Thoughts From Gibraltar and London

I just returned from a research trip a week ago; after the dust of “coming home” has settled, it’s time to sit down and get to work in earnest on my next novel.  I’m working on the third book in my 18th century historical trilogy, and to be honest, up until this trip I would have rather been working on a different manuscript!  My time away was research into the major section of the book which takes place in the Royal Navy aboard a Man-of-War.  Part of the reason I think I’ve had “writer’s block” on this manuscript is that the military aspect of the plot is not my favourite topic to delve into from a writing aspect – I love reading about it, but condensing that down into dialogue and prose is not my forté.  But I know myself:  As with anything, if it’s not my strength I’ll work at it and hone it until it is.

The Cutty Sark 1

The Cutty Sark

A very important thing for me to remember in the midst of the research is that I’m not writing a maritime history book, but a novel; I’ve got to take the research, sift it for the elements that support my plot and leave the rest of the information aside as “nice to know”.  I’ve bought, read and taken notes on dozens of history books focused on the Royal Navy; I spent a day taking in impressions aboard the Cutty Sark (one of the fastest clippers from the days of Sail, on the right), and talking to curators both there and in the Maritime Museum, as well as the British Museum; I spent time on a clipper on the Thames, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, salt spray and tastes of the river.   My hotel was literally just round the corner from the largest used book shop in London (Skoob Books)… a very dangerous thing.  Trust me.  I found some great gems, from a history book on the Seven Years War (exactly in my time period), to a portrait collection of 18th century fashions – invaluable visual aids, with explanations of things like mob caps, waistcoats, etc.  If I’d had more time (and more room in my carry-on-sized luggage), I still would have had to leave hundreds of great books behind…!

Gibraltar - Barbary macaque 2

A Barbary Ape, with Spain in the distance.

Gibraltar itself was a special time:  I was there with my husband, who then took off for a 10-day bike ride toward Madrid on the day I flew to London.  Gibraltar was vitally important as a British Naval base for centuries, and you literally cannot walk down any street without being reminded of its military past:  Atop the Rock are the ruins of fortifications; St Michael’s cave was a strategic hideout; in the town are cannons everywhere; ramparts are now part of walled parks, and everywhere there are military street names, town square names, and military ships in the harbour; Spain is a spit away, and Morocco is visible even on a foggy day; it is literally the gateway to the Mediterranean.  Taking a cable car to the top of the Rock you’ll find Barbary Macaque (aka Barbary Apes, though they are tailless monkeys) everywhere; they were originally brought from Africa in the 18th century by British sailors.  A few of them escaped and set up house on the rocky slopes above the town, and now they run the show; tourists are lower down in the pecking order than they are, and if they get half a blink they’ll steal your food if you’re silly enough to take it outside.  They usually stay up on the Rock, but it’s still not wise to leave your hotel window open…

Gibraltar: The War Memorial with a Russian cannon in the foreground.

Gibraltar: The War Memorial with a Russian cannon in the foreground.

So now that I’m back, I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into this new manuscript!  Sometimes it just helps to get away, get new impressions, percolate ideas, and become inspired.  If you’re stuck on something you’re writing, get out!  Go on a research trip, or if you can’t afford it time- or money-wise, then get out to a park, or somewhere different for a change; take your notebook, and let your mind wander.  You’ll find a way through the block!

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Commas Matter

When was the last time you saw one?…

Commas Matter

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Writing Tips: Dialogue

howtobebritish1Dialogue is (to point out the obvious) vital to a novel; it displays the voices of your characters and helps the reader get to know and care about the characters, understand their motives, their interrelationships, and distinguish each character’s point of view.  If you don’t get the dialogue right, you rip the reader out of the story, or worse – make them put down your novel and add your name to “never again” lists!  So, here are a few pointers and tips to keep in mind as you develop your characters and put words into their mouths:

1) Develop your characters well enough to make their voice distinct; do they have catch-phrases, or local dialects that influence their vocabulary?  Do they tend toward long or short sentences, or are they from a past time and place that had a different way of speaking?  Educate yourself if necessary in various modes of speech .

2) Dialogue is an illusion of conversation; but it’s also about what is not said.  Non-verbal actions reveal:

a) How a character says something

b) What a character chooses not to say, but inadvertantly reveals through actions.

c) Why the character says what they do.

Do they have particular actions when they are upset or aggitated that communicate their moods to the reader?  Do they bounce their knees when excited?  Does their body language confirm or contradict their verbal message?

3)  Fictional dialogue needs to cut to the chase; if there’s no point to the text (revealing motivation, character or plot point), then chop it!

4)  Avoid the trap of using dialogue as exposition (the proverbial villain’s monologue as he prepares to destroy the hero), but rather reveal essential information through action, or narration.

Explore your characters and develop their voices, and above all – keep writing!

