Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Monday, September 15, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 5

Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we discern and learn the techniques of a successful novel to better our own writing. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.



Chapter 5: The MacKenzie

Summary: Mistress FitzGibbons wakes Claire later and hurries her into a decent state of dress and stuffs her with a modicum of food. However, Claire is too nervous to eat much. She goes along with Mrs. Fitz’s ministrations because it gives her time to construct the story and its necessary lies that the MacKenzie will surely demand.

She’s taken to a tower room richly adorned. On one wall are casement windows, a far cry from the narrow slits in most of the rest of the castle. An enormous birdcage fills part of the room from floor to ceiling, complete with potted trees and a collection of energetic birds. Colum MacKenzie enters and greets Claire, and she’s shocked to find him every bit as impressive as his brother Dougal, except for his bent and stunted legs. However, MacKenzie is clearly used to his state and allows Claire the necessary time to conceal her surprise.

Claire feeds him her constructed story, sticking as close to the truth as possible, a trick she learned from Frank. She claims she’s a widowed lady of Oxfordshire and was on her way to relatives in France. She was set upon by highwaymen and barely escaped, only to find herself run afoul of Captain Randall, who attempted to rape her. MacKenzie is clearly skeptical, but he does not accuse her outright. Instead, he informs her that she’s a welcome guest, but hovering in the air is the implication that she will be so only until he finds out who she really is.

Writing Comments: Incorporating setting details can be a challenge, especially when, ideally, authors want to make them appear seamless with the story and not bog down the plot or overshadow characters. Take a look at how Gabaldon manages in this chapter when it comes to period dress:

Mistress FitzGibbons had a cup of hot broth waiting; I sipped it, feeling like the survivor of some major bombing raid, as she laid out a pile of garments on the bed. There was a long yellowish linen chemise, with a thin edging of lace, a petticoat of fine cotton, two overskirts in shades of brown, and a pale lemon-yellow bodice. Brown striped stockings of wool and a pair of yellow slippers completed the ensemble. Brooking no protests, the dame bustled me out of my inadequate garments and oversaw my dressing from the skin out. She stood back, surveying her work with satisfaction. “The yellow suits ye, lass; I thought it would. Goes well wi’ that brown hair, and it brings out the gold in your eyes. Stay, though, ye’ll need a wee bit o’ ribbon.” Turning out a pocket like a gunnysack, she produced a handful of ribbons and bits of jewelry. Too stunned to resist, I let her dress my hair, tying back the sidelocks with primrose ribbon, clucking over the unfeminine unbecomingness of my shoulder-length bob. “Goodness, me dear, whatever were ye thinkin’, to cut your hair so short? Were ye in disguise, like? I’ve heard o’ some lasses doin’ so, to hide their sex while travelin’, same as to be safe from they dratted redcoats. ‘Tis a sad day, says I, when leddies canna travel the roads in safety.” She ran on, patting me here and there, tucking in a curl or arranging a fold. Finally I was arrayed to her satisfaction. -- page 67

Gabaldon at no point steps aside from the action of the story to explain the period’s fashion. Instead, she relays it in the characters’ actions. From this passage alone, we learn the names of the garments a woman wore, colors, how hair might be dressed, that pockets existed, and that Claire’s shoulder-length bob is considered quite unbecoming. This way of relaying information about setting is ideal because the action of the story isn’t broken, and the details are conveyed in a more interesting manner than a dry lecture.

Later on in the chapter, during the conversation between Claire and Colum MacKenzie, the laird leaves the room to attend some other business. This business is never explained, but it lets readers know more is going on than Claire’s plight. This tale takes place in a dramatic point in history and thus must concern itself with more than one girl’s misfortunes. However, even if the story were set in a more restricted setting or a duller time, an author must consider and incorporate more than the protagonist’s trials. All characters have their own lives, struggles, and motivations. Even if they do not play a major role in a story, they should still inform it. If nothing else, their perspectives and plights will color their interactions with the protagonist.

Going back to the excerpt I quoted, take a look at the dialect Gabaldon provides for her Scottish characters.

“The yellow suits ye, lass; I thought it would. Goes well wi’ that brown hair, and it brings out the gold in your eyes. Stay, though, ye’ll need a wee bit o’ ribbon.”  -- page 67


“Goodness, me dear, whatever were ye thinkin’, to cut your hair so short? Were ye in disguise, like? I’ve heard o’ some lasses doin’ so, to hide their sex while travelin’, same as to be safe from they dratted redcoats. ‘Tis a sad day, says I, when leddies canna travel the roads in safety.” -- page 67

Dialect is a tricky thing to convey in fiction. Some writers advocate for leaving it out save to mention in the exposition that someone has a certain accent. The logic behind this is that it avoids making a reader struggle through misspelled and butchered words. On the other hand, many authors love implying dialect through word order, word choice, misspellings, cut up words, and various other means. Unfortunately, there’s no final way to decide the dispute. It is, when you come down to it, purely a point of preference.

