Tag Archives: historical

Ruta Sepetys on Multiple Points of View

 

 

This month, I caught up with Ruta Sepetys, recently home from a two-month book tour for her latest historical YA, Salt to the Sea. It’s a gripping World War II story of a group of teenagers running for safety while the Russian army marches toward Germany and American bombers fly overhead. Set in 1945 in what is now Poland, the story leads up to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea, the greatest tragedy in maritime history.

 

 

In this video clip on Ruta’s website, we learn a bit about the family history that inspired Ruta to set her novel during WWII. Watching this clip is well worth four minutes of your time:

Ruta notes that “empathy is one of the greatest and most beautiful contributions that we can achieve through writing.” Empathy. Yes! So necessary when it comes to crafting a character, and especially when writing multiple characters and multiple points of view. I’m thrilled to have Ruta here to tell us how she did it.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Ruta. So glad you could share your thoughts about craft and process.

Ruta Sepetys: Thank you so much for having me!

ABW: Let’s start with that awful Alfred character—awful and oddly funny. The story is tense and Alfred provides a lot of comic relief in circumstances that are otherwise bleak. Was Alfred part of your early drafts, or did you weave him into the story later when you realized the need to lighten things up? How did you go about crafting him? To what extent is he based on someone you know? Continue reading

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley on Craft

Last week, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley won the Newbery Honor Award for her middle grade novel, The War that Saved my Life, and just this week she’s learned that it’s hitting the New York Times bestseller list. The book was also a co-winner of the Schneider Family Book Award, and the audio version won the Odyssey. Wow. Congratulations, Kim!

Kim and I “met” online after she blurbed Brotherhood (her lovely words appear on my book jacket and on the Brotherhood page of my website), and I was thrilled when she agreed to carve out time for this blog interview.

 

 

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kim! I loved reading The War that Saved my Life, and wanted to ask for your reflections on the craft of writing.

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: So glad to appear on your blog! Thank you for asking.

ABW: Let’s get right to the heart of The War that Saved my Life. Set in England at the start of WWII, it’s the story of ten year-old Ada, who was born with a clubfoot and whose abusive mother has tried to keep her hidden. As world events compel Ada out into the world, she must struggle both to understand all that she’s missed and to heal from the trauma of abuse. My first question is: how did you go about crafting Ada’s voice, so British and so real? Continue reading

Kelly O’Connor McNees on Writing

When James River Writers (JRW) invited me to interview some 2014 conference speakers, I looked over the impressive list of who’s coming and jumped at the chance to interview Kelly O’Connor McNees. I love the fact that she’d founded Word Bird Editorial Services. When she’s not writing her own fiction, she’s editing other people’s novels, so I figured she’d be perfect for my blog—as much in love with the process of writing as I am. And I was right!

Kelly will be speaking on panels during the JRW conference, October 18-19, 2014, in Richmond, VA, and on Friday, October 17, will lead a master class on “Point of View: Who’s Telling and Who’s Listening?” You can find more information on the JRW website.

Kelly’s third novel, The Island of Doves, came out earlier this year from Berkley/Penguin. She’s also the author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, and In Need of a Good Wife, which was a finalist for the WILLA Literary Award. I’m thrilled to share with you her wisdom on the writing process…

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kelly! I’ve just finished reading The Island of Doves, a beautiful novel set in Buffalo, Detroit, and the wilds of the Michigan Territory in the early 1800s, and I’d love to hear your comments on a few craft points.

Kelly McNees: Thank you for that very kind introduction! I am thrilled to be coming to Richmond for the conference and look forward to meeting lots of new friends and fellow writing geeks.

ABW: And they’re looking forward to meeting you! So let’s talk craft. I want to start at the beginning; usually I hate prologues, but yours drew me right in. You wrote it in scene, and I didn’t even notice that it was a prologue until five pages later when I hit the words, chapter one. At that point, the story had already hooked me. Very nice. Can you say a little about your decision to make that opening a prologue, rather than calling it a chapter?

KM: I think of a prologue as a snapshot of an event that came before the main action of the story, which is why it works to set it apart that way rather than write it as a chapter. But I agree with youtypically I do not like prologues. They can feel tacked on and melodramatic. Sometimes they make a big promise that the novel can’t live up to. I added this one in a later draft, after I had tried and failed many times to communicate the events it describes (in much more elaborate ways) through flashback in other parts of the novel. Eventually I realized that we didn’t need to know the entire history of this family up front. We just needed to know about this one very important event, the death of the youngest sister, Josette, because it sets everything else into motion.

