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 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.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Even Animals Should Have Personalities

As an avid dog lover, I found this site absolutely hilarious. It shows the mischief people’s dogs get into and, on occasion, the results thereof. It also made me appreciate how well behaved my dogs are, even if one did take off with my shoes this morning and another did her business in my parents’ bedroom.

But all the humor left me with one significant thought when it comes to writing. Animals, perhaps because they can so easily become moving props, are often lacking in personality in writing. But in actuality, giving an animal, even a minor character animal, a touch of personality goes a long way. Think of all the animals in fiction and movies, especially the ones that weren’t the main characters. The ones with distinct personalities were much more likely to touch you, and I’m wiling to bet that those are the ones you remember.

So, with that thought, I encourage you to check out these adorable and hilarious examples of mischief.

See you Monday for the next round of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 1

Welcome to today’s read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Unlike previous novels I’ve shared on this blog, this book is not as directly speculative; however, by the very nature of time travel in the story, it falls within the speculative vein. Further, as the new series of Outlander has recently begun on Starz, it seemed fitting to do a read of the novel.

To check out other books I’ve read for this blog and broken down into writing tips, click here.



This story begins with a brief text, not even a prologue, but a commentary on disappearances. As it’s so short and I want to break down how and why it’s effective, I’ll quote the whole text:

People disappear all the time. Ask any policeman. Better yet, ask a journalist. Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists. 
Young girls run away from home. Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station. International financiers change their names and vanish into the smoke of imported cigars. 
Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. 
Writer Comments: A haunting opening to be sure. Before I begin on the text itself, take note that this is given on a page with no number. Page one doesn’t begin until the actual start of chapter one. It is as if this little aside were as disconnected and unplaced as the people who disappear.

So why does this aside work and why include it? 

Let’s begin with the first sentence, for it is, after all, the book’s opening line, which we know is crucial.

“People disappear all the time.”

At first glance, it may appear a simple, common statement. As of yet, we have no character, no setting, not even a true event with which to connect. This seems contrary to most advice on the subject of first lines. However, Gabaldon uses a different technique to snare reader interest: the unsettling of expectations. Disappearances, after all, whether our car keys or a beloved family member, are disturbing. Yet Gabaldon places them in an unexpected context, as normal and common. This is a highly uncomfortable thought, and the need to soothe ourselves drives us to read further. After all, the author didn’t mean it the way it sounds, did she?

Then Gabaldon uses short, punchy sentences, all given in a conversational tone for the remainder of the paragraph. Short sentences are a common tool to inspire tension. So she hooks us with discomfort and draws us in with a growing sense of unease.

Her next paragraph gets into the real motion of the aside. We can picture all these characters fading away. A young girl slipping out her window a night. A child looking up and realizing his parents are gone, the crowd thick and impassable. A housewife frantic, snatching the little stash of cash, then glancing out the train window once before turning to a life yet unknown. The financier in his pressed suit with smoke curling up around his head in a foreign city too remote to ever be found. They are haunting images. We’ve known or heard of or feared similar things, and thus Gabaldon further plays on our unsettled state, adding to the disquiet.

Additionally, in the second paragraph, she adds in motion via the acts of each person vanishing. Each builds on the other, becoming more complex in structure or ideas until, at last, the end leaves us with the lingering scent of cigars. This works like a wheel rotating, going slow at first, but quickly increasing in speed, thus rapidly drawing us into the story.

Then, in the third paragraph, Gabaldon reassures us. Though people disappear quite often, they are usually found. Yet she leaves that thread of disturbance, for sometimes they are found dead. But note how she puts “alive” last, leaving us with the hope of life rather than the macabre death. And she lastly reassures us that disappearances have explanations.

Then she yanks the carpet out from under us with one simple word offset by itself, “Usually.” With that one word, she sets up the entire story and prepares us with a sense of urgency. What does she mean by “Usually”? Who disappears that we must be concerned about? How can their be no explanation? What danger is lurking just around the next page?

So we turn to the next page to begin the real story, already unsettled, already craving reassurance. And there you have why Gabaldon includes this brief aside, to snare our attention, to leave us wanting, to set the tone for the rest of the story.

