An Emerging Theme in My Writing: Fathers and Daughters

As I’ve been working on The Rebel’s Touch and Atlanta & the Lion and Other Tales, I’ve begun to notice a pattern: I tend to write about young-ish women who have lost a male authority figure in their lives. I did the same thing with Catching the Rose and Haunting Miss Trentwood. The fact is, the topic fascinates me.

You see, my father has played a huge role in shaping my life. For the longest time, his morals were my morals. His rules were my rules. His ideas about relationships were my ideas about relationships. To think of a life not shaped by my father, or any male authority figure, boggles my mind. I explored the idea of what happens when a girl doesn’t have a father to protect her from an arranged marriage she doesn’t want; how does she take care of herself when her mother can’t help her (Catching the Rose)? I explored the idea of what happens to a girl whose father had shaped her daily existence due to his illness but when he finally succumbs she has to pick up the pieces and start living her own life (Haunting Miss Trentwood).

The short story I’m reworking for Atlanta & the Lion is unnamed as yet; it might be called “The Friendly Suffragette,” or “Killing with Kindness,” or “A Smile with Arms.” The heroine has lost her grandfather, and she has joined the suffragette movement as a way to fill her days. The tactics of the other women don’t seem to be making headway, so, she tries something radical: she offers hugs to those who need them.

First off, as an aside, can I tell you how frustrating it can be, writing historical fiction, sometimes? I was halfway through writing the story when I realized I didn’t know if the word “hug” was something someone would say around 1913. Thanks to the internet, I now know the word “hug” was first used to mean “affectionate embrace” as early as the 1650′s. So phew.

I’ve had a couple people comment that Haunting Miss Trentwood is unsettling because it’s about a father dying and haunting his daughter. Totally understandable. The beginning of the book is a true gothic tale but it descends into silliness fairly quickly once Mr Trentwood starts quipping his one liners. I learned from that book to establish the level of silliness as soon as possible so the reader knows what to expect.

In The Rebel’s Touch, I keep paring back the plot. First, it was to be about the Underground Railroad. The heroine, Tempest Gray, was to have stumbled onto a group of slaves and their guide at the shore of the Ohio River. She gets kidnapped, and discovers that the man who kidnapped her has no memory… but when he touches her, he remembers something. Throw in a greedy father and mother who want to marry her off to the local rich man who has access to food stores despite the blockade on the Confederacy, and you have one convoluted, confused mess of a book.

The Rebel’s Touch is no longer about the Underground Railroad. A shame, because I bought a bunch of books on the topic and am now somewhat of an amateur historian in regards to Ripley, OH and its Underground Railroad celebrities. The book is now set somewhere in Kentucky, Lexington, I’m guessing, because I will be there this fall and so will have access to their libraries and historians if I can plan everything properly. It’s still about a girl who finds a man without a memory… but in the days after the Civil War, and thus is a story about the American Restoration. As always, I’m beginning my journey with this book by hunting and gathering images to inspire me, which you can follow on Pinterest.

The first sentence goes something like this:

Everyone else remembered it as the day the president died, but Tempest Gray remembered it as the day the man with no memory fell from her tree.

Looking forward to the restart of this adventure. Not sure where the father-daughter relationship will come to play, but since the theme has emerged in my other works, I expect it will manifest soon.

The Big Question

Dear Reader,

As of writing this post, I’m 17k words into The Rebel’s Hero, which is about 24% toward my word count goal. Without fail, when I get to this percentage mark, I get cold feet. I don’t know why. It’s very frustrating. I start to doubt my ability to write, to craft characters, to weave details, to drive the plot forward. I think this is because the beginning is complete. Now the meat of the story takes over, the plot thickens, and more questions are thrown to the reader.

I’m standing in place, deer in the headlights, frightened by this monstrous train called The Rebel’s Hero steaming full blast down the tracks because even though I’ve set up a good story with a multitude of questions I need to answer throughout the plot…

I still don’t know what The Question is. What am I trying to answer with this work? What is my big question that I’m struggling to explore and engage?