ABW: Good point. I can see how it sets up the action. Now tell me a bit about your approach to backstory. I was impressed by the way you wove backstory through the novel. For example, on page 77, I hit this line: “And of course, then there was the matter of her sisters.” Then you dropped the thread about sisters and returned readers to the scene, leaving us curious. Perfect! How conscious were you that you were doing this? Were the early drafts of the manuscript more backstory-laden than the final? How do you develop your characters’ backstory and decide which parts of it to feed the reader when?

KM: I am glad to hear that those transitions worked for you because I spent a lot of time thinking about them! This book had a lot of backstory and in earlier drafts felt very much weighed down by it all. A big challenge was that the bulk of the action that motivates one character, Magdelaine, happened decades before the story begins, and it’s difficult to create a sense of urgency around that. But even though so much time had passed, Magdelaine’s pain was very fresh, and I tried to evoke that by showing how much she was living in her mind, living in her memories, and that those things were just as real as what was happening in the present. Still, the reader must always feel anchored in the time of the story, and that’s why I worked to break that rumination up with interactions with characters in the present, and construct the story so that those present relationships helped her deal with the unresolved pain of the past.

Another thing I learned while writing this novel is that while it’s important to know your characters’ backstories in detail, not all of that information will make it into the novel. And that’s okay. You need to generate a lot of material, a lot of experiences from the character’s life, before you can select the emblematic experiences that will be most useful. One carefully chosen detail can communicate more about who a character is than five more generic flashbacks that attempt to get at the same thing.

ABW: These are great answers. Thank you! I know that dealing with backstory is always a tough issue for novelists. What about research? This book clearly required you to learn a lot about the Michigan Territory. When I got to your Author’s Note, I found your extensive list of sources. Could you say a bit about your process in researching? Got any tips for writers working on historical fiction?

KM: I learned a lot about research in writing this novel. I didn’t have much of an outline when I began, and because of that, I spent a lot of time letting the research shape the plot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is time-consuming. Basically, there is an infinite number of things about the history of Michigan, 19th-century greenhouses, nuns, steamboat travel, etc. that interest me, and at a certain point I had to cut myself off from learning about new things that would potentially take the plot in a yet another direction. The book was marooned for a long time while I tried to figure out what it was actually ABOUT. In fact, I put it aside for a couple years while I wrote In Need of a Good Wife, and then came back to it. When I did, I could see more clearly that everything has to start with the characterswho they are, what they want. Their desires have to drive the story.

So the first thing I would say about research is that the best way to use it, and not let it overwhelm you, is to envision the scope of your story (even if you don’t necessary have an outline) and then try to stick to researching within those boundaries. In historical fiction, there is a necessary tension between historical fact and story, but the story must always win. The information you gather about the past must be used in service of the story. Otherwise it will burden the reader. I spent six hours at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago reading about how native people built birch bark canoes, and there is maybe one sentence about that in the book. The details are interesting to me, but they are not, it turns out, very important to the story. Bad historical fiction happens when a writer wants to prove how much she knows, or “teach” the reader about events of the past. Snore!

ABW: I love your sentiment that “the story must always win.” Agreed! Also, I found your themes interesting. Your characters voiced some compelling views, and I wondered if you resonated with their ideas, personally (were they part of your thinking before you began the story), or did they emerge in the course of writing? Did you set out with a particular theme in mind? Some of the ideas that captivated me were: (1) victims of domestic violence may seek both freedom and safety, but in this world generally, safety is illusive; (2) more than fear, loneliness does people in; and (3) the earth accepts everything with complete indifference.

KM: You ask whether these are my views or whether they emerged as I wrote the story, and I think the answer is probably a little bit of both. I think I had these ideas, but I hadn’t examined them much until they came to the surface in this story. I have been fortunate not to experience firsthand the violence that Susannah did; my hope there was to put myself in her shoes and try to imagine what it would be like to be trapped in that house, in the wealth that so many people envied, and yet be miserable and afraid.

But, more broadly, the safety/freedom dichotomy has always been interesting to me. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, right? I think sometimes when we want to be free (not so much in Susannah’s caseliteral freedom from violencebut in Magdelaine’s, who wants freedom from sadness), what we really want is to be safe and invulnerable, floating blissfully on some plane where we cannot be hurt. But the price for that safety is lonelinesstotal disengagement with others—because caring about someone makes you vulnerable. And I do think that loneliness is the greatest suffering of all.

