Recently I had conversations with several of my beta readers which made me think long and hard about general ignorance.
I am working on a novel set in World War I, A Soldier’ Wife, and I thought I had put in enough background on the war itself – surely most people know about WWI, I thought. Wrong.
One of my beta readers comes from a non-English speaking background, from a country which wasn’t involved in the conflict. She had a vague notion that England and Germany fought, and she knew that Anzac Day was about Australians who went to fight for England – but she thought they were fighting Germans at Gallipolli.
One of them was quite young. She knew all about Gallipolli, because they’d covered it in school, but she didn’t know much about the war in Europe. More importantly, perhaps, since the characters in the novel never go to Europe, she didn’t know much about daily life in Sydney. She got quite annoyed with me for having my character take a tram to Randwick, because there aren’t any trams in Randwick! (Not now, I said, but… she was astonished and a bit irate: Why did they take them away? she asked. Why, indeed.)
Subsequent to this, I had a chat with a writer friend who felt that I’d put a bit too much historical detail in because, ‘surely everyone knows that?’ Apparently not.
One of the challenges in writing historical fiction is putting in enough explanation to set the story but not so much that you bore people who already know it all.
In writing A Soldier’s Wife, I drew on my experience in creating fantasy worlds. It’s much the same process. You have to give a combination of straight-out explanations and a number of more subtle clues. Some of those clues won’t be picked up by the general reader, but the intelligent or experienced reader will note them with pleasure.
However,when you’re writing fantasy you can assume a certain level of ignorance. After all, you’ve made up this world, and anything you have made up you can assume you need to explain. When you’re writing historical fiction, you have to guess at the level of knowledge your readers may have.
World War I is beyond living memory. There are no Anzacs left alive. There are no people who were adults during the war left alive, as far as I know. So everything we know is based on anecdote, history lessons, books, TV and films.
The lesson I’ve drawn from all this is: don’t assume any knowledge on the part of your readers. For some people, A Soldier’s Wife will be their first introduction to World War I. For others, all they will know is what they’ve seen on Downton Abbey. And that’s okay. It’s part of the fun of historical writing, to introduce people to fascinating, disturbing or enjoyable facts which you have discovered. I enjoy sharing my vision of Sydney in 1915-16 – I just hope others enjoy reading it!
As a mid-career author who writes for both children and adults, I’m always interested in how other people juggle that identity split. So I’m delighted to have Mindy Klasky, the author of some of my favourite light paranormals, to share her thoughts about just that.
I was sitting in my new editor’s office. Meetings like that are always a bit fraught, so I’d worried about what to wear, I’d brought a box of chocolates to break the ice, and I’d practiced all my answers to the questions I most expected to be asked. We’d gotten off on the right foot because I’d already read about half of the books in my editor’s office – bright-covered board books for little kids, thought-provoking chapter books for middle grade readers.
About five minutes in, my editor asked, “What’s your most recent published book?”
I answered, “The Mogul’s Maybe Marriage. It’s a category romance about an arrogant pharmaceutical magnate and the woman he impregnates after a one-night stand.”
Without missing a beat, my editor asked, “Have you chosen your pseudonym for us yet?”
I hadn’t, of course. I’d hoped that I could keep writing as Mindy Klasky, the same way I’d used my name for traditional fantasy and for light paranormal and for category romance. But when kids are involved, the rules shift a bit.
Because kids were involved, I became “Morgan Keyes” for my middle grade novels.
Now, a few years down the road, I’m still juggling names. “Morgan” continues to write the Darkbeast books – they’re traditional fantasy for kids, set in a secondary world, looking at the moral and ethical issues in a society where children are raised to murder their animal companions in order to assume a role as an adult in their society.
And Mindy is writing the Diamond Brides Series, contemporary romance novels about players on the (imaginary) Raleigh Rockets baseball team and the women who love them. These short novels are hot. Really hot. Hot as in, my father read an advance copy of Perfect Pitch (in stores for the first time this week!) and thanked me for giving him advance notice so he could call our family lawyer and change his last name.
I think he was just kidding. I hope.
