William Kowalski on Fiction Writing

Websites can be terrific resources for aspiring writers. Be sure they are written by established writers, preferably award-winning ones with a long list of publications. William Kowalski offers sage advice on all aspects of fiction writing, from the basic elements of storytelling to the intricacies of developing plot, characterization, and conflict that keep your readers engaged. The following is a glimpse of what Bill has to say on the art of writing fiction. Take a look, then head over to Bill’s website for more in-depth views on the critical aspects of great storytelling: www.williamkowalski.com

Aristotle listed the five simple aspects of storytelling as setting, character, plot, dialogue, and thought, and he outlines their rules. He stressed that plot is everything—tell a good story, but keep it simple. Characters come second: your characters must be believable, make sense, be consistent, and they must win the respect of your reader.
Hook your readers in with twists in plot and with moments when your character either finds out something about him or herself or about one of the other characters in the story. Kowalski refers to these as ‘reversals and discoveries. He recommends that if you want to learn more about Aristotle and his take on storytelling, read The Poetics. He also suggests reading other masters of the craft.

Bill taught me a lot about plot. He was my mentor. Without him, I am certain I would never have figured out what I had been doing wrong in my novel Somewhere I Belong. As it is based on the true story of my father’s early life in New England and Prince Edward Island, much of the research took place in the form of interviews. The story started out well enough, but because I wanted to include everything I had jotted down in several notebooks, it completely lost its focus. So the draft I submitted to Bill was little more than a series of anecdotes that were loosely connected in two settings under a single title.

Bill kindly shared the advice about plot he had received from his own mentor. Bill’s mentor had been a military man. In military speak, when an officer tells his men to be ‘at ease,’ this means they can do anything they want as long as their right foot stays anchored in place. He drew a connection between the plot and right foot. He noted that in order to avoid losing direction, a novelist or short story writer must always come back to the plot. “The plot is what keeps your readers’ interest; they must want to know what happens next. Anything that happens in your story must move the plot forward or inform the reader about one of the main characters. That is, it must keep coming back to the right foot.”

In Set-ups and Pay-offs, Bill stresses that in order to keep your readers interested, you must create expectations (set-ups) about what is going to happen next. Then you have to fulfill them in unexpected ways (payoffs). In this article, Bill tells how skilled writers plant cues without the reader being aware, how they establish the mood and engage the reader emotionally, and how they set their character out on a quest that is fraught with risk, and yet is believable.

In his article on Character Development, Bill suggests that if you want your readers to think of your characters as real people, you must see them that way too. He notes that it will take several drafts to get to know your character. And he suggests creating a character background sheet for each one. Here, you list significant events that have already occurred in your characters’ lives, from birth to the moment we meet them in the story, their socio-economic background, neighbourhood, parents (including what they do for a living), siblings, their relationships with their parents and siblings, their favourite food, colour, and clothing, their deepest fears, their hobbies, favourite sports, books, and first love. (I would suggest adding the turns of phrase each character might have that are specific to them.) Bill, then, suggests creating a template and printing it out for each character, then filling it in as you go. This will help with consistency. It will also help you if you are writing a sequel.

Bill says a lot about conflict. He stresses that conflict is the only way to make a story gripping and engaging. If used subtly, it can strengthen a story. Conflict can and should take plenty of forms in your novel.
“When approaching conflict, think about what your character wants. Then think about what gets in their way as they go after it. Conflict is all the things that get in the way of the main character getting what they want. And if the reader can identify emotionally with your character, they will care about whether they get what they want.”
In When is Your Novel Ready to Submit, Bill offers advice on what writers should think about and do before seeking an agent (a must in the US) or a publisher, if they don’t want their manuscript to get lost in the slush pile.
1. Get the opinion of readers you trust and ask them to make a list of things they like and don’t like. This is a tough task. Those close to you will want to heap praise on something they know you have been working on for a long time. They won’t realise how unhelpful this is. It’s best to not ask a parent, sibling, spouse or best friend, unless they have already been published and know you are thick skinned. I always submit my writing to my writing group. They are ruthless and this is exactly what I want. Without them, I would never have been published. If you aren’t a member of a good writing group, I suggest hiring an experienced fiction editor. This will cost money, but it might make the difference between getting or not getting published. If you have decided to self publish, then seek the services of an experienced editor, for sure. If you put a badly written book out there … All I’m saying is that word of mouth can work both ways. A good story counts for a lot. Still, it must be well crafted and well written.
2. Make sure your novel has a beginning, middle and an end.
3. Bill reiterates William Faulkner’s advice when he says, “Kill your darlings.” If you are particularly attached to a passage or you think it is the best writing you have ever done, this could very well be one of your darlings. It was only when I could highlight whole passages of writing and hit the ‘delete’ button that I felt I was becoming a real writer.
4.Your story comes first. Bill says, “If you have a great story to tell but worry you’re not a good enough writer, go for it! You’ll get good on the way.”

I’m sure Bill will continue to publish excellent articles on his website. But so far, his final piece of advice is to study the masters. Storytelling is an art and a skill that can be learned. Your goal is to write a simple story, with lots of conflict, and to write it well.