Though this story does deal with some spiritual questions, I find much comfort, and I think Susannah and Magdelaine do, too, in nature’s indifference. The lake was there long before they were born, and it will be there long after they are gone.

ABW: Nice. I really enjoyed the depth in your novel, and your answer reminds me of its many layers.

Okay, now would you reflect for a moment on writing what you know? I happen to be Presbyterian, so I enjoyed phrases like the “clenched Calvinist jaw.” I felt both ownership and shame in scenes where Protestants slighted Roman Catholics (the historical authenticity rang true). Jerry Seinfeld might say you have to be a Jew to tell Jewish jokes; group-membership affords license to criticize or ridicule. My guess is that your background is Protestant, not Roman Catholic, because you portrayed the Protestants more critically than the Catholics. Care to comment? What are the challenges in writing as an insider versus as an outsider?

KM: In fact, I have much more experience with Catholicism! But it really was the historical facts of missionary work in the Northwest Territory that led me to depict the two groups as I did. The Catholics had been there since 1673, so about 150 years before the Protestants came. And while they influenced native communities in lots of ways, many of them negative, they did achieve a kind of coexistence. The Presbyterian approach was much more direct and interventionist, I guess you would say, and that was fueled by the ways their theology differed from Catholics’ (salvation through faith alone, rather than through good worksin other words, they could only save souls through conversionand often that was forced upon native people).

So there was tension on that level. But also there was class tension masquerading as religious difference. In the UK, at least, where Edward’s family had come from, Protestants were wealthy landowners who controlled all political and economic power, and they saw Catholics as inferior in every way. So those tensions of course carried over into settlements in America, like Buffalo and Detroit and Mackinac, where Protestants continued to enjoy economic privilege, and Catholics occupied a working-class position and were beholden to them. I am oversimplifying a very complicated relationship, but those are a few of the issues that underlie their uneasiness with each other.

ABW: Interesting! I’d like to hear more, but we’ve gone on for a while already, so we’d better wrap it up here. I’d love to hear your reflections on working as a freelance editor. What are the most common mistakes that you see new/aspiring writers making? When clients have disagreed with your editorial comments, how have they handled those issues, and how have you responded?

KM: I think many writers spend a lot of time researching how to find an agent or researching options for self-publishing, but maybe not as much time working to develop their craft. Learning how to identify your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and then doing the hard work of developing your skills, can be a slow, difficult process, and there’s a temptation to rush through it. This is something all writers have to push against, and I certainly see it in the writers I work with.

I also urge clients to read as if their lives depend on itand they do! (Well, their writing lives, anyway). Writers must read, read, read, and read some more.

As for giving feedback, I have lots of experience being on the receiving end of tough editorial comments, and I know how difficult it can be. I talk with my clients about how, to a certain extent, this kind of feedback is subjective, and as the author of the book, they of course must decide about which suggestions to take and which to disregard. And as much as possible I strive to make all feedback specific and actionable, and by that I mean that if I tell them something isn’t working, I have to be able to tell them why and how to fix the problem. But overall, things never get contentious because this isn’t about me, and it isn’t about being right. We are on the same team, both invested in making the book as strong as it can possibly be. And good writers can disagree about how to accomplish that. My role is to make suggestions and offer support as the author navigates the revision process.

ABW: Thank you so much for giving everyone at JRW a glimpse into your writing style and your work as an editor. We look forward to meeting you in Richmond later this month!

KM: I can’t wait! Thank you!

Writing Mysteries

This month I read two awesome mysteries, Mary Miley’s The Impersonator, and Kristen Kittscher’s The Wig in the Window, and found myself in awe of both authors’ mastery of plot. I imagine mysteries to be a tough genre to write, but what do I know? So I asked Mary and Kristen how they went about plotting their stories.

The Impersonator is set during Prohibition (the Roaring Twenties) and geared toward adult readers, and The Wig in the Window is contemporary and written for young readers. As each plot unfolded, I noticed similarities in the structure of these novels, so I just had to know…

A.B. Westrick: Did you outline the book before you began writing? How necessary is an outline when writing a mystery?

Mary Miley: I don’t outline in the high school sense (with Roman numerals and numbers and capital letters), but I am highly organized and I list my chapters or events in order, then decide when and how to work in the subplots before I start writing. As I go along, I make changes, of course, but I’m guided toward an end.

