Monday, September 21, 2009

History in My Own Backyard

History surrounds me where I live in Maryland. How fortunate I am that I have Fort Frederick to the west, Fort McHenry to the east, Civil War battlefields such as Antietam, Sharpsburg, and Gettysburg nearby. My town was founded in 1745, and old houses, churches, and other buildings have been preserved with pride.

A few Saturdays ago, we drove up to Baltimore and I had the privilege to meet author Marylu Tyndall. She was in town from California to do research for a series of new novels she is writing set during the War of 1812. After galavanting around the Inner Harbor, we headed to Fort McHenry.

I was embarrassed to admit as a Marylander I had never toured the fort. It was breathtaking, especially as we stood on the high hill overlooking the harbor and watched the sailing ship, The Pride of Baltimore, glide silently as a butterfly across the water.

One thing that clung to me, besides the awesome sense of the sacrifice men made to keep our country free, was as a storyteller there must be a dramatic question to every story I write. Without a dramatic question in a novel, readers will set it down. It will not be a page turner.

A single, powerful question is what a good story is based on. It will unfold to the reader through the actions of your characters and vivid scene that grips them with cliffhangers. I will illustrate through some well known stories.

Jane Eyre: The dramatic question is will Jane find true love and acceptance and will Rodchester ever have her as his wife?

Pride & Prejudice: Will Elizabeth and Darcy see that what one thought was pride is actually a subtle insecurity, and that what the other thought was prejudice is really caution, and will they ever declare their love for each other?

Post the dramatic question of your novel where you can see each day. Practice writing is several different ways.

What is the single powerful question that is about your novel?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reader Empathy

Okay. What I'm about to write is not to toot my own horn. It is meant to illustrate the title of this blog post. So bear with me.

Sitting outside on my mother's porch last Sunday, she told me some of the comments she has gotten from her friends that are reading 'Surrender the Wind'. She said, "Inga said she is in love with Seth, and so worried about him and Juleah, that she can't put the book down. Annette said the same thing. She loves Seth too, and is worried about Juleah." She then let out a little giggle. "I know what they mean," she said. "I fell in love with him too, and I worried so much about what was going to happen to him in Juleah that I couldn't stop reading." I replied, "Thanks, mom. That's what I want to hear."

Why? you ask. Shouldn't I want to hear aculades of praise about the plot, the narrative, and dialogue. Well, sure. But here is the one thing that raps all that up into one neat package. It should be the goal of every writer to cause the reader to be worried, concerned, and attached to your characters, especially to your hero and heroine. They want to feel these emotions. I know I do when I start a novel. And if I do not, I usually do not finish the book. I must be captured by emotion. I must be drawn in so closely to the problems, the fears, the danger that the characters are in to keep me glued to the pages.

In a nutshell:

  • Strive to bring the reader to the place where they feel the emotions of your characters. Do this by action. The sweat on your hero's brow, trickling down his neck. The tension he feels as he watches danger approach.
  • Keep in mind that for most people emotions, such as empathy, are deeply felt and deeply hidden. Do not be afraid as a writer to keep it this way --- in check and in control. If your hero keeps his passion in control, let's say his desire to strike out due to mounting emotions and wait for the right time and the right place to let loose, then you will avoid banking over into melodrama
  • The greatest way to tap into your readers' empathy is by exposing your characters core emotions, no matter how deep seated they may be. While writing about the suffering your heroine is going through, perhaps she suffers privately, when she is alone, without others noticing. Something might trigger her hidden pain, either through scene or dialogue, and she opens up.
  • Think of times when you experienced rejection, a break up, the loss of a loved one, failure, danger. Write down what your felt and how you reacted physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Your characters are to become real people to your readers. Drawing on your own experience is the best way to flesh out your characters, and build empathy in your readers.
Share in the comments section a novel you have read where you felt empathy so much so for the characters that you were unable to put the book down.

My list- to name just a few.

Jane Erye
Jenny Dorset
North and South
The Year of Wonder
Daughter of Liberty
The Poldark Series