Short story or marathon?

ready to runIs writing a short story very different than writing a novella or a novel? My own experience suggests the answer is no. Good writing is good writing, and the goal is to achieve quality no matter what you write. But surely, you say, there must be some differences when composing these different forms. Actually, in my opinion there is, but again, not in the writing.

The difference lies in the conception of the story you wish to relate. That is, when I begin, the length of the story provokes a different way of thinking about my story.

When I thought of writing Crispin, the Cross of Lead, I thought of it as a multi-volume story, and almost immediately conceptualized what the four volumes would be. (Well yes, the fourth volume has never been written, but I still know what the plot of that fourth volume is, and I even know the last moments of the tale. Someday…) When I wrote Sophia’s War, the overall arc of the story was broadly defined in my head, right from the first page. Even when I wrote City of Orphans, I had the overall complexity of the story in my head. No, by no means did I have it all sorted out—far from it—but I knew I wanted to write a novel.

However, when I compose a short story, and I have just been writing a few of them, my sense of the plot begins with knowing that the tale I intend to write will be short. That in turn informs my writing.

Yes, I could take the same idea and recalibrate it into something longer (that has happened) but most often, I choose not to.

I suspect it would be the same if you are a runner. If you intend to run a marathon, your thought process would be different than if you were going to run a fifty-yard dash. Note that in both cases, you are running, but you run in a different way. And when the “Start” gun is sounded you know what you have to do.

All about details

John, from Riverhead, NY, writes, “I love all the detail in your books. How do you find it, and then decide what to do about it?”

details

Well, John, the information comes from lots of places; things I have noticed, remembered, read about, or researched. But knowing the details is one thing, what do with it is quite another. There are countless styles of writing. Some writing is very sparse, with almost no physical details. If you look at book of mine such as Who Was That Masked Man Anyway? there is no descriptive detail whatsoever. It’s all dialogue. Then, consider a book like Traitor’s Gate, where there is so much description that one reviewer commented that the City of London (where the story takes place) is depicted in such detail it was virtually a character in the story.

In other words, it is the nature of the book that determines how much and what kind of detail you wish to write. That is to say, detail, or the lack of it, defines the kind of story you are telling. Moreover, the kind of detail you put in makes a big difference. The detail in Crispin helps reveal the medieval world. The detail in Sophia’s War help reveal the cruelty of British Prisons. The details in the Poppy books reveal the characters.

Moreover, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. I think the best way to decide about detail, is that it should give life to the experience being narrated. Too much detail and you have a textbook. Too little and it’s hard to see the characters.

No wonder folks say, “The Devil is in the details.”

Spices and herbs

City of OrphansIf you were writing a book set in the fourteenth century, you might describe a character as “whispering,” but might that character say, “whisper to me”?

No, because it is not until Shakespeare used the word, in 1609 in his play, Pericles, that it enters the written language.

I know this because I checked with my (online) Oxford Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (referenced often as the OED).

Does it matter in your writing? I suppose the answer is yes and no. Would you have an ancient Briton look out upon a Roman Legion for the first time and mutter, “Totally awesome.” I think not. However, no one will clap you into jail if you do. Still, if you love words—I do—I think it makes a difference.

Obviously, I do not check every word.

Sophia's WarNonetheless, my own rule for this is that if I can use a key word from the time about which I am writing, which is self-explanatory, I will use it. Thus in City of Orphans, a teenager is described as “pout-mouthed.” Anyone who knows children will instantly understand this marvelous word, which was used around the turn of the Nineteenth Century. Since I stumbled upon it, I have used it in other works and in conversation. You are welcome to spread the word. Pout-mouthed. Totally awesome.

In my most recently published book, Sophia’s War, set in New York City during the American Revolution, I used some of the vocabulary current at that time. I even put a glossary of these words at the back of the book, such as “glowflies” (fireflies) or “pixie-led” (confused).

A current project, set in Fifteenth Century England, uses such words as “brainsick” for crazy, “misfortuned” for poor, and “dreariheaded,” for sad. They are accurate for the time. I think of these words as the spices and herbs one uses to flavor a stew, a word, I need caution you, that only enters the written English language in 1594.