I learned a lot about writing from reading William Kowalski’s award-winning novel Eddie’s Bastard. As a beginning novelist, I had difficulty establishing my character Pius James Kavanaugh’s voice and his inner conflict. I also had trouble setting up a believable plot. Reading Eddie’s Bastard showed me how to get inside my character’s head and the importance of doing so. It also showed me how to use backstory to flesh out a plot, how to set the main character out on a quest and put believable and difficult obstacles in the way. And as Eddie’s story took place over two novels, reading Eddie’s Bastard and its sequel Somewhere South of Here showed me how to develop a plot, over two stand-alone novels, without getting the story mired down in a single setting with a single set of characters.

Many novelists recommend reading the masters. But this doesn’t mean only reading works that were written centuries ago by dead white men. It means finding out who today’s masters are and studying their work. William Kowalski’s novels offer great stories, excellent writing, and lots of opportunity to learn from one of North America’s contemporary masters.

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Ernest Hemingway on Writing

HemingwayErnest Hemingway on Writing

On a rare trip to Florida with my family, some years ago, we decided to drive to the very end of the I-95 and check out Key West. This was a destination I had only ever dreamed of seeing and, now, we were actually going there. The children loved snorkelling off the beach and watching the buskers along the quay, my husband and I enjoyed browsing through the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. But for me, the highlight of the trip was an afternoon touring Ernest Hemingway’s stately home. A guide took us sauntering through his living quarters, told tales of wife number two and the fact Hemingway had accused her of spending his last penny on the salt-water pool in the back yard. When we reached the second floor, he pointed to an open, wooden walkway that led to Hemingway’s atelier. This was where he had written A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea. At the time, my first novel, Somewhere I Belong, was still only an idea that was percolating; the urge to write had not yet risen to a crescendo. I wanted to be a writer—the dream was there—but I lacked the confidence to put pencil to paper. I crossed that wooden bridge, envisioning how Hemingway had done so every morning (except in summer, when he preferred to fish) and stayed there until he had knocked off a respectable number of words and it was time to go to Sloppy Joe’s. I touched his desk and examined his writing implements. And as impossible as it was, I imagined I was breathing in the same air he breathed. I closed my eyes and tried to take in some spark of inspiration from one of the world’s most famous and prolific writers.

Naturally, the tour ended at the bookstore, where every one of Hemingway’s brilliantly written works of fiction and non-fiction was available for sale. And even though I had read almost all of them, I bought an armload that included a thin volume of non-fiction entitled Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips.

Hemingway thought it bad luck to talk about writing, yet he did it often in letters and interviews. He wasn’t referring to the bad luck that comes from talking about a specific piece of writing, such as a novel or a short story collection, of how this causes a loss of verve in its crafting. He was talking about writing in general as if it were a poker game where you are compelled to hold your cards close to your chest for fear of the opponent discovering your hand.

Nevertheless, Hemingway slipped some of his ideas on writing into the many letters he wrote to trusted friends, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, and his publisher, Charles Scribner, Jr. Other sources include magazine articles based on interviews with this famous writer. His novels The Green Hills of Africa, Death in the Afternoon, and A Moveable Feast are also terrific sources of Hemingway’s thoughts on the topic.

Larry W. Phillips’ slim volume on Hemingway’s musings offers a series of quotes taken from some of the above-mentioned sources. In this blog post, I attempt to summarize Hemingway’s views on the craft of writing, breaking it down by category. Everything that is posted here is taken directly from and attributed to this one particular book, which was published by Scribner in 1984. It is a terrific read; it is insightful and lots of fun. And even though I have gleamed what I consider to be its high points, I strongly recommend adding it to your compendium of ‘how-to’ books on writing. Hemingway was a master of the craft and Phillips captures his thoughts on a number of important aspects of writing both fiction and non-fiction.

What Writing is and Does

Writing tries to make a picture of an entire world and boil it down. It should be truer than true and make the reader feel as if they have actually experienced what has happened in the story. The setting should be true, the story and characters should be made up.

“The secret is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do …”
From Mary Hemingway, How it Was, p. 352.

Symbolism

On this topic, Hemingway notes that it is hard enough to write a paragraph. He does not believe writers intentionally insert symbolism into their writing. Rather, it is up to the reader to interpret what the people or objects or places in the story mean. And this all depends on the experience and knowledge they bring with them before they delve into it.

“There isn’t any. The sea is the sea; the old man is the old man … The sharks are all sharks no better no worse. All the symbolism people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”
To Bernard Berenson, 1952
Selected Letters, p. 780.

The Qualities of a Writer

According to Hemingway, a good writer must have an imagination and a sense of justice and injustice. The latter should show in how a character is developed or how a story is approached. Also, the writer must have a depth of knowledge on the subject of the story, but yet leave enough out so that some things are only implied.

“… real seriousness in regard to writing being one of the two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent.
By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p. 214

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”
From GEORGE PLIMPTON
“An Interview with Ernest Hemingway” The Paris Review 18, Spring 1958.

The Pain and Pleasure of Writing

Hemingway never felt as good as he did when writing.

“I have to write to be happy whether I get paid or not. But it is a hell of a disease to be born with … There’s no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
To Charles Poore, 1953
Selected Letters, pp. 800-801

What to Write About

By writing what you know about, Hemingway didn’t imply that a writer is restricted to their own immediate personal fount of knowledge. He meant that, to write a believable story, a writer must do a lot of research on the subject that is addressed therein. A writer must get to know it well. Then they will have to decide what to leave in and what to leave out so that the reader can suppose what would have happened next or what the outcome would be. A writer’s job is to challenge the reader, to give him or her just enough information that they can figure things out for themselves or envision the backdrop of the story without being hit over the head with it. The reader will know the writer is writing from a depth of knowledge more by what the writer leaves out than by what he or she leaves in.