However, if a writer chooses to imply dialect in a manner similar to Gabaldon, caution should be exercised. In this segment, Gabaldon uses just enough manipulation of the dialogue to suggest dialect without mutilating meaning. Personally, I can’t help but read it with the Scottish brogue singing through my head, and were I to read it aloud, I’d undoubtedly slip into the accent. For my taste, I enjoy this method of dialect. It’s fun, adds tons of character, and is relatively easy to read. But it would be easy to take this too far and end up with a product so illegible that a reader was yanked from the story, getting hung up on trying to figure out what a character was saying.

To that end, my best advice is to find an author who writes with the dialect you want to use, especially one who does it well, and copy their techniques. Gabaldon is a good example of Scottish dialect in a novel. Beyond that, don’t overdo it and be consistent. Read it aloud. If you trip over the words while reading your own story, you can be sure a reader, who will have neither your love nor patience for the writing, will get fed up with the dialogue.

Lastly, I’d like to address how Gabaldon describes Colum MacKenzie. As I’m no expert in Scottish history, I don’t know how much she pulled out of actual history in creating his character. However, as a writer, she handles the introduction of his disability perfectly, namely with respect. Naturally, Claire’s reaction and description fit her character, but because Gabaldon describes MacKenzie’s reactions and actions as resilient to any shock and managing quite well with his difficulties, she at no point comes off as problematic. In fact, she makes MacKenzie all the more admirable for compensating for his deficiencies. If you choose to give a character any form of disability, be sure to handle the subject respectfully.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

To check out other novels, like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures and Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey, that I’ve broken down for their writer gems, click here.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Developing the Antagonist

Everyone knows a story needs a strong hero (protagonist), but all too easily, we writers forget about the antagonist. Or, if we don’t forget about him, we forget that he needs as much development as the protagonist.

For my current work in progress, I stalled for a while, and when I finally went through my list of things a story needs to be fully developed, I came across the antagonist. At that point, I exclaimed a relieved, “Oh! So this is what’s been holding the story up.” Even though I’ve written many stories and been published, I’d gotten so caught up in my protagonist and the other characters that I’d completely missed that I’d neglected my villain. He was a full character in my early chapters, but he didn’t have enough depth, motivation, and clear goals to become a fully dynamic character capable of giving the hero grief. So I had to sit down and get to know my villain, which is always a fun experience.

So how do you develop an antagonist into a character capable of wreaking havoc and truly enjoyable to read and write about?
  • Create an antagonist that you enjoy writing. He can be evil, arrogant, psychopathic, or any other thing typically associated with villains, but he must be interesting enough to compel you.
  • Give your antagonist just as much depth and complexity as your protagonist, if not more. Like your hero, your villain must have goals, motivations, conflicting desires, dreams, hopes, fears, and everything else to make him fully alive. Determine his past and what made him into the person he is now. None of this needs to be directly revealed in the story, but all of it influences him. And with that knowledge in the back of your mind, as a writer, you will write a character that feels more real to readers.
  • Give your antagonist likable traits. This may fly in the face of all obvious logic--after all, villains are supposed to be evil--but in reality, no one is truly all bad. Giving a villain likable characteristics makes him more believable and more intriguing. The juxtaposition creates the draw.
  • Remember that not all antagonists fit the stereotype of villainy. Some antagonists are sweet and kind. Some are genuinely pursuing what they believe is a good cause. In fact, an antagonist doesn’t think of himself as the villain. He believes his own goals and means are the right course.
  • Outline the story from the antagonist’s point-of-view. This will give you insights into the antagonist and the story. Remember that, just like protagonists, antagonists also have obstacles to overcome, ever mounting stakes, and their own agenda that does not necessarily always involve the heroes.
If you love writing your antagonist, there’s a good chance you’re on the right track to make him as enjoyable for your readers. After all, villains should be just as memorable as the heroes we root for.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapters 4

Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon where we unravel the techniques that make great writing and best selling books. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.



Chapter 4: I Come to the Castle

Writer Comments: Before we dig into the meat of this chapter, I’d like to take a glance at Gabaldon’s use of chapter titles. Whether or not to include chapter titles is always a matter of personal taste to an author, and sometimes it varies based on the genre or story. However, when an author chooses to use chapter titles, he’s stuck with a challenge: how to make them intriguing without giving anything vital away.

As such, chapter titles like this one, “I Come to the Castle,” serve to add that little bit of extra draw to the reader. We know there will be a castle in this next chapter and that, presumably, Claire will arrive there relatively in one piece. But the title is general enough to not spoil what happens. We still don’t know what will happen once Claire reaches the castle, nor do we know which castle it is and if she will be received in friendship.

Chapter titles can be tricky. Some are bland and some make a reader want to desperately dive into the next scene. When choosing them, consider how much you give away and how much you conceal. Consider brevity as well as intrigue. Word play can also add a nice touch.

My favorite author when it comes to chapter titles is J.K. Rowling. Whenever I’d get a new Harry Potter book, I’d frantically scan the Table of Contents and be filled with dread, excitement, and intrigue. Brandon Sanderson also does chapter titles well. Ideally, chapter titles should elicit interest and emotion by the time a reader gets into the characters.

