you deliver the on that foreshadow, you evoke emotions in readers. You can build internal tension by doling out that delivery bit by bit.

  • Opening scene: Shadowy figure in distance at funeral of POV character’s mother
  • Mid-point: Shadowy figure shows up trying to attack the POV character but evades capture
  • Final scene: Shadowy figure reveals she is POV character’s birth mother & wasn’t trying to attack but longed just to hold him again

That’s a powerful writing tool. But there are a few DOs and DON’Ts of foreshadowing all writers should keep in mind. Here’s three to get you started.

Don’t use a hammer when a feather is enough. An obvious foreshadow is a hammer: As she watched the overloaded pleasure boat pull away from the dock with her husband and children waving jauntily to her, she thought that she should have insisted they all wear lifejackets. Be subtle instead.

Do try to be strategic. Not all foreshadowing leads the reader to the conclusion they expected. Sometimes it is useful to have readers think they know what will happen but then you surprise them. But be careful: the foreshadow still needs to lead to the unexpected result. Be logical.

Don’t worry about foreshadow in the first draft. A bit like reverse engineering, subtle hints and deliberately placed objects or elements are part of editing that first draft. That’s not to say that you didn’t already have foreshadowing in the early writing, but often it is of the hammer variety. Your job is to refine that into the subtle variety. Edit with purpose.

Back to the Beginning

Part of working in foreshadow is returning to the beginning to find places where it can be added. But foreshadow is not restricted to the beginning of a story or novel. It can be an effective tool at the start of a new scene or to create suspense at the end of a scene or chapter.

It is, however, most effective at the start. It sets up expectations. So, what about going back to the beginning of this piece and checking it for elements of foreshadowing? In the comments, share anything you noticed.

Dialogue helpers

Dialogue helpers

Gwynn Scheltema

One of my grandchildren texted me: “School starts in 2 days” followed by no less than 6 emojis, all different. Smiley, sad, angry, astonished, upside down and shrugging.

By themselves, her text words could have been interpreted several ways: Yikes! I can’t believe school starts in 2 days after so long. Or I’m so excited that school is starting in 2 days. Or OMG I’m dreading the fact that school starts in 2 days.

What was this child trying to tell me? Or was she just trigger happy on the emoji screen? What was she expecting from me? A thumbs up, or something more? I opted for the “something more”, and we ended up having a lengthier discussion about what was bothering her. All good.

But the incident reminded me that in the absence of sound volume and intonation, words in messages have to be specific enough to convey the right message.

Fiction dialogue

The same applies to fiction dialogue.  And if the words can’t do it, the author needs to use one of several “dialogue helpers” to clarify.

I remember in a critique group years ago, a writer read aloud a small excerpt from his chapter where we follow the protagonist (a male teacher at a private boarding school) up to the principal’s office. Then a line of dialogue: “Sit down,” said the principal. “We must talk about young Jonas.”

Had I been reading the words myself from the page, I would have assumed that this was to be a cordial conversation between teacher colleagues, but unexpectedly, the author delivered the dialogue in a loud angry voice. Where was that emotion in the text? The dialogue needed help so readers could imagine the tone.

Dialogue helpers

  • Using someone’s full name, title or nickname

Did your mother ever add your middle name when she was angry: “Alison Elizabeth Martin! Get in here this minute.” Or a pet name when she was trying to console? “Oh Snooks, tell me all about it.”

If this principal usually calls the protagonist Bill, then using his full name William will signal that something is wrong. He might go further by removing any personal connection and using his title, or calling him Mr.

“Coach Simons, sit down…..”

  • Sentence construction

Match the length and type of sentence to the emotion being expressed. In an angry situation, short commands are more likely. “Get in here.” Friendly conversations will begin with greetings and perhaps questions about the other’s situation or feelings. “What have you been doing lately?” “How’s your Mum?” “What’s the matter?”

“Coach Simons. Close the door.”

The command to close the door signals that what is to follow is private. Issued as a command suggests that the person entering is in trouble. Short clipped sentences support tension.

