Friday, November 30, 2018

Creating Conflict

Last week I mentioned that a novel (screenplay, television script, etc.) is not the place to showcase cordiality, mature relationship skills, and the appreciation of others. But fictional characters also require internal conflict to appeal to readers. This is not news: it probably forms the most basic piece of advice in writing classes and craft books. But finding out what a given character’s internal conflict is can challenge the most seasoned writer.

I cite myself as an example. I have, by now, eight published novels, a ninth completed but destined never to go on sale for copyright reasons, and a tenth—Song of the Siren—in the final stages of proofing and due for release next February. You would think that establishing internal and external conflict would by now be as simple as checking off boxes. Sit down, decide what I want to feature this time, figure out which sources of conflict are available, and decide.

But no, crafting a novel doesn’t work that way. At least, it’s never worked that way for me. Sometimes I can spot the internal conflict relatively easily: in The Golden Lynx Nasan imagines herself as a warrior heroine while everyone else in her life pushes her toward the conventional roles of wife and mother. That’s external conflict, but also the source of her internal conflict: which goals take precedence, her own or her family’s? Suppose, in being true to herself, she alienates those she loves?

In other novels the characters themselves force me in a particular direction. I recognized early on that Juliana, the heroine of Song of the Siren (formerly known as Roxelana, for fans of the Legends series, although it turns out that’s not her real name either), had established such effective barriers against change that it would require a disaster to knock her into undertaking the difficult journey toward self-realization. Only stripping her of every emotional and material resource she possessed could reveal her internal conflict and get her to confront and overcome it. Even then, I struggled for a while, once I’d dumped her in a virtual ditch, with ways to get her heading along the road to a better place.

Grusha, for some reason, presents a different kind of problem. A third of the way through the rough draft of Song of the Shaman, I have yet to feel certain that I know what she wants at this stage of her life, let alone what stops her from reaching out and grabbing it. I’ve produced half-a-dozen Goal, Motivation, and Conflict charts without any of them sticking. The minute I think I have her figured out and start a new chapter, she throws me a curve ball, and I know I still don’t have it quite right. But I’m closing in on her, and any day now I’ll see what it is that she’s hiding even from herself.

In part, this process reflects the way I write. Perhaps there are people out there who can run the charts and check off the boxes, but I find my characters, my story, even the details of my plot on the page. I start with raw exposition, pages and pages of it, then turn it into dialogue and action devoid of place or time or sensory detail, and only gradually fill in the blanks through draft after draft, most of them undertaken before I move on to the next chapter and start the whole process again. The fellow writers in my critique group are immensely helpful at this stage, although I’m sure I drive them mad by changing everything around every month, whether in response to their comments or my own evolving sense of the story.

Eventually, I get far enough into the novel that I understand where it’s heading and therefore where it needs to begin and what has to happen for it to get there. Sometimes I manage to create a list of potential events to act as a guideline; in other cases, like Song of the Shaman, the list keeps morphing as the book develops. But once I get to that magic midpoint, when I understand the source of the main characters’ internal conflict, that’s when the real fun begins. The rest of the book writes itself, and I become a channel through which it flows onto the page. When I reach the end, the critique group comes into play again, ensuring that the whole thing hangs together in minds other than mine.

Internal conflict isn’t limited to heroes and heroines, of course. It’s an essential element in “rounding” (that is, filling out) a character, and in a well-crafted novel antagonists and secondary characters also have conflicting hopes and fears. But theirs are always lesser; otherwise they take over the story. For the protagonists, deep internal rifts and choices that pull them in opposing but equally appealing directions are essential. Only then do they come alive on the page.

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Friday, November 23, 2018

The Five Positives and Fiction

I’m writing this post on Thanksgiving Day, which by the time it posts will have given way to that mad shopping extravaganza known as Black Friday, the lead-in to an outburst of nonstop commercialism designed to communicate the idea that anyone who waits to shop for their loved ones will lose out.