“… whatever success I have had has been through writing about what I know about.”
To Maxwell Perkins, 1928
Selected Letters, p. 273

“… I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.”
A Moveable Feast, p.12.

Advice to Writers

Hemingway recommended watching and listening. He said seeing and listening is where it all comes from. He said not listening dries up a writer. He also suggested a writer should not judge but, rather, understand. This allows a writer to see a subject from different points of view. Just write the story, lay it all out, and let the reader be the judge.

He said if you really want to tell a true story, you need to get inside your character’s head. You need to show what your character is feeling or thinking in any situation you as a writer are placing him or her in. You also need to show the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. If everything is beautiful all the time, then your story will not be believable because it will not depict real life.

Hemingway stressed that good writing is hard work. He often spent an entire morning writing and re-writing a single paragraph. He would break down his writing so that it was easy and simple and direct. In a letter he wrote to his publisher, Charles Scribner, in 1951, he noted that he had accomplished his best work in The Old Man and the Sea.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know … If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true declarative sentence I had written.”
A Moveable Feast, p. 12.

“This is the prose that I have been working for all my life … that should read easily and simply and seem short and yet have all the dimensions of the visible world and the world of a man’s spirit. It is as good prose as I can write as of now.”

Hemingway read extensively and learned from other writers. He often referred to the poet Ezra Pound as “the man who had taught me to distrust adjectives…”

He learned from other great writers, mainly because he wanted to be better than them. He always had a goal and it was to continually improve on his most recent work.

Hemingway’s objective was to take the reader into the scene or ‘the country’ as he saw it. He suggested that writers should try to remember how they felt the first time they came upon a new landscape. It is the job of the writer to put the sensation of awe and wonderment onto the page so that the reader comes away from it not remembering the words but the actual country itself.

“Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and work up onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake.”
A Moveable Feast, p. 91.

Hemingway would often write in the weather as it was outside his door.

“Remember to get the weather in your god damn book—weather is very
important.”

He did not encourage the use of fancy punctuation. He recommended a writer use the regular tools and do it better than anyone else before they start branching out into other techniques:

“My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green.”
Letter to Horace Liveright, 1925.
Selected Letters, p. 101.

On the use of dictionaries: “If a writer needs a dictionary he should not write … There are only certain words which are valid and similes (bring me my dictionary) are like defective ammunition (the lowest thing I can think of at this time).
Letter to Bernard Berenson, 1953.
Selected Letters, p. 809.

Working Habits

Hemingway made up his stories as he went along. In his working habits, he wrote from nine in the morning until about two in the afternoon, except in summer, when it was too hot and he went fishing. He always stopped when the going was good and he knew what was going to happen next. That way, he had something to pick up on the next day.

Hemingway advised writing as well as you can and finishing what you start. He suggested always re-reading what you have already written:

“The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day, read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all one piece. And remember to stop when you are still going good. That keeps it moving instead of having it die whenever you go on and write yourself out. When you do that you find that the next day you are pooped and can’t go on.”
By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p. 217.

He recommended giving your writing a cooling off period before tackling the re-writing. The longer you stay away from it, the better:

“I want to make sure that I leave it alone long enough so I can find the places where I get the kick when writing it and neglect to convey it to the reader.”
Letter to Maxwell Perkins, 1928.
Selected Letters, p. 285.

He notes that learning to write is a process. He suggested beginning writers use a typewriter [that would mean a computer today] and get right to it. But for serious writers who have been developing their craft, he suggests a slower route to the final draft:

“ After you learn to write, your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it; and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333, which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so that you can better it easier.”
By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p. 216.

On a daily word count, this is what Hemingway had to say:

“… I found that 400 to 600 words well done was a pace I could hold much better. I was always happy with that number. But if I only had 320 I felt good.”
Letter to Maxwell Perkins, 1944.
Selected Letters, p. 557.

Hemingway had a reputation as a drinker. But when it came to his writing, he was strict:

“My training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was working.”
A Moveable Feast, p. 174.

Characters

Hemingway recommends that the setting be true but that the characters be fictional. When he started writing short stories, he wrote about actual events and two of his stories hurt people. Later, he only wrote about people he had completely lost respect for. But even then, he tried to give them a fair shake. He also suggested that your story be about something that could actually happen:

“Invention is the finest thing, but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.”
Letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934.
Selected Letters, p. 407.

He suggests getting your characters right by making them living people and not moulding them according to any clichés that might be implied by their politics:

“If you get a noble communist, remember the bastard probably masturbates and is jealous as a cat. Keep them people, people, people, and don’t let them get to be symbols.”
Letter to John Dos Passos, 1932.
Selected Letters, p. 354.

What to Leave Out:

Hemingway stresses the importance of knowing what you are writing about, of having a deep understanding of the topic. Then, the trick is to figure out what to leave out, but at the same time leave enough in so the story is fully fleshed out for your reader.

“I write one page of masterpiece and ninety-nine pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
To F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934.
Selected Letters, p. 405.

“All the stories from the fishing village I leave out. The knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.”
GEORGE PLIMPTON “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway”
The Paris Review 18, Spring 1958.

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of the movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

Hemingway also suggests paring down your writing:

“It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”
Letter to Maxwell Perkins, 1945
Selected Letters, p. 594.

