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, December 15, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 18

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we explore what makes a bestselling story work.



Chapter 18: Raiders in the Rocks

Summary: Claire and her Scottish companions depart from the inn. On the road, squeezed between Jamie and Dougal, they discuss Captain Randall’s reaction to finding out he would get Claire for interrogation purposes. Whatever Randall said, Dougal thinks it too vulgar for a lady’s ears, even Claire’s. However, Dougal thinks it unlikely that Randall will pursue Claire further as she’s now Colum’s niece.

Writer Comments: I doubt Randall is going to give up on Claire quite so easily. Perhaps there is no obvious advantage to Randall pursuing Claire--or rather there are too many risks--but Gabaldon has worked too hard to build Randall up as a terror to discard him so easily. Even if Randall doesn’t immediately come after Claire, I have little doubt that they’ll meet again.

Summary: That night, they camp on rocks. They’re too close to the border of MacKenzie lands to risk venturing into a more comfortable campsite. Security is more important now than comfort.

While telling stories around the campfire, each of the MacKenzie men starts finding excuses to get nearer their weapons. Jamie, under cover of nipping Claire’s earlobe, whispers that the horses are nervous, meaning someone is near. He tells Claire to hide the instant battle begins.

A surge of screaming, rioting Scots roar into their campsite. Claire darts into the cleft of nearby rocks, Jamie’s dirk in her fist. She hides while the battle gets into full swing. The attackers make off with two of the horses, three bags of grain, and one of the MacKenzie men. They nearly make off with Dougal and Jamie as well, but Murtagh shoots one of them and Jamie functionally berserks on the rest.

After the battle, Claire patches everyone up, then as the rest drift off to sleep, Jamie unleashes his pent up excitement through more amorous means. At first, Claire is horrified at the idea of doing anything intimate so near to twenty sleeping men, but Jamie swiftly persuades her that it’s nothing to be overly concerned about.

Writer Comments: There’s a great line in this scene when Jamie is coaxing Claire into making love.

Twenty-seven years of propriety were no match for several hundred thousand years of instinct. While my mind might object to being taken on a bare rock next to several sleeping soldiers, my body plainly considered itself the spoils of war and was eager to complete the formalities of surrender. -- page 251

The first sentence is my favorite because it so succinctly and wittily summarizes Claire’s internal struggle, state of mind, and the events of the moment. It also helps make palatable an act that most in our modern times would find disturbing. The second sentence is good as well, further expanding on the meaning of the first, but it’s the first I consider most brilliant. Such bits of summary are highly useful to the author. They help keep prose punchy and clever.

Beyond the phrasing itself though, Gabaldon handles a challenging subject here. In the modern world, any sort of sexual contact in public is highly taboo and can potentially get one in legal trouble depending on the exact nature of such contact. However, Gabaldon is writing in a different time and place, a time when our modern concepts of propriety do not fully apply. This is a challenge for Claire, but it’s also a challenge for Gabaldon’s readers. Hence, she’s wise in addressing the internal struggle directly. With Claire, we can face the challenge. Especially when dealing with a touchy subject, it helps tremendously to have a character through which readers can wrestle the morality of the matter. It doesn’t mean readers will agree or fully understand, but it helps makes it more palatable for readers.

In this scene, Gabaldon faces another challenge. Claire is relatively inactive. She watches the battle from her niche in the rocks. Unfortunately, this combined with the abundance of being verbs, which create a further layer of distance between the action and readers, creates a scene that lacks the intensity it would be capable of in other circumstances. But part of that is the nature of 1st person point of view. It’s great for some things like intimately experiencing a character, but it does have its drawbacks, as do all other choices an author can make for the construction of a story.

Summary: The next morning, Jamie and the other men decide it’s time Claire learned to use the dirk and defend herself. They spend all day teaching her to fight, attacking her in mock combat and allowing her to attack them. Jamie even helps construct a dummy for her to practice thrusting the dirk into, complete with ribs made of wood. By the end of the day, however, they declare her good enough to be a novice knife fighter.

In the one break Claire has, Dougal asks her how she and Jamie are taking being married, and she expresses a greater concern for how Colum will take the news. Dougal doesn’t seem to think Colum will react with nearly the fury Claire fears.

Writer Comments: I suppose this means Claire will get herself in the middle of a battle later on in the book. She’ll undoubtedly need to thrust that dirk into someone. Maybe it’ll be Captain Randall.