  • Word choice

Think about how many words people use in different emotional states and what kind of words. The angry mother commands in simple words what she wants done. “Get in here this minute.” She doesn’t acknowledge what the recipient wants or feels, nor is she concerned with politeness. She is not likely to say, “When you’ve finished playing with Julie, please come inside.”

The principal would need to be professional but show his anger in some way.

“Coach Simons. Close the door. Sit there… please.”

Allotting a specific chair signals control in the hands of the principal. Adding a hesitant “please” at the end preserves civility but diminishes cordiality.

  • Voice description

A word of caution here. Describing the actual sounds in the scene is different from “labelling” them using attributives like “he said angrily”.

NOT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal said angrily.

BUT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth

  • Body language

The unspoken vocabulary of body language is a gold mine for conveying emotions. Use it.

“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.”

  • Beats

Beats are physical actions a character makes while speaking. The pointed finger in the last example is both a gesture and a beat. But beats are not just gestures. They are all actions your character might make that help to animate your dialogue scene. Think of it as the difference between listening to a stage play where everyone stands in a line and recites their words versus the acting that happens on stage as characters speak.

“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.” The principal walked to the window, and stared out to the courtyard below for a full minute before he turned to face Simons.

Obviously, you don’t need every helper in every dialogue situation, but add these to your writers toolkit to use whenever you need them.

10 things poets can teach us

10 things poets can teach us

Brevity — economy of words — to say so much with so few words is far more powerful than filling a scene with tonnes of description. It works the same way that bulleted, step-by-step directions work better than long paragraphs of first set out all your tools and triple check that you have everything you need and then open the box and take out the hoozits and then you put the hoozits into the whatzits, turning all the way and making sure you haven’t…etc., etc

Sound – rhyme, near-rhyme, alliteration – our ears are engaged with words that share similar sounds when placed close together or in patterns. Amidst…pussy-willow pads of labs, a sudden set of deer tracks – Barry Dempster 

Repetition — always with a specific purpose to underscore a meaning or idea — your slightest look easily will unclose me / though i have closed myself as fingers,  e.e.cummings

Ideas have power — taking us to places in unexpected ways excites our imaginations — To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower… Wm Blake

Imagery — picture words are effective to convey far more Who made the grasshopper…who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down… Mary Oliver

Structure — the scaffolding on which a poet hangs their words — just as any genre of prose has expectations and writers work with and, often, challenge those expectations, poets take familiar forms and upend them. 

Risk — poets, like all artists, take risks with more than just structure. Cowboy Poetry is a venerable form, evoking images of the Old West, cattle drives and breaking wild horses.  But modern Cowboy Poetry can be a different story: …the bridge abutment already signed
with 4 white crosses for those who did not
quite
       make
             this
                curve
because of booze, because of snooze…Paul Zarzyski

Symbolism — it’s like holding a flash card designed to evoke meaning, a symbol instantly takes us places. Consider a flag — now make it a white flag — now a Confederate flag — now a nation’s flag upside down — it is still a flag but each time, symbolizes something different. Where the flag is placed can change the symbol it represents. Is it tattered and falling from dying hands? Is it held high during an attack? Is it being consumed by flames on a roadway?

Pacing  – Use long languid lugubrious multisyllables with loads of vowels to slow the reader or short sharp words with hard consonants to pick up the pace. Somnolent through landscapes and by trees / nondescript, almost anonymous, …P. K. Page

Breaks – line breaks, stanzas, dashes all signal to the reader to notice, to pause and let what has just been said sink in and prepare for a new thought. Writers have similar signals at their disposal: white space when changing POV, time or location; paragraphs, chapters or a statement all on its own line.

Thread Backstory into Your Narrative So the Stitches Don’t Show

Thread Backstory into Your Narrative So the Stitches Don’t Show

Guest blogger Heidi Croot

Backstory threatens to crowd out my closet. This dark cloak? That frilly dress? Those dusty trousers? I write memoir and every garment has been on my body. It all happened. It’s all true. I want each outfit to have its turn on the page.

Fiction writers and I share the same dilemma. What if we dare to toss a backstory that turns out to be the very one we should have kept?