Part One

Inverness, 1945

Chapter 1: A New Beginning

Summary: Claire and her husband Frank are spending a holiday in the Scottish Highlands at a bed and breakfast. They were married nearly eight years before but quickly torn apart from each other when World War II began. Now, before Frank takes a position at Oxford as a history professor, they’re attempting to reconnect and rebuild their marriage.

However, Mrs. Baird, the bed and breakfast’s landlady has a certain dirty fascination with the couple, frequently hoovering outside their bedroom door at strategic times in the morning. Thus, this gives them another reason to wonder if, perhaps, they should have chosen a more riotous location for their second honeymoon. Between Mrs. Baird’s snooping and the Scottish favorite indoor sport of gossip, their time has not been quite as private as they could have wished.

On this particular morning, Frank is going to meet a reverend to see old baptismal records, which he hopes will help in his quest for genealogical information on his family. Claire, on the other hand, who has no interest in family history whatsoever, determines that, upon hearing Frank mention that Gaelic has no word for undergarment, she should find a man in a kilt and ask if he, indeed, wears anything underneath. To which, Frank replies:

“Well, do try not to get arrested, Claire.” page 4

Writer Comments: This is, for all intents and purposes, a rather mundane scene, yet it has a certain humor and draw to it that makes it difficult to put down.

First of all, the opening line plays off the tension built in the introductory material:

“It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.” page 1

Disappearances are apparently a theme in this book, and the unlikely place for the one we’re about to witness fits eerily with the idea that not all have explanations. At once, Gabaldon continues her initial thread into the first chapter, thus connecting them, but she quickly shifts into the meat of the scene: a Scottish bed and breakfast with a snooping landlady and an English couple trying to reconnect after the tragedies of war.

The premise contains plenty of tension and interesting contrasts. However, the scene itself is quite domestic and simple. A couple waking up in the morning with the standard quiet moments of life: dressing, reviewing the upcoming events of the day, and reexamining their choice of vacation spot. It’s light and amusing, a stark contrast to the introduction’s gloom.

So why does it work?

First of all, Gabaldon has already set us up for calamity. We know a disappearance is coming, but we don’t yet know who or how. She tosses us into an idyllic scene, throwing our emotions once more in an unexpected direction. The contrast adds to our curiosity.

However, none of that would work if the dialogue were not riveting. The conversation between Frank and Claire has a dynamic sense, a feel that they enjoy each other, even the parts of each other that they don’t understand. The humor and lightness and the real feel of personality drives the dialogue and the scene.

Further, Gabaldon adds undertones of disquiet and pain. Claire and Frank have been trying for a child and have yet been sadly disappointed. The war haunts them, a small shadow in the corner of the scene, but there nonetheless. And finally, Gabaldon includes their slight disappointment in their vacation spot, the gossiping Scots, an insulting tone from the barman the night before, and a finicky landlady who frequently admonishes Claire on her less than pristine appearance

In fact, the scene is quite complex, despite its initial appearance of simplicity.

Summary: Claire finds no kilted Scotsmen when she goes out shopping that day. Instead, gossiping Scottish housewives fill the square and stores. The shelves too are bursting with things that were scarce or completely absent during the war.

We get a brief history of Claire’s past. Her parents died in a car crash when she was five, and she came into the care of her archaeologist uncle, who, when she refused to attend boarding school, whisked her off to one archaeological site after another. She learned to read and write through archaeological journals and do all sorts of camp tasks improper for a gently bread young lady.

Then she met Frank, who had come to her uncle to clarify a point of Egyptian religion as it related to French philosophy. But even after marrying Frank, she moved constantly as he had conferences and engagements all over the place. Then the war came. Frank went to officer’s training and she to nurse training.

Though she has no true home of her own yet, not until they reach Oxford, she impulsively purchases a set of vases.

Writer Comments: This scene is purely backstory with one little tag on the end, which I’ll get to shortly.

Backstory is usually discouraged in the first chapter. Actually, it’s discouraged in the first several chapters of a book. Backstory slows the tale down. It takes away tension and can easily lead to reader boredom. However, if you must include backstory this early on, Gabaldon does it about as well as it can be done.

First, she keeps it short. The backstory in its entirely is barely a page. Further, it’s given at a quick pace with plenty of unique details and sensory description. It isn’t just a recitation of facts, but vivid glimpses into years gone by.

