Writer Wednesday – Elyse Mady on Writing for the Times

Elyse Mady writes fairly * ahem * adventurous (otherwise known as menage) historical fiction, and her first title, The Debutante’s Dilemma, just came out this week. She wrote this terrific article on adapting your writing to the historical times in your novel, and I knew I just had to host her. Elyse blogs at www.elysemady.wordpress.com about writing, research and romance novels, both historical and contemporary.  You can reach her by email at elysemady@cogeco.ca or find her on Facebook for updates and upcoming titles .

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TheDebutantesDilemmaAbout “The Debutante’s Dilemma” by Elyse Mady

One woman in search of passion

Miss Cecilia Hastings has achieved what every young lady hopes for during her first London season…in duplicate! She’s caught the eye of not one but two of England’s most eligible bachelors.   Both Jeremy Battersley, Earl of Henley, and Richard Huxley, Duke of Wexford are handsome, wealthy and kind, the epitome of proper gentlemen. But Cecelia doesn’t want proper, she wants passion. So she issues a challenge to her suitors: a kiss, so that she may choose between them.

Two men in love with the same woman

Friends since childhood, and compatriots on the battlefields of Spain, falling for the same woman has set Jeremy and Richard at odds, and risks destroying their friendship forever.  But a surprising invitation to a late-night garden tryst soon sets them on a course that neither of them could have anticipated. And these gentlemen quickly discover that love can take many forms…

~*~

Getting a Word in Edgewise

by Elyse Mady

Everyone knows that single guys who are making a good living want to get hitched.

Or to put it in more familiar terms, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

See the difference between the thought expressed in contemporary terms and the immediate impact the same idea has couched in the Regency terms that the author, Jane Austen, used?  With one sentence, thanks to subtle clues conveyed by word choice, syntax and grammar, in both versions we know when the story is taking place and if the sentence is really good, sometimes even by whom and why.  That’s a ton of information conveyed just through some carefully chosen words, so how can you replicate its impact in your own writing?

Authors are often exhorted to spend a lot of time world building when they’re writing their manuscripts, especially if their characters inhabit realities distanced from our own by time (historicals and futurist stories), alternative realities (magic and fantasy) or technology (sci-fi and steampunk) so that their worlds are coherent, deep and rich.  But I’m of the firm opinion that word building is just as important, if not more so.

So, what exactly is word building?  Well, let me give you an example from my most recent story, “The Debutante’s Dilemma”.  Here’s how I described the heroine in the opening paragraphs:

Miss Cecilia Hastings was the luckiest girl who had ever lived to draw breath.

This was the near-universal assessment of the five hundred guests who found themselves crushed into Lady Stanhope’s lavish ballroom like so many potted fish on this early June evening.

That the young lady was well-favoured, with a tall, even figure, a smooth throat and milk-white skin, striking grey eyes and dark chestnut hair, there was no doubt. Just eighteen, Miss Hastings was everywhere lauded for her calm manners and her unerring ability to navigate London’s treacherous social shoals while appearing neither missish nor imperious. She danced divinely. She both sang and played the pianoforte. She could read Italian and spoke French beautifully. She befriended those wealthy and modest, with equal disregard for their particular standings. Her sartorial sense was unmatched and her dresser had been offered no less than a half-dozen bribes if she would but reveal the secrets to her mistress’s beauty regime.

Without any other details, most readers would recognize this as a historical novel, set in London amongst a group of wealthy individuals who attend balls and other grand social events.  They learn this in two ways: firstly, through the factual details like description and setting but secondly, and more subtly, through how the story is written.  It isn’t enough then to simply convey facts about the world or the characters themselves: Cecilia Hastings is considered lucky, she’s pretty and dresses well and treats everyone fairly.  Instead, I’ve carefully replicated not only period terms like being ‘well-favoured’ and ‘her mistress’s beauty regime’ but mimicked its syntax and phrasings, too.   This creates (hopefully!) an immersive experience for the reader, that allows them to be transported seamlessly into the story’s setting.  This process occurs in every story but it’s more evident in stories where the characters inhabit a world that is distinct from that of the readers.

So, how do you do this convincingly?  After all, no author wants their book or their characters to sound like a bad actor, trying on an accent that wavers and disappears erratically (Are you listening Kevin Costner?  ‘Cause I’m talking to you!).  So go slowly and work on building your ‘ear’ and your ‘eye’ for period styles gradually, at a pace that’s comfortable for you.  Otherwise you run the very real risk of alienating your reader and drawing unwelcome attention to the cobbled-together and ‘borrowed’ nature of your storytelling.

Here are five easy tips for historical writers on how they can develop their word building skills in their manuscripts.  But have no fear – these tips are also great for sci-fi writers and steam-punk writers and well, frankly writers of all stripes!

1. Get Lost in a Good Book

It isn’t enough to read historical romances written by contemporary authors.  They may have lots of good research behind them but the only way to really get a sense of how people wrote and spoke is to read, read, and read some more from authors published during the era you’re replicating.  For Regency buffs, Jane Austen is a great and accessible starting place but don’t neglect other great authors from the period like Maria Edgeworth, Ann Radcliffe, Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney.   For Victorian eras, authors like George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and the Brontë sisters are all wonderful while the Gilded age has some spectacular writers including Edith Wharton and Henry James to explore.  Almost all of these books are available in free online editions but if you’re intimidated by the thoughts of tackling a ‘classic’, look instead for a modern edition published by Oxford University Press or Cambridge University Press.  Their editions usually include footnotes to help decipher unfamiliar dates and events, plus a glossary for strange terminology.