Desperation made me dare. My manuscript was too long, and backstory was to blame. Several writing-craft books and webinars later, I’ve learned a few things about decluttering, fit, timing and how to dress the main story with backstory in a way that appeals to readers.

Decide What to Throw Out

Image by Elena Sannikova from Pixabay

Before I could declutter, I needed to understand that backstory explains things readers need to know. Sometimes it’s a mini-story: how the character’s ordinary world ticked along before trouble arrived or a bygone trauma shapeshifted a character’s personality.

Other times backstory is information, such as how the invented world works in fantasy or science fiction.

Either way, “less is more.” According to Toni Morrison, “…it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”

1. Toss Appeals for Sympathy

Some writers, says author Roz Morris in Past Mastery, a Jane Friedman-sponsored webinar I attended in July, drop in a calamity from the past out of a desire to generate a dose of sympathy for a character. The annoyed reader waits in vain for the calamity to mean something.

I did this when I dropped a reference to my great-grandmother dying by suicide, a tragedy that slays me but had no bearing on the narrative. Out it came.

My mother’s tragedy was contracting polio when she was eight. Thankfully, I realized the story wasn’t about her polio. It was about how this early trauma warped her worldview and injured every relationship that should have been important to her.

2. Save Your Cast-offs
Image by Sophie Janotta from Pixabay

Marie Kondo-ize your closet by examining every backstory garment. For each, ask:

  • Does the reader need to know this?
  • How does this episode propel the main story forward?
  • Will cutting this set the reader adrift?
  • Is the relating of this backstory triggered by a main story event?
  • Is this scene or slug of information a call for sympathy that goes nowhere?
  • Does the incident help to tell the protagonist’s story or another character’s story?

Culling can be brutal. I comforted myself by building a special closet at the bottom of my manuscript, out of Kondo’s clutches. Sign on the door: Private. I move beloved old outfits here when they don’t fit the main story. Someday, these backstories may inspire their own narratives.

Threading So the Stitches Don’t Show

Having decluttered, the next step is to dress the manuscript in essential outfits in a way that lets it carry off backstory with natural grace.

1. Wait for Thirst

Readers want backstory, but have limited patience for it, especially in the early pages. The writer’s job is to make readers thirst for it, and then deliver one glass of backstory at a time, at just the right moment.

Image by Gary G from Pixabay

What creates thirst in a reader? Curiosity.

What creates curiosity? Emotion—a steady drip of emotional intrigue and engagement. Who, on a first date, wants to hear the other person’s biographical details in the first 15 minutes? We long for those later, when romance makes us eager to sit across the picnic table until dawn.

Readers, says Morris, don’t want facts. They want feels.

2. Show Readers the Gap

But there’s an exception, one that writers sometimes overlook. A critical plug of backstory that readers need early is what the character’s life was like before trouble arrives. Without that, they can’t gauge the impact or feel the related emotion.

Show the “before” early. Make it brief, vivid, perhaps your opening scene. “Follow the character’s expectations,” Morris says. What had the protagonist intended to do that day, before Pandora’s Box flew open?

My narrator expected another day of tranquil living with her husband in their country home. She comes downstairs for lunch. He’s heating soup. She reaches for the mail on the counter. Dread rises in her throat when she sees the envelope with the familiar handwriting.

Readers feel the anxiety because, having had some early backstory, they understand what she risks by opening that letter.

3. Animate Backstory with Scene

Writers can “tell” backstory or “show” it.

Showing is better.

Flashback eases the reader into a dramatic scene from the past, complete with character, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. If the scene satisfies curiosity ignited by the main story, it can be whatever length it needs to be—including its own chapter.

Another way to animate backstory is by having one character share an anecdote or instructions with another who needs to hear it. Michael Crummey does this splendidly in Sweetland when the main character spars with a visiting government official, giving us a glimpse of “ordinary life” and how the growing conflict threatens it.

Sometimes a “tell” cannot be avoided: a biographical detail, an historical event, how something works. In these cases, deliver the information in short, engaging bursts at the moment of keenest thirst.