Additionally, Gabaldon frames the backstory with a subtle but significant element of Claire’s character. She is, in many ways, isolated from the life she desires, one of domestic bliss with a baby and a husband, one with a nice house that she stays in long enough to build a true home. At no point does Gabaldon directly state any of this, but it’s heavily implied. The beginning of the frame details Claire’s separateness from this life. The end reveals her desire to grasp a new life through the purchase of the vases.

Summary: Claire and Frank meet up and return to Mrs. Baird’s; however, on the doorstep, they find a large splotch of blood. At first, Claire is horrified, but Frank quickly discerned from the spot of blood on every doorstep on the street, that no ax-murderer is at work but a local ritual to sanctify the houses. In this case, rather than adhering to ancient custom and sacrificing a human to then bury under the foundation, the blood comes from a black cock.

They join the rest of the village at the pub. Frank gets drawn into a lengthy discussion on religion and pagan practices with the Vicar, and Claire is introduced to Mr. Crook, a local plant expert, who agrees to show her the rarer local plants the next morning as she herself studies botany.

That evening, a storm is brewing, and Frank goes for yet another visit to a fellow obsessor of history. Claire elects to stay in because, the last time she visited this particular gentlemen, she accidentally burned herself on the teapot, dropped it in his lap, and unleashed a particularly unfortunate oath she learned from the Yanks during the war.

Writer Comments: This scene accomplishes a number of things all at once. First, it establishes the color of the region with its folklore and pagan practices. It also sets up the fact that Claire, for all her attempts to be genteel, is far from a proper lady. It also contains humor and provides a little historical background so that, presumably, the reader can be fully engulfed in the story’s world and prepared for events yet to come.

However, Gabaldon is careful about how she portrays the historical background. Frank is, primarily, a mouthpiece for her to give these facts, but she makes it more tolerable by giving us a viewpoint character, Claire, who finds them rather tedious. Therefore, if we readers find them tedious also, we have a sympathetic listener in Claire. If we find them interesting, we can look at Claire as we look at our own friends who roll their eyes at our gushing recitations of fascinating historical facts. Further, Gabaldon gives us historical facts set up with a gruesome scene, the cock’s blood on the step and the concept of people sacrificed and buried under houses. That is, after all, far more interesting than dry dates.

Summary: In preparation for Frank’s return, Claire dresses for bed and tries to do something about her rebellious curls. The electricity in the air from the coming storm makes them crackle every time she tries to brush them. Instead, she settles with putting cologne in her hair, Frank’s favorite scent. The power goes out, and she lights candles all about the room, creating a romantic ambiance. Then Frank rushes in on a gust that blows some of them out, white as though he’s seen a ghost, and in fact, he confesses he may have done just that.

A Scotsman stood, he tells, at the edge of the garden, looking up at Claire through the window. He appeared most disturbed over something, and when Frank tried to ask him if he needed anything, the man whirled away and went up the street. But Frank is certain he should have felt the man brush by him. And then what was most odd occurs to him. Despite the lashing wind, no part of the man’s kilt or plaid stirred, save for the natural rhythm of his steps. Then he vanished into thin air before reaching the corner.

Claire is reluctant to believe in a ghost, but she admits the sighting sounds spooky. Frank asks her if she tended many Scotts in the field hospital during the war. She confesses that she did and mentions with amusement their aversion to needles.

Later that night, as they lie in bed together, the oddity of Frank’s question begins to nag her, and she asks what he meant by it. Reluctantly, Frank confesses that seeing the man staring at her merely made him wonder if there had been someone during the war. It would be natural, he insists, under all the stress and after all that time, if she had found comfort with someone.

This infuriates her, and she nearly kicks him out of the room for such an implication. Slowly, he soothes her. But as she lies down to sleep, she begins to wonder if perhaps Frank had his own assignation in the war. After all, it had been six years, and they’d barely seen each other. And Frank did think of it to ask.

Writer Comments: Much of this chapter involves the female mundanities of a holiday in the Scottish Highlands in 1945. While Gabaldon can string us along with the concern over an impending disappearance and little nuggets of tension, she must leave us with a far more profound problem. Despite their attempts at marital bliss, are Claire and her husband not so well suited? After all, their interests have very little to do with each other, and there is this issue of an implied infidelity, which, like the raging storm outside, might have truly destructive power. Like any adept author, Gabaldon closes her chapter with unresolved tension, for only this will drive us onto the next chapter.