Summary: Dougal leads the weary group to Castle Leoch, the very same place where, in 1945, Claire saw nothing but ruins near the shore of Loch Ness. When they enter the castle, Mistress FitzGibbons (Mrs. Fitz) greets them and take Claire off to a separate room. Jamie come too so Claire can properly dress his wounds. When Claire requests herbs, searching her mind desperately for plants that might stand in the place of the drugs she’s used to, Mrs. Fitz hastily assists. Once the bandages are boiling in garlic water and the herbs are separated and ready for teas and a poultice, Claire lets Mrs. Fitz tend to her other many duties.

Writer Comments: This chapter has a wonderful segment at the beginning, perfect to dissect for writing insights.

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through rough country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain. By the standards I was becoming used to, it was quite dull. Dawn was coming up in streaks and slashes over the foggy moor. Our destination loomed ahead, a huge bulk of dark stone outlined by the grey light. The surroundings were no longer quiet and deserted. There was a trickle of rudely dressed people heading toward the castle. They moved to the side of the narrow road to let the horses trot past, gawking at what they plainly thought my outlandish garb. Not surprisingly, it was misting heavily, but there was enough light to show a stone bridge, arching over a small stream that ran past the front of the castle, down to a dully gleaming loch a quarter mile away. The castle itself was blunt and solid. No fanciful turrets or toothed battlements. This was more like an enormous fortified house, with thick stone walls and high, slitted windows. A number of chimney pots smoked over the slick tiles of the roof, adding to the general impression of greyness. The gated entrance of the castle was wide enough to accommodate two wagons side by side. I say this without fear of contradiction, because it was doing exactly that as we crossed the bridge. One ox-drawn wagon was loaded with barrels, the other with hay. Our little cavalcade huddled on the bridge, waiting impatiently for the wagons to complete their laborious entry. -- page 57

Within this excerpt, there are two techniques I want to draw your attention to: the summary and the description.

The summary is contained in the first paragraph:

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through rough country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain. By the standards I was becoming used to, it was quite dull. -- page 57

Notice that Gabaldon does not linger in summarizing. She does not give into the temptation to list events or even major geographical features of the journey. In fact, she focuses on the things Claire, her viewpoint narrator, would remember, largely the unpleasant generalities of the journey. But what really makes this work is Claire’s humor. Her sarcasm carries just enough detail to give us a glimpse of the remaining night, but puts its emphasis on the character’s voice and wit. Summary should be more than just summary to make it interesting. Humor, mood and poetic language, among other things, can liven up a dull chunk of prose.

The rest of the excerpt is pure description and scene setting. But take a look at how Gabaldon writes it. She begins the whole section with “Dawn,” thus immediately giving us the time and an overall filter through which to view the rest of the description. Like the expanding light of dawn, her description reveals general details at first, then expands to include more specific qualities of the scene. In other words, her description’s structure mirrors the image she first provides. This grants it greater power.

Further, Gabaldon uses details that suggest sensations and perceptions on many sensory levels. “No longer quiet” paired shortly thereafter with the mention of a “trickle of rudely dressed people” begins to summon the rising of sound, of people talking perhaps or the shuffling of feet on dirt. The description is general enough to allow the reader to imagine their own sounds. But Gabaldon wisely does not linger on the general and quickly guides us into the specifics. Using “trot” gives a visual representation of the horses as well as a sense of motion and the sound of hoofbeats. “Misting heavily” and “slick” add tactile sensations of wetness and perhaps cold. Even the word “smoked” adds scent as well as a visual image, and Gabaldon incorporates other descriptive phrases later on to build on this like the scent of raw sewage. While most descriptions heavily veer toward the visual because it is human tendency to focus on visual stimuli first, using words that imply multiple sensations helps give a description flair and bring a reader deeper into the book’s world.

Then Gabaldon brings us back to the main characters and plot, thus smoothly transitioning to the scene’s action.

Speaking more generally about the scene, though, the events here are primarily introductory and transitionary. We meet Mrs. Fitz and see that these rough appearing men are quite warmly greeted at Leoch. Gabaldon tosses Claire into a world where she must truly begin to adapt her knowledge of medicine and merge it with her education in herbalism. And then, Gabaldon transitions Claire and Jamie to a place where the next scene, which is actually the meat of the chapter, can take place.

Consider where Gabaldon ends this scene. The location does not change. The only actual change is that Mrs. FitzGibbons exits, thus leaving Claire and Jamie alone. This indicates quite bluntly that what really matters is the interaction between Claire and Jamie. There are many ways to determine a scene shift. The most obvious is a change in time or location, but sometimes it can be as simple as a slight change in cast.

Summary: After Mrs. Fitz leaves, Claire goes to work in earnest cleaning and bandaging Jamie’s wounds. While tending him, she sees that his back is covered with crisscrossing scars, and he confesses that he was lashed twice in a week as a prisoner at Fort William. When Claire asks for the specifics to take his mind off the pain she’s causing him while cleaning the deep stab wound, he tells her a heart wrenching tale of trying to defend his sister Jenny from a bunch of redcoats that came to levy, or steal, food and supplies. Their leader was Captain Randall, and by the time the incident was over, Randall had beaten Jamie with the flat of his saber, had his men take Jenny inside to sleep with them in exchange for sparing Jamie’s life, and nearly killed Jamie repeatedly. Jamie was taken to Fort William for “obstruction,” where he was beaten once for trying to escape and another time for theft, or so the English defined his transgressions.