4. Use Logic to Shift into Backstory

Readers want a reason to be interrupted out of main story. Moments of reflection, discovery or epiphany serve as a water slide into backstory.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

Perhaps your character ruminates while driving to meet an old friend at the winery where the murder took place. Stumbles on a locked tin of old letters in the potting shed. Finds himself repeatedly sketching a mysterious face and wakes one morning knowing whose it is.

I bustled a fair amount of backstory into a pensive hour sitting at the foot of my father’s bed as he lay dying, giving my narrator a logical opportunity to muse on who was this man.

5. Signal Your Entrance and Exit

Readers like to know where they are in narrative time.

One way to signal a transition into backstory is through a change in tense. Start with a single use of past perfect: “She had estranged herself from her family.” Continue in simple past tense (less clunky): “She had written wrote threatening letters.” Signal your transition out with another single use of past perfect—“What she hadn’t foreseen was how she might need these people”—before returning to main story.

In Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden’s transitions are like lubricant. “I have paddled by myself…to get here,” Niska says. “My one living relation died in a faraway place”—and with that, Boyden rocks us into a story from the past.

Backstory can be necessary outfits and supportive undergarments for your main narrative, or mismatched, distracting accessories. Taking time to examine your wardrobe for fit will help make your manuscript the best dressed in town.

What are your backstory secrets and techniques? How do you make backstory as compelling as main story for your reader? We’d love to hear your discoveries.

Meet Heidi Croot

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County and is currently working on a memoir. She has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and her work has been published in the inaugural edition of Linea magazine, the WCDR anthology, Renaissance, in Long Term Care magazine, and others.

Top of the podium

Top of the podium

Our congratulations to Helen Bajorek-MacDonald for winning Writescape’s summer Postcard Story Contest, with her story Woman with Cigarette

You can read her winning story below, followed by our comments on why we chose this story as our winner. And after our comments, read why and how Helen wrote this story. Truly inspirational!

If you missed them, please follow these links for the 2nd-place and 3rd-place winning stories and our comments on those.

Here again is the contest image that inspired this story.

Woman with Cigarette

by Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

You think you want to crawl over me, slither across my skin, creep into my soul.

You think you can create a masterpiece with your authoritative direction and with darkroom magic. One that will earn what you expect:  praise for your technical skill, for your ability to render beauty.

You think you can possess me, after you gift me with your obsessive eye, and the promise of immortality.

And you think you can do all this with a click of the shutter.

Maybe.

You perform as artiste. 

Uncompromising behind the camera, you peer through the viewfinder.

Click.

Then the sound of the film advance lever.

Click-advance.

Again, again, between prompts and coos and directives barked by a lusty hound.

Click-advance.

“Good! Almost there! Lift your face. No, don’t look up. Chin up! A little. Eyes on the camera. Look deep into the lens.”

The staccato rhythm of the shutter-and-advance-lever echoes the intensity of your tone and commands.

“Don’t move. Just look. Right at me.”

My head’s right, but the eyes aren’t.

More barking.

My neck’s right, but the shoulders aren’t                                                              

“Raise your arm over your head.”

Not a question.

I thought it would be easy and fun. First one, then the other, taking photos for our first portraiture assignment. It’s just a few weeks into our photography programme where I am the sole female student, and already it’s all insistent tones and breathless snapping. Just another reminder that I am – merely – subject. For your camera and of your desires.

You complain that there’s not enough light because of the storm.

The rain beating against the window of your shabby one-room apartment makes me shiver, and I wonder … when will you ask me to take off my clothes, for the sake of art?

More instructions.