2. Dear Diary

We forget in this age of instantaneous communication how ubiquitous letters, diaries and travelogues were prior to the days of easy communication but there are literally hundreds and hundreds of published letter and diary collections by historical figures large and small.   Unlike novels, these fragmentary documents don’t tell a story from beginning to end but their style is often unguarded and intimate and gives a real window into people’s every day concerns, plus includes the day-to-day undertakings that may be lost in ‘big’ history books.  My favourite diarist is Frances Burney, whose wonderfully evocative diaries span nearly the whole of her life in the 18th and early 19th century but a search through any library catalogue or an online database like the Internet Archive will reveal many, many more.

3. Read All About It

Newspapers and magazines are another fantastic resources to get a sense of the period’s concerns and writing style and how they convey information in short concise bursts.  They’re also a great inspiration for story ideas – I’ve discovered a whole host of inspiring true-life ideas just by perusing old articles.  Best of all, many newspaper archives like the London Times and the New York Times are online now, which makes searching them as simple matter.

4. All the World’s a Stage

Plays are a perhaps the best way to understand speech patterns from whatever period you’re exploring.  Whether you’re chuckling over Sheridan’s “School for Scandal” or laughing at George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde, remember that the texts are meant to be performed and spoken, so don’t hesitate to read them out loud – you’ll find yourself hearing aural jokes and understanding the pacing and word play of your period better than ever.  And if reading it out loud doesn’t appeal, never fear; many classic plays are available in audible versions that make taking them in as easy as popping in a CD or downloading them from sites like Audible.com

5. You Just Can’t Make this Stuff Up

Finally, I also love printed ephemera for inspiration and word building: sermons, pamphlets, reports, advertising, court documents and the like.  They’re windows onto the concerns of the era and they make understanding and recreating the ‘mental’ aspects of your historical characters much easier.  You can choose to agree or rebuff the historical talking points but understanding the environment in which your characters find themselves is essential to creating a holistic and believable setting.  My favourite sources for these kinds of documents are the Internet Archive, which includes everything from print to sound recordings, images and more and the Gale Digital Collections.  The former is free; the latter does require a subscription so be sure and check with your local library or college because many of them subscribe to the research collections and allow community members free access.

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Is this article not a wealth of information? Elyse will be popping in all day to answer comments, so don’t be shy about asking questions!

The usual guidelines apply. Please keep any excerpts to 300 words or less, and post critiques and excerpts in separate comments. This blog uses threaded conversations, so when you are replying to a particular comment, please use the reply link in that comment rather than the one at the end. When you use the one within the comment, your comment will be inserted into the conversation thread.

Writer Wednesday – Cindy Spencer Pape on Male POV

Cindy Spencer Pape writes paranormal, contemporary, historic and erotic romance. She’s also a fan of fantasy and mystery, so she’ll fit right in here. I first learned about her through her urban fantasy, MOTOR CITY FAE, which I purchased when I first got my nook (along with a whole slew of Carina Press ebooks). She decided to write about how to write from a male point of you, (if you don’t happen to be male). So without any further ado, heeeeeeeere’s Cindy!

Through His Eyes

by Cindy Spencer Pape

Let’s face it—most romance readers and authors are female. Most. Not all. But it’s that bulk of you ladies I’m addressing today, though any guys out there can probably put a reverse spin on what I’m about to say and get some use out of it. Anyway, it can be difficult to write deep point of view when the POV character is the opposite gender. I’ve been told I have a knack for writing believable male POV, which isn’t a huge surprise. As a teen, I spent most of my time as “one of the guys,” a tomboy despite my fondness for jewelry and romance. I have two brothers, no sisters, and a mom who didn’t own a lipstick—or if she did it was older than me. Now I live with a husband and two sons. My father and brother share a house nearby. One of the dogs is female, but otherwise, I’m on my own.

Motor City Fae is available through Carina Press. Click cover for link.

So, as much as any straight woman can, I’ve got a pretty good grip on the male psyche. Oh—and I still can’t grasp the concept of $300 shoes, so maybe I get guys better than I get other women! One more caveat: every man is different and unique. Many have soft spots—even the most macho man can have one or two typically “feminine” traits. So guys, please don’t take offense at this if one of my generalizations is dead wrong for you! My very masculine husband is a clothes snob and a gourmet cook. I can burn water.

So maybe that’s rule #1: there are always exceptions. Adding one or two of these characteristics will actually make your guy MORE believable—even if he’s a vampire or space alien.

And here are a few more generalizations that might help some women write more believable male POV. Take the ones that work for your character and ignore the rest.

#2: Shorter, crisper sentences in speech and in thought processes. Guys tend to be more linear, and prefer less complex language. Read Ernest Hemingway or Elmore Leonard.

Also cruder terminology, and don’t skimp on the sports analogies. A woman may think of a last-ditch attempt in a dire situation as just that. A guy will probably call it a “Hail Mary pass.”

#3: Protectiveness of his family and friends is bred into the bone and reinforced in his upbringing. He can’t help it. Possessiveness of his female is an outgrowth of that, and pretty hard to overcome.

#4: Simplify descriptions, especially colors & clothes. Unless he’s an artist of some sort, or has six sisters, he probably neither know or care about the difference between lilac and mauve. He probably also doesn’t know the difference between a cardigan and a shrug, kitten heels vs. princess heels, and he doesn’t know that strappy is an adjective about shoes. And he doesn’t care. He thinks “tight blue sweater” not “soft azure, angora wraparound.”