Do not take me at my word. Check the OED.

Girls’ books

Landon, from Powell, Ohio asks, “Why do you tell some stories from a girl’s perspective like in Charlotte Doyle?” 

Well, Landon, as I understand it, slightly more than half the world’s population is female. I do not think I want to ignore that many people. I have many good friends, boys, girls, men, and women. Moreover, in our culture, I think girls tend to read more than boys do—though I wish both boys and girls read equally.

In addition, in our culture boys and girls often (not always) learn to think differently about the world. When you write a story, it becomes deeper and, I think better, when different characters react differently to the events in a story.

True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle Secret School Sophia's War

In the case of True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I think the story is interesting because it is about a girl’s transformation from one kind of girl to another kind of girl. It is not that she becomes a boy, but that she remains a girl, even as she becomes truer to herself.

As for Ida in The Secret School, I wrote it the way I did because I heard stories about going to a one-room schoolhouse from a woman who went—when she was a girl—to such a school.

Most recently there is Sophia’s War. She is the main character because she is torn between her affection for John André (the British soldier) and her passionate belief in the American Revolution. I think that is what makes the story interesting.

I do not want to write boys’ books or girls’ books. I want to write good books.

Historical accuracy

Crispin Cross of Lead, Sophia's WarEver since Sir Walter Scott invented historical fiction with his novel Waverly (1814), there have been many kinds and definitions of the form.

One of the questions that comes up repeatedly is historical accuracy. It is a complex question and usually has an equally complex answer. One can try to be accurate, but it is almost impossible to be completely accurate.

Start with language. My Crispin, takes place in 14th Century England, at a time when Middle English was spoken. Never mind that I cannot write Middle English, my readers could not read it. Therefore, I tried to give the prose a poetic beat, to approximate a Chaucerian voice. Different, but readable.

In Sophia’s War, in which 18th century colonial English is spoken, I tried to employ word usage of that day, to suggest a voice from that time. Thus “Shay-brained,” for silly, or “hurly-burly” for commotion. In addition, it was useful to be aware that colonial English could be different from, say, London English of the time. Maybe my readers will not catch that, but it is meaningful to me as a writer.

Sometimes I’ve been taken to task for putting too much religion in my medieval novels, or, for example, in a novel set in the 1950’s for allowing my adult characters to smoke too many cigarettes. Yet, as far as I am concerned, it is the way things were and it helps tell the story in a vivid historical context

My approach is to try to differentiate the historical time from the present time by showing how characters thought in such and such a time, even as I reveal a physical world that is not the contemporary world. That said, emotions, motivation, and personality must be recognizable to my readers today.

In short, one wants to avoid potheration (18th century English for confusion) while making the book upstirring (18th century English for stimulating).

The Revolutionary War Comes Alive

Recently, the recorded version of Sophia’s War was a School Library Journal Pick of the Day. I extend my thanks to the folks at SLJ.

Here’s what they had to say:

Sophia's WarSet in 1776 during the American Revolution when New York was under siege by the British, Avi’s tale (S & S/Beach Lane Books, 2012) of resistance features an amazing female protagonist, trials aplenty as she tries to avenge her brother’s death, and a little romance thrown in for good measure. Sophia’s family believes in freedom and desperately wants America to govern itself. Her brother goes off to fight, is captured, and ends up dying in a filthy hold of a British prison boat. John Andre, a charming English officer who is billeted with Sophia’s family, fails to intervene to save her brother. Despite having a schoolgirl crush on Andre, Sophia is conflicted by his failure to save her brother. After witnessing the execution of Nathan Hale, Sophia is determined to help the American cause. Recruited as a spy, she becomes a maid in the home of the commander of the British forces in America. Sophia uncovers some crucial information and sets out to reach West Point before Benedict Arnold can turn it over to the British. Avi’s outstanding text and Angela Goethals’s spot-on narration make the Revolutionary War come alive for listeners, providing a real sense of the time period. A perfect choice for school and public libraries.

Grades 5 to 9. 6 cassettes or 6 CDs. 7:15 hrs. Recorded Books. 2012. cassette: ISBN 978-1-4703-2043-0, CD: ISBN 978-1-4703-2042-3. $66.75.