The story makes Claire feel unusually close to Jamie. Thus, it seems quite natural that, after she finishes tending his wounds and starts to realize how dire her situation is and that she’ll probably never see her husband again, Jamie gathers her into his arms when she starts crying. Unlike other men, he’s gentle, doesn’t shy from comforting, and has a knack for it, something she thinks must help him with his reputation for being good with horses. After, he makes her eat and go to sleep, for she’s too weary and heartsick to continue without rest.

Writer Comments: This chapter ends by breaking one of the common rules for chapter endings. Claire falls asleep. Many authors and editors advise against ending a chapter or scene with a character falling asleep because it makes it more likely that the reader will feel comfortable putting the book down at that point and perhaps go to bed themselves. The act of a character falling asleep carries a decrease in tension, action, and excitement, but chapters should end with a hook that draws readers to the next page.

However, if you must end a chapter with a character falling asleep, Gabaldon’s choice of method is effective. Claire may pass out on the bed, but as readers, we know a half dozen perils lurk just around the corner: Captain Randall, the fact she’s stuck in a past time, the lord of the castle wanting to see her, the fact she’s a captive, just to name a few. Thus, we still have a sense of impending doom for Claire, and that’s enough to push us through the sleep part.

Speaking of Captain Randall, this chapter highlights how integrated he has already become to the story. First, in 1945, he holds the fascination of his many-great-grandson, Claire’s husband, Frank. Then he’s the link between the present and the future for Claire. He now has made contact and note of Claire, and I have little doubt that such contact will later become a problem for her. Gabaldon binds him still further into the plot by making him the very man who is an old opponent of Jamie’s. Many of the other characters have poor opinions of Captain Randall as well. In essence, Gabaldon is setting Randall up as a major antagonist. However, contrary to what might appear most realistic, the way to do this is to create as many connections as possible to Randall. Each connection raises the stakes of the story and makes readers desire Randall’s downfall all the more.

Gabaldon also tosses in quite a bit of backstory in this chapter, but she does it in a highly effective way. Backstory easily weighs down and slows down fiction, especially when it occurs toward the beginning of a story. Here, though, Gabaldon employs effective techniques to make us care and want to know more.

First, she makes it matter to the characters. We don’t get backstory because Claire fills us in as the narrator. Rather, we get backstory as Claire finds out from Jamie. This gives it a sense of occurring in the present moment, an immediacy that makes it feel more relevant. This also heightens the characters’, and thus our, emotional reaction to the backstory.

Second, Gabaldon gives it in Jamie’s voice. This infuses it with life and interesting nuance. When Jamie relates a part that he finds pleasing, like when Jenny knocks the wind out of Randall, or a part that pains him greatly, we feel it.

Last, Gabaldon reveals this backstory in the action of the actual story. The backstory serves a purpose. It isn’t just to inform readers. It also provides Jamie a distraction from the pain of Claire cleaning his wounds. It draws Jamie and Claire closer and begins to build a relationship between them. And it highlights the impact Randall has on the story. Because we see Claire and Jamie’s current reactions to the backstory as Jamie relates it, it takes on a greater sense of purpose, importance, and emotion.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

To see other books I’ve broken down for insights into great writing, click here.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Power of an Impression

Who is that author who you would buy without a thought? You see their name, and you impulsively drop the title into your shopping cart. You know that one name, or perhaps five, who you love reading so much that you’d purchase a new book of theirs sight unseen. Sometimes that author is a huge household name like Stephen King. Sometimes it’s someone far less known but who made a wonderful impression on you. This sort of impression is what authors strive for, those loyal fans who we must always appreciate.

The other day, I noticed that K.M. Weiland currently has a book available for free via Story Cartel. All I needed to see was “K.M. Weiland” and “free copy” and my mind was made up. About the only question left for me was, “Do I already have this one?” That’s the power of the impression she has made on me as a reader.

But how do authors achieve this treasured place in readers’ hearts? Unfortunately, there are no guarantees, tricks, or formulas. It comes down purely to the fickle fortune of writing a story that really resonates with a reader. Sometimes this can be achieved with the first book. Sometimes it take a couple books. But there’s something that touches the reader, and an author has no hope of predicting such a thing.

However, if that impression can be made, such a reader is a dear treasure, for they will share about the author and the book than most other readers because they feel passionately about it. Perhaps the story fulfilled something deeply buried in them. Perhaps the prose sang in their ears. Perhaps they saw themselves in the character or were able to live a dream they’d had for years vicariously through the protagonist. Perhaps such readers simply saw something in the story that let them know that someone else, the author or character, was like them, and this brought them comfort. A reader might not even be able to articulate why a particular author or book touched them.