#5: Once he makes a decision, that’s it. Skip the internal agonizing. Guys are far less likely to waste time second-guessing themselves. In our society, they’ve been raised with far more self confidence than we women.

#6: Sports are important. They just are. Maybe not all sports, or all the time, but they’re part of the male lifestyle, and discussing them is as important for male bonding as talking about boyfriends or babies is for females.

#7: He WILL think about sex pretty much whenever he thinks about the heroine, unless they’re in immediate danger—and maybe even then. Love can make all the difference in his life, but sex is hardwired into his brain.

While I could go on for days, this is a little bit to get you thinking about using a slightly different voice for writing in male POV. And guys, remember—I said there are always exceptions! Vive la difference!

~*~

The Cowboy's Christmas Bride is available through Wild Rose Press. Click Cover for link.

To illustrate her point, Cindy has provided an excerpt from her contemporary romance, The Cowboy’s Christmas Bride. To give you some idea of what it’s about, here’s the blurb:

Running from a wedding gone wrong, Allison finds herself snowbound with a sexy rancher.  CJ has been left at the altar once, so he’s leery of getting involved with a runaway bride, while Allison is afraid to love at all.  Can the magic of the holidays, and CJ’s big crazy family, help them overcome the past, and make this the best Christmas ever?

And the excerpt:

He carried his sleepy nephew over to the portable playpen and laid him on his back, the way his sisters had taught him with their kids years earlier.  After covering the boy with a blanket, CJ stalked down the hall toward the bathroom to find the woman who’d invaded his home.

The door was still shut and the light was on, he noticed right away, and he closed his eyes in relief that she wasn’t wandering around his house on her own.  No, he reasoned, she’d probably just decided to take a shower or bath to warm up, which he’d have suggested himself if his brain had been working properly.  Still, he’d better make sure she was all right.  He could practically hear his mother’s voice.  Ever since they’d died, his conscience had sounded like one of his parents.  Which one, well, that depended on the situation.  Mistreatment of a houseguest was definitely Mom’s territory.  He leaned forward and knocked.

“Everything okay in there?”  Then he heard the sobs.  Damn it all to hell, she was crying again.  He hated it when women cried.  Neither his mother nor his sisters had cried often, so CJ had never learned to deal with sobbing females.  To him, tears had always meant a serious problem, though as an adult, he’d learned the error of that belief.  Some women, his ex-fiancée, for example, used tears as a weapon.  Every time he’d upset her, it had cost him plenty—pearl earrings for missing dinner, a diamond bracelet for forgetting one of her imaginary ‘anniversaries’.  No, women like his sisters were rare compared to women like Daphne, so CJ instinctively put Allison Kendricks in the latter category.

Still, his overactive conscience nagged, if something was genuinely wrong with the woman in his bathroom, he was the only person available to help.  Responsibility was a pain in the butt.  He tapped politely on the door.  “What’s wrong, Ms. Ken—Allison?”

There was a shuffling noise, and the door opened to reveal her standing there, still wearing her bedraggled wedding gown, though it looked somehow deflated.  Politeness required him to stifle a chuckle.  With her stringy hair and smeared mascara, she bore a striking resemblance to a young Alice Cooper in full makeup.  Figuring she wouldn’t appreciate the comparison, he kept his mouth shut.

“I c-can’t get the stupid thing undone!”  Two fat tears rolled down her cheeks, and he noticed she was shivering again.  When he raised an eyebrow, she turned to reveal a long line of tiny pearl buttons running from the gown’s high neckline to the curve of her butt.  A few buttons at the top and a couple more at her waistline were loose, but the rest remained secure.  The thing had clearly been designed for a bridegroom to take off slowly, rather than being removed by the wearer.

Gritting his teeth, CJ reached out a hand and rested it steadily on her shoulder.  Allison jumped like a skittish colt, but then quieted almost immediately.

“Thank you,” she murmured in a tiny voice as he began to unfasten the damned dinky buttons.  There had to be at least thirty of the little suckers, he griped silently, his thick callused fingers slipping off of the damp plastic pearls.  He finally got the chance to peel a woman out of her wedding gown, and not only did he not get to sleep with her, but even his hands wouldn’t cooperate.   He hoped the fates were laughing their heads off at their great cosmic joke on CJ Hall.

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And let the discussion begin! Feel free to post your own related excerpts and to comment on excerpts that others may post.The usual rules apply:

  • Keep excerpts brief–between 300-400 words, TOPS.
  • Post critiques and excerpts as separate comments.
  • If you are replying to a comment, use the reply link on the comment that you are replying to. This will cause the comments to appear together and will make discussions easier to follow.
  • For new, unrelated comments, use the comment box at the bottom of the page.
  • Keep it fun!

Writer Wednesday: On Writing Sex with Joely Sue Burkhart

Joely Sue Burkhart

Please welcome Joely Sue Burkhart as she tackles a rather difficult subject for some of us–writing sex scenes.

Joely always has her nose buried in a book, especially one with mythology, fairy tales, and romance. She, her husband, and their three monsters live in Missouri. By day, she’s a computer programmer with a Masters of Science degree in Mathematics. When night falls, she bespells the monsters so she can write. Find her on her website, Twitter, Facebook, and check out Scribd for free reads!

~*~

On Writing Sex

by Joely Sue Burkhart

Thank you, Tia, for inviting me to talk about writing sex for today’s Writer Wednesday.