The most-often-asked question

lightbulbThe most commonly asked question of writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Here are some of my  answers: 

Sophia’s War:  Reading Dickens’ Great Expectations and learning about prison ships.

City of Orphans:  Browsing through a 19th century newspaper and coming across a sensational headline.

Crispin: Listening to a lecture about the middle ages.

Seer of Shadows:  Having once been an amateur photographer with my own darkroom.

The Book with No Words:  When reading a book about alchemy, I learned about a “Book with No Words.”

Never Mind:  Having a chat with my fellow writer, Rachel Vail.

Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name:  Listening to one of my son’s friends talk about his spring break.

Nothing but the Truth:  Hearing a news report on radio.

The Fighting Ground:  Noticing a historical road marker.

Wolf Rider: Getting an odd phone call.

Poppy: Reading a book about owls. 

Where do you get your ideas?  The answer: Everywhere.

A “rich, nail-biting thriller”

Sophia's WarHave you had a chance to read Sophia’s War yet? Maybe during the holidays? Publishers Weekly had this to say about the book:

Newbery Medalist Avi channels the mood, language, and danger of the Revolutionary War in this seamless blend of history and fiction, set in British-occupied New York City. Twelve-year-old Sophia Calderwood idolizes her older brother, William, a fervent Patriot soldier who has gone missing after the Battle of Brooklyn. In the first half of the book, Sophia’s desperate search for William leads her to several deplorable prisons where rebels are being held. The second half takes place when Sophia, now 15, becomes a spy who uncovers the truth about Benedict Arnold. The book is chockful of fascinating historical details, including the conditions for those stranded in New York and the failed meetings between Arnold and John André, his (real-life) British contact. Avi doesn’t sugarcoat the brutal realities of war as Sophia races to find help intercepting John André, who was also a boarder in her home years earlier and her first crush, in this rich, nail-biting thriller.

Real? Fictitious?

historical fictionHistorical fiction, invented by Sir Walter Scott with his novel Waverly (1814) is a remarkably flexible form, offering everything from what might be called costume drama to meticulously accurate depictions of real events and people. My own work shares that range. Books like Midnight Magic, or The Book without Words, reference the historical moment, but not much more. Crispin, is (I hope) very accurate as to place and time, but has only one real character, John Ball. The Man who Was Poe tries to depict Edgar Allan Poe’s real character in a real place, at a real time, but all else is fiction. The Fighting Ground is real as to place, event, and time, but all characters are fictional.

Sophia’s War, just published, goes another way. Here all events, place, and most characters, are historically accurate. Even minor characters are real. BUT—the main character, Sophia (and her family), is a work of my imagination. That said, it is Sophia, who, if you will, causes the real events to happen. How can that be? In the celebrated case of Benedict Arnold and John André, though studied countless times by historians, there are some key events which happened but which have never fully been explained. Coincidence? Luck? The hand of Providence? Enter Sophia, and those events are explained in as exciting a way as I could write it. It is my attempt to give life to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion, “All history is biography.” Sophia’s War is real history, as lived by a real, fictitious person.

The chatter about “voice”

There’s a lot of chatter about “voice” in fiction, which I take to mean the presentation of the narrative, its mixture of tone, character, syntax, and vocabulary. Complex and important, writers can and do spend years perfecting voice though some come to it quickly and naturally. It can be very distinctive, as per Hemingway and Dickens. Perhaps the most influential voice in the English language was the sixteenth century King James translation of the Bible. And we sometimes forget that Shakespeare was a great inventor of words, such as gloomy, critic, bump—and many more. I wonder how Elizabethan audiences responded to such an inventive vocabulary.

Books with distinct voice

I’ve never developed a specific voice for my work. I want the voice of my fiction to be part of the story. The voice of Crispin: The Cross of Lead is utterly different than the voice of City of Orphans or Poppy. In Sophia’s War I worked hard to create an eighteenth century voice, using lots of words used then, but no longer.

When I tell a story, I want the reader to hear, each time, a different voice. And not mine.