Some people erect huge walls between their pseudonyms. They create corporations to hide their identities; they manage all promotion and social media through vast screens, so that no one ever has any clue as to the authors’ true selves. Writers have even threatened litigation against people who reveal those links (J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith, anyone?)
Other pseudonyms are absolutely “open books”, if you’ll pardon the pun. Anyone who searches a second can find out that Nora Roberts is also J.D. Robb. Steven King has reissued his Richard Bachman books, with both names on the cover.
Me, I’ve walked a middle road. On my Morgan Keyes website, I never mention that I’m Mindy Klasky. The entire goal of my pen name is to keep impressionable young minds from finding my racier books quite so easily (even though some of my more mature young readers would easily grasp some of my adult books, such as The Glasswrights Series. Sometimes, authors need to work with blunt instruments instead of fine scalpels!)
Even on my Mindy Klasky website, I don’t list Morgan Keyes’ name directly. I understand the power of the almighty search engine, and I know that any kid who types “Morgan Keyes” into Google would find my far-more-visited Mindy Klasky website on the first page of results, if I made that link explicit. I vastly prefer for searchers to find at least one full page of “Morgan Keyes” results, unsullied by my adult-author name.
But when Morgan releases a book, Mindy talks about it. Heck (or rather, “hell” – I’m writing this as Mindy), when Mindy releases a book, she sometimes talks about Morgan – this blog post being but one example.
It’s not a perfect divide. Some kids might find out more than they expected to know. But I trust kids to be like I was – inquisitive, daring, and a little self-protective. If I’d discovered Perfect Pitch when I was ten years old, I likely would have passed right over it. I wasn’t interested in boys, much less in naked men’s torsos on book covers. I definitely wasn’t intrigued by romantic banter. And while I understood the mechanics of how my body worked, I didn’t understand why anyone would want to read about that stuff, not when there were exciting books about adventures, and quests, and prophecies to fulfill.
How about you? Do you remember the first book you read with adult content? Were you old enough to understand it? Did you care? Did your parents care?
Thanks, Pamela, for letting me visit and discuss this topic with your readers!
Thank you, Mindy! As you can see from the cover of Perfect Pitch, it’s pretty clear what kind of books these are. (I’m not surprised your father blushed, Mindy! I wouldn’t dare let my parents read this.)
My adult books weren’t quite as racy so I kept my name and used the universe of my fantasy books as the website for my adult books (castingstrilogy.com). But I have an urban fantasy series with publishers now where I’ll probably go the pseudonym route myself, for many of the same reasons.
This post is written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support the FableCroft Publishing Pozible campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Cranky Ladies of History from all over the world.
I’m not sure that my pick for this month is really a ‘cranky lady’. She was too much of a lady ever to show crankiness. But she was, shall we say, determined, and I idolised her.
In 1987, in company with Karen Miller, I travelled to Queensland to interview Lores Bonney (pronounced ‘Lorry’) for the Powerhouse Museum. She became a personal hero for me. A bright, funny, intelligent, incredibly brave woman who accomplished enough for three lifetimes.
Never heard of her, right?
But I’ll bet you’ve heard of Amelia Earheart, or Amy Johnson? Lores Bonney was a better pilot than either of them, and flew further and faster. And she was her own mechanic.
Her birth name was ‘Maude’ – Maude Rose Rubens. She was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and left there when she was five, first for England and later for Australia. This was when she changed her name. Her best friend in South Africa was ‘Dolores’, whom everyone called ‘Lores’ (pronounced Laurie). Mourning her lost friend, Lores insisted on being called by the same name. It was a good indication of her strength of will that everyone complied.
Her father was a furniture manufacturer in Melbourne. He just missed overlapping with my great-grandfather, who was also a furniture manufacturer in Melbourne, but who moved to New Zealand at about the same time.
Lores’ father had no great opinion of women, and when the handsome and rather dashing Harry Bonney wanted to marry her, Mr Rubens insisted that Harry first swear that he would never allow her to drive a car. Deeply in love, Harry agreed – but he never promised anything about a plane, so after their marriage, when Lores wanted to learn to fly, he not only paid for lessons, he bought her a Gypsy Moth and had his workshop make her a set of leather flying clothes.