Thank you for joining me for this first part of our read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Like all reads of books on this blog, we’ll continue every Monday to draw out the techniques a successful author employs to tell a riveting story. Until then, join me Friday for further forays into the fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why Poetry Is Important for Prose Writers

Writers tend to excel at either poetry or prose. Usually, we struggle a bit with one, and it’s a rare writer who is truly accomplished at both forms. However, poetry should be essential study for prose writers.



Poetry is all about feeling and mood. In a few precise words, a poet can strike any emotional chord. This is something that prose writers may not be as adept at achieving. However, if a prose writer understands or has some experience with poetry, he can utilize its techniques to help set mood.


Even though, the vast majority of the time, we read silently, the sound of the words is crucial. First of all, at some point, someone will read your work aloud. If the cadence, tempo, or any other element to the sound is off, it will dampen a listener’s experience of the story. Alternately, even though we usually read in our heads, our brains possess a sense of the sound and rhythm of the words, and fiction or nonfiction that violates that will jar or set a discordant component in a reader’s experience of the story.

Further, the sound of words can play a significant impact on the mood, emotion, tension, and just about everything else in a scene. Certain words have softer sounds. Others are hard and direct. Often, using such subtle techniques is unconscious on the writer’s part, but a poet is more aware of them and can bring intentionality into the sound of words.


Whether it’s a comma or new paragraph, breaks in writing should be strategic. Their frequency creates a sense of speed and tension. Prolonging them creates a slowing effect. Poets must be keenly aware of breaks of any sort. This awareness can improve a prose writer’s use of tension and pacing.

Literary Devices:

Some writers use them liberally while others avoid them. Whichever way you choose, literary devices are a staple of prose and poetry. They have long traditions and can act like fingerprints for a writer. Metaphors, imagery, similes, assonance, hyperbole, and irony, among many others, are standard fare in writing, but by understanding their use in poetry, a prose writer increases his knowledge and affinity with them, thus allowing him to make better use of them.

Implication and Omission:

Prose allows us to expand and expand and elaborate and explain and... Prose contains few if any limiting factors. We can go on and on and, ultimately, shoot ourselves in the foot. Poetry, on the other hand, cannot yield to this temptation. Poetry, in its concern with form, must adhere to structural rules, and those rules require the writer to learn restraint, precision, and the power of implication and silence. Sometimes, what isn’t said is more powerful than what is. Poets must grasp this to master their craft, and prose writers could certainly learn from this technique.


Because of all its rules, poets must choose their words with extreme care. A poet might fiddle and experiment with a single word until it’s perfect. Prose writers can get away with being a touch sloppier. But imagine the power we might have if we were as precise in our language and word choice as poets. Imagine the power our prose would wield.


Now, this isn’t something all prose writers want. Some writers tell very impactful stories and become known for their sparseness or their direct, plain language. That’s perfectly fine. But other writers enjoy the elegance of language and the beauty it can create for setting mood, conveying descriptions, and awing readers. There is a place for both types of prose.

But for those who enjoy writing a beautiful sentence, they would do well to study poetry that is also written to be beautiful, for it will provide many lessons and fill their heads with the sound and grace of words. Alternately, those who write sparsely ought to consider studying poetry as well. Not flowery poetry, but poetry that can say a great deal with very little. This type will improve their ability to do this exact thing in their stories while keeping their style.

The Birth of Fiction:

For fiction writers especially, studying poetry is essential to understand what came before. Until recent centuries, the bulk of fiction was written in some form of poetry whether Beowulf or Shakespeare or Dante. Poetry is the infancy of modern fiction, and it does us good to understand our roots.

Has poetry helped you become a better writer? If so, how? Do you read both poetry and prose or just one or the other? Is there anything else you know that poetry can teach prose writers?

Be sure to join me on Monday for the first part of our read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: Read, Part XIV

Welcome to the final segment of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, where we look at the elements that make up a successful novel. To catch up or review previous part of this read, click here.



Chapter XIV

Summary: After the tide of freed unicorns vanishes, the unicorn returns. In silence, she regards Lir, standing over him much like he stood over her to guard her when she was the Lady Amalthea. Then she restores him to life with a touch of her horn, a touch as clumsy as a first kiss. A second time, she touches him, lingering, then she flees.