Hemingway could be harsh on weak writers. Nevertheless, it is important to cut out the cute parts, the flowery parts, and what Hemingway refers to as ‘crap.’

“I keep it under control so as not to have to cut out crap and re-write. Guys who think they are geniuses because they have never learned how to say no to a typewriter are a common phenomenon. All you have to do is get a phony style and you can write any amount of words.”
Letter to Maxwell Perkins, 1940.
Selected Letters, pp. 648-649.

The Use of Obscenity

Hemingway suggests never using slang in narrative, only in dialogue. When he uses swear words, he makes sure they are words that have been used ‘for a thousand years’. Using contemporary slang or swear words soon makes the writing go sour. He suggests never using a word to shock, but rather using your own good taste and judgement. Think about whether a word can be replaced and still have the same effect. Think about whether these words are part of the vocabulary of the time and place your story is set in.

“I try to get the feeling by the use of two or three words, not using them directly, but indirectly … to make a point … My use of words which have been eliminated from writing but which persist in speech has nothing to do with the small boy chalking newly discovered words on fences … I always used them sparingly and never to give gratuitous shock.”
Letter to Everett R. Perry, 1933
Selected Letters, pp. 380 and 381.

Opinions on Other Writers

Hemingway had a long list of writers he both learned from and wanted to best. The list in Ernest Hemingway on Writing is not conclusive. Nevertheless, the writers mentioned in this book are as follows:

Tolstoy; Flaubert; Thomas Mann; James Joyce; Henry Fielding; Dostoevsky; Turgenev, and Mark Twain.
He names Huckleberry Finn as “the best book America has had.”
He names Fathers and Sons as one of the best novels ever written.

Humour

Hemingway suggests that a writer must have suffered much to write humour. He also has an interesting take on how it is received by the critics:

“The bastards [critics] don’t want you to joke because it disturbs their categories.”
Letter to Arnold Gingrich, 1933
Selected Letters, p. 385.

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Riptides: New Island Fiction, edited by Richard Lemm

Riptides CoverI recently published a story in a wonderful anthology of short fiction called Ripetides: New Island Fiction, edited by Richard Lemm. I feel privileged to have been included among the twenty-three talented writers whose short stories were selected for this collection. Richard set two criteria: The first was a close connection to Prince Edward Island; the second was excellence in writing. Here is what Richard had to say about the process of putting the book together.

A call was sent out asking writers to submit unpublished short stories for a fiction anthology featuring newer writers with a significant P.E.I. connection. There were no boundaries for setting or genre, only a limit of 5,000 words. PEI is strong on tradition, which includes out-migration and immigration. Thus, its culture and demographics are changing, and these PEI writers both are Island-born and hail from away – Australia and Calgary, Newfoundland and Ukraine. The result is twenty-three stories, which take the reader from a ritual gathering of PEI widows to Chernobyl in the nuclear disaster’s aftermath, from a menacing marital game of hide-and-seek through the Maritime landscape to gender clashes on an outback sheep ranch, from a religious commune in Alberta to the Enlightenment Tour bus into Quebec. Whether the characters are struggling for dear life in breaking surf, gasping for emotional air at a ladies’ candle party or fearing the Tall Tailor’s scissors, the authors demonstrate a rich variety of fictional talent and imagination emerging from what Island poet Milton Acorn called the “red tongue…In the ranged jaws of the Gulf,” and revising our perception of “the land of Anne.”

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Somewhere I Belong

Somewhere I Belong

NimbusPressMy first novel, Somewhere I Belong is based on a true story. The novel opens with our character, P.J. Kavanaugh, at North Boston Station. His father has died in a terrible explosion and Ma is moving the family to her home on Prince Edward Island. They settle in, and P.J. makes new friends. But the winter is harsh and the farm chores are endless. Added to this is Mr. Dunphy, a drunken-bully teacher who constantly finds reasons to punish the boy. P.J. finds consolation in his new friend Pat Giddings Jr. and in talking to his dead dad at night. But when Mr. Dunphy pushes him too far, P.J. seeks revenge and gets himself and Pat Giddings Jr. into a heap of trouble. Ma is furious when both boys are expelled from school.

A letter soon arrives from Aunt Mayme, announcing a charity ballgame for the families of the men who died in the explosion that killed P.J.’s dad. It will take place in the old neighbourhood ballpark, and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are playing. She has sent tickets for P.J. and his brother, Larry, and a money order for the train fare home. But Ma won’t let P.J. go because doing so would reward bad behaviour. P.J. is devastated. But he soon finds an ally in Uncle Jim. “I wouldn’t give up yet; there’s still time.” Find out how the story unfolds in Somewhere I Belong

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Reading Wolf Hall

Image of Wolf Hall

Reading Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

I love this book. But, following the story takes some prior knowledge of British history during the Tudor era, Henry VIII’s penchant for rolling in the hay with comely, well-connected wenches, and the higher ups in his court. Most of the latter requires figuring out all of the Thomases.

Thomas Cromwell factors largely in the story of King Henry VIII’s quest to have the Pope consent to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and allow him to marry Anne Boleyn. And even though Mantel lays out each of the main characters and their relationships with each other, chapter-by-chapter, it is still sometimes difficult to determine who is speaking to whom.

Call me slow, but I was almost two hundred pages into the large-print edition before I realized that if I couldn’t figure out whom Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, or Rafe Sadler, or Liz Cromwell, or Thomas More were speaking to, it had to be Thomas Cromwell because he’s the main character.