She shouldn’t have got her licence, because she was deaf in one ear from a perforated eardrum. But the doctor doing the test was a friend, she told me, and spoke in the regulation whisper while testing her good ear, but spoke QUITE LOUDLY when testing her bad one.
And she flew – oh, how she flew. Egged on by her husband’s cousin, Bert Hinkler, she set the long distance flying record in Australia (never been broken). She flew from Australia to England in 1933 – and that’s the hard direction, fighting the winds all the way. Even so, if she hadn’t been caught in a thunderstorm on Bang Biang Island and forced to crash land, she would have broken Amy Johnson’s record (Johnson came the easy way, from London to Sydney). After the crash, Lores supervised the repairs, and nonchalantly got back in her battered little De Havilland (nicknamed ‘My Little Ship’) and completed the trip. Why do it the hard way? ‘Because everyone was going the other way.’
And then, just for something to do, she flew from Australia to South Africa. On her own. In a Klemm 32 monoplance. The first person – not the first woman – to do so.
No one else has ever done this. I don’t mean in a Klemm, I mean that no other lone pilot has ever flown from Australia to South Africa. Since 1937.
Not only did she do all this, she did it with grace and flare. Since this was still the days of the Empire, wherever she went she was invited to dinner at Government House, or the District Commissioner’s house, or similar. So she had a special dress made, calf length, with a wide V neck. Then she had a matching floor-length petticoat. If she was invited to afternoon tea, she wore just the dress. If she was invited to dinner, she wore the dress with the petticoat underneath, and it looked like a dinner dress. She washed out her ‘smalls’ in the evening and strung them up on a line in the back of the cockpit to dry as she flew.
And then the war came, and private pilots couldn’t get fuel. Her darling plane was burnt in a fire in the hangar – she always believed it was arson, set by the man who shared the hangar with her, because he couldn’t use his plane but no-one would buy it because of the fuel restrictions. She never piloted a plane again.
Lores told me that she believed that if she ever flew again, she’d crash. She said she’d had a clear message from ‘The Co-Pilot’ (God). But that didn’t stop her having adventures.
After her husband died, she decided she was interested in learning how to make bonsai, so she took herself off to Japan and became the first Westerner to become an accredited bonsai ‘master’.
When she was in her 70s, she went down the Amazon in a canoe.
By the time I met her, she was starting to feel frail. She had decided to donate her memorabilia to the PowerHouse Museum (where I worked) and the interview I taped that day became part of an exhibition about her there.
If you look for the name ‘Lores Bonney’ in the record books, you won’t find it. It will read ‘Mrs Harry Bonney’. There were a lot of women (at the time, and since) who thought she should have used her own name, so I asked her why she hadn’t.
‘This is for posterity, I suppose,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said, and waited.
She nodded, and hesitated, and then nodded again. She told me – with some difficulty – that she had been unable to give Harry children, and that this was the only way she could make his name live on.
(You can see the Mrs Harry ‘Lores’ Bonney collection at the Powerhouse Museum.)
Here is a picture of some of her gear. But it doesn’t show the most useful thing she took with her – a hot water bottle, to use as a flying toilet. ‘The boys can use a bottle,’ she said, laughing. ‘But a hot water bottle is a woman’s best friend in the air.’
After telling me all this, she patted my hand kindly and told me her words to live by: ‘Don’t ever let them tell you you can’t do it.’ Sounds like a Cranky Ladies of History motto to me.
We hear a lot about showing and not telling, but lately I’ve been thinking about it in a new way.
I’ve been taking a masterclass with Mary Stewart – not, unfortunately, in person, as she is 97 and not gadding about much anymore (isn’t it great to know she’s still alive?). No, I have been re-reading her books. Specifically, her romantic suspense novels.
I first read these books as a teenager. Loved them then, love them now. Later, I found her Arthurian (Merlinian) series, which begins with the magnificent The Crystal Cave, and which strongly influenced my own approach to fantasy writing. Nowadays, she is best known for these books.
But for most of her writing career, her suspense novels were her mainstay. She wrote 15 of them, starting with Madam, Will You Talk? in 1954 and ending with Rose Cottage in 1997. Along the way she also wrote children’s novels and poetry.