For mysteries, plot rules. Of course, characters are critical too, but the plot is what mystery readers are buying, and it needs to be intricate or surprising or challenging and complicated to succeed. A mystery writer, I think, needs to know the ending or the critical unexpected element before he/she even knows the beginning. For example, in the fourth of my Roaring Twenties series, which I am writing now, I knew the “trick” before I knew anything else—I knew the unusual way the murderer was going to kill his victim and how Jessie would know—and the police wouldn’t—who did it. I had nothing else for plot, just that. I am now in the process of constructing a plot around that critical element.

Kristen Kittscher: I didn’t outline The Wig in the Window up front but instead charged ahead blindly. I made a mess of things, took ages, then wrote an outline after the fact that helped me shape the story. I’ve taken the opposite approach with the sequel because I do think that outlining saves a great deal of headache (and heartache?), even if the story ends up deviating from the original outline. The ripple effect when you try to revise a mystery is extreme; with so many set-ups and pay-offs, it’s easy to get yourself in a tangle! Without some careful advance planning, you can end up with some elements that are almost impossible to change without rewriting the whole book.

ABW: Okay, so plot rules and outlines help. You’ve confirmed my assumptions! A similarity that I noticed in your plot structures was that in both, the protagonist reaches a low point (fairly close to the end) where she’s sure that her efforts have been for naught. To what extent do you consider this down-in-the-dumps moment to be integral to the plot of a mystery? Do you know of any mysteries that do not structure the plot this way?

KK: Interesting question. I can’t think of any that don’t! However, I’m having trouble thinking of any story that doesn’t have that low point feeling, even in less plot-driven books. Perhaps that low point is essential to show a character changing and growing?

MM: It’s always effective for the reader to think things are hopeless for the protagonist. Make his life impossible, then let him figure out the final solution. Most mysteries, from James Bond to Nancy Drew, follow this pattern. In The Impersonator, Jessie reaches a low point after she’s figured out that the murderer is tied to bootlegging, and it doesn’t do her any good for two reasons. One, she can’t go to the police because during Prohibition, the cops were in cahoots with the crooks. Two, in her case, it’s a standoff—the murderer knows she isn’t the heiress because he killed the heiress. But he can’t turn her in for impersonating the heiress or he’ll hang for murder; she can’t turn him in or she’ll go to prison for fraud. So things get worse for Jessie. For me, that stand-off is the critical part of the book. The Impersonator isn’t a typical who-done-it, but rather a we-know-who-did-it-but-that-doesn’t-solve-the-problem book.

ABW: You’re reminding me why I wanted to feature these two books in the same blog post. The Wig in the Window would also fit the description, “we-think-we-know-who-did-it-but-that-doesn’t-solve-the-problem”! Now, let me ask about characters. In both of your books, a highly curious character sets out in search of evidence to explain something odd that she’s observed. This characteristic—curiosity—strikes me as the fundamental trait for the protagonist in a mystery. Do you agree? Disagree? In your writing process, which came first—the character(s) or the plot?

Kristen Kittscher

Kristen Kittscher

KK: I absolutely agree. Though I never set out intentionally to create curious characters, their relentless drive to discover more truths is what keeps the mystery’s pages turning. The characters came first for me. My first draft was an episodic collection of hijinks between two friends. I didn’t even understand I was writing a mystery, believe it or not. I thought that because I could write passable dialogue and some nice sentences, I could tell a story. I was very mistaken! Eventually, with a lot of help and feedback, I learned some story structure basics and carved out a plot.

MM: You may be right about curiosity, Anne, but I never thought of Jessie, my protagonist, as especially driven by curiosity. A lifetime spent on the vaudeville stage made her highly alert to nuance and expert at reading other people (the audience, the other performers on stage) because that was critical to her success. And success meant eating. The 1920s was an era when there was nothing even close to welfare, government assistance, or food stamps—you worked or you starved. At her lowest point, Jessie was completely without stage prospects and realized her only other option was prostitution. So she joined up with a swindler and become part of a scam to impersonate a missing heiress. Her sensitivity to people (she’s almost psychic) and her ability to get inside the heads of others gave her an edge in solving crimes. She noticed things that the police didn’t. More than curious, I thought of her as tenacious.

ABW: Good point, Mary. The characters in The Wig in the Window are tenacious, too. And both books are real page-turners. While writing, how conscious were you of the need to raise the stakes? How much of the novel’s tension was present in the first draft, and how much was added during the revision process? (How different is the final, published version from the manuscript that your editor first saw and on which you got your initial contract?)