Peeking over shoulders

Do other authors do this? I feel like they do. I think MJ Rose explores the question of “what if the paranormal were real?” Her form of paranormal is more of the mundane… reincarnation, hypnotism, etc. Her fiction is fascinating, deep, driven. Joan Reeves, highlighted at The Book Designer last week, asked the question “Why would a woman marry a man for money?” and was surprised when her book was labeled a romance.

Sometimes crafting fiction feels backwards. I know I write romances, sweet though they may be. But maybe I should stop worrying about the genre, since I already know that’s what I gravitate to. Instead, I should worry, what is my question?

Exploring the space

I write this blog to be transparent about the writing process. It isn’t easy, and sometimes, it isn’t fun. I look to my previous fiction to remind myself that I’ve done this before, and I can do it again. Catching the Rose asks the question “what would you do to find your first love?” Haunting Miss Trentwood asks “what do you do after your parents have died?” Mad Maxine, my short story, asks “what happens when you don’t let go?”

I’ve blogged about The Big Question before in terms of individual characters, but for the plot? Here is a list of questions The Rebel’s Hero could be about…

  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • Why would a woman marry a man with no memory?
  • What would you do to escape an arranged marriage?
  • What would you do to help a man in need?
  • What would you do to regain your memory?

I think the last one might be a winner. Throw the question into the Civil War, add the Underground Railroad, and I just might be able to pull this off. After all, it always feels impossible until it is done.

Best,

Belinda

Worderella Joins a Blogfest

Dear Reader,

In case you didn’t know, today is my birthday, and two years ago I put my writing aside to get a masters degree.

Now that I’ve graduated, I feel a bit like Mr. van Winkle after his twenty-year slumber.

Two years ago, Smashwords was a fledgling idea I didn’t trust. ISBNs were only sold in groups of ten. Good luck getting distribution, because no one would distribute a self-published work… oh wait, we have Amazon CreateSpace now?

Two years ago, Twitter was for nerds. Well, it still kind of is for nerds, but now it’s for super cool super social nerds, like me. Blogs were starting to become passé for those who couldn’t maintain steam. But us writers, I’m happy to find, are chugging along with these cool things called blogfests.

What is a blogfest?

I asked this very question not three days ago. I’d never heard of one, and I couldn’t find any examples. Lo and behold, following my usual six-degrees-of-Twitter, I joined a bloghop for romance writers. From there, I learned about a blogfest that I could join.

The idea is to have a bunch of bloggers write toward a particular theme on a particular day. The blogger hosting the blogfest links to the other blogs and vice versa, and everyone hops around reading the submissions.

It’s like an online writer’s group, or something. It sounds awesome.

This blogfest I’ve joined will be on August 25. The theme is “rainy day.”

Since Haunting Miss Trentwood is set in England, I need a rain scene. I’ve already had one, but it’s been a couple days in the time line, so I think we’re due for another. I’m excited.

Are you in the middle of a project? Are you feeling stuck? Maybe you need to throw your characters in the middle of a rainstorm. You should join the blogfest!

All the best,

Belinda

Details, Details, Details

Hi all, sorry for missing last week. It was a rough week all around; this semester, graduate school is kicking my patookie. In fact, I’ll probably have to go on a hiatus for a while.

In class, we’ve been talking about details: relevant vs irrelevant, and how they can alter the power of your story. I tend to rely on details. I over-write during my first draft and then filter out what isn’t needed in later drafts. As long as the details are important both to the character and the plot, they stay in… otherwise, it just has to “feel right.” There’s no other way for me to explain it.

Other students in my class feel it’s a bit arbitrary, how they decide whether ideas are relevant or not. How do you determine that your details are relevant?

The Motivating Purpose

I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.
 - Toni Morrison (American author)

This is very true for my current novel, and perhaps even for my first novel. But is it true for you? Last week we talked about the motivating purpose behind our main characters, and then some. But what is the purpose behind writing about those characters?

This is what I like to call the theme of the work. Why are you writing your book? What spurred that first idea? Who are you writing for?

These are questions that are as important as knowing that first problem that your main character must face. Why? Because it focuses your work. It gives you a breadcrumb trail to the second problem your main character faces, and then the third, and so on…

So what is your motivation behind writing your book? Are you writing it because you, like Toni Morrison, have looked for a book like the one you’re writing, and have found nothing similar? Or have you found one, and was so disappointed by it, that you simply had to give it a try? Or is it something completely different?