Two things stand out for me about Mary Stewart’s suspense novels. The first is the description. She has an extraordinary, detailed knowledge of plants and ecosystems. There is never a casual reference to ‘flowers blooming’. No, she tells you exactly what flowers are blooming (in an Alpine pasture):
The grass was thick with familiar meadow flowers – harebells, thyme, eyebright, and, where the scythe had not yet passed, the foaming white and yellow of parsley and buttercups.
Or, on a Greek island:
After the dappled dimness of the wood, it took some moments before one could do more than blink at the dazzle of colour. Straight ahead of me an arras of wisteria hung fully fifteen feet, and below it there were roses. Somewhere to one side was a thicket of purple judas-trees, and apple-blossom glinted with the wings of working bees.
Her books are often set in ‘exotic’ locations: Provence, Damascus, Greece (both mainland and islands), Austria, the Scilly Isles. And I could easily be persuaded that she went to these places to study the plants and wrote the novels merely to finance the trips. Her locations are alive with plants, animals, sounds, smells and tastes, and the characters emerge out of them inevitably, or stand out in sharp contrast with the rural or exotic setting. It was part of her appeal to her early reading public: it was rare, in those days, for people to be familiar with the foreign; there was no David Attenborough to lead you through the multi-coloured world with a whisper as your guide. Even television was in black and white, so Stewart’s colourful descriptions were really necessary as well as evocative; her readers were being introduced to a truly new place.
(I must admit, I have wondered if she became so interested in colour because her maiden name was Mary Rainbow. Seriously.)
The other element which astonishes me in Stewart’s work is the sheer craft in her storytelling. In particular, the way she withholds information from the reader without the reader noticing.
She shows so much, and so compellingly, that we are blinded, unaware that we have not been told a crucial piece of information: what the character is thinking.
Let me give you a perfect example. Vanessa March has come to Austria in search of her husband, whom she has seen on a newsreel in a small Austrian town, instead of being in Stockholm on business as she believes. She and a young companion, Tim, identify the town and go there.
A man had just turned in from the street under the dappled shade of the chestnut trees. He paused there, looking towards our table. I believe I was already half out of my chair, regardless of what Annalisa might think. I heard Timothy say something, some question. And then the newcomer moved forward from the patch of shadow into the sunlight, and I met, full on, his indifferent, unrecognizing eyes and slight look of surprise.
I think I said, ‘No, no, it’s not,’ to Timothy as I sank back into my chair.
We then have introductions between Vanessa, Tim and Lee Eliot, the newcomer. There is small talk.
I managed to pull myself out of the turmoil into which the appearance of the “other Englishman” had plunged me, and answered him civilly, if slightly at random. ‘Oh, I can believe that…’
And the scene goes on. Later, Vanessa admits to Tim that she had been mistaken. That Lee Elliot looks remarkably like her husband, but is not him. That she has come on a wild goose chase, a ‘dreadful mistake’.
And then, later that night, when Vanessa is in bed in the Gasthof… (a full chapter and a half later, during which quite a lot happens)…
Then the hand parted the curtains. He didn’t make a sound, just slid between them like a ghost. As I sat up in bed, pulling the puff round me, he was already turning to draw the long windows shut. They latched with a tiny click. He stood there just inside the shadows, listening.
‘All right, Mr Elliot,’ I said. ‘I’m awake.’
Because, of course, Lee Elliot is her husband after all, and he has given her the ‘high sign to say nothing’ when they met, so she has pretended that he is a stranger instead of her husband, Lewis. Lewis, she now discovers, is an English ‘agent’. A more domestic version of James Bond.
So let’s look at how she did it. How does she make us not notice when she leaves something this important out of a first person narrative? She slides from inside Vanessa’s thoughts to Vanessa’s experiences and feelings, that’s how. We are told exactly what happens: Lewis looks at her with unrecognizing eyes. At that moment we have the switch: now we are told what she does, but in such a way that we think we understand what she is feeling. Look at the subtlety of ‘I think I said, ‘No, no, it’s not’.
It implies confusion. It implies a reaction. And she is, indeed, both confused and reacting, but not to what we are led to believe. Later, when Vanessa lies to Tim, she lies to the reader as well, and she does it by simply omitting her real thoughts.