Lir is desperate for her, wanting nothing more than to pursue her, even if it means he never sees her again. But Schmendrick persuades him that he is needed more as king and that his people need him, even those of Hagsgate whose town came down around them when the unicorns passed through.

The three ride to the edge of the kingdom, and day by day, they see that spring has at last come and the land been blessed from the passage of the unicorns. It is, despite Hagsgate and its people, a good land.

On the last night, the unicorn comes to Schmendirck in his dreams. She is touched by a sadness that no unicorn before her ever knew, and, as she tells Schmendrick, she regrets though no unicorn was ever made to regret. He apologizes deeply, for he realizes that, in turning her human, he did a greater evil to her than Mommy Fortuna, King Haggard, and the Red Bull combined. But still, she thanks him for it, in part because it lead to the release of her people, in part, though this is implied not outright stated, because of Lir. She vanishes then, and he wakes, he finds that Molly and Lir have also seen her in their dreams. Molly refuses to confess what the unicorn told her, and Lir in agony tells them that the unicorn said nothing to him, nothing at all. He rides away, heartbroken.

Schmendrick asks Molly to come with him as they follow the road before them to their destiny and, on some level he hopes, the unicorn. She accepts and they travel beyond Lir’s kingdom.

Shortly after crossing the border, they come upon a princess in dire straits, so Schmendrick sends her onto Lir, who is a hero of greatness. He gives her his horse and points her in the right direction. Then, after laughing for a long time, he and Molly sing on the road of love.

Writer Comments: For all the sad and beautiful things in this chapter, I want to focus on two: tragedy and love.

Many, if not most, of the most famous and lasting books of all do not end with the stereotypical happily ever after. The villain is defeated and the quest resolved, but it comes at a painful price. This sort of ending lingers and leaves us satisfied yet haunted. It is much like life.

Yet, especially for modern American audiences, it’s risky. True happy endings leave us smiling but rarely imprint as deeply on our hearts. Tragedy, even amongst victory, is more impactful. However, many readers don’t have the tolerance for it. Many readers do not want to close the book and feel any sense of sadness.

I suspect that, on some level, Beagle knew this. His ending is certainly full of tragedy. Everything the hero Lir desired is gone. Yes, the unicorns are free, but the unicorn herself is now corrupted by sadness, regret, and the fear of death. The touch of mortality lingers upon her, and she will never truly be free of it. Yet she knew love. Schmendrick has come into his power, but in doing so, he comes face to face with the fact that, even while seeking kindness, he can inadvertently do great evil.

Yet Beagle pulls the end together at the last with hope. The princess comes, and it’s implied that she will be exactly what Lir needs. Certainly Lir will save her, but perhaps along the way, she too will save him. Molly and Schmendrick ride off together to a kind of happy ending. They’ve both found where they belong. Hope is perhaps a more human and lasting emotion than joy, and so Beagle ends his tale on that note, a note that drives us ever onward to the achievement of greater things.

Lastly, I want to look at love in the context of this chapter. Love is addressed twice. First, it comes between Lir and the unicorn. Despite resuming her natural shape, she clearly still loves the prince. Twice, she touches him, something she has never done for anyone except Molly, who she let touch her often. Then Beagle writes into her a longing, a sadness for the man she loved. That love too is mirrored in Lir, and the two are cleaved in twain, never to know resolution or happiness. In this, Beagle violates every modern expectation of romance. Yet how could he have done anything else and kept the unicorn as the focus? Had he brought happiness to them, it would have destroyed her and cheapened the story.

Finally, Beagle implies repeatedly that Schmendrick and Molly are now together. Schmendrick takes her hand. He tends her kindly. And at the end, they sing together of marriage and love. Yet not once do either of them actually say, “I love you.” Not once does Schmendrick come out and directly ask Molly to marry him. In fact, one could argue that the romance between them doesn’t even occur. However, Beagle heavily implies it. He does not satisfy our traditional expectations, but in going about it this way, he creates a unique glimpse into Schmendrick and Molly’s happily ever after. He creates poetry and beauty and freshness, and that is, after all, what much of the book contains. It is beauty and it is tragedy, and from them springs a story as magical and touching as the unicorns leaping from the sea to freedom.

Thank you for joining me for the read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Next Monday, we’ll start a new book Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.