The number of Thomases also got me confused. I had heard of Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer, and Thomas More in a history class I took some thirty-odd years ago. But, throw in Thomas Wyatt, Thomas Avery, Thomas Howard, Thomas Audley, Thomas Wriothesley, and Thomas Seymour and you have ten Thomases. This, in addition to their wives, the other numerous courtiers, the Pope, who was the leading political figure those days, and a number of foreign dignitaries. And they all had pages or knights, or wenches they bedded down with in addition to their wives. You get the picture.

Don’t blame it on Mantel—she didn’t make this stuff up. Any writer knows that assigning the same name to ten of the characters in any novel would amount to literary suicide. But, in real life, this is what happened. Social media didn’t exist in those days. Nor did Hollywood, vampire novels or Harry Potter. And even if they did, parents would not have been able to glean them for ideas on what to name their little bundles. During Henry VIII’s era, at least in Europe at the time, the Catholic Church held sway over the naming of a newborn child. The choices for the men were limited to the names of the twelve apostles and a few saints; and you can easily guess why there were so many Marys, Elizabeths, and Katherines, those days.

Put yourself in Mantel’s place. Imagine you are to write a novel that takes place in your office building and everyone there was born between 1954 and 1985. Imagine the president is sick of his post-menopausal wife, has his eyes on the CFO’s two comely daughters, and wants to take a go at them, one at a time, so as to knock one of them up and produce an heir to his estate. Imagine he has already produced a bastard with one of them, but he is still not happy. Or maybe the CFO is foisting his two comely daughters on the president because he wants a corner office in the penthouse or the company is opening a branch in Bali and he aims to move there and manage it. If there are bank accounts involved, surely someone is skimming off the top. And if the secretary wears tight clothes and shows a lot of cleavage, someone is no doubt chasing her around and boffing her in the broom closet. Then there’s the office gossip, the do-nothing, the schemer, and the narcissist who treats everyone like crap and insists on holding centre stage. Keeping in mind the influences of the times, chances are that ten percent of every older man in the building will have a name like Bob or John or Mike. And if there are board meetings, where the three Bobs are all trying to speak over the six Mikes and the two Johns, and you have to write the dialogue, you might find yourself in a bit of a pickle.

The older women likely will be called Susan or Mary or Debbie. The younger set will have names like Jennifer and Melissa and Amanda; the men, Joshua or Edward or Alex. And you can bet there’d be a slew of Jessicas, Emmas, Bens and Christophers because these names were popular for decades. But, you might not have to grapple with several women having the same name all being in the boardroom at the same time. Even these days, there are usually only one or two token women there anyhow. But you will still have to figure out all of their relationships, as in who are their friends, spouses, children and parents. Add in the personal assistants, personal trainers, financial advisers, therapists, and life coaches. If there are divorces going on, you can bet there’d be a few lawyers and accountants involved. There are also the Philippino nannies, cleaning ladies, mailpersons (because you can’t say ‘man anything’ these days) and travel agents. Then you have to figure out where each one fits into the story at any given time.

In my novel “Somewhere I Belong,” which is based on a true story, I originally tried to do something similar. But, as it is based on my father’s life and his own mother was a main character who had 13 siblings in a rural community where everybody knew everybody’s business, and my grandfather’s family name was similar to that of my grandmother (Landrigan vs Lanigan), well … you get the picture. In the end, to avoid confusing my reader, I had to change one of the family names, cut out a number of characters and combine others. To make the storyline work, I had to make some of the characters older and change the dates of some of the major events. But, Mantel couldn’t take the same liberties; she was writing about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell and had to maintain some semblance of historical accuracy.

Mantel had to organize a readable novel around ninety-five characters and several plots and subplots. That’s a lot of work. In fact, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she said, “You really need to know where is the Duke of Suffolk at the moment. You can’t have him in London if he’s supposed to be somewhere else.” She had to know all of the goings on in the king’s court, about the marriages and the family alliances they made in jolly old England, in France, Spain, and the Italian principalities (Italy wasn’t a real country yet). Then, she had to figure out what the impact of Henry’s eagerness to ditch the King and Queen of Spain’s youngest daughter would have had on political relations between those two countries.

Mantel had to go with what she had found in the history books. And she did—big time. Her research is impeccable. Her dialogue real, her setting and story compelling—she really takes you there. As a writer of highbrow, literary, historical fiction, it’s her job to challenge her readers. As a reader, it’s your job to stick with her for the journey. In the process, you will learn some British history and, in particular, what it what like to be a higher-up in a king’s court during the sixteenth century.

The best way navigate Wolf Hall is to sit down and figure out all of the Thomases.
Then, when you are really confused, turn to the front of the book and take another look at the list of characters Mantel has itemized for each chapter and the family tree she has also included. The ninety-five characters and all of the subplots are somehow related to each other in terms of political office, social position or family relationships. These characters include Thomas Cromwell and his household; Thomas Wolsey’s cardinalship; and the Boleyns and the Howards. And then there is the Pope. All of these characters in all of these households are manoeuvring around, trying to establish their position in a court where the king’s quest is to have his marriage to his Spanish wife annulled, and marry Anne Boleyn and produce a male heir, after already having knocked up her sister, Mary, and produced a bastard.

Here is a list of the ten Thomases in Wolf Hall and their brief bios.