“Back in a minute,” you announce as you get up from your crouched position on the hardwood floor.

~~~

As she stands to stretch, her eyes sweep the room. Her camera waits on its tripod. Atop a beaten dresser, cup circle stains are partially exposed under the clutter of keys, cigarette packs, matchbooks, a brimming ashtray, and other miscellany.

Maybe it was the clatter of thunder that drums an idea into her mind.

She moves quickly and purposefully.

She sets up her camera. Pre-focusses on the couch. One frame left in the roll of film. One chance to get the focus and exposure right, and to coolly pose herself.

She grabs a cigarette from atop the dresser, sets the camera’s self-timer, dashes to her position at the couch.

Pose. Gaze into the lens. Be you!

Click. 

She and her camera are gone before he emerges from the bathroom.

Later, under her darkroom’s safelight, the image reveals itself in the developer tray.

A whisper: Woman with Cigarette.

Why we chose this entry as the winner

  • Risk in any art form is part of stretching the creative soul and we feel that in this story, huge risks were taken, and they worked. Risks in POV and content themes.
  • Narration/voice/POV – the writer took a huge risk in moving from what seems to be second-person narration but what the reader is surprised to realize is first-person narration by the character directed at an anonymous “you” — followed by a full shift into third-person narration at the point the “I” narrator takes control of her movements and poses, makes the decision to photograph herself with the last shot in her film (which means she likely expended all but one on the fellow student who is male.) It’s unexpected and despite common advice to not switch POV in a short piece, in this story it works. It does take time to realize what is happening and may challenge some readers, but the payoff was worth it. The story begs a second read to savour the story again with that realization.
  • Theme: Tackling a familiar subject — the female as object — is also risky because it has been done and done and done. But this feels fresh, partly because of the intriguing shift in POV.
  • Intensity of the moment which is always a plus for a postcard story — like the click of the camera, a few minutes only are captured and shared to create an emotional effect on readers. Little is given as background or character relationships, but a lot is implied.
  • Layers – even though we see only a few moments of story action, there are big issues presented for readers to consider: We’re asked to consider the idea of “subject” as seen through the lens of the camera — and that that lens takes a perspective from the person lining up the shot. We are asked to consider the trope of female model posing equals permission for sex.  We are asked who has control  – of the art and of the model?
  • Twist: the tropes of subject and model and control as part of the production of perfect art is upended with the sense of the personal as she takes control of the last photo — she chooses the lighting, the pose and backdrop — all of it her decision.
  • The style of the first part is staccato like the click click of the camera. Short sentences and paragraphs, sometimes even just one word per line. No descriptions of setting or characters. Everything is focussed, mechanical, shallow, artificial, dehumanizing. In the second half, the writing becomes more fluid and human. We see some of the surroundings and there is character movement and building to a motivated point. The reader is involved in the action and outcome.

Both of us felt that the writer’s attention to craft in this fine story was as strong as any we’ve read over the years in various journals and anthologies.

We asked Helen why she entered and what was it about this photograph that took her into this story…

Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

Over the last two years I have been home ill, battling sarcoidosis. Symptoms include debilitating fatigue and visual and cognitive impairment. Not good for a college professor who teaches communications!

When the Covid-19 quarantine struck, I was already accustomed to self-quarantine. But, my world grew even smaller. While unable to devote more than a few minutes each day to reading or writing, I decided as the quarantine dragged on that I needed something to do. So, I turned to Writescape as I knew of the work of Gwynn and Ruth from Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). A blog is short, requiring little time and energy, and it is easy to enlarge text on a computer screen. It was something I could give precious time and resources to, without compounding my health challenges.

Ruth’s blog, “Picturing Inspiration” resonated especially strongly. Firstly, because it combined two things I love to do: writing and photography.

Secondly, the image haunted me. Maybe because of the times, but I kept thinking about the masks we wear. Yet, the woman in the photograph seems to be unmasked.

Further, she is in repose, but this didn’t make visual sense to me, so I kept turning the picture around to see what the image might ‘say’ if she were erect.

