Monthly Archives: July 2017

Genre Lessons: Historical Fiction Revisited

Antique watch.

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading historical fiction, and I picked a couple amazing books. Here are my biggest takeaways:

  1. Multiple plot lines are great for maintaining tension. Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a great example of this, with the adventure/mystery plot alternating with the romantic plot. (I don’t normally name the books I read for genre lessons, because some of these posts can get critical and reading is highly subjective, but I’m making an exception because those like me who struggle with pacing can learn a lot from this book.) Every time the tension eased in one plot line, it ratcheted up in the other. I’m not saying add subplots to increase tension, but if you have a subplot, consider complicating that at points where the main plot slows.
  2. How people say things is just as important as what they say. A good historical fiction novel immerses readers in the setting with vivid descriptions; a great one also has characters whose diction indicates their culture and upbringing. This goes for other genres, too; writing a character from the American South doesn’t mean just writing an accent, it means having that character use Southern expressions and turns of phrase.
  3. The best villains are characters whose motivations readers understand and believe, even when they disagree with the villain. My favorite villains are the ones I feel a little sorry for when they lose.

Those are the main things I noticed as I read historical fiction this month. Have you read any great books in this genre recently that helped improve your writing?

I’m suffering from a conference hangover right now, but I’ll talk about Midwest Writers Workshop next week!


Will you be at Midwest Writers Workshop?

Midwest Writers Workshop.Today’s post is short, since I’m busy getting ready for the 44th Annual Midwest Writers Workshop. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably heard me sing the praises of MWW, as it’s where I met many of my critique partners and closest friends. No matter what stage you’re at in your career, if you have the time and means to attend a writing conference, I highly recommend doing so.

And if you’re going to be at MWW, please say hi!

Reflections on writing #ownvoices books

Mirror.I got into writing via Dungeons and Dragons; when my friend’s dad (our Dungeon Master) commented on my unusual multi-class character, I decided I wanted to know what led her to be the adventurer that she was. So I started writing her story.

My early books were all speculative works, even as my reading habits in the last several years have expanded to include a lot more contemporary novels. I always considered myself a writer of sci-fi and fantasy. Until one day a book demanded to be written that was basically a thriller with light sci-fi elements.

And then November happened. Seeing a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric exacerbated the feelings of “other”ness I’ve had since moving to central Indiana, working in the town that is the birth place of the Church of God. Suddenly, I wanted to tell the story of someone like me, a Jewish girl thrust into the Bible belt after growing up in a town with many more faiths represented.

The main character of that book is not me, but she shares a lot more with me than other characters I’ve written. I’ve never written someone whose views on and practice of Judaism so closely matched my own. Heck, I’d only ever written one Jewish character before, and she was a minor character who only appeared in one scene. Writing this character gave me a space to explore my relationship with my faith (I identify as an Agnostic Jew — culturally Jewish but religiously out on the whole God question) and the role it played in my relationships with family members. Like me, the main character has a Jewish mother and a Catholic father; though unlike me, she had no older sibling to emulate or younger sibling to educate (as best as any kid can answer any other kid’s questions about religion). Writing that book left me with different views on what it means to be a Jewish woman in a Christian town, and a stronger relationship to my culture.

Since I was on a contemporary kick, and I had another idea for a Jewish character with a passion for music, I started another #ownvoices book while querying my first contemporary. This character is #ownvoices not because of her faith (she’s Jewish, but that’s not central to the plot) but because of her struggles with anxiety. Writing the first draft of this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because pushing this character through anxiety attacks forced me to re-live my own. I wrote the lowest points of my life into her. But I also gave her a loving family like mine, and friends who helped her pull herself out of those low points. As I struggled alongside her, though, I gained a new perspective on my own mental health. While I’m quick to tell others that mental illness is not a weakness, I often see my own anxiety as a fault. Writing a character with anxiety made me re-evaluate that assessment, as I see how strong this girl really is in facing challenges head-on. Again, she isn’t me, but she shares more with me than past characters I’ve written.

The thing I love most about writing is seeing the world through my characters’ eyes. I love telling others’ stories, even — especially — when they make decisions I might not make, or are in situations I would never find myself in. But there’s something to be said for giving characters bigger pieces of myself, and coming to terms with those pieces of me alongside them.

Have you written an #ownvoices story? What was your experience?

Happy Fourth of July!

United States Declaration of Independence.

Photo from Flickr user Lou Gold

Happy Fourth of July! I hope all of my American readers enjoy a safe and happy holiday! (And those who don’t get the day off and/or aren’t celebrating, have a wonderful Tuesday!)

As we celebrate United States independence, I want to acknowledge the large number of people living in the United States who did not win freedom following the American Revolution, and who are still today being oppressed by mass incarceration, voter suppression, human trafficking, and other forms of slavery. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

I’ve thought a lot about what being an American citizen means to me, especially in light of the last several months. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood — I played basketball and tag with Indian-American kids, Chinese-American kids, Japanese-American kids, kids whose parents had moved north from Puerto Rico. My dogs used to get in barking contests with the dogs owned by the African-American family whose backyard connected with ours. I babysat kids whose two moms had immigrated from the Czech Republic. But I never once considered any of these people “not American,” even when some of the families’ grandparents struggled to speak English. They were my neighbors, and my friends. To see my friends and neighbors who are Muslims, or who came (or want to come) from Middle Eastern countries — particularly Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan — discriminated against reminds me daily how far we have to go still. I want to live in a neighborhood — in a country — where everyone who wants to live there and isn’t harming anyone else is free to do so. The America of my dreams welcomes and respects new people, new cultures, and new ideas — and is stronger because of it.

The America of my dreams is also one where a free press is not only welcomed but celebrated.​ In a world where facts that people don’t agree with are decried as “fake news” (I’ll save my distaste for that phrase for another time), and differences of opinion are quickly reduced to character attacks by online trolls, I think free speech and a free press are more important now than ever. Our Constitution came with these freedoms built in, because its authors remembered firsthand how forced silence and tyranny go hand in hand.

I don’t often get political here, but what better time to reflect on politics than on the anniversary of our country’s founding? I’ll leave you all with a quote from the Declaration of Independence, signed 241 years ago today:

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

If the federal government continues to rule using ignorance and fear to deny rights and oppress society’s most vulnerable, our country’s founders not only grant us permission but encourage us to find a better way forward. I want to live in a country governed by hope rather than fear, knowledge rather than ignorance, freedom of speech and thought and press rather than an oppressive state media. As a Jewish woman who has studied the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party, I am deeply troubled by today’s political climate, but also profoundly encouraged by the voices of the resistance.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! As always, I welcome civil discussion in the comments.