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The Etymology of Hobson’s Choice

Thomas HobsonThomas Hobson (1544-1631) is still famous through the idiom, “Hobson’s Choice”, which means basically “take it or leave it”.  An innkeeper in Cambridge, England, he would hire out his horses (according to information at the Cambridge Guildhall, he had an extensive stable of 40 horses, which was a sign of vast wealth in those days!).  To avoid the best horses being favoured and thus worn out more quickly, he devised a rotation system that became known as Hobson’s Choice:  The horse closest to the entrance, or none.  The idiom is sometimes used erroneously to mean a choice between two equally good (or bad) situations or solutions (which is rather a dilemma, or Morton’s fork); but Hobson’s choice was really a choice between something or nothing.

I first came across the phrase when reading Frederick Hoffman’s “A Sailor of King George“:

I interrogated the next, who was a short, slight, pale-faced man. “And pray,” said I, “what part of the play have you been performing; were you ever at sea?” “No, sir,” said he; “I am a hairdresser, and was pressed a week ago.” “D——n these fellows!” said my captain; “they are all tailors, barbers, or grass-combers. I want seamen.” “Then,” said Captain N., who was the flag-captain, and had just come on board, “I much fear you will be disappointed. These are the only disposable men, and it’sHobson’s choice—those or none.” “The admiral promised me some good seamen,” returned my skipper, rather quickly. “Then I fear the admiral must find them,” was the answer, “as I have not more than twenty seamen on board besides the petty officers. The last were drafted a few days ago in the Defiance. Will you take any of these men, Captain W.?” “What do you think,” said my captain to me; “shall we take any of them?” “Suppose,” returned I, “we take twenty of them and the tailor; they will all fit in in time.” I then picked out twenty of the best, who were bad enough, as they were the worst set I ever saw grouped. Their appearance and dress were wretched in the extreme. I reached the ship before the hour of dinner with my live cargo. “What, more hard bargains,” said the first lieutenant, “we have too many clodhoppers on board already. The captain told me we were to have seamen.” “Captain N.,” said I, “assured our noble captain that the Defiance had taken all the A.B.’s.*” “D——n the Defiance!” replied he; “I defy Captain N. or anybody else to match those gentlemanly ragamuffins.” The master’s mates were called, and they were given into their charge.

Captain Frederick Hoffman. A Sailor of King George (Kindle Locations 2063-2077).

*A.B.s – Able-bodied seamen

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On Being Remembered

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.”

Benjamin Franklin

Time for Reading

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Details, details

commas 2

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March 21, 2015 · 10:08 am

Archetypes: Aphrodite vs. Dionysus

Throughout literary history, archetypes have been used to help us relate to characters, their stories, the morals of the tale and the paths they choose and why.  Understanding the archetypes helps to figure out how to portray a particular character; it keeps you on the “same page” as you write, as you develop characters, and try to figure out what makes them tick and where that ticking will take you and them.  Today I’d like to take a closer look at Aphrodite and her male counterpart, Dionysus.  I’ll give examples of these characters from films and books, relatable to most whether you like to read or prefer the visual experience of film.

Kim Novak,  Vertigo

Kim Novak, Vertigo

Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, pleasure, beauty and procreation.  Like a coin, there are two sides to the character:  The Lover (or seductive muse), and the Femme Fatale.  On the Lover’s side of the coin, there are characters such as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or Ginger on Gilligan’s Island.  The positive side of this character motivates others to improve themselves.  The flip side of that coin are seen in Sharon Stone’s portrayal in Basic Instinct, Kim Novak’s character in Vertigo, or the Bible characters of Salome or Delilah.  On one side you have a character that is nurturing, attractive, seductive and at the core often good, while the Femme Fatale is seductive with often quite dark ulterior motives.  Sean Young’s character in Blade Runner is a good example of the Seductive Muse; she forces Harrison Ford’s character to examine his own sense of humanity by her mere existence.

Mr. Willoughby, in Sense & Sensibility

Mr. Willoughby, in Sense & Sensibility

Dionysus is her male counterpart:  His two sides are the Woman’s Man, and the Seducer.  Either way, Dionysus needs women in his life.  He loves women; on the positive side, he loves to make women feel loved.  The flip side is abuse in one form or another, with darker motivations behind his love.  Fifty Shades of Grey is a touchy topic right now; on one hand it’s immensely popular, and on the other very harshly condemned as glorifying abuse, violence and manipulation in the guise of relationship or love.  I tend toward the latter view, as did the main actor in interviews during his junket (he often found himself apologizing to his co-star after their scenes, which speaks volumes about his instincts of what’s right and wrong, and Shades definitely crossed that line for him and for a growing number of critics).  Other examples are Mel Gibson’s character in What Women Want – his character makes the arc from the negative side to the positive; Cary Grant’s character in An Affair to Remember makes a similar arc.  Leo DeCaprio’s Jack in Titanic sits firmly on the positive side of the coin, and makes for a memorable and loved character.  Count Dracula is a typical Seducer, as is Jane Austen’s character of Mr Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility.

There are many other archetypes; if you’d like to know more on the topic, check out Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters.

Keep writing!

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