I was especially struck by the direct gaze of the woman in the photograph. Not blank, I wondered what she was projecting to the photographer. What was the photographer trying to achieve? And who was the photographer? Further, there was a nagging whisper over my shoulder … why was her cigarette unlit?

These and other questions led me to conclude that the woman must be the photographer. Her gaze suggests a certain confidence, defiance, direct communication with the camera’s lens. Though this is no 21st century selfie. It’s a self-portrait. It’s art. But how did she come to take the photograph? And what was her motivation for the self-portrait?

I began to think about the reasons one does a self-portrait. Lots of history and critical mass of the male self-portrait, in painting, photography and in writing. Not so for women. Even less awareness of the female self-portrait.

Frida Kahlo Self Portrait

Perhaps predictably, I imagined the woman in the image to be a student in a photography programme. I determined she was a trailblazer. Defiant. Confident. Keenly aware how others might view her self-portraiture – as ‘less than’ in the art world [yes, I imagined her an artist; she’s got something of a beatnik look to her which helped me determined her era] – similar to the reception given to painters Frida Kahlo and Tamara de Lempicka, who woman-with-cigarette might have known, and photographers Elsa Dorfman and Vivian Maier, who remained largely unknown throughout their lives, and about whom woman-with-cigarette likely would not learn of in a school of photography.

As I thought of the challenges woman-with-cigarette would face in her aspirations to be a photographer, I was reminded of the work of African-American photographer Deborah Willis, who was told when she entered an all-male Bachelor of Fine Arts (photography) program in the early 1970s that she was taking up a man’s seat, when all she’d end up doing was have babies. One of her earliest and most profound works is Willis’ self-portrait triptych, “I made space for a good man.” A direct, confident, and political response to those who would silence her creative voice.

And so, I envisioned the woman-with-cigarette in the late 1960s; maybe early 1970s. A nascent feminist and emerging artist, committed to the study of photography, and most certainly possessing some skill and creative talent. She was going places with her art!

And, I determined, she knew enough about art history to know that Woman with Cigarette is almost a cliché over-saturated subject for painters. The greatest challenge in writing “Woman with Cigarette” was to find a subtle way to expose her ironic joke with self.

Writescape’s contest became a much-needed distraction during challenging times, as well as allowed writing to become part of my wellness plan.

Thank you to Writescape for offering the writing challenge, “Picturing Inspiration”. It’s not easy to write to spec. But, Ruth’s blog and the image were a perfect Goldilocks challenge for me. Absolutely, the right time! Just the right length to manage with my limited personal resources. The image checked all of the right inspirational boxes. And, most important, because I struggle with brevity, clarity, and conciseness in my writing, the postcard parameter of the competition offered a perfect opportunity to wrestle with these skills. As Timothy Findlay once observed, a writer must learn to “kill her darlings”. Not so easy! My first draft was almost 900 words.

Thank you, Ruth and Gwynn, for this writing challenge, for your feedback, and for allowing readers to read the three finalist stories. It is inspiring to read the unique approaches to the telling of ‘her’ story.


Helen Bajorek-MacDonald is an educator, writer and photo-text artist, whose writing has been published in books, journals, anthologies, magazines and newspapers.

Helen has exhibited collaborative visual/textual works with partner Jean-Michel Komarnicki, such as “Water and Iron” in Clarington Taken (Visual Arts Centre of Clarington), and in a group exhibition, Reading the Image (Whitby Station Gallery).

Postcard Story Winners!

Postcard Story Winners!

Thank you once again to all who entered our contest from Canada and abroad, and to our longlist finalists announced last week.

Today we take great pleasure in announcing and congratulating the top three winners:

Drum roll please……

  • 1st Place: Helen Bajorek-MacDonald – Woman with Cigarette
  • 2nd Place: Lori Twining – Smoke Job
  • 3rd Place: Ann Rocchi – Quarantine Dreams

Beginning today with our 3rd-Place winner, we will share these stories with you over the next three weeks and tell you why we chose them.

Before you read Ann Rocchi’s story Quarantine Dreams, here again is the contest image that served as inspiration.




Quarantine Dreams

by Ann Rocchi

Like a bad penny, her smoking returned. It was something to do! Something to fill the empty hours. Adrienne was usually a busy person – too busy, her friends said. This enforced isolation was not going well for her. She was lethargic, unmotivated…she felt like she had a piano tied to her ass.