How many of you feel squeamish at the thought of getting your characters nekkid? Are you trying to write hotter or more erotic? Or are your characters begging for the chance to get intimate on the page but the scene is like pulling teeth?

As writers, one of the worst things we can hear is a reader who confesses she skipped a few pages or an entire scene in our books. *wince* According to a poll ran over on Dear Author not too long ago, there are quite a few readers who often skip the sex scenes in a book, and not just non-romance readers reading a romance.

If we’re doing our job as writers – making every single scene count and moving the story forward in a significant way – then there’s no way a reader could ever skip a scene, even a sex scene, without missing something crucial.

I’m not going to get into whether or not your story should or should not close the door. The level of intimacy you write is totally up to you. This also isn’t a workshop on how to write hot sex for the sole purpose of arousal. However, if you write a sex scene to deepen characterization, really dig into the whys and emotions, then the scene will not only get hotter, it will also become un-skippable.

So how do we write sex scenes that are so powerful and meaningful that a reader can’t not read them? Is it language? Eroticism? Sensory inputs? What’s the key?

Write transformative sex scenes.

Transformation Implies Change

A good story begins with a protagonist who changes throughout the story. There’s not just an external goal, but also an internal goal/need that may be even more frightening an undertaking to achieve. The success of the external goal should hinge on whether or not the protagonist can heal whatever internal conflict she’s been battling throughout the story. In short, I’m talking about a Hero’s Journey, and one of my favorite characterization tools is the Emotional Toolbox.

A protagonist on a Hero’s Journey has a want that drives her early story goal. However, she has a deep inner need that she may not even be aware of in in the beginning. Fearful of this need, she wears a mask to hide this vulnerability. Our job as writers is to slowly pull that mask away to reveal the true character beneath.

So why should it be any different in one of the most intimate and vulnerable acts a human can commit?

Sex is a Hero’s Journey

If you’re concentrating on the anatomy in a sex scene, then you may very well end up writing a scene that readers will skip in disgust or boredom. We all know the act and the terminology; it’s not the ACT that we need to concentrate on. As you approach a sex scene, think about the stages of a Hero’s Journey.

  • What does the character WANT? I’m not talking about body parts here: how great she looks in a bikini or how his abs are so lickable. I’m talking about deep emotional wants. Are they achingly alone? Or they furious and feel the need to lash out? Do they want to forget the danger just for awhile? Or has this sweet longing been building slowly over time until he just can’t wait any longer?
  • What does the character NEED? I’m not talking lust here. I’m talking about deep psychological needs. Maybe she needs to feel accepted for who she is. Maybe he needs to trust another living person. This need is centered around FEAR and makes them feel vulnerable and scared.
  • How could this FEAR make them back out of intimacy? Because your job as the writer is to force the character to slowly take off that mask, for his partner and for the reader.

Look, I’ll admit it: I’ve written several works that are considered “erotic” but I still blush when my characters use certain words. Yet I’ve also been told that my non-erotic works are just as sensual. A truly sensual sex scene really doesn’t have much to do with the potty words you may or may not choose to use, but everything to do with the character’s feelings, especially fear. That might seem strange to you as you think about writing sex, but think about it. In the wild, the sexual act can be a very dangerous undertaking. You’re exposed and vulnerable. You have to trust someone enough to let them close to your most tender spots…and I’m not talking genitals necessarily, but throat and underbelly – life or death!

If you write sex scenes with the Hero’s Journey in mind, then the character will CHANGE throughout the scene. New layers of characterization will be revealed as you force him to remove the mask. I dare a reader to skip that kind of scene!

Writing Transformative Sex

Here are a few questions you might ask your character in order to write more moving and crucial sex scenes.

  • When it comes to intimacy, what do you need?
  • What’s the worst thing you think you might need?
  • What sexual limits are you intimidated or challenged by?
  • What can you lose or gain if you have sex with this character?
  • What are you willing to sacrifice in order to get close to this character?
  • What emotional scars do you still carry from previous intimate relationships?
  • What fear is keeping you from knowing this person?
  • How will intimacy with this person force you to face this fear?

Excerpt from The Bloodgate Guardian

This book is very different from my other work, and the romance is not front and center. In fact, there’s only one full sex scene and it doesn’t happen until about two-thirds of the way through the book. However, it’s a crucial turning point for the characters. Ruin, the hero, should have already killed the heroine, Jaid, instead of letting her get this close to him. In some ways, she’s using him to help her father, but at least she’s honest about it. They’re chased by horrible demons and there’s no hope at all for tomorrow, for the entire world. Yet they can have one precious night together.

He dipped his head and nuzzled her neck. Slow and gentle, he kissed a path up to her ear, where he lingered, breathing warm and moist, his lips soft against her. “You saw me die.”

She shuddered, her heart clenching with dread at the image of his powerful body crumpled on the floor at the compound with a bloody dent in his skull. “And you always come back.”

“Not always. Someday, I will die the final death. I already fear our connection. If I die, I may drag you to the White Road as well. If we make love, the spirit bond will only grow stronger. I would not cause you suffering, lady.”

She pulled back slightly and looked into his eyes. “Say my name.”

His stark face was as hard as the chiseled rock of the stelae guardposts of his dead city. “For the first time in hundreds of years, I find myself unable to pray for an end to my duty as Gatekeeper. I don’t want to die this time. I don’t want to miss one moment of this life with you, Jaid.”