I suppose the timing could prompt a marketing post—an overdue topic, no doubt, as marketing is the element of novel writing least often covered on this blog. But instead I’m going to focus on Thanksgiving, with both a capital and a lower-case T.

It’s a lovely idea for a holiday, Thanksgiving, even if it does sugar-coat the abominable history of those first settlers’ interactions with the Native Americans. A holiday to stop, take a breath, spend time with those close to us, and appreciate all the great things in our lives is something we all need. In this mad-rush world, taking a moment to think about the good things relieves stress and produces a much-needed balance. It’s too bad that merchandising has increasingly encroached on even the one special day devoted to that exercise in gratitude.

Giving thanks also strengthens relationships by encouraging us to notice the many kind and helpful things our partners and family members do without being asked. Dr. John Gottman, who runs the Love Lab in Seattle, has discovered that happy couples exchange five to seven times as many positive comments as negative ones and that he can predict who will divorce on that basis alone. If you don’t already give your chosen partner more praise than complaints, try switching your emphasis. You’ll be surprised. And having made the switch myself, I know why. It makes my relatives and friends feel good, of course, but perhaps just as important it makes me feel good about them. I get annoyed like everyone else, but the thanks help me keep the irritations in perspective, so they don’t block the positive things from view.

One place this approach doesn’t work, though, is in fiction—by which I mean fiction itself, not interaction with other writers, where keeping criticism positive is just as important as it is in any other arena of human contact. But novels and scripts thrive on conflict, and nothing propels conflict faster and more effectively than people who talk past one another, who just can’t let go of their own way of looking at the world. This is conflict at its most raw: not meaningless arguments, which soon become boring and predictable, but the clash that occurs between people with fundamentally different views of how life works, who can’t find a point of agreement even if they want to (and in fiction, they usually don’t want to).

And why can’t they resolve their differences, at least until the end of the story? Because they can’t accept that the other person also means well, even if he or she seems misguided, or can’t believe that the other person has knowledge they lack or that their own blind spots may be getting in their way. They can’t, in short, appreciate the other person. They don’t feel thankful that this person, so unlike themselves, has entered their lives. Even antagonists don’t see themselves as unhelpful, never mind evil, although antagonists are perhaps less likely than any other category of fictional character to understand that their way of approaching life is not everyone’s and their desire for some object or goal can’t justify trampling on the rights and feelings of others.

But we are not fictional characters, and if we make the effort, we can understand the value of reaching across the aisle—in the general, not simply the political sense. So let’s, by all means, read and watch and enjoy the struggles of our favorite good guys and bad guys as their authors strive to keep them benighted and apart until the resolution. But in our lives let’s remember to express our gratitude for the good things our fellow humans do. Thanksgiving, it turns out, can be an all-year event.

And one last thank you to my readers: as of this week, this blog has had more than 100,000 hits. Some of them bots, undoubtedly, but for those who were not, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. May we have many more virtual exchanges, and Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

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Friday, November 16, 2018

Gotta Love Those Bones

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago on this blog (“Dipping a Toe in the River of Time”), one of the best parts of being a historical novelist is the freedom to make things up. When I wear my historian hat, I am not exactly solemn—I can get excited about historical mysteries too—but I do spend a lot of time checking details and ensuring that the sources can support whatever argument I make.

I do the same as a novelist, but the beauty of writing fiction is that when the sources go silent or provide conflicting information, I can step back and give my imagination free rein. I did that in my latest novel, The Shattered Drum, which as a quick online check reveals, opens with the funeral of Prince Andrei of Staritsa, who died in December 1537 after six months in a Kremlin prison. Readers of the series will recognize his name, because the previous novel, The Vermilion Bird, takes place against the backdrop of the events leading to his imprisonment. For everyone else, he was Ivan the Terrible’s uncle, the youngest of a large family and one of three sons who survived into the 1530s.

Although the sources are terse on the subject of Andrei’s death, they suggest that he, like his older brother before him, died of starvation. If so, the command to deprive them of food almost certainly came from their sister-in-law, Elena Glinskaya, and her favorite, Prince Ivan Fyodorovich Ovchina Telepnev Obolensky, then the most prominent court representative of the Cheliadnin clan. As I do in the novels, we’ll refer to him from now on as Telepnev, for simplicity’s sake.