I’m writing my book because my parents have entered a stage in life where they are losing those they hold dear. And it occurred to me that I will enter that stage as well. What if it were to happen to me tomorrow? What if I were to lose both my parents? How would I handle it? How would I take care of my younger siblings? What would happen to us?

More importantly, what if I lived during an age where, as the eldest child, and a female, my options were severely limited? What if I lived during an age where death was an everyday thing, and to succumb to grief for longer than the prescribed amount of time was considered selfish?

What is my motivating theme? Understanding the grief that comes from adult orphanism. What is my genre? Historical romance. Will it work? Who knows. But this is the motivating purpose behind my writing.

Tell me in the comments about your motivating purpose, or the story behind your story. Why are you writing what you are writing?

As you can see, I’m relying on writing quotes to provide a thesis of sorts for each of my posts now that I’m in graduate school. It seems to be working out, would you agree?

Personal Themes Shining Through

Cynthia from Creative Writing Corner wrote an interesting post about how her life and history shapes the themes in her writing. It’s an interesting exercise, looking at how your life defines your writing.

For instance, I’m sure many authors have written about the relationship between fathers and daughters. But I only realized last week that both of my books (Catching the Rose and the WIP, Trentwood’s Orphan) discuss the topic. What happens when a daughter loses her father? How does that influence her and her decisions for the rest of her life? And what about the characters who haven’t lost their fathers… what am I saying about their relationships? A doubly interesting question, as I haven’t lost my father. What does this say about me?

I also seem to have my main characters travel at some point in their story, and not because they want to but because they feel they have to. This is probably a reflection of my childhood through pre-teen years, where my family and I traveled around the country so my dad could approve/deny grant proposals. Safe to say that I still don’t like to travel, but I do it. My characters are always pensive while traveling, always part of a group, but almost purposely separate. Alone in a friendly crowd, as it were.

So it seems as though my life has a heavy influence on my writing. Is this good or bad? Are you having the same experience? Let me know your thoughts. 

I will say that recognizing my pervading themes has really helped me tighten the WIP as I go through final edits. I can see the threads holding everything together, and the purpose behind everything. Pretty cool.

In other news, PubRants has written a quick post on the two most common newbie writer mistakes. Make sure you don’t do them. And Lynn Viehl is going to hold an online virtual workshop conference. I’m thinking of participating… maybe mine will be on editing the first draft once you finally complete it.

The Importance of Theme for Organization

I often read that the biggest things a writer should worry about are theme and organization. Theme, because that is the heart of your work; organization because that’s the skeleton to help you write about the theme.

For the longest time I wondered, How does one find a theme in the first place? Maybe something happened in your life that you want to write about. Let’s face it, wanting to write about that topic isn’t enough. You need a focus, something that connects you to the topic and distances you from it at the same time, so that you can communicate clearly with your reader.

I began with “I want to write a romance, but I don’t want the heroine to be the typical spunky girl. I want her flawed, and with heavy concerns.” So, I worked from there, writing character descriptions and first drafts; I wrote an entire 94k first draft just throwing whatever came to me onto the page. I celebrated, because we all should celebrate the completion of a draft, especially when it takes three years to do it (full-time student, remember). Then, I stuffed it under my bed (or maybe in the back of my closet, I’m always re-organizing so I never completely know where some things are) and started over.

Step One: Write a shitty first draft and be done with it.

After that, I walked away from the work for a month. Namely, NaNoWriMo month. The crazy speed of that writing month invigorated me, and in December I said hello to the original work with a new focus. I started over with this new focus, with a new understanding of the characters, and with a pretty solid understanding of their initial back stories.

Side Note: a back story, if you don’t recognize the term, is a short story and/or history about a character, location, or object that happened before your current time line.

Step Two: Use the extraneous parts of your shitty first draft as a collection of back stories to your characters.

Now I’m halfway through First Draft B, as I like to call it (props to Redshoeson for the naming idea). I know where I would like the story to go. But my initial back stories aren’t full enough. I have to go back. Give each main, secondary, and even tertiary character additional back stories about their history with the other characters. These back stories lead to motivation, motivation to decision, and decision to action. But my back stories all need a theme. There must be something connecting these characters. But… how to write the theme?