Stewart’s ability to pull off this trick is even more impressive because she writes in first person. She uses our assumption, inherent in most first person narratives, that we are ‘listening in’ on our main character’s thoughts; even though we are clearly being ‘told’ the story. She uses our assumption that the narrator is reliable, in fact, and she gets away with it because Stewart only does this kind of sleight of hand with the romance.
She never plays these tricks with the suspense part of the plot. Where action, reaction and exposition are concerned, she plays it straight down the line. We are told everything we need to know and we are told it in all the necessary detail. And those descriptions I talked about earlier play their part, too. We are given such a wealth of physical detail about the narrator’s world that it’s easy to miss the fact her thoughts are being withheld.
So we trust our narrator. And then there are these slips, these withholdings, which are presented, I sometimes think, as a kind of English reticence, that not-putting-your-feelings-on-display ethic which seems to outsiders (and perhaps to British people too?) to be so much a part of the traditional English middle-to-upper-classes.
Here’s another example, from This Rough Magic. The heroine, Lucy, and the hero, Max, have just saved a beached dolphin (a wonderful, intense scene in the middle of a plot about smuggling and murder) on the Greek island of Corfu, during which endeavour they kiss. They are going up to Max’s place to dry off.
‘… What’s more, these blasted boots are full of water.’ (Max)
‘You might have drowned.’ (Lucy)
‘So I might. And how much would that have been to Apollo’s account?’
‘You know how much,’ I said, not lightly at all, but not for him to hear.
Now the point is that, up until this scene, Lucy has apparently distrusted Max and been not all that attracted to him. When you read back, however, you see that Stewart describes him minutely, but leaves out all of Lucy’s physical or emotional reactions to him. The kiss comes, as it were, out of the blue, and although we may have suspected that Lucy liked Max, there was never any confession of her feelings, to us as readers, or to Max. The kisses are passionate, but not romantic, and are told through dialogue and physical description.
So this ‘You know how much’ is the reader’s first insight into how Lucy might actually feel about him. Stewart ends the chapter on that note. We are given no further insight into Lucy’s feelings. The two go up to the house, plot ensues, and then, later, Max asks Lucy whether she meant the thing he was not supposed to hear. At first annoyed ‘at his obtuseness in asking this’, Lucy looks at him and decides,
I was the one who was stupid. If one asks a question, it is because one wants to know the answer. Why should he have to wait and wrap it up some other way when the ‘moment’ suited me?
I said it quite easily after all. ‘If you’d asked me a thing like that three hours ago, I think I’d have said I didn’t even like you, and I…I think I’d have believed it…I think… And now there you sit looking at me, and all you do is look – like that- and my damned bones turn to water, and it isn’t fair, it’s never happened to me before, and I’d do anything in the world for you, and you know it, or if you don’t you ought to- No, look, I-I didn’t mean…you asked me…’
It was a better kiss this time, no less breathless, but at least we were dry and warm, and had known each other nearly two hours longer…
I could write another 500 words about the cleverness of this speech and the sentences which surround it. Look at that ‘quite easily after all’. That tells us what we want to know.
Lucy is wholehearted, holding nothing back, like all Stewart’s heroines. If we had been in her mind all along, through the inevitable ‘does he like me?’ and ‘how attractive he is’, then her speech would seem, not wholehearted, but over the top – not full, but fulsome. By exercising restraint in the narration, Stewart can write not about romance but about love, and make us believe it. Her lovers rarely go through the classic periods of misunderstanding we associate with romance writing – they are united, once any initial problems are sorted through, against a common enemy, and they commit to each other with extraordinary ease, compared to most romance stories.
‘It’s ridiculous,’ one of her heroines says about this sudden love. ‘Yes,’ replies the hero, ‘but there it is.’ This prosaic acceptance allows us to accept it, too. And then they get on with the story.
This, I think, is what I’m learning from Stewart in my masterclass. Less is more. Elegant, not overblown. It’s okay not to wallow in the emotions of your main character, even if those emotions are love and desire and need.