In this case, K.M. Weiland secured such a place in my reader heart through a variety of things: her friendly and helpful attitude on social media, her servant’s demeanor on her blog, her book Dreamlander, which I loved, and the fact that she has a solid knowledge of her craft. That was all I needed to drop everything the other day to get that free copy of her book Behold the Dawn. The fact that it has a knight and is medieval historical is just icing on the cake. In exchange through Story Cartel, I’ll have to write a review, but I don’t care. I’d love to do that anyway. The first draw was Weiland. The second was the free book.

These days, though, a writer has to do more than write a story that resonates. Most often in this highly technological world, an author also has to be personable. It’s so much easier these days to offend potential readers, so authors must be mindful of how they present themselves. Weiland has nailed this perfectly, and thus, she has earned by fandom.

What authors would you buy without a second thought? What about them snared your devotion?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Outlander by Diana: Read, Chapter 3

Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we explore the techniques used to make this a riveting novel that continues to draw readers years after it was first published.

To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.



Chapter 3: The Man in the Wood

Summary: Having just accidentally stepped through the cleft in the stone and come out to the sounds of battle, Claire is still stunned. She hurries away in hopes of reaching her car, but when a bunch of British redcoats storms past her, she checks for sign of concussion.

Finding none, she rationalizes that she must have stumbled into the midst of a reenactment or movie. But while hurrying through the woods to where she hopes her car still is, a man grabs her from behind. She struggles, then recognizes the forearm of her husband. She admonishes him, but when she turns around the man is certainly not Frank.

This man, in fact, is Captain Jonathan Randall, her husband’s sixth great grandfather. When he identifies himself, she breaks and runs. He chases her down, wrestles her to the ground, and when she gets free enough for him to trap her against a rock face, begins to wonder why a girl dressed like a whore would be wearing such fine shoes and possess the skin and scent of a lady.

Before he comes to any conclusions on the matter, however, a Scotsman drops from above and takes him out. The Scotsman grabs Claire and hurries her away.

When a troupe of redcoats heads their direction, the Scotsman yanks her out of sight. But Claire struggles and tries to scream. The Scotsman knocks her out cold.

Writer Comments: That’s certainly one shock after another for poor Claire, but take a look at how Gabaldon uses language to convey the shock of being thrown back several centuries.

I was quite sure I was still hallucinating when the sound of shots was followed by the appearance of five or six men dressed in red coats and knee breeches, waving muskets. I blinked and stared. I moved my hand before my face and held up two fingers. I saw two fingers, all present and correct. No blurring of vision. I sniffed the air cautiously. The pungent odor of trees in spring and the faint whiff of clover from a clump near my feet. No olfactory delusions. I felt my head. No soreness anywhere. Concussion unlikely then. Pulse a little fast, but steady. -- page 36

Take note of a few things in this passage. First of all, the simple act of immediately going into a physical checkup of herself tells us a lot about Claire. Her nurse training is deeply ingrained and reflexive. When faced with something shocking, incomprehensible, or horrific, her training from the war kicks in fast and hard. It also tells us that she’s quite practical and can handle a touch situation with the best of them. All that lets us know that, while she’s stunned, we’re in the presence of a heroine who promises to be active and interesting.

Second, look at how many sentences start with the same word, in this instance, “I.” Normally, an author is advised to avoid repetition of any sort. However, it has its uses. In circumstances where the point-of-view character is in a tense situation, especially life or death, repetition can be high effective in conveying horror, tension, and placing emphasis on those emotions.

Additionally, many of these sentences are incomplete. This is another authorial trick that conveys a faster pace, upset emotions, and really puts us in the head of the heroine.

Summary: When Claire recovers consciousness, she’s captured and ahorse with the Scot who took her. They travel to a cabin where Claire meets Dougal, the leader of this band of Scotsmen evading the English. Dougal gets enough of an explanation from her captor to determine that she isn’t an immediate threat and turns his attention to Jamie, their wounded comrade.

Jamie has been shot through the shoulder with a musket ball and, when he fell of his horse, managed to dislocate the joint. His fellow Scotsmen take turns trying to shove the shoulder back into place, much to Claire’s horror. When a large man tries to force it, she stops him at once, fearing the attempt will snap Jamie’s arm in two. With her medical training, Claire manages to get the joint set to rights again and the wound bandaged, thus earning herself the privilege of getting taken farther away by the Scots who deem her useful and potentially worthy of ransom with her fine “underclothes.”

They put her on a horse with Jamie, figuring that if Jamie can’t manage the animal one-handed, Claire can take over. Jamie is far more considerate, and tries to keep her warm by tucking his plaid about her.

Writer Comments: In this scene, we’re introduced to the story’s hero. However, Gabaldon first shows Jamie in a weakened position. For your standard romance novel, this might be like shooting herself in the foot. Heroes in romance are supposed to be extra manly and tough, at least generally. But Jamie is depicted hunched, head bowed, wounded, and potentially in need of a woman’s aid to guide his horse. However, Gabaldon saves him from true weakness by giving him a tough air throughout. He doesn’t scream when men try to force his dislocated and shot shoulder back into place. Plus, he isn’t prone to the cruder behaviors of the other men. He shows Claire consideration and respect, and even more than having a tough, masculine, alpha hero, women want to be respected and treated with care. In this careful stroke, Gabaldon saves Jamie from apparent weakling and plants the first seed of interest in her female readers’ hearts.