Thomas Cromwell: Ist Earl of Essex, chief minister of Henry VIII. He worked tirelessly in his attempt to secure an annulment from Rome of Henry and Katherine’s marriage. He failed, but he was instrumental in England’s break from Rome and the establishment of the Church of England, with Henry VIII as supreme head. This facilitated the annulment and also the king’s marriage to his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Thomas Wolsey: Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. He was a controlling figure in all matters of state and extremely powerful in the church. The king’s chief advisor, his highest position was Lord Chancellor. He fell out of favour when he failed to convince the Pope to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

Thomas More (Saint Thomas More): English lawyer; councillor to Henry VIII. He opposed the king’s separation from the Catholic Church, refused to accept him as supreme head of the Church of England and proclaimed his marriage to Anne Boleyn to be bigamous. He was tried for treason and beheaded.

Thomas Wyatt: Privy Councillor and advisor to Henry VIII. Father of the famous poet Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Thomas Cranmer: Leader of the English Reformation and first Archbishop of Canterbury. He helped build the case for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

Thomas Howard: 3rd Duke of Norfolk and uncle of Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife) and Catherine Howard (Henry VIII’s fifth wife).

Thomas Avery: Thomas Cromwell’s accountant.

Thomas Wriothesley: 1st Earl of Southampton. He worked for Cromwell at the same time he was secretary to Henry VIII.

Thomas Seymour: The father of Jane, who followed the Boleyn sisters into the king’s bed and became his third wife. One can only hope someone thought to change the sheets.

Thomas Audley: Lord Chancellor and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal; councillor to Henry VIII. Audley helped the king break with the papacy and secure an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. He also presided over the trial of Sir Thomas More.

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Getting Published.

When my first novel Somewhere I Belong was launched on November 1, 2014, someone asked me whether I was proud about having been published. My immediate answer was “no.” I felt grateful that my publisher had taken a risk on an unknown author and relieved that the process of writing, re-writing, and revising was finally over. I was happy, for sure, but not proud. And I didn’t think I had been published through some stroke of luck either. I had put in a lot of hard work. For years, I had studied the short story and novel forms on my own, through writing groups, and through formal writing courses. I read and continue to read the best fiction on the market. I study writers’ techniques. I look for their methods in writing dialogue, in creating settings, in shaping the personalities of each character, and in plotting out a believable story. If I find a book to be badly written, I immediately put it down: I only want to study from masters of the craft. I sought out advice from published authors. I applied for opportunities to study under award-winning writers and was awarded these opportunities because I had presented polished fiction with well-crafted story arcs and compelling characters. I was grateful for having been accorded a number of excellent learning opportunities. But not proud. I listened to advice, revised where directed to do so, and submitted and resubmitted until I got it right. And I never argued with a more experienced writer or editor on any aspects of my writing. In short, I left my ego out of it.

Learning the craft of fiction is a process. It’s like learning a new language in that it takes time to absorb all of the elements of fiction writing and to synthesize them into the writing. It took years to learn how to write a good story, and years more to understand the elements of the novel. I joined writing groups and sought feedback. Some, I gladly accepted, some I rejected outright. (If you join a writing group, you will find that most members are well intended, but that some understand the craft of fiction and others don’t have a clue as to what they are talking about.) And once I had completed what I thought was a compelling story, from beginning to end, I set out in search of a publisher. This is, perhaps, the only process wherein I can truly say that I had a stroke of luck. I had already been published, in a short story anthology, by the first press I approached. When I presented my letter, story synopsis and two sample chapters to Acorn Press Canada, the publisher replied within three months and asked me for the full manuscript. She wanted to send it to her editorial board for review. Several months later, I had a contract. And I had only approached one publisher. There followed a several-weeks-long editorial process between me and the structural/copy editor Acorn Press had chosen, and another couple of weeks of copy editing by the Press’s in-house editor.

As I also work as an editor, members of my writing group and some of my close friends wondered why I needed one. Everyone needs a second set of eyes. Writers can be too close to their work; few have the ability to see both the forest and the trees. My editor noted issues with the story arc and the arcs of two major characters. I followed up on every suggestion and, in the end, Somewhere I Belong became a much better book than it otherwise would have been. Both my editor and my publisher noted how easy I had been to work with. My reply was that I had left my ego out of the process. Having received my publishing contract, there was no way I was going to argue with an experienced book editor, particularly when my publisher was picking up the tab. I wanted Somewhere I Belong to be the best book possible. I wanted it to be well received on the market, and I want to write a sequel and publish that too.

Getting published is a long and arduous process. It takes a lot of work. Your writing has to be concise and well crafted. Your story and characters have to be believable and compelling.
You have to be willing to make numerous adjustments to your manuscript before it goes to press. And you have know what good writing is, leave your ego out of it, and let those more experienced in the writing and publishing process help you produce the best book possible. Here is a terrific website that offers some eye-opening advice on getting published:

http://www.ian-irvine.com/publishing.html

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Finding Your Main Character

If you think you know who your main character is and have your story line plotted out, you might be in for a big surprise. As I noted in a previous post, when I sat down to write my novel “Somewhere I Belong,” I was convinced that my grandmother was going to be the main character and the story was going to be about her. After all, even though I had never met her, I had been hearing about her for years. I had become fixated on her, and all of my research centred around her and her life’s story.