It’s generally believed that Elena and Telepnev were eager to get rid of Andrei and his older brother because as adult males of the royal house, they posed—or were perceived to pose—a threat to the rule of Elena’s older son, known to history as Ivan IV “the Terrible.” Three when he came to the throne, Ivan was seven when his uncle Andrei died. So although nominally an autocrat in whose name all government took place, Ivan himself had no say in these events.

Less than four months later, on April 3, 1538, Elena passed away. The sources don’t describe the circumstances, but they indicate surprise, and for good reason. We don’t know exactly when Elena was born, but the most likely dates are 1508 or 1510, making her sixteen to eighteen when she married and twenty-eight to thirty when she died. Even in the 1530s, the sudden death of such a young woman raised eyebrows. Rumors of poison abounded, and fingers immediately pointed at the powerful Shuisky clan, which opposed the Cheliadnins in general and Telepnev in particular, but historians have never been certain. 

What we do know is that Elena’s unexpected death turned an already precarious situation into something close to a free-for-all as the clans started jockeying for position. Within ten days, the Shuiskys had taken over the government and ordered Telepnev’s arrest. He too soon died of starvation in a Kremlin cell. His sister, who had served as nanny to Ivan IV and his younger brother, was stripped of her position and shipped off to a convent. And although the young Ivan IV remained grand prince and would one day be crowned as Russia’s first tsar, he became a kind of political football: bereft of his parents and parent substitutes, he fell under the control of either the Shuiskys or their chief opponents, the Belsky clan, depending on who was on top at any given moment. Ivan later gave Russia’s aristocrats plenty of reason to regret their behavior, but that’s a story for another day.

Since it seemed unlikely that the mystery of Elena’s death would ever be solved, and the circumstances surrounding her passing were so portentous and fascinating, I invented a plot for her murder that satisfied the needs of my novel. Not to give away spoilers, let me say only that I chose to treat the rumors of Elena’s love affair with Telepnev as fact and extrapolated from the absence of reliable birth control in the sixteenth century an extremely inconvenient and potentially scandalous pregnancy. How those two events led to Elena’s death, I will leave readers to discover for themselves.

So far, so good. I confessed my sins, as I always do, in the Historical Note. The novel came out, ending its series, and I moved on to the next one. As far as I knew, that was the end of Elena and Telepnev in both the literal and the figurative sense.

But as so often happens, life had other ideas. This week my friend Ann Kleimola, whose expertise in Muscovite history has saved me from more than one blooper, sent me a photo from her phone with the table of contents from a new multivolume collection on the burials of Moscow’s grand princesses. “What do you want to see?” she asked. I told her I’d love to know what they said about Elena Glinskaya. Was she really poisoned, I wondered, because a hasty exhumation in 1929 had found evidence of mercury and arsenic in her bones but not enough to prove deliberate poisoning. (Mercury was used in medicines at the time, and arsenic in cosmetics.)

Indeed, the specialists at the Kremlin Museum who conducted the new exhumation and examined the stone sarcophagus that contained Elena’s remains concluded that, given the high levels of mercury and arsenic in her bones and the presence in her skull of formations associated with toxic mushrooms, her death was almost certainly the result of deliberate poisoning. After considering various possibilities, they came down on the side of mercury as the agent. They did not speculate on who gave it to her or how.

But that was not the most amazing conclusion the scientists reached. Elena’s low iron count suggested that not long before her death she had suffered a massive loss of blood, most likely in childbirth. The bone of a newborn was found in her tomb, as well as assorted other objects that no one has yet explained.

Clearly, that’s not the end of the story. But the scholars felt comfortable enough with the results to argue that the rumors about Elena and Telepnev, still circulating after five centuries, were based on fact; that Telepnev fathered Elena’s infant, although DNA testing is not possible for several reasons; and that someone had a motive for ensuring that the whole truth never came to light, even if that meant murdering a reigning grand princess.