Beyond that, though, she also establishes Claire in an important role in this past Claire has been thrown back to. Being a woman in the eighteenth century, much less one who is English, scantily clad, and completely over her head, Claire is at a major disadvantage to these men. Plus, she runs the risk of becoming useless and ineffectual in the reader’s eyes. And on top of all that, Gabaldon has to give her a logical role in the plot to come. So what does she do? Gabaldon gives her heroine a skill that is useful no matter what time she finds herself in: healing. In this one stroke, Gabaldon ensures Claire has purpose and value in the plot and in the perception of the other characters.

Summary: At night, as they travel farther from the spot where Claire skipped centuries, she starts to recognize a few landmarks, among them Cocknammon Rock, a giant stone resembling a rooster. She remembers from Frank’s lectures that the English used to use the stone to ambush the Scottish and mentioned this to Jamie. Heeding her, he gives warning to the other.

As Claire accidentally predicted, the English are lying in wait, and her warning gives her Scottish captors an edge. Jamie dumps her in a bush and rides off hard to fight with his fellows. Claire uses the opportunity to secure her escape, but as she glances about to orient herself, she realizes that the stars are brighter than she’s ever seen them before. In fact, the town of Inverness, whose lights should be clearly visible on the horizon from here, seems to have vanished. She comes up against the horrible, inescapable explanation that she has indeed somehow traversed time and is stuck in a barbaric past.

Jamie catches up to her before she can make good her escape and recaptures her by threatening good-naturedly to toss her over his wounded shoulder and carry her if she doesn’t come quietly. In fear for his well-being, Claire yields.

They travel once more on horseback, hurrying through the night. Claire is growing starving as she hasn’t eaten or drunk in hours, and at last, she’s forced by circumstances and the desire to not have her stomach growling and embarrassing her to take her own sip of the strong brew the Scotsmen pass around.

Writer Comments: Everything in a story must proceed logically. And logically, Claire would not immediately believe she’d been hurled into the eighteenth century. Logically, she’d resist this conclusion. Also logically, she would not be able to escape the evidence before her own eyes. So Gabaldon builds on the logic, layering Claire’s perceptions of the oddities about her, giving us glimpses into Claire’s reasoning process, and guiding us to the moment where Claire comes up against a reality so unexplainable that the only conclusion is the most unlikel, yet the only reasonable choice, that she has indeed gone back in time. These sorts of transitions cannot be made suddenly. An author has to guide a reader and the characters to them step by step.

Summary: But as they travel, Claire realizes Jamie growing unsteady behind her. Just in time, she calls a warning, and the men catch him as he falls from the horse. They lay him out and Claire immediately goes to work, trying to figure out what’s wrong and how to mend it.

As far as she can tell, Jamie fainted from blood loss. She finds his shoulder wound reopened and a new wound from a bayonet. Jamie wakes and tries to let her do her work. The other men mostly ignore her until she startles them with a succession of swearing, a behavior none of them expected to hear from a woman.

At last, with her pitiful supplies, Caire manages a bandage and they get Jamie back on a horse. Despite Claire’s insistence that Jamie needs rest and cannot go farther, the men cannot risk being caught.

Writer Comments: Despite the seriousness of Claire’s situation, this scene is downright hilarious. Mainly the humor comes from Claire’s socially unacceptable behavior of cursing and the men’s reaction to it.

Every character should have traits that make them memorable and unique. In Claire’s case, one of her signature traits is her tendency to spew swear words when under stress, a trait Gabaldon establishes long before this chapter. Consider a unique trait to give your main characters that will make them memorable and more approachable to your readers.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, August 29, 2014

New Perspectives for Writing

Every writer hears it over and over again, “Read.” If you want to become a better writer, read, read, read. Typically, though, most writers primarily read from the types of books they wish to write. Mystery writers read mysteries. Thriller writers read thrillers and so on. It’s natural and necessary to do this because only through reading a specific genre do you learn that genre’s rules. However, there’s another aspect to the read, read, read that is often overlooked.

In short, that aspect is every other type of book.

Even if you write mysteries, you can benefit from reading other genres as well as nonfiction. Other genres provide insight into alternative ways of handling the various aspects of writing like tension, plot, character, and conflict. Seeing other genres’ techniques expands upon your own.

But what about nonfiction? Despite its lack of plots, characters, and conflicts, nonfiction can widen our perspectives and fill our pools of inspiration.

Right now, in preparation for training our two new Border Collie/German Shepherd mix puppies, I’m pouring through dog training books I checked out from the library. They span the gamut from Cesar Millan the Dog Whisperer himself to dog language and a book on the specific breed. At the same time, I’m helping one of my children through an art book on drawing faces. At first glance, neither of these books would benefit me as a speculative fiction writer, but the truth is they hold a wealth of inspiration and insight.

For example, as a dog lover, I enjoy occasionally slipping in a dog as a character. In a WIP (work in progress) that’s currently in the final editing stage before I send it off to agents and editors, my hero has a dog companion. Growing up with dogs, I can write them with some finesse. I’ve watched and played with them often enough. I know the pleasure of having a dog who adores you. However, these dog training books have given me a much deeper understanding of dogs and inspired me to return to that WIP with an eye toward deepening the dog companion, who by the way is named Dog. When I’m finished, the effort will certainly help the story and, hopefully, my chances of getting it published.