When I sat down to write, the first image that came to me was that of a young woman, living in rural Prince Edward Island at the outbreak of the First World War. She was standing by a mail box, reading a letter from a cousin who had moved to New England. She was yearning to go. The young woman was my grandmother and I opened the first chapter with her. Each subsequent chapter moved through her story as it had been recounted to me by relatives who had known her. In the process, I tried to weave other family members in and all of the various events that had taken place. My grandmother came from a family of sixteen, so there were a number of aunts, uncles and cousins. Added to these where the parish priest, the school teacher, the bootlegger, the neighbourhood gossip and the various love interests of the various family members. Through it all, another voice kept wending its way in, trying to take over. As a consequence, the story travelled through a convoluted trajectory that twisted and turned from beginning to end, and the point of view resemble Filene’s basement during American Thanksgiving (and that’s pretty crazy). As I had already set my mind on a specific character and a specific story, I tried to shunt this new, annoying voice aside. And by the time I finished the first draft, what I thought was a novel about my grandmother turned out to be a compendium of stories, about a number of family members, and a series of events, some of which were only peripherally related to the main theme. All of it was written in an inconsistent voice. And any reader, outside of family members, would have needed a Rand-McNally-type road map to figure it all out.

I was fortunate to have received a mentorship from the Nova Scotia Writers Federation. And when I handed my manuscript to my mentor, William (Bill) Kowalski (Eddie’s Bastard, The Hundred Hearts) he noted that there were too many characters, plots and subplots. I had included most of the colourful characters I had either met during my childhood summers on Prince Edward Island or heard about from older Island relatives. And I had recounted every exploit that had been told to me over the span of years I had spent there.

Bill noted that only members of my extended family would be able to follow what I had just written. He said I had to think about the reader. And the reader is someone who has never met my family, doesn’t know a thing about it, and probably has never been to Prince Edward Island. He explained that even though the story was based on real people and events, it still had to follow the rules of fiction. He also recommended I give over to the dominant voice that had usurped the story, make this my main character, give him a quest, and write a solid outline.

In the end, my grandmother played second fiddle to a thirteen-year-old boy who had just lost his dad in an industrial accident in Everett, Massachusetts, been moved to Prince Edward Island, and desperately wanted to go home. I sat down and rewrote my outline. I eliminated some characters and combined others. I cut out some of the events and sharpened the focus of others. And anything I cut got pasted into a separate file to be used for short stories later on.

Bill Kowalski taught me that no matter how attached you are to a story and how convinced you are that it can make a great novel, the rules of fiction must still be followed. He taught me that if you put the reader first, and carefully develop your characters, voice, setting, plot, point of view,and story arc, you can turn a true story into great fiction.

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Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway is the best book on fiction writing I have read to date. Burroway presents detailed, in-depth discussions on the key aspects of this challenging craft. She begins with a discussion on the writing process. She then addresses the major aspects of the story form (whether short story or novel) and assigns at least one chapter each to plot, characterization, setting, point of view, theme, dialogue, and showing versus telling. Every chapter is accompanied by several short stories and relevant questions on these stories that highlight the subject of the lesson Burroway teaches in the chapter. She also addresses the topic of the revision process, again with great examples and targeted questions. I often refer back to Burroway when engaged in my own fiction writing and highly recommend this book.

For more discussion on the writing process, please check out: www.editorseast.com

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Where the Family Comes In

DSCN0226 Elderly relatives are a great source of information. The trick is to catch them before they pass away. Be sure to save the contents of their interviews in computer files, back them up in a cloud or an external hard drive, and print off a hard copy.

My father, uncles and aunts provided most of the information I needed to write my novel Somewhere I Belong. The tall fellow in the back was the oldest child, Larry. He was twelve when my grandfather died and became a father figure to his younger siblings and a support to my grandmother. Larry studied history and classics at St. Dunstan’s University, in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and then attended St. Augustine’s Seminary, in Scarborough, Ontario. He became a priest and a university professor, but, unfortunately, died of cancer in 1968. Nevertheless, I remember that he read voraciously (usually the Bible), he loved music, had a deep, wonderful baritone voice, and sang Gregorian chant and his favourite Irish tune, “Danny Boy,” always on key. Larry was the most serious and studious of the five children in my father’s family. He is represented in Somewhere I Belong by the character of the same name.

The tall girl standing in front of Larry is Eleanor. She lived to the ripe old age of 91 with all of her marbles intact. Eleanor was eleven when my grandfather died, so her memory of that time was vivid. She recalled walking home from school on a Friday afternoon, of hearing an explosion and seeing a plume of black smoke rise up from the vicinity of the Beacon Oil Refinery where my grandfather worked as a foreman on the day shift. She recounted that their kitchen window got blown in and her mother raced down Hancock Street, to the plant, and then to downtown Boston in a fruitless search for her husband. It ended at Massachusetts General Hospital where she received the news of his death and fainted in the foyer. Uncle George found her lying there, picked her up and brought her home. Eleanor also told me that her mother packed up the house within two weeks of my grandfather’s death, gave away her furniture and moved her young family back to her parents’ home on Prince Edward Island. My aunt was forced to leave her dollhouse behind, but my grandmother promised that Uncle Jim would build her a new one. Eleanor also told me about Island life, which included Halloween superstitions, walking to school in bare feet, and wearing Depression era winter boots, which were hand knit socks pulled on over shoes. Eleanor also remembers that my grandmother gave advice to the love lorn, and made hand-hooked rugs, and that Aunt Gert babysat ‘the scamps’ when my grandmother visited her best friend in Gaspereau. When I asked Eleanor what it was like to grow up poor, she replied, “We didn’t think we were poor; everyone was in the same boat.” The character, Helen, is based on Eleanor.