Such vulnerability trembled in his words. She knew what his heart had cost him in the past. Throat aching, she couldn’t promise she wouldn’t drive him to break his duty, either. Not when her father was trapped in hell and innocents were slaughtered to demons, all because of her research. “I can’t leave my father in Xibalba if there’s any hope that he’s still alive.”

Ruin sighed soft and low, his breath a whisper against her cheek. “I know. I said I would help you, did I not?”

Guilt suffocated her. “I don’t want you to suffer, either. I don’t want to put you in the same position as your brother.”

The sudden white flash of his smile stunned her. “I assure you, I never had this position with my brother.”

She laughed, he smiled, and some of the regret and tension bled away, leaving only the glide of skin, the heated press of his body, and rising desire. She needed to touch him and feel his hands on her skin. For a little while, they could forget the horrors of demons. She didn’t have to worry about Venus Star and her lost father.

This man had already opened her up and stared into her darkest self. Ruin stood at the top of his pyramid, dripping blood from her heart clutched in his hand, volcanoes rumbling and Lake Atitlan surging like a tsunami behind him. She felt new-made, as though Dr. Jaid Merritt had jumped into the lake and some other woman had emerged in the Sacred Cenote. A woman who shivered and moaned at the thought of this untamed, powerful man sinking into her.

Her breath came short and fast. Rising up on her knees, she took him into her body. He groaned harshly, his hands convulsing on her back.

“I’m doubly cursed now,” he said, his eyes glittering eerily, his voice rumbling with jaguar tones, “because I don’t wish to part from you. Ever.”

Notes:

  • Not a single potty word or reference to genitalia.
  • Fears and needs that have nothing to do with lust but are just as compelling.
  • Consequences and stakes.
  • Unexpected bits of humor to lighten the heaviness. Sex should be fun too!

Resources

Some links you may find useful.

~*~

Read excerpts of The Bloodgate Guardian Chapter One (pdf) and Chapter Two or purchase at Carina Press.

Let’s loosen the rules a bit.

  • Please limit your excerpts to 500 words (or thereabouts–I won’t count),
  • Please stay within the conversation thread by clicking the “Reply” link on the comment to  which  you are replying,
  • Please post feedback and excerpts separately for e easier reading.

Joely will be available all day, so fire away with your excerpts and questions!

Writer Wednesday: Atmosphere with Jedediah Berry

Jedediah Berry is the author of The Manual of Detection, which was so wonderfully drenched in a rain-soaked atmosphere that I asked him to host a discussion on this elusive subject. How do you give an atmosphere to a novel? How do you tackle something so ethereal? Jedediah looks to a couple masters of fiction before offering his own excerpt. He is also the editor for Small Beer Press, so he is able to speak as both editor and writer.

~*~

Once a word sees regular use in both reviews of fiction and reviews of restaurants, it ought to be approached with a degree of caution. What exactly do we mean by atmosphere? It has something to do with the setting, doesn’t it? It’s hiding in the details, surely, just waiting to be summoned up by the right arrangement of objects, colors, gestures.

But we have to make sure not to confuse atmosphere with decor. The objects in the room, whether they serve to orient us in time and place or to give us a sense of the characters inhabiting a story, do not necessarily create atmosphere, which is invisible or nearly so. Atmosphere lacks substance, but you can always almost feel it. It gets into everything, the characters breathe it, the world is made of it. So atmosphere isn’t the setting itself, nor is it set dressing. Rather, it inhabits and haunts the scene.

The effects that generate atmosphere are perhaps more easy to identify in film than they are in fiction. Lighting is used to draw the eye to certain details—or to cloak them in shadow. Countless filters and optical tricks can suffuse the frame with mood. And music, of course, can accomplish even more than imagery. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished that my readers would hear a particular song while reading my work.

But as lowly writers of fiction, all we have are words—and words will be enough. Consider this passage from The Big Sleep. Here, Philip Marlowe enters a greenhouse to meet with his client, General Sternwood.

    The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket….
    The General half-closed his eyes. “They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume is the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”
    I stared at him with my mouth open. The soft wet heat was like a pall around us. The old man nodded, as if his neck was afraid of the weight of his head. Then the butler came pushing back through the jungle with a teawagon, mixed me a brandy and soda, swathed the copper ice bucket with a damp napkin, and went away softly among the orchids. A door opened and shut behind the jungle.
    I sipped the drink. The old man licked his lips watching me, over and over again, drawing one lip slowly across the other with a funereal absorption, like an undertaker dry-washing his hands.

Raymond Chandler doesn’t miss any opportunities to lend this scene an air of oppression and menace. The quality of the light, the carefully chosen metaphors, the repeated evocation of heat and humidity: these details are here to do a specific kind of work, because the very substance of the book lives in them. Death, corruption, deceit, beauty, decay: they’re all present in this greenhouse, right in the opening pages of a novel that will explore those themes in depth.

Which is key, maybe, to how atmosphere works in fiction. If a detail doesn’t impart something about the driving forces of the work, then they’re only details. We can see this same effect, in concise form, in the opening sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer:

    The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Therein lies the difference between the fiction writer and the restauranteur. You can feel that charge in the air, that sense of building dread. And no wonder the word “atmospheric” is used so often to describe hardboiled and noir fiction. In those genres of writing, atmosphere is vital to the whole enterprise, and I can’t help but wonder if the word has become synonymous with the mood particular to the best works of that kind.

