Good morning, Seekerville! Thanks to the Seekers for hosting me today on Seekerville. I’ve brought along some freshly baked white chocolate and cranberry scones, and a steaming pot of Earl Grey, so everyone can sit back and relax with a cup while I talk about today’s topic:
Years ago as I began the journey toward publishing my first novel, I attended a writer’s conference near Portland, Oregon. Unlike most conferences held at a Hyatt or Marriot hotel with comfy beds, room service, and five-star restaurants, we budding novelists spent the weekend at a “new age” retreat, much like a Scout camp, with log cabins, bunk beds, and muesli for breakfast. The park like grounds were beautiful however, and it was thought the rustic setting might release our inhibitions and inspire creativity. Among the workshops held at the main lodge was a class entitled, “Write What You Know.” The instructor, a self-proclaimed fencing expert, arrived in her pirate garb brandishing a saber, ready to show us newbies the proper technique an Errol Flynn-styled buccaneer would use to fight on a ship’s deck—thrust, parry riposte, thrust, parry, etc. Anyway, you get the idea.
In my naiveté, I worried that since my own story idea revolved around a Scottish highway woman and a reformed English duke living in eighteenth-century England, I lacked the skills of horsemanship, swordplay, and firing a blunderbuss shotgun, all required in making my story sound authentic. Nor had I traveled beyond the U.S. How was I supposed to write about England…or even the eighteenth century? My novel would come across vague and juvenile, like seventh-grade Creative Writing class material, while my hero and heroine would be cardboard cutouts instead of three-dimensional characters. Then it occurred to me that I’d read countless historical novels whose authors hadn’t jousted with knights or suffered the dusty, scorching confines of a covered wagon crossing Oregon Territory. Most probably they hadn’t ridden sidesaddle or churned their own butter or made tallow candles, either. So how was it that their stories and characters seemed so believable?
It’s been a long time since those novice days at “Scout camp,” and I’ve come to realize we don’t need to be experts at fencing or riding sidesaddle in order to “write what we know.” Admittedly, personal experience is a plus, but whether it’s historical or contemporary fiction, research and reflection are keys to writing good story. Learning to understand an event, skill, or subject in such detail that we can visualize ourselves doing it. For example, in my years of storytelling I’ve discovered how to dress a turkey, deliver a breech calf, and switch a railroad track so that a trainload of Jews in WWII could bypass Auschwitz and head along a carefully mapped route beyond the Carpathian Mountains. In my upcoming WWI historical novel, Not By Sight, I learned with my heroine, Grace Mabry, to cut, aerate, and tie off bales of hay with the use of a steam baler and turn-of-the-century tools. We found that when cranking over the engine of Lord Roxwood’s 1913 Daimler automobile, Grace must keep her thumb aligned with the rest of her hand while giving the handle a quick backward then forward motion; otherwise the force of the engine’s ignition could send the handle flying and break her delicate wrist. She and I and our hero, Jack Benningham, traveled to the lovely seaside town of Margate in the county of Kent in 1917 Britain. We smelled the salt of the sea and watched gulls wheel overhead as gray green waves crashed upon the shore. And I was with her when she visited Margate’s Hall-by-the-Sea, once a very real place with its mechanical amusement rides, and street vendors selling roasted nuts, sausages, and sweet candy floss.
I experienced these things with Grace through the benefit of research and my imagination. Yes, it’s wonderful if you happen to be a knight with the Society for Creative Anachronism, or a train engineer, or work on a farm, but if not then gaining insight—through books, Internet, photos, videos and movies—can suffice for creating good story.
And what about those three-dimensional characters? Well, we may not literally take on the role of our hero and heroine, yet as writers and readers we can imagine what it feels like when Grace gets another blister from shoveling trenches beneath a scorching sun, or breathe in the stench of soggy feathers as she gingerly plucks her first chicken. The energy she must expend to crank over the Daimler. We know the pulse-pounding sensation of first love and the tremor of fear; our hearts have threatened to burst with excitement and ache with loss. We know the way joy touches our soul at the sight of a small miracle, proof that God is listening to our prayers.
Just like actors mentally prepare for their roll on stage, writers must draw upon their own emotional experiences to enhance and deepen their story. “Bleeding onto the page” is a term we often use to describe having to write an intense scene; peeling back those layers and exposing our vulnerabilities in order to create authenticity in our characters. Literally writing what we know so as to reach out and grab the reader by the hand and bring them into our world…
Now, just for fun and a chance to win a free copy of my new novel, Not By Sight, choose one of the questions I’ve listed below and answer in a comment: 1) In a sentence, describe a scene from the novel you’re currently reading that really drew you into the story. 2) In a sentence, name a scene from a previous novel that affected you deeply and tell us why.
Not by Sight
In the spring of 1917, all of Britain's attention is on the WWI war front and the thousands of young men serving their country on the front lines. Jack Benningham, dashing heir to the Earl of Stonebrooke, is young and able-bodied but refuses to enlist despite the contempt of his peers.
A wealthy young suffragette, Grace Mabry will do anything to assist her country's cause. Men like Jack infuriate her when she thinks of her own brother fighting in the trenches of France, so she has no reservations about handing him a white feather of cowardice at a posh masquerade ball.
But Grace could not anticipate the danger and betrayal set into motion by her actions, and soon she and Jack are forced to learn the true meaning of courage when the war raging overseas suddenly strikes much closer to home and their fervent beliefs become a matter of life and death.
A Florida girl and former bookseller, Kate Breslin migrated to the Pacific Northwest where she lives with her guitarist husband and a persnickety cat. Author of travel articles and award-winning poetry, Kate received Christian Retailing's 2015 Best Award for first time author, and her debut novel, For Such A Time, is a Christy award, RITA award, and Carol award finalist. Kate's second novel, Not By Sight, will release in August, 2015. When she's not writing inspirational fiction, Kate enjoys reading or taking long walks in Washington's beautiful woodlands. She also likes traveling to new places, both within the U.S. and abroad, having toured Greece, Rome, and much of Western Europe. New destinations make for fresh story ideas. Please visit her at www.katebreslin.com.