One nice thing about this story is that Gabaldon doesn’t make Claire capable of fighting right off. I’ve seen too many stories--especially speculative fiction--where the characters were skilled combatants even when it didn’t entirely make sense. Claire has to learn this skill, and she isn’t some prodigy at it either. She must struggle, and even after a lot of training and practice, she still isn’t good. This bit of realism is nice.

Further, here and in other parts of the book, it’s clear that Gabaldon did a lot of research. She goes into detail about dirk fighting, pistols, and other combat paraphernalia. In other parts of the story, she gives detailed information on medicine, dress, food, and other such subjects. It’s clear that Gabaldon did a lot of research, and the payoff is that it makes the story seem more real. Too, Gabaldon wisely doesn’t lecture her audience on the various subjects; she simply includes them. This keeps the information interesting and prevents it from bogging down the story.

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Real Heroes

Recently, I watched a few episodes of Little House on the Prairie, a show I absolutely adored growing up. Watching it as an adult, however, I have a slightly different perspective on it. I had not realized how much it had informed my concepts of heroes, life, and story.

The show would probably never be made today because of its emphasis on morality and religion. Little House on the Prairie was never meant to be a religious show--instead merely to represent the people of that historical period--but it does not shy away from themes of faith. Nor does it avoid themes involving doing the right thing, honesty, hard work, or the power of love and family. Rather, it embraces these things.

In the decades since the show was made, fiction has gotten dark. Antiheroes have become common, and morality and any sense of the good in religious concepts are very much the exception. There’s nothing wrong with dark themes, antiheroes, or exploring new territory, but watching this show again, it reminds me that heroes, true heroes, should live like heroes, not just fulfill the part in the climactic scene.

A big part of what makes Little House on the Prairie work so well is because the characters are genuinely good people. They hurt and suffer, and the audience wants them to get the happiness and joy that good people should get. The stories are more satisfying because it’s much harder to successfully hold onto humanity in the midst of adversity. Their ability to stay true to their noble selves is what makes the Ingalls family all the more impressive and admirable, and that’s what makes them true heroes.

Amidst our darker antiheroes and amoral stories, it’s good to remember that stories like Little House on the Prairie exist. It’s good to remember the kind of heroic qualities that are worth striving for in real life. It’s good to remember that adversity, prejudice, hatred, misfortune, disease, poverty, greed, loneliness, disaster, and even death do not have to ruin or rule us, and in fact, they shouldn’t. It’s good to remember that what makes anyone a person of true and noble character is how they conduct themselves in the midst of such hardships. Stories like Little House on the Prairie are our reminder.

Stories have power. Wield yours wisely.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 17

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a peek into what makes good writing like this book work.



Chapter 17: We Meet a Beggar

Summary: The next day, Jamie and Claire head off into the woods again, but in a different direction. There’s a spot Jamie wants to show Claire, but it takes a long time to get to. Along the way, they stop at some pools carved out by glaciers called tarns. A bunch of plovers crying beside their nests are there too, and Jamie calms one, then sends it fleeing off into the woods. He tells Claire when she asks that, according to myth, plovers are inhabited by the souls of young mothers who died in childbirth, which is why they cry beside their nests. Claire realizes he had his own experience with such a mother, his own mother, when he was eight.

They climb higher up the mountain and rest once more. Jamie confesses to not being able to stop wanting Claire. He asks if his feelings are normal, and Claire says something like it is normal but there is something different between them.

Finally, they ascend to a rocky outcrop that overlooks the valley. They can see the inn and road from there. While admiring the scenery, someone shoots an arrow at them. Jamie hastens Claire down, then sees the arrow’s fletching. It belongs to an old friend named Hugh Munro.

Munro comes up to catch up. He wears layers of rags and has been granted permission to beg in multiple parishes because of the wounds and torment he suffered in Turkey for Christendom, among them the loss of his tongue. He uses sign language to communicate, which Jamie can understand and Claire cannot. He and Jamie catch up. Hugh is also recently married. Jamie gets Hugh to send a message for him to Horrocks, an English deserter who was supposed to meet Jamie where it’s no longer safe, where Captain Randall and the Black Watch have gone. Hugh will get Horrocks to change their meeting place so Jamie needn’t fear capture.

After, Jamie and Claire return to the inn. Dougal has returned and teases Jamie, but Jamie and Claire retreat to their room for lovemaking.

Writer Comments: Like the previous honeymooning chapter, this one doesn’t have as much action or tension. It reveals information and does small things to set up later events. We learn of Jamie losing his mother at age eight. We learn of Hugh and, through him, Gabaldon reminds us about Horrocks. We see Jamie and Claire being consumed by a passion that is sure to get them into trouble when Claire returns to her own time, or at least tries to. And we learn that Murtagh, the man who initially captured Claire, is a Fraser and one of Jamie’s cousins. He’s also the man among their group Jamie trusts.