I’ve been asked to pick a passage from my own novel, The Manual of Detection, which exhibits some of these qualities. So, foolish though it seems to try to follow Chandler and Gibson (but then, what choice do I have?), I’ll close with this section, in which my file clerk turned amateur sleuth, Charles Unwin, visits the Municipal Museum of his city. He’s in search of Travis Sivart, a legendary detective who’s gone missing. It’s here that Unwin crosses the line between the safety of his everyday world and into the more mysterious and dangerous world that Sivart has long inhabited. That shift, I hope, is evident in the mood of the thing.

    Unwin pedaled north along the dripping, shadowed expanse of City Park. There were fewer cars on the street now, but twice he had to ride up onto the sidewalk to pass horse-drawn carriages, and a peanut vendor swore at him as he swerved too close to his umbrella-topped stand. By the time Unwin arrived at the Municipal Museum, his socks were completely soaked again. He hopped off his bicycle and chained it to a lamppost, stepping away just in time to avoid the spray of filthy water raised by the tires of a passing bus.
    The fountains to either side of the museum entrance were shut off, but rainwater had overflowed the reservoirs and was pouring across the sidewalk to the gutter. The place had a cursed and weary look about it—built, Unwin imagined, not to welcome visitors, but to keep secrets hidden from them. He fought the urge to turn around and go home. With every step he took, the report he would have to write explaining his actions grew in size. But if he were ever going to get his old job back, he would have to find Sivart, and this was where Sivart had gone.
    Unwin angled his umbrella against a fierce damp wind, climbed the broad steps, and passed alone through the revolving doors of the museum.
    Light from the windowed dome of the Great Hall shone dimly over the information booth, the ticket tables, the broad-leafed potted plants flanking each gallery entrance. He followed the sound of clinking flatware to the museum café.
    Three men were hunched over the lunch counter, eating in silence. All but one of the dozen or so tables in the room were unoccupied. Near the back of the room, a man with a pointed blond beard was working on a portable typewriter. He typed quickly, humming to himself whenever he had to stop and think.
    Unwin went to the counter and ordered a turkey and cheese on rye, his Wednesday sandwich. The three men remained intent on their lunches, eating their soup with care. When Unwin’s food came, he took it to a table near the man with the blond beard. He set his hat upside-down next to his plate and put his briefcase on the floor.
    The man’s stiff beard bobbed while he worked—he was silently mouthing the words as he typed them. Unwin could see the top of the page curl upward, and he glimpsed the phrases eats lunch same time everyday and rarely speaks to workfellows. Before he could read more, the man glanced over his shoulder at him, righted the page, and frowned so that his beard stuck straight out from his face. Then he returned his attention to his typewriter.
    Despite all that Unwin had read of detective work, he had no idea how to proceed with this investigation. Who had Sivart met with, and what had transpired between them? What good did it do to have come here now? The trail might already have gone cold, as Sivart would have put it.
    Unwin opened his briefcase. He had sworn not to read The Manual of Detection, but he knew he would at least have to skim it if he were going to play at being a detective. He told himself he would read only enough to help him along to the first break in the case. That would come soon, he thought, if he only knew how to begin.
    He turned the book over in his hands. The edges of the cloth were worn from use. It’s saved my life more than once, Detective Pith had said to him. But Unwin had never even heard of the book, so he was sure the Agency did not wish for non-employees to learn of its existence. Instead of setting the book on the table, he opened it in his lap.

~*~

Please join us in the discussion! For easier reading, please keep comments  and excerpts in separate posts, and limit any excerpts to 300 words or so. Jedediah will be joining us in the late afternoon, so let’s accumulate some questions for him.


Writer Wednesday – Justin Allen on the Pitfalls of Action Scenes

Our guest today for Writer Wednesday is Justin Allen, who is the author of Slaves of the Shinar (link to my review) and The Year of the Horse.

For those of us who write in what our “betters” oft-times refer to as ‘genre-fiction,’ the action scene is a mainstay. In fantasy – be it high, heroic or otherwise – your hero is sooner or later going test his mettle against your villain. Swords must be drawn, even if they aren’t actually swords. Likewise, the phaser pistols in our favorite sci-fi adventures must go off with lethal results. The villains in a mystery must try to escape justice. The man of our dreams simply has to do some sort of battle to win the heart of his romantic lady. Those vampires don’t put stakes in their own hearts. Eventually, a spy must destroy that super-secret government agency. There ain’t room in this town for both our western cowboys. The superhero and supervillain must stand toe to toe and see which is stronger, ice-power or fire-power. Yes, indeed, the action scene is without doubt the defining moment in most of ‘our’ work.

And you know what? Most of those scenes are darned hard to write convincingly. The “unimaginative-fiction” writers (my term) would have you believe that describing an exciting fistfight is a trick more or less in the realm of flushing the toilet, difficulty-wise. But those of us on the imaginative side of the literary coin know that the big fight, the great action set-piece, is all-too-often the downfall of what promised to be a most-excellent adventure.

Why are they so darned hard? How do those big fights bring us down? There are innumerable ways, of course. The way battle scenes most often wreck me can be summed up in two words – “And then.”

Need an example? All right – imagine a battle between two wizards. One is a mage of great power. Let’s call him Yorick. The other is a novice, though possessed of a magic wand he believes will more than make up for his lack of experience. I’ll name him Leif. They’ve come together in a forested mountain pass.

Let’s see what happens! (I’m all tingly.)

Yorick laughed at his opponent. “You have no power to face me, Boy!” And with a wave of his hand he unleashed a bolt of blue lightning, and then, just as quickly, another.