KK: Thank you for calling it a page-turner! The final, published version is not drastically different from the manuscript my editor first saw. However, my very first draft and the one I ultimately submitted to my editor are barely recognizable! The Wig in the Window is my debut novel, and while writing, I was learning how to tell a story, so I was very conscious of the need to raise the stakes, create tension, and try to eliminate excess. It’s still a little bit more meandering and complicated than I would’ve liked, but there were limits to what I could do in revisions without pulling it all apart entirely. I’m still happy with it, of course—but that’s why I’m now an outlining evangelist!

Mary Miley

Mary Miley

MM: I never track the number of revisions I’ve made; it would be impossible, there are so many. For The Impersonator, at least 50. Maybe some writers can say that their first draft is great, but I can’t say that. I re-write and re-write and re-write before I even submit to my critique groups, and then I re-write some more after their input. I learn by revising. By the time my St. Martin’s editor saw (and loved) the manuscript for The Impersonator, there wasn’t much she wanted changed, and I accomplished her requested revisions in a couple days.

ABW: It’s helpful to hear how much revision happened before you showed your manuscripts to your editors.

MM: Absolutely. Revision is something all writers must do, and when I hear some complain about it, I cringe. When a critique group or an agent or editor says changes are needed, it’s because they want the book to be better. I once knew an agent who told me she had a client whose manuscript she managed to sell for a decent amount, and when that publisher requested certain changes in the manuscript, the author turned huffy and refused to make them. He thought his work was perfect as it was. The publisher, of course, backed out of the agreement and the agent dropped the client, and I can almost guarantee that he never sold his work anywhere with that attitude. Publishers and agents are on the writer’s side! In almost every case, their changes will improve the book.

ABW: Are both of you big readers of mysteries? What authors and/or books would you recommend for writers who want to pen a mystery?

KK: I’m a big reader of mysteries! I’m embarrassed to say that I never noticed what a mystery fan I was until after I wrote a mystery myself, but I do read voraciously in the genre. I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson (Case Histories) and Tana French (In the Woods), as well as Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina. I like mysteries with richly developed characters—and I’m willing to sacrifice pacing to get them!

Kids’ mysteries I love include the Kiki Strike series by Kirsten Miller, about butt-kicking delinquent Girl Scout/detectives fighting crime in the underground tunnels of New York City, as well as the classics The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.

There are a lot of great resources for mystery writers: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James Frey has a silly title but great tips. Now Write! Mysteries, edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson, has some outstanding exercises.

MM: I’ve loved mysteries since I discovered Nancy Drew at age eight. Back in the 1950s those books cost $2 each. I’d get one for my birthday and one for Christmas—the libraries didn’t carry them because they were “trash”—and I’d finish them in a couple hours. I pined for more, but there was no place to get them. So the best day of my young life was when an older neighbor girl went off to college and cleaned out her room, sending a couple dozen Nancy Drews across the street to my house. It’s a wonder I didn’t die of happiness. I still have them on the top shelf.

I graduated from Nancy Drew to James Bond (not the movies—the books), Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Sherlock Holmes, Dasheill Hammett, Laurie King, and Mary Roberts Rinehart. By and large, I prefer historical mysteries to contemporary (no surprise, as I am a historian) and like the more traditional mystery formula, not insipid “cozies” or extremely violent, bloody horrors. And as a mother, I simply cannot read any book about the killing of a child. I just can’t do it.

ABW: Any last words of advice for aspiring mystery-writers?

MM: Nope. Just good luck!!

KK: Having advice to give implies I know what I’m doing! I don’t have specific mystery advice, but I will offer some cheerleading: do not waste time worrying about whether you have talent or whether your writing is going somewhere. It will soon enough!

ABW: Thank you, Kristen and Mary! Your answers here have made me marvel at the many ways books affect us as readers. And let me just add that I hope the emphasis on revision doesn’t scare away any aspiring writers. Yes, revision is tough, but the pay-off (publication) is very sweet, indeed!

Kathryn Erskine on historical fiction

I was thrilled when James River Writers (JRW) asked me to interview Kathryn Erskine in advance of the JRW conference in Richmond, Virginia, October 19-20. Kathryn will be speaking on three conference panels, and on Friday, October 18, will lead a workshop entitled, “Getting in your Character’s Skin.” Kathryn is the author of numerous novels for young readers, including the 2010 National Book Award-winner Mockingbird. Her most recent novel Seeing Red was released by Scholastic in September 2013.