Normally in my writer comments, I try to steer toward what a writer does well because, as writers, we ought to emulate those good points. I also prefer to stay on the positive. However, there are a few things I’d like to point out in this chapter that should generally be avoided.

First, in the previous chapter, Jamie caught a fish for Claire and said they’d eat it for breakfast the next morning. However, instead, he and Claire and up eating bread and cheese for breakfast. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to that fish. It’s important as an author to keep track of your details and make sure everything in consistent. Unless there’s a very good reason, in this case like Dougal stealing their fish for his own breakfast, the story and its details, even minor ones, should be logical and consistent. Editors and beta readers are wonderful for helping writers out with this.

Second, low tension. Yes, it’s true that many authors get away with the occasional low tension scene. If everything else is down well, most readers will sit through the scene and patiently wait for the excitement to pick back up. However, this makes the second chapter in a row with low tension. The only real risk felt is that Captain Randall will soon expect Claire and that maybe the Black Watch might take notice of Jamie if they happen upon him. However, these details are so background and ephemeral that they don’t contribute to the scenes in these chapters. Tension and conflict are like oxygen for a story. They’re absolutely crucial and must be taken in near constantly. Without them, a writer risks boring her readers, and I confess that, much as I enjoy this book, this chapter was a bit tedious.

Third, handing the characters something easily should be avoided. It’s one thing to make something easy on a character only to turn it on its head and reveal it actually creates a bigger problem. However, in this chapter, shortly after Claire and Jamie discuss the need for someone else to meet Horrocks, someone conveniently appears to do just that. It stretches believability and weakens the impact of the characters and scene.

On the other hand, Gabaldon’s audience, for the most part, might be more tolerant of all this. Her audience is primarily composed of female readers who enjoy romance. This chapter includes passion, a few honeymoon trysts that certainly fall under the category of wish fulfillment, and a hero who can’t stop wanting to have his way with the heroine. All this plays to the escapism and wish fulfillment motivations of many romance readers. But, even with that, the chapter would have been stronger with much more tension and conflict.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s 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.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Don’t Let Your Characters Starve

One disadvantage to fictional characters is that they can technically survive anything. It may not always make sense, but they can. They don’t whine when they’re hungry. They don’t pass out from exhaustion. They don’t get weak from thirst or disease. You can riddle them with bullets or make them into swiss cheese with swords. They can fall from extreme heights and only suffer a scratch. They can... Well, you get the idea.

That means it’s up to the author to remember the basic needs of characters that allow them to appear human with human limitations. It’s up to us to feed, water, and care for them. Very few characters in fiction can go without having physical, emotional, or mental needs met, so it’s a sure thing that when you write you should keep the following in mind:

Food: What does your character eat? How often? How does this impact his overall health and ability to perform in your story?

Water: Or some other fluid. Hydration is essential, and it doesn’t take long to become dehydrated and suffer some pretty severe side-effects like weakness, confusion, fever, heart palpitations, and within just a few days, death.

Temperature Control: What’s the environment like? Is it hot? Cold? How does your character cope with the temperature? How does it impact his ability to perform heroic deeds?

Elimination: Gross as it may be to some, it has to happen. No, you don’t have to include it in a story, but keep it in the back of your mind. Especially if a character is in a situation where he can’t relieve himself, it’s going to become an issue.

Illness and Disease: Most stories require putting the hero under a lot of stress to keep them interesting. Stress weakens the body and make it more susceptible to sickness. Keep that in mind, especially if your hero is spending cold nights outside leading a rebellion.

Sleep: This one is easily overlooked. Sleep is crucial for good health, and a character can go only so long without it. And the longer sleep is postponed, the greater toll its lack will have on the body, mind, and psyche. Even if a character catches sleep, is it good sleep? Is he getting his solid eight hours? Is his sleep interrupted frequently? Does he have insomnia worrying about what you’re doing to his life?

The nice thing about all of these is that, when you keep them in mind, they walk hand in hand with building tension. If your hero hasn’t slept in three days, that car chase is a lot more tense. If he hasn’t eaten since yesterday morning, that duel suddenly looks a lot more challenging. What if he faints in the middle of it? If he’s cold and struggling against hyperthermia, rescuing his daughter becomes a far more daunting task.