“You’re wrong,” Leif dodged first to the left, and then to the right. And then he leapt behind the nearest tree, pointing his wand around the trunk while shouting, “Terrorizio!”

But the mage was too quick for Leif’s spell. In a moment he too had leapt behind a tree, and was once again poised to attack, this time with blazing fire.

Leif looked up, screaming as the tree swayed precariously and rained flaming needles and pinecones all around him. And then, dragging his robes over his head, he lunged behind the next tree. But Yorick had already anticipated this move, and had already begun to torch that tree as well. And so Leif leapt from tree to tree screaming and wishing he could find someplace that this monster could not find him.

And then, he saw what he needed to do…

Of course, most of the above is clearly a joke. But it also highlights one of the chief problems we face when we describe a battle – Over-Describing. If one lightning bolt is cool, then two is extra super-cool. And why not have the battle go on and on? Won’t the tension rise? Let me ask you, in all seriousness, didn’t it make you feel just a little tired to read that scene? Need another example? Read Chapter 35 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Or better yet, the scene in Angels and Demons where Robert Langdon fights Hassassin in a fountain.

And these problems don’t overcome us as writers only in our fight scenes. Try writing a really hot sex scene, describing every slippery embrace, and see how many times you end up wanting to use some version of “and then.” I’ll spare you an example.

But let’s not blame “And then” too much. Throw one in now and then, and you will be just great! Just don’t make a habit of it. Habitual writing makes for a flat, boring scene.

So that’s my pitfall, the habit I most often fall into. What’s yours? In any action scene, the problems and challenges seem to rise up almost as quickly as we knock them down. But there is a reward that repays us for the struggle. Writing action, I think, can teach us a good deal about how to – and how NOT to – describe any complicated physical activity.

I’ll finish this introductory essay by inviting you to read one of my own action scenes. This is a big risk, I know. You’ll be tempted to find all the places where I fell down (particularly those of you with acute Langdonitis or Potterfilia), and especially every place where I used the dreaded “and then.” But I am putting myself out there because I had real problems with this scene. I had to rework it many, many – oh so many – times. I switched characters, length, and pretty much everything else you can imagine. Could I have changed more? You betcha! Likely I could have spent the next decade combing through this thing, word by word. But finally, of course, at some point you just have to let go, and let the reader do her work. It’s the reader’s imagination, after all, that really makes the battle what it is. He or she will fill in the blanks. So why not let them?

From “Year of the Horse” by Justin Allen

Under attack by a local militia known as the Danites, Henry, Chino and John MacLemore take up positions along a stone ridge. They send the younger members of their gang, Sadie and Lu, along with all of their horses, to a place of relative safety in the woods back of the ridge.

Lu and Sadie rode better than a hundred yards from the ridge, but could still see the blue chambray shirts of the men they were leaving behind. It wasn’t until they’d reached a hard bend in the path, around which they discovered a fallen pine tree, that they finally got clear of the battle site.

“I guess we’ve gone far enough,” Lu said, climbing out of his saddle.

There was a patch of green grass behind the fallen tree. Lu led the animals to it and stood by while they grazed.

“He ain’t my boss,” Sadie muttered. “I don’t have to follow no dern orders.”

“He’s your father,” Lu said. “That’s sort of like a boss.”

Sadie glowered at him.

Just then, they heard the first of what was to be hundreds of shots. Lu and Sadie both recognized the source. Henry’s rifle had a way of rumbling in the inner ear long after it had been fired, like thunder after a bolt of lightning. The horses nickered, but made no move to bolt. Henry’s horse, having spent the better part of its life as a cavalry mount, didn’t even perk up its ears.

The next shot rang out soon after, followed by a third. These must’ve come from MacLemore’s rifle. More shots followed. Thus far, they’d heard no return fire. Lu guessed the Danites had been taken by surprise. That wouldn’t last long. It’d only take a moment for them to determine where the bullets were originating from, and adopt the proper response. Unfortunately, Lu was right. In no time they were hearing the whine of lead slugs, ricocheting off the boulders behind which their friends were crouched, and clattering through the trees.

Sadie tied her horse to the fallen pine.

“What are you doing?” Lu asked her.

“I’m goin’ to watch.” She’d finished tying Carrot, and was rapidly doing the same with Henry’s quarter-horse. “And you’re comin’ with me.”

“No, I’m not. Your father ordered me to hold these horses, and I aim to do it.”

“Well, I’m ordering you to come with me.”

“You can’t order me.”

“Sure I can. Don’t you remember your contract? It said you worked for the MacLemores. That means both of us, Daddy and me.”

Lu paused. He didn’t think that sounded right. It was months ago that he’d signed his name to that bit of parchment, but he didn’t recall its saying anything about his working for Sadie MacLemore. To be honest, he didn’t recall its saying anything about John MacLemore either. All he remembered was a long bit about the ‘reclamation of a property.’ He voiced his doubts, but Sadie just sneered.

“I tell you it was in there. Now tie off that horse of yours and let’s get going.”

Lu did as he was told, sure that he’d regret it later.

“How do you want to go?” he asked. “We can’t just go sauntering down the trail. We’d be killed for sure.”

“Let’s just go ‘til we see the others. We’ll figure out what to do from there.”