Welcome, Kathy! I’d love to talk with you about Seeing Red and the way you approach the writing of historical fiction. The story is set in the early 1970s and touches on all sorts of issues, from social unrest and the Vietnam War to racism, the women’s movement, domestic violence, and bullies. In more than one scene, characters note that “the times, they are a-changing,” a line from a Bob Dylan song that was popular at the time. Not only has the death of Red’s father wreaked havoc on his nuclear family, but Red’s family is in turmoil because the whole society is changing.

So my first question is: when you began this novel, did you begin with the character and later decide to set his story in the 1970’s, or did the historical time period come first? What did you set out to write about, and how did it morph into the story that it became?

Kathryn Erskine: Characters always come to me first, but I knew Red was in the world of the early 1970’s because of what he was seeing, what bothered him, what he cared about. What changed over time was a more direct approach to an issue I really wanted to address: racism in this country. When I first started this story years ago I was too tentative and only alluded to the problem. I finally gained the confidence as a writer to come out and say what I wanted. Some critics may not like it because it’s raw and honest. But I don’t write for praise (although praise is lovely!); I write to have people think about tough issues and talk about them.

A.B. Westrick: Since Seeing Red was set during your own growing-up years, how much research did you have to do for the story, and how much came from your own memories? What sort of research did you do, and did you uncover details that surprised you (such as incidents you had not remembered)?

KE: Certainly the feelings of the era came from my own memories, and some of the products, too (I played Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Love’s Fresh Lemon was my first cologne, and I wore Dr. Scholl’s really uncomfortable wooden sandals) but since I didn’t live in the U.S. for part of my childhood, I knew I needed to do a lot of research. Some of that research could be done via books or on the internet, but some required visiting museums, historical societies, Rosenwald and historically black schools, listening to the music of the time, watching TV shows, movies, and documentaries from and about the era, and talking with people who lived through segregation and integration.

What I found that surprised me was the amount of land illegally taken from African-Americans after emancipation by cheating, intimidation, violence and murder. I was floored. I was also surprised at how we ignored African-American burial grounds, and still do. There was an incident near my house where a builder would have plowed one under if a neighbor, one of the descendants, hadn’t gone to court to prevent thatand observed the construction daily to ensure the court order was followed. I find that blatant lack of respect hard to fathom. Finally, I was completely stunned to learn how active the KKK still is. Really? Really?

ABW: We’ve all heard George Santayana’s adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” In Seeing Red, the characters wrestle with this concept during a history lesson, and on the board, the teacher writes, The truth will set you free. How do these themes inform or influence your own interest in writing historical fiction? Why was it important for you to include them in the book?

KE: Well, here’s an answer that may sound a little funny: I abhor waste. After seeing people with no clean drinking water in Africa it makes me cringe when people leave the faucet running. And that feeling extends to wasting any resources—time, energy, peopleso it really bothers me when we make mistakes as individuals, a nation, the world, and then don’t bother to learn from them, but keep repeating them. What a waste! To prevent that kind of waste we have to be honest about who we are and what we’ve done. We have to know the truth, and we have to make sure everyone knows that truth. Surely, then, at least some people will see the need to stop bad things from happening again. That’s the only way we can hope to prevent that wastewhich, in cases like racism, is also a horrific, immoral tragedy.

ABW: For young readers, Seeing Red is undeniably historical, but for many adults, the actions occurred in the not-so-distant past. Did you ever find yourself writing scenes that could have appeared in 2013, but on revision had to be tweaked in order to remain true to the historical setting? For you, how different is 2013 from 1972?

KE: People, good or bad, are the same over time. Our sensibilities change, often because we’re forced to confront issues we’d rather ignore, and then come to see that a different view is not so frightening after all. So, in a sense, 2013 is very different from 1972 which I happen to think is a good thing, but do we still have racism and intolerance? Absolutely. It may be covert or it may be directed against different groups, but it’s still with us. It was 2009 before Charlottesville, VA, officially apologized for closing schools and excluding blacks fifty years before. I just hope every generation improves our record.

ABW: What words of wisdom do you have for writers setting out to tackle historical fiction?

KE: Do your researchenjoy the researchbut make sure the story comes first. I have reams of research for Seeing Red but very little actually made it into the story. It all informed the story, though, because I wrote from an informed place, and that’s what counts.

Readers who want to know more about Kathryn Erskine and her award-winning books should check out her website and blog. In addition to participating in the James River Writers conference and Friday workshops, October 18-20, Kathryn will also speak at the Teen ’13 Book & Author Celebration on Thursday, October 17, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. at Richmond Public Library, Main Branch, 101 East Franklin Street. This event is part of the American Library Association’s Teen Read Week and the Virginia Literary Festival.