So when you hear the advice to read, don’t limit yourself. Read widely. Read on random subjects. Read on subjects that apply to your current life. Read to broaden your perspectives. Don’t just read your own genre.

What interesting books are you reading or have finished recently outside your chosen genre that have broadened your perspectives?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 2

Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we unravel the techniques she uses to compose such an enduring and engaging story. To catch up or review the previous chapter, click here.



Chapter 2: Standing Stones

Summary: The next morning, Mr. Crook, the elderly gentleman Claire had met at the pub, takes her out to show her the more unusual and rare highland plants. While hunting through the flora, Mr. Crook takes her to see Craigh na Dun, a henge upon a steep hill. As this is right up her husband’s alley, she decides to take him there later to see it.

Writer Comments: To be honest, this scene doesn’t bring about any great changes in character or plot. It’s a setup scene. Gabaldon is readying the way for future events. However, she still has to make the scene engaging, so she employs Claire’s dry wit to accomplish this.

In part of the scene, Gabaldon relates Claire’s previous experience at Stone Henge and go into a few of the theories about the place’s ancient use. One of them is that it was a marketplace, but Claire has an amusing way to refute that theory:

The only thing I could see against that hypothesis was the presence of bodies under the Altar Stone and cremated remains in the Z holes. Unless these were the hapless remains of merchants accused of short-weighing the customers, it seemed a bit unsanitary to be burying people in the marketplace. page 18

At the end of the scene, Gabaldon highlights a bit of irony she weaves throughout these pages, that the elderly gentleman is far more deft on his feet than young Claire.

The gnarled old man gallantly offered me an arm at the top of the hill. I took it, deciding after one look down the precipitous decline that in spite of his age, he was likely steadier on his pins than I was. page 19

Humor is a great tool, especially when it matches the character’s voice, to liven up a scene that might otherwise be slow or lacking in exciting action.

Summary: After seeing the henge, Claire goes to Reverend Wakefield’s to find Frank, who was spending the day with Wakefield unearthing information from a stack of “borrowed” letters from the Historical Society. When she arrives, Frank and Wakefield are in exhalations over information that Frank’s ancestor, Captain Jonathan Randall or Black Jack was known for harassing the Scots, crimes here and there that never led to any severe punishment, and horse thievery.

Claire feigns interest but immediately takes the opportunity for tea in the kitchen with the housekeeper, Mrs. Graham, to escape the gushing men. There, Mrs. Graham reads Claire’s tea leaves and finds them most strange because everything in them contradicts each other. Claire will go on a journey yet stay put. She’ll have many strangers in her life, and one of them is her husband. The leaves are so odd, in fact, that Mrs. Graham asks to read Claire’s hand in addition. But Claire’s hand too is strange. Her lifeline is chopped up and her marriage line forks as if to imply two men simultaneously in her life.

However, the Reverend interrupts all this to collect Claire to hear their latest discoveries. Apparently, Captain Randall was a spy for the Duke of Sandringham and charged with stirring up Jacobite sentiments among the Scots to weed them out. However, the oddity in this is that the Duke himself was suspected of Jacobite sympathies.

Claire feigns attention, and is far more intrigued by the family tree Wakefield has of his nephew, who he has adopted as his son in the wake of the boy’s parents’ deaths during the war, a Roger W. (MacKenzie) Wakefield. The Reverend thought it best for the boy to know his heritage, even with the Reverend giving him the name Wakefield. This stirs sympathy in Claire. After all, there are lots of children who became orphans because of the war. As she and Frank haven’t conceived a child yet, perhaps it would be good of them to adopt.

She suggests the idea to Frank on their walk home, but he dismisses it. He insists that he could not properly love a child that was not his, and while that may make him selfish, he would view the child as an outsider.

Writer Comments: Here, Gabaldon takes the next step in preparing her readers for the main thrust of the novel. In the introductory material and the first line of chapter one, she mentions disappearances. Now, she layers on the foreshadowing through the reading of Claire’s tea leaves and her palm. We don’t yet need to know precisely what’s about to occur, but as that particular event is unusual, Gabaldon is preparing us. She admits through that last word of her introduction and through the oddity of Mrs. Graham’s readings that what’s to come may not have a logical explanation, yet it will come and be dramatic.

Foreshadowing is important for significant events of a plot. However, it must be done carefully. It must suggest without giving away, yet it must also not be too vague, thus leaving readers confused and in the dark, or worse oblivious that anything was foreshadowed at all. The nice thing about foreshadowing is that, if a writer realizes they need more, it’s usually easy to slip it into the story.

Beyond this, Gabaldon sets up future events. Personally, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve only read the book partially through before I decided to do it as a read for this blog. I also resisted the temptation to cheat and read up on the plot on wikipedia. However, I can see Gabaldon setting up potential future conflicts. Here, she establishes Frank’s unwillingness to accept a child that is not of his and Claire’s blood. Does that mean at some later point, Claire will acquire a child, either by another man or by adoption, that Frank will come to hate? Or perhaps the fear of it for Claire will be enough for it to become a problem later. Further, Gabaldon sets up a conflict of love via the forked lifeline on Claire’s hand.