My father, Paul, is the little guy standing in front of Eleanor. Dad talked incessantly about what a saint his poor mother was. There were also a few dirty stories about the antics he and his older brother Joe got into, ones that make my own five brothers seem like angels. He told me about the $25 cheque an uncle in Baltimore sent his mother every Easter and about him winning the Bell Scholarship to attend high school in Charlottetown. In those days, county schools only went to grade 9, at which point the girls completed their education as did the boys whose parents were too poor to send them to the city to finish high school. So, unless they could win a scholarship, like the Bell, which covered room and board during the school months (for boys only), they stayed back on the farm, went fishing or joined the army and were shipped overseas to fight in WW II.

My father also told me that when he went to enlist in the army, he flunked the medical test and got 4-F’d. He had contracted TB from his roommate at St. Dunstan’s University, spent a year in the Prince Edward Island Sanatorium, and another year between the homes of Uncle Jim and Aunt Gen, on Cambridge Road, and Uncle James R. and Aunt Ellen (El), in New Zealand (PEI), which is close to Souris. The most essential piece of information he gave me was that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played in a charity ball game to raise money for the widows of the Beacon Oil Refinery explosion.

The taller fellow standing next to Paul is Joe. You can tell he was a scamp just by looking at him. Joe recounted being bullying at the hands of his schoolteacher, who strapped him for being left-handed. He also quit school at 15, headed back to Boston, lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Army. Joe fought in the North African and Italian campaigns, the latter during which he lost his best friend, Jimmy Johnson, in a skirmish against the Germans. Paul and Joe form the character ‘Pius James,’ otherwise known as P.J.

The youngest child, standing in the front, is Phyllis. She was just ‘a bun in the oven’ when my grandfather died and has no memory of him. But, she did remember a lot about her mother and home life on Cambridge Road, and she shared everything she could remember with me.

Some of the information I gathered from these people, such as the Beacon Oil Refinery explosion and the Babe Ruth baseball game, forms the main elements of the storyline; other aspects, such as the woollen socks over shoes for boots and Eleanor losing her dollhouse, flesh out the everyday lives of the characters and make the story real.

Larry, Eleanor and Joe have passed away. Phyllis is 86 and lives in Saugus, Massachusetts. My father, Paul, is 88 and lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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Doing the Research

Martha Jane
My grandmother’s story was intriguing. On the surface, I knew she had raised five children alone during the Great Depression, two of whom became very successful—Father Larry (a university professor, priest, and Gregorian Chant scholar) and my Dad (a medical researcher, university professor, specialist, lecturer, examiner, and President of a number of medical associations including the Canadian Thoracic Society). Her other three children also did well.

I was curious about my grandmother’s success as a mother and sole provider in the face of the huge challenges widowhood and the Great Depression posed. I had heard bits and pieces of her story, but I wanted to know more. I was clear on the idea that I wanted to write a novel. But, I wasn’t really sure where to start. And by the time I became interested in researching her, she and many of the people who had played a pivotal role in her life were dead. Fortunately, her youngest sister, Gert, was still alive, as were a number of other elderly aunts, uncles, and cousins. So, I decided to interview them.

Some of the questions I asked seem mundane now. But they included questions on why my grandmother moved to Massachusetts; how she met my grandfather; how he died; how my grandmother managed to raise her family alone; and what she did for money. I also asked about her attitudes toward education, the community and the Church; who helped her; and what it was like growing up during the Depression. I wanted to know what her family did for entertainment; whether they felt poor; and what it was like to live on a farm. Then I asked about some of the superstitions I had heard about because, the community being Catholic, there were many.

Among the many good aspects of interviewing the elderly is that their long-term memories are sharp and if you ask one or two questions, they will ramble on for hours. The trick is to capture every tangent they go on—these people are a treasure trove of information. From my interviews, I learned that my grandmother operated a small farm; worked as a mid-wife; hooked rugs; bought wild Mustangs off the train from the Prairies, fattened them up and sold them for a profit; that she never allowed her children to miss school, even during planting season (school was out during harvest); and supported them in their endeavour of choice. She gave advice to the lovelorn; loved company and was a terrific hostess; she was exceptionally good with money (she had to be); and she returned to Boston to die in her son, Joe’s home. I learned that Joe quit school at 15, lied about his age, enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in the North African and Italian Campaigns; that Larry studied Gregorian Chant at St. Patrick’s Basilica in New York City; and that my father, Paul, was stricken with TB (he caught it from his roommate at St. Dunstan’s University), spent three months in the San and three more years recovering, before he completed his undergraduate education and went on to study medicine and specialize in chest disease. I also learned that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig helped my grandmother buy her farm.

I did a lot of reading too. I read histories on Prince Edward Island, the Great Depression, and World War Two; I read about Prince Edward Island folklore; self-published memoirs; books on fox farming and how to train a wild horse; and I read annual reports on the Prince Edward Island Sanatorium. I spent hours in the Prince Edward Island Archives reading back issues of the Charlottetown Guardian newspaper on microfiche, and any diaries, pamphlets or transcripts I could get my hands on. I wanted to know the news of the time and the personal accounts of the people who lived through it.

Finally, I had a lot of really good information. Then I sat down to write an outline.

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