Thank you so much, Kathy, for taking time from your busy schedule to reflect on your process in crafting Seeing Red!

Where to Begin a Novel

How and where is it best Come August, Come Freedomto enter into a particular story—which moment, which sounds and which smells should a writer introduce in the opening scene? When I first read Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows, and the Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau, I was fascinated by Gigi’s decision to begin the story the way she did. I asked her why she chose that approach, and am privileged to feature her answers here. I found Gigi’s comments as engaging as the novel.

A. B. Westrick: Come August, Come Freedom is the story of Gabriel, the enslaved blacksmith who organized a massive but ultimately unsuccessful rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. What I found intriguing was the way you chose to enter into Gabriel’s story. The first line is, “Ma believed,” and the chapter unfolds to show Ma nursing him when he was six months old. Why did you choose to begin the book with Ma?

Gigi Amateau:  As I read and studied about the institution of slavery during Gabriel’s lifetime, I learned (in a way that I hadn’t really integrated into my thinking about slavery before writing Come August, Come Freedom) that the crucible of slavery was the childbearing role of enslaved women. The laws governing a person’s status as free or enslaved were grounded in the concept of maternal descent—the mother’s status (not the father’s) determined a child’s status. So, the impulsion of the plot is maternal descent. Also, I wanted to create the character of Gabriel as a person who was not the first freedom fighter in his community or in his family, but one who was born into a tradition of resisting oppression and fighting for freedom. So, I surrounded him early on in the novel with men and women imagining freedom and rebelling against slavery.

ABW:  The opening chapter establishes a strong sense of place—a footpath, the creek beyond the fields, an apple seedling. While it grounds Gabriel and his story, literally and figuratively, it also sets a tranquil tone for a story that’s anything but tranquil. Again, can you talk about choosing to begin the story in this place rather than in, say, a blacksmith’s shop or marketplace, or some other place that Gabriel would have frequented? You might even have chosen to begin it with the scenes that became chapter two—glimpses of slaves treated harshly and slaves dashing for freedom—but instead you chose this tranquil tone. Can you say more about that?

GA:  First of all, thank you. Writing a convincing sense of place both in the countryside and in the city was important to me, as was conveying a feeling of tranquility and beauty at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. To me, it’s valid that Gabriel would have experienced beauty as well as terror. That’s the human experience, right? Even in the darkest days of our history, the human spirit fights for beauty, for love. It would’ve been wrong for me to write this book by dismissing the real suffering and unbearable oppression that was an everyday part of enslavement. All of history shows us how the human spirit insists on faith, hope, and love, so I think it would have been wrong of me to lead with anything but such a spirit.

Gigi Amateau

Gigi Amateau

As I studied the primary source documents related to Gabriel’s Rebellion, I saw that much of the recruiting and planning took place outdoors—on the river, at Young’s Spring, under the bridge at Littlepage. For sure, the blacksmith forge, taverns, and the cityscape were key, too, but the people gathered outside for worship, funerals, weddings, fish feasts, and barbeques. You know, I feel like the evidence suggests that the natural world offered Gabriel some refuge, a place where he and his men could speak candidly. Trial testimony shows that the men did discuss the rebellion at taverns and on the street, and in these places they often spoke in code: The boys on the brook are ready to do the business.  When they gathered outside, their words were direct: We have a plan to rise and fight for our freedom.  ­­

ABW: Writers are encouraged to begin a novel “in scene” rather than in back-story. You manage to do both: your opening chapter is very much a scene, and at the same time, it depicts Gabriel’s life before he set out to organize the rebellion. I think your approach works because of the sense of yearning, of desire, of feeling that emanates from the opening pages. In early drafts of the novel, was this your opening scene, or did you craft it later?

GA:  Hmmm…I always liked that beginning! When I look back at the earliest draft, the first line is: Ma believed. You know, I just feel like this is a story about a man who was part of a multi-generational rebellion, a freedom-movement that started well before him and continued, or continues, long after 1800. So, to me, the story had to start with a linking of generations and end there, too.

ABW:  How long did it take you to write Come August, Come Freedom, and can you tell me a little about your process in writing it?

GA:  Well, my first research notes are dated 2004. I thought a lot about Gabriel, saved clippings, and dabbled in the research before really starting to write the pages in 2008. My editor, Karen Lotz, and I went on a candlelight tour of Mount Vernon one Christmas… maybe in 2006 or 2007? There, we shared a profound moment while we were standing in the area where the quarter had been at Mount Vernon. The only way to describe it is that we experienced a lingering, a really deep encounter—for me and, I think also for Karen—with the history of our nation’s enslavement of men, women, and children. That’s about when I moved more into researching seriously. The research informed my writing constantly. I never stopped researching! I wrote, then researched more, then wrote more, then researched. It was a very circular and layered process.  I’m still researching the story. Who knows, I might stick around the 1800s for a while yet.