So they crept back down the center of the path, quiet as mice. It wasn’t long before they saw a blue chambray shirt, crouched behind a boulder on the lip of the stone ridge. At first, Lu couldn’t tell who it was. Then he saw the man stand up, a pistol in either hand, and send a half-dozen slugs blasting down the hillside. Chino shot so fast, Lu didn’t see how he could possibly know where any of his bullets were going. He seemed content merely to fill the air with lead and let the chips fall where they may.

“What now?” Lu whispered.

“I can’t see Daddy, but I think I hear his rifle.” Sadie pointed through the trees to their right. “Let’s sneak through there.”

So they ducked and twisted their way amidst the tightly grown wood, coming at last to a place where they could see fully thirty yards of the stone ridge. Sadie was all for going on, but Lu held her arm.

“I still can’t see him,” she complained.

Lu pointed. A blue chambray shirt was just visible to their left, and it wasn’t Henry.
“What’s he doin’?” Sadie asked.

“Looks like he’s reloading his gun.”

For the next few minutes they sat, shoulder to shoulder, watching as MacLemore twice more loaded and fired his rifle empty. He was fast. Not as fast as Henry, maybe, but still a good deal quicker than Lu would’ve guessed. Brass cartridges littered the ground at his feet. Lu couldn’t see the box, but figured MacLemore’s ammunition must be at least half gone.

“I wonder if he’s hittin’ anything,” Sadie whispered.

“I’ll bet Henry is.”

Just then, one of the Danites attempted to gallop to the top of the ridge. Lu and Sadie both held their breath as horse and rider leapt over the escarpment, nearly trampling Sadie’s father in their rush. MacLemore barely got his rifle up in time, and likely wouldn’t have if the horse hadn’t reared. But it did, and MacLemore blasted him.

The bullet tore through the lower leg of the rider, a man of no more than twenty, dressed in a homespun shirt and straw hat, and into the side of his mount. Lu’s stomach dropped as both horse and rider toppled backward off the ridge and fell out of sight.

“My lord!” he whispered. “Did you see all that blood?”

Sadie grabbed one of Lu’s hands and squeezed. Lu thought she looked a trifle green.

“Another horse,” she said. “That’s all we ever do, shoot horses.”

“What about the man on it? He looked mighty young.”

Sadie nodded. The horror was plain in her eyes.

Lu wondered about the part of the battle they couldn’t see. He remembered the way the deer had been blasted open when he shot it, one of its front legs having been sheered clean away. And how Cody’s neck had spurted blood like a fountain until he’d sunk beneath the surface of the lake. He thought about the buffalo Henry shot, the slug driving right through its enormous skull. From where they crouched, Lu couldn’t see Henry at all, but he could hear the boom of his rifle, and knew all too well the sort of damage it might do. All at once, he didn’t want to be there any longer. Sadie’s orders or no, he was going back to the horses.

“I don’t want to see any more,” he whispered.

Sadie nodded. “Me either.”

They began to scoot back through the trees. But before they’d gone even five feet, Sadie grabbed Lu’s arm. “Look!” she squealed.

Ahead of them, and just a hair to their right, a group of men was attempting to climb over the ridge. Lu could just see their eyes, and the brims of their hats, as they raised up, took a quick gander along the edge of the rock outcropping, and then ducked back down. They were only about ten yards from MacLemore, but for some reason he hadn’t noticed them. Maybe they’d found a blind spot, Lu guessed. He knew he had to do something, and fast. Any second, one of those men was liable to rise up with a gun in his hand. MacLemore would be dead where he sat.

Lu didn’t want to do it, but could see no other way. He drew his revolver, thumbed back the hammer, making sure as he did that there was a bullet in the next chamber, and took careful aim on the rocks over which the Saints were trying to sneak. He was just about to pull the trigger when the memory of the last time he’d fired the gun leapt to his mind.

“Hold my shoulders,” he whispered to Sadie.

“What?”

“Last time, the kick knocked me off my feet.”

“This is ridiculous,” Sadie muttered, but did as he asked. Lu could feel her breath on the back of his neck.

“I’m going to shoot now,” he warned.

“Just do it. And hurry.” One of the Danites had just stuck his head over the tops of the rocks again, and this time he made no move to duck back down.

Lu squeezed the trigger and his pistol gave its deafening boom. The recoil tore through his elbows and shoulders, and even into Sadie, who lost her grip and fell against Lu’s back. She’d added sufficient weight to keep him from going over backward, however, and so Lu got to see what became of the bullet he’d fired.

It was a bad shot. Lu missed the Danite by a good two feet, hitting instead a piece of the stone ridge. But the results were amazing. A chunk of granite as big around as a dinner plate exploded, sending bits of stone flying in every direction. Lu might not have done so much damage if he’d used dynamite. More importantly, the blast drew MacLemore’s attention while it sent his attackers scrambling for safety.

“Let’s get out of here,” Sadie said.

Lu didn’t need to be asked twice. He leapt to his feet, slid his pistol back into its holster, and ran.

They crashed through the underbrush, bouncing off the trunks of trees and tripping over old logs, but somehow managed to keep their balance long enough to reach the path. Sadie was a swift runner, but Lu matched her step for step. By the time they reached the horses, both were out of breath.

“My Lord,” Sadie wheezed. “When Daddy said you had a cannon, I thought he was just foolin’. But that pistol of yours puts Henry’s rifle to shame. You must’ve put the fear of God in them.”

~*~

Please join us in the discussion! For easier reading, please keep comments  and excerpts in separate posts, and limit any excerpts to 300 words or so. Justin will be joining us in the late afternoon, so let’s accumulate some questions for him.