On the other hand, don’t be a slave to these needs. You don’t need and shouldn’t describe every meal, bathroom break, or how many hours a character slept. That gets tedious. The same rules apply as with all other aspects of fiction: include only that which is essential to the story. To some extent, a reader will assume your characters are eating, sleeping, and handling their other basic needs, but give the subject some attention to add believability to your story and to increase tension.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 16

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take an in-depth look at the techniques Gabaldon uses to spin such an enduring tale.



Chapter 16: One Fine Day

Summary: Jamie and Claire spend their first full day of marriage away from the inn, trying to overcome the occasional awkwardness that rises between them. They slip off deep into the hills, avoiding the Black Watch, a band of self-appointed police keeping peace in the Scottish countryside. Jamie shows Claire how to tickle trout and catches her one for their breakfast the next morning. They spend the rest of the day talking and learning each other’s bodies. But always, shadows rise up between them: Captain Randall, Frank, Dougal, and secrets.

Writer Comments: This chapter is like a lazy afternoon in the spring. The pace is slow and the tension subdued. On first glance, it might appear a chapter merely devoted to the budding love affair, but there are other things going on.

First and foremost, Gabaldon is strengthening Claire and Jamie’s relationship, giving Claire more reasons to become attached to him. Though I don’t know all Gabaldon has in store for the book’s plot--I’ve been good about not cheating and taking a peek into the story’s future--a close relationship between Claire and Jamie can only complicate matters. At the least, it will make Claire’s goal to return home that much more difficult. Much as she wants to return to Frank, emotional ties to Jamie will eventually weaken her resolve.

Further, Gabaldon is setting up the love triangle. Frank isn’t present, but his memory is very much alive. Even Jamie is keenly aware of it. He sees Frank in Claire’s thoughts whenever he touches her. However, Claire is swiftly developing an infatuation with Jamie and is just as aware of it. Gabaldon wisely develops both these aspects in this chapter. After all, she can’t make things too easy on her heroine. Frank will, undoubtedly, remain a shadow lying between Claire and Jamie, and if Claire should manage to return to 1945, Jamie’s memory and her feelings for him will certainly cause Claire heartache.

Then there’s Captain Randall. Claire still has days more before the English officer expects her, days in which to enjoy her new husband, but his specter looms. Despite all their efforts to idle the day away, Randall repeatedly comes up in conversation, and Jamie has to remind Claire again and again that he’ll protect her. In this way, Gabaldon ensures her readers don’t forget about the near future threat.

But Claire isn’t the only one with complications. Jamie reveals that he’s a potential contender for the MacKenzie clan chieftain in the event Colum dies before his son Hamish comes of age. This makes Jamie’s position precarious. Dougal and Colum would rather see Jamie dead than become laird, and it’s possible--though Jamie doesn’t know for sure--Dougal already tried to kill him. This makes Dougal far more dangerous, even if Jamie has been working hard to demonstrate that he has no intention of become a MacKenzie chief.

In essence, Gabaldon uses this chapter to subtly build tension. The higher she brings her heroes, the farther they have to fall. She both quietly reiterates extent threats and lays the groundwork for future struggle. As an author, Gabaldon is well aware of the importance of layering conflict and building up multiple lines of tension simultaneously.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s 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, November 28, 2014

Enjoy the Holidays!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

As it's Black Friday and we're all still dragging ourselves out of our post-feast stupors, I'll leave you to enjoy the holiday weekend with something fun.

Last week, I saw Big Hero 6 with my kids. Even if you don't have kids, it's totally worth seeing. Five stars. If you want to escape barbaric, stampeding shoppers but still get out of the house, I highly recommend this movie. It'll make you laugh and cry and enjoy every moment of it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 15

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we’ll break apart the chapter for its nuggets of writing insights and enjoy a great story.



Chapter 15: Revelations of the Bridal Chamber

Summary: After a small wedding feast, Claire and Jamie retire to a room for the consummation part of becoming legally married. They’re both unnerved, and Jamie confesses to being scared of Claire because she’s much more experienced than him. They decide to ease into the experience by talking first.

Jamie asked about Claire’s previous husband, a subject she dodges. He asks only that they start with honesty. She doesn’t have to tell him something, but what she does tell him should be the truth.

They both give a bit of history about their pasts, Claire careful to avoid revealing anything that would signal to Jamie that she comes from a future time. But Jamie too has his secrets, of which he’s very upfront about not telling her.