So. Cigarettes. Social media was advising everyone to reach out to connections from the past. She always felt connected when she was smoking. Connected to the cool kids, the ones who wore buffalo plaid shirts over their school uniforms and reigned over the rearmost bench of the bus. Connected to the hip crowd in college, lighting up after one-off sex with whoever you had brought home from the pub. Connected to her ex-husband; even when they could no longer hold a civil conversation, they could sit in silent communion with their smokes.
She still smoked when she drank. And her drinking had skyrocketed lately, too.  Kool-Aid coloured cocktails with paper parasols in fishbowl-sized glasses. Why, oh why, had she gone through with the whole fortieth birthday trip? Of course, everything was booked and paid for long before a whisper of “pandemic”. But they deserved it, right, she and her posse of single moms? They had worked hard all winter, shoveled their own driveways, carpooled till the cows came home and now it was time to park the kids with the grandparents and party. It felt so good to lie in the sun, a lovely buzz going from that fourth fruity drink, without some sticky little hand grabbing at her.
There had been one sticky hand that trip, though, and not so little, either… Brendon? Brandan? One of those boy band names. He was tanned, taut and tattooed. They were partners for the Traditional Firewalking Event at the resort. He had talked her into it, had even done it already as a team building exercise back home with his work, Millennials R Us, or some other bullshit company she couldn’t remember. She was sauced, and when their leader exclaimed how empowered and spiritually connected she would feel afterwards, she ditched her shoes, grabbed the young hipster’s hand, and casually strolled across a fiery path of burning coals. She had ridden him like a goddess that night.
Adrienne leaned over, chugged her beer, then tapped her cigarette butt in a houseplant to dislodge the ash. She took a quick peek through the curtains at her kids playing in the yard, then nestled back into the curvature of the couch. She inhaled deeply, held, exhaled.  She felt like a lazy, good-for-nothing underachiever. This was her last smoke, she vowed. She would get up and make a healthy dinner for everyone. Baby steps. Just a quick rest first.
Resolved, Adrienne finally relaxed. Her head bobbed, her cigarette drooped. Her vision blurred, hazy and ash gray, like the smoke of the firewalk. Adrienne slid into a deep sleep, not even the whiff of charred fabric interrupting her descent.

Strengths:

  • voice — believable narrator, unreliable and sad – always in character of bargaining, denial, trying to fit in, lacking self-confidence etc.
  • the ending — oh we fear for her, for the smoking fabric, the fact she’s been drinking, the kids in the yard — it’s all about to go up in smoke.
  • especially enjoyed that the element of surprise at the end is built logically through the story but is still unexpected. The girls trip and that one night with Brendan/Brandan feels real from risking the firewalking to risking a random one-night stand.
  • setting the story during Covid19 lends a topical and contemporary feel. We all understand how depression and so many other feelings seem to be heightened in these times. Makes this scenario all the more believable.
  • good subtle foreshadowing throughout starting with the first line. We know things will not go well: Her smoking returned like a bad penny. This was her last smoke… ash grey, like the smoke of the firewalk.
  • style — mix of sentence lengths for effect, repetition and sets of 3 for effect, building on ideas such as “connected” from school to adulthood: Connected to her ex-husband; even when they could no longer hold a civil conversation, they could sit in silent communion with their smokes. (Especially effective as this narrator is clearly not connected emotionally to much — a worsening drunk making deals with herself to manage everyday life.)
  • some fresh and effective figurative language: like she had a piano tied to her ass; her posse of single moms; nestled into the curvature of the couch.
  • As she begins her final decent into lethargy, the language becomes slower and more lethargic too. No vivid descriptions. Short simple sentences. And one moment of heightened tension (peek at the kids in the back yard) to make the reader want to reach into the story and shake her out of her stupor.

What might strengthen this piece:

  • While this character is certainly increasingly passive and reflective as she slips deeper into her drink and eventual sleep, we suggest fewer instances of passive verb construction: lots of “to be” verbs, especially at the beginning, keep readers distanced from the rising tension. Look for “was/is/are” and replace with more active verbs or reorder the sentence to avoid it as much as possible: This enforced isolation was not going well for her. She was lethargic, unmotivated. Other possibilities: Enforced isolation left her lethargic, unmotivated. Or Lethargy and lack of motivation had gripped her during this enforced isolation.
  • Timeline glitch: 40th birthday trip took place “long before a whisper of pandemic”, but she went after “they had worked hard all winter.” The pandemic started at end of 2019. It reached us around end of Jan and into Feb. Lockdown began in March.

Quarantine Dreams was a pleasure to read. Congratulations Ann on crafting such a great story.