And they say the Borgias had a lock on treachery. When will the Legends of the Five Directions find their TV series or movie?

Images: Prince Andrei of Staritsa and his older brother according to a 17th-century fresco on the walls of the Archangel Michael Cathedral in the Kremlin; Elena Glinskaya and her husband, Grand Prince Vasily III; the death of Elena Glinskaya according to the 16th-century Illustrated Chronicle Codex—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Bookshelf, November 2018

It’s been a while since I did a bookshelf survey, but with the ton of interviews I have scheduled between now and next May, you can bet those shelves are groaning. Here’s a sample of the late 2018/early 2019 books, more or less in order of publication, with more to come in a month or two.

Samantha Silva, Mr. Dickens and His Carol (Flatiron Books, 2017)
Perfect for Christmas, this lovely reimagining of how Charles Dickens came to write his beloved classic doesn’t just get into Dickens’ head but draws on elements of his novel to tell the tale. Depressed by the failure of Martin Chuzzlewit to attract an audience, Dickens starts the novel in a thoroughly grinch-like mood, resisting demands from his publisher to produce a seasonal story while doing his best to rein in his family’s desire to celebrate the holidays in style. Things get so bad that his wife heads north with the kids to escape. But the arrival of a beautiful lady takes Dickens on a three-day journey that neither he nor his loyal fans will ever forget. If this book doesn’t get you into the holiday spirit, you are indeed a Scrooge!


P. K. Adams, The Greenest Branch (Iron Knight Press, 2018)
This first of two novels about the twelfth-century mystic, healer, and abbess Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician, tells a story that will conclude in January 2019 with The Column of Burning Spices. Adams is a gifted writer, and she brings Hildegard, her medieval world, and especially a range of fascinating, well-rounded monastic companions vividly to life. And—a bonus for me—the author’s next project is a mystery series set in early sixteenth-century Poland, at the court of Sigismund I “the Old” where my own next novel, Song of the Siren (due in February 2019), opens in 1541.


Terry Gamble, The Eulogist (William Morrow, 2019)
Whether as a result of the 150th anniversary of the end of the US Civil War a few years back or just the re-emergence of a topic whose time has come, there seems to be a revival of interest in the Underground Railroad. In this novel a group of Irish immigrants gives up everything to settle in the Ohio River Valley, only to endure one crisis after another. The daughter of the family, Olivia, after being forced to confront the reality of slavery, begins to work with her brother, an itinerant preacher, to rescue people from bondage and then to end the institution altogether. I’m always drawn to books with powerful heroines, so this one looks like a natural fit.


As I’ve complained a few times this year, I’ve been offered so many novels set during World War II since I interviewed Gwen Katz about Among the Red Stars in January 2018 that I’ve more or less sworn to lay off the topic altogether. So much for New Year’s resolutions, because these two books from separate imprints at HarperCollins both find new angles from which to approach not only the immediate effects of the war but its long-term consequences.

Pam Jenoff, The Lost Girls of Paris (Park Row Books, 2019)
Pam Jenoff’s heroine, Grace Healey, is minding her own business when she sees an abandoned suitcase sitting underneath a bench. These days, she’d call it in as a potential bomb threat, but this is 1946, so Grace opens the suitcase and finds a dozen photographs of women that lead her on a hunt to find out who they were and what happened to them—a journey that leads her into the history of the resistance, espionage, wartime journalism, and much else.

Kate Quinn, The Huntress (William Morrow, 2019)
Kate Quinn’s novel returns us to the world depicted in Among the Red Stars, but from a different perspective. Nina Markova, one of the Soviet women pilots known as the Night Witches, ends up behind enemy lines. Her experiences there cause her eventually to join forces with a British journalist who’s determined to track down an exceptionally vicious ex-Nazi known as the Huntress. Through the perspective of the Nazi hunters and the contrasting viewpoint of a teenage girl suspicious of her new stepmother, Quinn raises important questions about secrets and the power of the past to influence the presence.