Of course, knowing how she did it and being able to do it myself are two entirely different things…
In the book I am currently working on (A Soldier’s Wife, historical novel set in World War I), I have two people who are superficially very similar, but who are very different underneath.
This got me thinking about personality vs character.
Our culture is obsessed with personality: we’ve even made it into a noun, ‘a personality’; it’s possible to have an entire career out of how we present ourselves to the world. And while this presentation is strongly influenced by our background, socio-economic status, and so on, we feel instinctively that personality is somehow innate.
The research tends to back this up, at least with regard to some traits. Risk-taking, for example, is distinctly different in babies of only 6-9 months old. Shyness appears to be innate. Our genes, according to New Scientist, are implicated in five main areas: ‘These big five – extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, openness [to ideas] and agreeableness – define five axes along which all individuals fall.’[a]
Each of these is a continuum (from extroversion to introversion, from abstract intellectual curiousity (open minded) to complete concrete thinking…) and each interacts with the other to create a unique personaltiy profile for each person. What a tool for writers! I thought when I read this. You just figure out where your protagonist falls along each of these axes, and you’ve done your work.
But you haven’t, because you haven’t taken into account character.
By ‘character’, I mean the old-fashioned, non-writerly usage: a man of good character, strength of character, a shady character. This usage has moral overtones, and was often used judgmentally, but if we look deeper into it, we can see that ‘character’ in this context means the part of the person which controls their choices.
The relevant definition from the OED is: The sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual or a race, viewed as a homogeneous whole; the individuality impressed by nature and habit on man or nation; mental or moral constitution.
But we can go back further in thinking about character. The original meaning of the word was: A distinctive mark impressed, engraved, or otherwise formed; a brand, stamp.
Character is what happens to personality to shape the person’s moral and ethical universe, to set their prejudices, both conscious and unconscious, to modify or exaggerate their innate desires, and – most importantly for writing – to guide their choices.
Yes, a highly agreeable person may be more likely to want to take care of an elderly relative; but so might a less agreeable person, if they have been brought up (inculcated, brainwashed, socialised, whatever you want to call what we do to children) to respect age and believe that it is their inescapable duty to do so.
Let’s look at an example. Say we have two young women. Let’s call them Ashley and Caitlin. They both work at the handbag counter at David Jones’ Elizabeth St store. They have been chosen for this task because of their ‘personality’. They are both bright, bubbly, vivacious, friendly, highly social – extroverts, in fact, which the research tells us makes them prone to risk-taking behaviour. They are both of exactly average intelligence and have roughly the same level of education at the same kind of public school. They both moved out of their parent’s house and now live with their boyfriend.
One day, a customer spends an hour asking them for bag after bag off the ‘exclusive’ shelves behind the counter. They are polite, friendly, professional, but they’re not surprised when she goes off without buying anything. Before she goes, she does her make up at their mirror, and absent-mindedly puts her wallet down on the counter as she’s rummaging in her bag for her lipstick. She walks off without the wallet.
On the surface, these girls are identical. But now is the test of character. What will they do?
You can run this scenario twice. In one, Ashley finds the wallet and, after a moment of severe temptation, runs after the woman and gives it back. In the other, Caitlin finds the wallet and, after the same moment of temptation, slips in into her pocket.
Why the difference? Because Ashley has been brought up to be honest. Her parents valued honesty and prasied her when she showed it. Caitlin’s parents, not so much. In her house there was more of the ‘you’ve got to take what you can get’ attitude. And this shaped her character.
Now if all this sounds like a rehash of the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate, you’d be right. But what I’m interested in is the implication for writers.
Because if we look at the example above, we can see that character = plot. It’s the protagonist’s choices which shape the plot, and their choices, while influenced by their personality (Caitlin is extroverted, therefore prone to risk-taking), are determined, in the end, by their character. Too often, new writers concentrate on personality. So often I’ve asked my students to describe their protagonist, and they will describe the personality. They won’t mention values, or beliefs, or ethical or moral convictions, and yet these are what control choices, which means they control, in the end, the action in the story.
So, character equals plot, but personality, very often, equals tone. I think that’s next week’s post.
What the title says – the book hit the shops on 1st March.
Fingers crossed it will do as well as (or even better than) Princess Betony and the Unicorn.