Next week we publish the second-place winner along with our comments and suggestions. In the meantime, if you would like to enjoy reading or learning more about flash fiction or postcard stories, check out these links.

Longlist Announcement

Longlist Announcement

Gwynn Scheltema

In May we invited writers to submit to a postcard story contest based on a visual picture of an interesting face in black and white. All just for fun, no monetary prizes. We’d like to thank all those writers who entered from Canada and abroad. We’d love to give you all a prize just for submitting because often that’s the hardest step, but of course we can’t.

Instead, today we announce our longlist. We originally planned on having five on the long list, but ended up with six.

Longlist (in alphabetical order):

Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

Adam Conway

Deb Rankine

Lisa Reynolds

Ann Rocchi

Lori Twining

So now what?

Over the next three weeks we will feature the winning entry and two runners up with comments by the writers on what inspired them and from us on why we chose them.

But today let’s talk about the advantages of being on a longlist, a runner up or an honorable mention.

Potential

If your submission made it on to a longlist, it means your entry was among the cream that rose to the top. Even if it doesn’t ultimately win, the judges acknowledged that it had potential to be a winner.

Feedback

Sometimes you get feedback, and any judge or editor comment is worth the price of admission. You’re not obliged to take their advice, of course, but it answers that eternal question: why didn’t it win? In some cases, it’s good practical advice, and in some cases, it’s subjective, but at least you know where you stand.

Learning

If you don’t get feedback on your submission, take the time to read and analyze the winning entries. How are they different from yours? What did they do to really shine? Tighter story? Great voice? Interesting unique style? Dynamic dialogue?  Don’t get emotional or defensive. Instead, focus on learning what steps to take to put you on the road to success.

Confidence

Knowing that you made it into the top group of the entire entry body can be a huge boost to confidence especially for new writers or those who feel like they are in the doldrums. It’s recognition after all. Affirming recognition. When I was a new writer, my creative writing teacher had the class enter the Toronto Short Story contest as an assignment. I’m one of those don’t-share-till-I’m-sure kind of writers and sending in my entry felt like casting a delicate flower onto stormy waters. When I placed in the top 20 in a field of over 4000, I was ecstatic. I ran around the empty house telling every table and cupboard and drapery, then phoned all my writing buddies. Even though I didn’t win, I finally felt like a real writer.

Publishing credits

Some contests publish some or all of their longlist winners, and that counts for your writing resume. Even if it isn’t published, the fact that it made it onto the long list is resume worthy. One year I made it onto the Contemporary Verse 2 (CV2) longlist for their popular 2-day poetry contest  (again, didn’t win) but received a year’s subscription to the magazine as a reward. Now my longlist success sits proudly on my writing resume. Agents and publishers look for publishing credits, and longlist placings tell them that your work has been judged as worthy of winning.

When my Writescape partner Ruth entered the Montreal International Poetry Prize in 2011, she was thrilled to be placed on the longlist. It meant her poem Gilt made it into the online longlist anthology, and became a proud item in her literary resume.

Exposure to the Industry

Ruth was equally chuffed when her short story entry received an honourable mention in Geist‘s Literal Literary Postcard Story contest. Then the icing on the contest cake: the prestigious U.S. quarterly, Utne Reader, asked for Ruth’s permission to reprint her story in their online magazine. So not winning top spot can give you inroads to places you didn’t foresee.

In our years as editors for the literary journal Lichen Arts & Letters Preview Ruth and I were often asked to be judges and many times, deciding on final winners from the longlist was a painful process. All too often, a great story didn’t win but was eminently publishable. Knowing this, when we received submissions that could boast a longlist placing on the piece, it made it out of the slush pile pretty quickly.

Networking

With the ease of modern social media, making contact with your fellow longlist peers or others following the contest results can increase your writing network, and suggest possible writers for critique sharing or beta reading.

Motivation

Yes, it’s disappointing to be on a longlist and then not make it to the finish line, but the trick is to focus on the fact that the piece had enough merit to make it that far, and let that success propel you forward.  Take a second look, edit it or polish it and send it out again. If it’s that close, it will find a home.

So hearty congratulations to our longlist writers! Stay tuned for next week’s announcement and publication of our third place entry.