ABW:  Thank you so much for sharing some of your thoughts and process in writing Come August, Come Freedom. I even enjoyed reading the comment Candlewick Press printed on the book jacket: “Gabriel’s story illustrates how one individual’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness can intersect with a nation’s pursuit of a more perfect union. Gabriel went all in for freedom. To me, he is one of American’s greatest patriots.” Thank you, Gigi, for bringing his story to life!

Emotional seeds for stories

This past Saturday while speaking on a panel at the James River Writers Conference, I choked up and found myself babbling an apology to the audience. The panel moderator, Meg Medina, had asked such a simple question: when you began writing your novel, what was your starting point? What was the emotional place—the germ—the seed—from which the story came (the story being the YA novel I recently sold to Viking—the story of a boy who struggles to protect a friend from the KKK in 1867—pure fiction, but with historical anchors).

In answer to Meg’s question, I began to speak about my Alabama-born father, and the words caught in my throat. I felt my father’s shame over the fact that our ancestors had owned slaves, his pain over present-day racial prejudices that continue to poison parts of the South. When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, Daddy ducked my questions about the South, avoiding the topic as best he could. But at some point, he gave in and told me in his soft, thoughtful Southern drawl that at a young age he had vowed never to raise his own children there. He’d gotten out as soon as he could (on the G.I. bill) and never returned. He taught me that “it’s fine to judge people in any number of ways—of course we make judgments all the time—but don’t ever judge a person by the color of his skin.” What I suspect he meant was never treat black people the way I saw them treated.

So there I was on a panel with Meg and the inimitable Kathi Appelt, and I choked up over the image of my daddy as a shy, gentle boy in the 1930’s. I imagined him suffocating beneath the weight of expectations that he become a man in the way manhood was defined by good Southern boys. What he witnessed, I’ll never know because he’ll never say…so while writing my novel, I imagined what it might have been. The novel isn’t about my father—it’s a story set sixty years before he was born. But the emotional seed came from my daddy’s yearning to get as far away from his roots as he could.

My editor and I are brainstorming titles, and I’ll post the release date when Viking decides… Meanwhile, tell me… what is the emotional seed of your story? What triggers unexpected tears?

The difference between content and process

In mid-March, as I staffed the James River Writers (JRW) table at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, it occurred to me that the JRW Conference differs from the VA Festival in the way an MFA differs from an MA or PhD. The VA Festival is all about books and the JRW Conference, about the craft of writing.  Of course, there’s an overlap.  But it comes down to the difference between content and process, between analyzing literature and writing it.

I particularly enjoyed hearing Kekla Magoon talk about molding historical facts to heighten her protagonist’s struggle in The Rock and the River.  But if Kekla were to speak at the JRW Conference, she might go into more depth about the challenges of the craft.  She might note how she picked up the narrative pace in the fourth chapter by manipulating readers’ sympathies (her policemen characters beat up a boy, then charge the boy with resisting arrest).  She might tell us how she wove setting into plot.  She might talk about scenes added or deleted to enhance the story’s emotional arc.

It’s one thing to have a story to tell, and another to tell it well—to show up at the page every day in order to wrestle with the tense and pace and voice while developing characters and searching for the right structure. It’s one thing to love reading, and another to embrace the art and process of writing.

The VA Festival may not have showered me with tips on craft, but it drenched me in warm fuzzies.  I staffed the JRW table with Meg Medina and caught up with writers who have spoken at the JRW Conference over the years—Clifford Garstang, Charles J. Shields, Bill Glose, Michele Young-Stone, Irene Ziegler.  JRW members Linda Dini Jenkins, Kristi Austin, Beth Rogers and Judy Witt were there, as were conference-regulars Becky Mushko, Stephanie McPherson and Michelle Ehrich.  I saw SCBWI colleagues Ellen Braaf, Kathryn Erskine, Valerie O. Patterson and Anne Marie Pace, and Vermont College alums Kekla Magoon, Tami Lewis Brown, Maha Addasi, Louise Simone and Winifred Conkling. JRW shared a table with Rose Esber, and Lee Knapp sold her fun, grammatically-correct ceramics. I’m already looking forward to VA Festival 2012.