However, he does talk about his family, how his mother was Colum and Dougal’s sister. How his father was given lands by the Frasers so he could marry Ellen MacKenzie. How, in the marriage agreement, the MacKenzies had managed to secure the inheritance of those lands so they would pass to Ellen’s children instead of any other children her husband might have. So while Jamie indeed is in possession of property, he can’t use his own lands because of the price on his head.

But Jamie goes on to explain his time in France after being injured. He stayed with an uncle until he was healed, then came back to Scotland. Dougal had come to pick him up, and they were on their way back when Claire ran into them. Apparently, there is truth to Randall’s claim that the MacKenzies were stealing cattle as well.

Jamie also confesses two of the reasons he married Claire. He has others he’s keeping secret. First, he wanted to protect her from Captain Randall. Second, he wanted to sleep with her.

They talk until it’s late and a choice must be made about bed. Claire decides to get the bedding over with rather than cowardly waiting until later. For the next several hours, she introduces Jamie to the pleasures of the marriage bed, and while he’s a bit clumsy, his ardent joy in it delights her.

At one point, famished, she decides to slip out of the room for food, but she finds all Dougal’s men waiting for her and shouted ribald commentary. She’s horrified, and Jamie explains that they’re witnesses to the consummation. Dougal won’t take any chances. Jamie fetches food instead.

At one point, when they finally literally sleep, Claire wakes from a nightmare. Jamie immediately responds by snapping awake, drawing a weapon he had stashed near his head, and springing to action, ready to kill. When he realizes it was only Claire, he swiftly comforts her, warms her by giving her the blankets he accidentally stole in his sleep, and cuddles against her. He asks if it’s hate for him that has her so upset, and she hastily reassures him that it isn’t him at all.

But after, Claire has to wonder why any man would sleep armed in his own bridal chamber.

Writer Comments; Unlike usual, I’ve summarized the whole chapter instead of scene by scene. This chapter is a bit different in that it’s composed over several short scenes that span an extended period of time. Handling each individually would have resulted in an excessively long post. But we can begin with the structure of these scenes as they relate to each other first.

The chapter has eight scene breaks. Eight is a lot for one chapter. However, the setting does not change, and the time changes only by a few hours. So why structure the chapter like this? In actuality, all these scene breaks create the same effect as a series of quick successive fades in a movie or TV show; they represent the passage of time without getting bogged down in tedium. Claire and Jamie spend many hours work up the courage to sleep together, then enjoying the experience of exploring a new lover. These are not moments to be drawn out in endless detail. If Gabaldon had chosen to do so, they chapter would have gotten tedious.

Additionally, Gabaldon uses another trick to avoid tedium. When it comes to actual sex, she doesn’t linger over every detail. Books that do this have their own genre and subgenres. Most books, however, need to follow the general rule that if it doesn’t specifically add to the plot, cut it. Gabaldon gives just enough information to let readers know how Claire and Jamie relate to each other in bed, to indicate Claire enjoys it, and to reveal Jamie’s eagerness to be a good lover, even if he is a bit clumsy at first. Yes, some of the details get a bit racy, but Gabaldon does just as much with implication as she does through flat out description. All actions, including sex should serve a purpose in the plot and impact the characters.

Now, let’s take a step back from that element. Take a look at the chapter’s title, Revelations of the Bridal Chamber. This is a great example of a chapter title done well. As soon as I read it, I immediately started theorizing about what would happen. A chapter title should make readers wonder, and this is a perfect example. I immediately started guessing what would be revealed. I suspected Claire would tell Jamie about traveling through time, but no such luck. It’s probably better that way because, otherwise, that element would be resolved too quickly. Gabaldon deftly extends that conflict.

Additionally in this chapter, Gabaldon plays into the fantasies of her female readers. Jamie immediately proves himself a sensitive, considerate, strong, wonderful husband. He doesn’t know everything, but he’s eager to learn and puts Claire’s protection and comfort first. What woman wouldn’t want him? As much as I warn against Mary Sue characters, even I understand the appeal in this. However, this sort of thing in common in other genres. There’s a reason some fantasy books go into intimate detail about weapons, battle, and magic. The readers want to see and experience such things. In any genre that has a heavy romance element, readers tend to want to see a hero they can drool over and imagine about, and that goes beyond the physical.

As a whole, the chapter is fairly lacking in external conflict. It’s a sweet series of scenes. But Gabaldon, like any good writer, understands that this won’t drive readers onward for the long run. Instead, Gabaldon introduces a hint of something far more sinister than what the chapter mostly implies. First she gives us Claire’s nightmare, then she provides the implication of a threat so strong even Jamie has to sleep armed and paranoid on his honeymoon.

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

Have a happy Thanksgiving!