The theme is a single sentence that succinctly describes what your work is about. Also known as a thesis, blurb or hook: the main idea that keeps you writing, and grabs the reader’s interest. Still, it’s hard to know how to write this magical sentence. So, look at examples. The first sentence on the back cover of a paperback is usually the hook, which the copywriter expands into paragraphs about the main characters and why we should read about them. I also found reading the New York Times bestseller list really helpful, because the top ten have one-sentence summaries.

Step Three: Read the New York Times bestseller list.

Try to keep your theme/hook/blurb/thesis at fifteen words or less. You want this to be focused but universal, so don’t use the main character’s name unless it is a sequel or part of a series. Don’t use passive voice! Choose your words carefully; every word in your theme should be there because there is no better word for it.

Here are some examples from the bestseller list in July:

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: A young man — and an elephant — save a Depression-era circus.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards: A doctor’s decision to secretly send his newborn daughter to an institution haunts everyone involved.

Peony in Love by Lisa See: Love, death and ghosts in 17th-century China.

The Quickie by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge: A police officer’s attempt to get back at her husband, whom she suspects of cheating on her, goes dangerously awry.

After you have the main theme, things will fall into place, slowly at first. Your theme is your thesis, so tie everything back to it and you’ll have a tight, organized work.

Fairy Tales

Stuck in a rut? Want to begin a new novel (since NaNoWriMo is coming up)? I find that I love fairy tales, and that they have the best themes to make the backbone of any good draft. Tired of the Disney versions? Don’t worry, they are by no means the only and official version of these stories.

Tales of Wonder: folk and fairy tales from around the world.
National Geographic’s Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales: 12 “unvarnished” tales based off a 1914 translation.
Encyclopedia Mythica: focused on the folklore, mythology, and religion from around the world. Split up by region and then by genre.

The Importance of Theme

I was reading the August issue of The Writer the other day, (which, by the way, has at least three really good articles in it) and found an article written by Paola Corso on integrating theme and story. Corso opens the article with the sad truth that when asked “what their short story is about, writers often recite a chronology of events because they equate plot with theme.” Corso goes on to say that it isn’t the “who, what, where and when but the why that gives meaning and elevates your writing to a thematic level.”

The biggest problem with integrating themes into your story is there is always that fine line between suggesting a theme, something for the reader to think about, and preaching to the reader, which is tedious and quick to make a reader put your book down. So, as Corso expounds, writers need to “Show, not tell. Write with direction, not an agenda. This will allow theme to evolve out of the story elements–characters, conflict, setting, images, etc.–so that it’s earned rather than contrived.” The following points describe Corso’s suggestions to help theme emerge from your story:

  1. Embed your theme in characters. Convey your ideas, pose your questions, through how your characters think, look, act, speak, their names, etc. Flesh them out, give them meaning.
  2. Make your theme talk. Dialogue! It’s not just characters talking to one another, dialogue has its purpose just as setting and conflict do; dialogue should help the story along, and subsequently, your theme. Let the theme/dialogue come naturally through conflict rather than shoving words down your character’s throat.
  3. Establish a setting or atmosphere to help convey theme. Wuthering Heights, anyone? The setting was a character in that book; its tumultuous weather shouted the theme just as Cathy and Heathcliff’s characterizations did.
  4. Weave theme into your conflict. Character struggle raises thematic questions. What does the character want? What is the significance? What will they do to get what they want, and how does this affect the theme of the story? What obstacles must they overcome?
  5. Use strong, efficient symbols–the building blocks of theme. Use the objects in your story to represent something larger than itself. For instance, in my current project, my main character is afraid of horses. But why is that? She is known as a great rider, despite her involvement with her father’s accident. Answering that question, on an emotional and psychological level, opens a theme to the story.
  6. Give your character theme-based actions. Literal or symbolic, subtle or grand, actions help put the theme in motion.
  7. Put discoveries and epiphanies to work. Allow your characters to reflect on the previous points. Let them question why they did what they did, or why they think their antagonist, etc, did what they did. Ask who they are, what was said, what was not said, what have they done? Make sure to keep them specific to each character, you don’t want everyone coming to the same conclusion/understanding, it’s unnatural.