Karen Harper, American Duchess (William Morrow, 2019)
And after all that darkness and angst, what could be more fun than a fictionalized true story about a Gilded Age millionaire’s daughter fulfilling her mother’s deepest fantasies by marrying an English duke? Based on the life of Cornelia Vanderbilt before, during, and after her wedding to the duke of Marlborough, this smart and self-aware story about an America ruled by robber barons and a Britain governed by stiff-upper-lip aristocrats looks like the perfect ending to this half of my list: high tea and crumpets, with a large dollop of family life and a dash of politics—Downton Abbey, but for real. Well, as real as a novel can be.

Last but not least, I have The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo (Flatiron Books, 2019). I loved Choo’s first novel, The Ghost Bride, and interviewed her back in 2013. So when I heard she had a new book coming out, I wrote to her right away. Like most of the novels on this list, this one is scheduled for release in February, and since its exploration of colonial Malaya in the 1930s does contain elements of fantasy in its tale of mysterious corpses that can turn into tigers, Gabrielle Mathieu will conduct the podcast interview for New Books in Fantasy and Adventure. But stay tuned to this blog, where I will be hosting a written interview with Yangsze Choo around the time of the release/interview.

Additional kudos to all the designers who produced these gorgeous covers. Whether I’ve already read the books or not, their work makes me want to!

Friday, November 2, 2018

To the Ice

We instinctively expect, I think, life in Tudor England or colonial America or medieval Japan to be different from what we experience today. But sometimes it can be difficult to imagine how much has changed since our grandparents’ childhood—or our parents’. Sure, they deluge us with horror stories about a time without the Internet, search engines, or laptops thinner than sandwiches. They talk about newsprint coming off on their hands and phones that didn’t know where they were and black-and-white televisions that could receive four channels through the rabbit ears propped on the top. But they had cars, didn’t they? Electricity? Vaccines? Central heating?

As you can hear in my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview, Lee Zacharias’s lyrical new novel, Across the Great Lake, takes place only eighty years ago, but in some ways it depicts another world. One where sturdy ferry boats without radar to guide them travel regularly through the perilous straits and roiling currents of Lake Michigan, breaking the winter ice with their prows as they struggle to stay afloat long enough to transport railroad cars to the other side of the lake. One where sailors believe that every ship has a ghost and some are ghosts, the psychic remnants of sunken vessels that surface to warn still living boats of approaching doom. One where a stray kitten brings bad luck, polio remains a major threat to children, and a girl child can’t join a ferry crew no matter how much she loves the idea.

The girl in question, Fern Halvorsen, narrates her story from the perspective of an eighty-five-year-old lady in our own time, but the voice we hear is very much that of her five-year-old self—bounded and directed by the perspective of a lifetime but still sounding through the decades with a child’s innocent enthusiasm. It’s a remarkable achievement, a window onto a vanished past, and well worth a few evenings of your time.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Lake Michigan in 1936 is an essential commercial seaway, one that captains and their crews must cross regularly no matter the season, breaking massive ice floes under the prows of their ships and praying that they survive the fierce swells and changeable winds that have left a legacy of ghost ships and wrecks. Into this world comes five-year-old Fern Halvorsen, daughter of the captain of the Manitou, with a small suitcase and her teddy bear. Fern’s mother is consumed with grief after the loss of another child, and her father fears for his daughter’s welfare.

To Fern, the Manitou is a magical place where she can roam largely unsupervised with her new friend Alv. She gets into every corner of the ship, becomes a pet of the crew, and even adopts a stray kitten she finds in the hold. But the winter of 1936 on Lake Michigan is more brutal even than most, and the consequences of that journey and the secret Fern carries away from it haunt her for the rest of her life.

With an ear for crisp dialogue, an unflinching focus on character, and a remarkable instinct for spare but telling detail, Lee Zacharias creates in Across the Great Lake an unforgettable tale about the child inside every adult and the long-term effects of the choices we make.

Image: Lighthouse on South Manitou Island, Lake Michigan, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph by Geoffrey George.