Summary: Despite Claire’s original intention to take Frank to the henge the next day, she and Frank take a tour of Loch Ness, which they had planned in advance. Their guide tells horrific tales of murder, betrayal, and violence around the loch, and they see Urquhart Castle, nothing more than a wall now and cursed, according to their guide.

Only afterward, when they return to Mrs. Baird’s to sleep, does Claire remember the henge. Frank is ecstatic and determines to get up extremely early so they can get there in time to see the witches perform rituals he’s sure they must, for tomorrow is one of the four feast days he’s sure they must observe.

Writer Comments: This is a transition scene and, I suspect, a way for Gabaldon to set up future locales and events. Yet she keeps it simple and straightforward. The scene is brief and focuses on the more interesting aspects of the journey, like this reference to the grisly stories and the cursed castle. It glosses over the parts that might become tedious. Then, at the end, Gabaldon sets her hook for the next scene: a group of witches gathering at an ancient henge for a feast day ritual and our main characters intending to go spy them out.

Summary: Claire and Frank sneak up to Craigh na Dun the next morning before dawn. They find a hidden place to watch the henge, and to their delight, a group of women, led by Mrs. Graham, come. They dawn white robes of bedsheets and perform a dance about and through the stones, ending at last as the first sunlight strikes through their circle and hits a cleaved stone.

Once they leave, Frank immediately starts investigating, trying to figure out how the women knew where and when to turn during the dance, certain there must be marks to indicate directions. But there aren’t. Claire finds an interesting vine at the base of one of the stones, but she and Frank must both abandon their respective investigations, for one of the women returns to fetch a hairpin she dropped and smoke.

Writer Comments: Throughout these first two chapters so far, Gabaldon has been balancing two primary facets of the story’s introduction. First, she’s seeding the ground for the main story, foreshadowing, establishing character, and laying out pieces of scenery. At the sam time, she’s establishing Claire’s life: the small pleasures, her relationship with her husband, her desire for a child, her unique interests. In short, she’s building a little world just enough for us to appreciate Claire’s horror when she destroys it.

Summary: The next day, Claire returns to the henge to further investigate the vine and, at Frank’s request, to look for traces of fire outside the circle as fire, as far as he knows, is always associated with Beltane. However, Claire sees no traces of fire. But when she draws near the cleft in the largest stone, she hears a buzzing noise. She tips her head and touches the stone to see if there’s a beehive inside, and the stone screams. All around her is noise and motion and things too strange to properly describe. Half blinded, she rushes down the hill. When she finds herself at the bottom, she hears battle.

Writer Comments: And here, at last, we have the strange event that Gabaldon referenced at the book’s opening. Or the start of that event.

Here also, we have a wonderful illustration of effective first person narration.

The other stones began to shout. There was a noise of battle and the cries of dying men and shattered horses. I shook my head violently to clear it, but the noise went on. I stumbled to my feet and staggered toward the edge of the circle. The sounds were all around me, making my teeth ache and my head spin. My vision began to blur. I do not know now whether I went toward the cleft in the main stone, or whether it was accidental, a blind drifting through the fog of noise. Once, traveling at night, I fell asleep in the passenger seat of a moving car, lulled by the noise and motion into an illusion of serene weightlessness. The driver of the car took a bridge too fast and lost control, and I woke from my floating dream straight into the glare of headlights and the sickening sensation of falling at high speed. That abrupt transition is as close as I can come describing the feeling I experienced, but it falls woefully short. I could say that my field of vision contracted to a single dark point, then disappeared altogether, leaving not blackness, but a bright void. I could say that I felt as though I were spinning, or as though I were being pulled inside out. All these things are true, yet none of them conveys the sense I had of complete disruption, of being slammed very hard against something that wasn’t there. The truth is that nothing moved, nothing changed, nothing whatsoever appeared to happen and yet I experienced a feeling of elemental terror so great that I lost all sense of who, or what, or where I was. I was in the heart of chaos, and no power of mind or body was of use against it. I cannot really say I lost consciousness, but I was certainly not aware of myself for some time. I “woke,” if that’s the word, when I stumbled on a rock near the bottom of the hill. I half slid the remaining few feet and fetched up on the thick tufted grass at the foot. I felt sick and dizzy. I crawled toward a stand of oak saplings and leaned against one to steady myself. There was a confused noise of shouting nearby, which reminded me of the sounds I had heard, and felt, in the stone circle. The ring of inhuman violence was lacking, though; this was the normal sound of human conflict, and I turned toward it. page 35

Had Gabaldon written in third person, parts of her description of Claire’s experience in the henge would have seemed clumsy, like her skills were failing her and she didn’t actually know how to word things. However, in Claire’s first person voice, the clumsiness fits the character and the moment. Therefore, rather than seeming odd, it simply seems a natural attempt to describe indescribable events.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

If you would like to learn about other books I’ve broken down for their nuggets of writing wisdom, click here.