Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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Huh…? vs. Hmmm…

We writers love the mystery of a story’s unfolding. Half the time, honestly, we’re not quite sure where it’s going ourselves. Isn’t that part of the fun – the exploration and discovery? And isn’t that the same amazing journey we want to share with our readers?

In our attempts to invite readers into the adventure, we strive for thoroughness, complexity, grace and subtlety. But our efforts, however earnest, can sometimes leave our readers overwhelmed or confused.

Don't wake me from the fictional dream.

Don't wake me from the fictional dream.


The Data Dump
Beginning writers often feel compelled to get everything down all at once. I call it a data dump, and it’s a natural tendency. We get so filled with our vision. It’s glorious and we want to share it all. We’ve thought long and hard about our characters and their circumstances. So we write it all out furiously and are only satisfied when everything’s on the page–until we go back and realize that it’s an unsightly mass of thoughts with no tension, no nuance. Everything is just laid out – splat! – without any shape or form.

Historical novelists (and others who rely heavily on research) are particularly prone to the data dump disease, as Michelle and I discussed at our panel last Sunday at BooksNJ 2011. We tend to fall in love with every measly, obscure detail and get so caught up that we forget that most readers don’t want to know how many lice were in the midden pit in a particular chieftain’s homestead in 10th century Greenland. (Yes, I once could have quoted you exact counts, back when I was working on The Thrall’s Tale!)

No novelist wants to offer up for mass consumption a poorly masked treatise. A certain perspective is required to decide how much to give, how much to hold back, and how to layer in just the right details to give the flavor to our thoroughly researched work without making it too rich to swallow. A fiction writer’s first concern must always be characters and conflict, rich emotions and lives that are made, transformed, destroyed…. Truly, don’t we all want to be swept away?

Don’t Hold Back
The next writerly menace is to hold back too much. This is where our readers are likely to say, “Huh…?” Perhaps our character is a speechless orphan who wanders the city streets holding out his hand. Since he cannot communicate, we never know what happened to him. Still we follow because he’s fascinating, sympathetic, forlorn. We are dying for our readers to comprehend his true depth and sorrows, but we give them only in hints and grunts, heart-wrenching looks and shuffling feet. See, dear reader, those huge, hungry eyes?

By trying to be subtle, we often end up being obscure. We neglect to take advantage of opportunities to slip in tidbits of back-story, a flashback or two of the past, or something said by a passerby who can shed a little light. If we don’t give something, our readers will eventually lose interest in our carefully crafted prose. They’ll be left saying, “Huh…?” instead of “Hmmmm….” and leave us behind.

Missing Bits
Even when you don’t fall victim to either of the above extremes, there are always little things that we authors understand implicitly but that our readers are completely unaware of. It’s not their fault. They’re trusting us to tell them what they need to know. We might drop hints that are too veiled for their own good, or forget to follow up a critical off-hand comment with proper reinforcement. All of these are cases when our readers are likely to say, “Huh…?” not “Hmmmm…”

Any time we leave our readers confused, we take them out of what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous fictional dream.” In his classic, The Art of Fiction, Gardner goes on: “In bad or unsatisfying fiction, this fictional dream is interrupted by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist. We are abruptly snapped out of the dream, forced to think of the writer or writing.”

We never want to draw our readers’ attention out of the book and we never want to draw attention to ourselves. The minute they say, “Huh…?” we’ve lost them. But a subtle or direct hint, an emotionally charged accusation, a dirty look or a crumpled photograph in the orphan’s pocket might reveal the character’s inner workings. It would leave the reader wanting to know more, and then, if we’ve done our job well, they’ll read on.

So how do you achieve the perfect balance between dump and hold? Think of sand through the small cracks between your fingers. You need to drop just enough, but not let the whole thing fall. One writer friend calls it “seeding”; another “tucking”; I often think of it as “layering” or “brush-stroking”. But one way or another, you drop in the details so discreetly that your readers hardly notice as they take it all in, organically understanding the terms and stakes, the characters and their interior complexities, the painful past and foreshadowed fate. We lay the groundwork and then carefully nurture it by giving our readers subtle reminders and more hints, building a stronger picture for them bit by bit until the moment when our story finally comes to full bloom, when everything will come together with the sense of random inevitability. We are swept away and returned. At last, the truth is revealed.

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How One Paragraph Can Take Four Days

by author and TWC Associate Teacher, Michelle Cameron

I love research.

To me, there’s nothing more inspiring than discovering how my characters might have lived their lives – what they wore, what they ate, how world events might have affected them.

All of my writing tends to start with a single scene in my head. When I wrote The Fruit of Her Hands, the picture of twenty-four cartloads loaded with volumes of Talmud being driven to a fiery death in a market square in Paris inspired me. With my next book – the story of Judean exile during the Babylonian epoch – it was imagining what those captives must have felt, mourning their lost homeland by the twin rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates. And in the series I’m writing today, the scene of Napoleon’s Jewish soldiers breaking down the ghetto gates of Ancona both astonished and bemused me.

printing press
Once that scene persists in tickling my imagination, I embark upon roughly three months of intense research. I try, in that short period of time, to read and peruse as much as I can related to my time period. Not just history books – artwork, architecture, and maps all inform the work. I try to get to museums – the Met is my favorite – several times when I’m doing my research.

My notes take several forms. The central document is a timeline that I usually divide into three columns: one for general historical events, one for historical events that I will incorporate into the novel, and one for fictional events so I can keep track of what needs to happen when. Then I have separate documents for major topics. What happened in the French court when the Jews tried in vain to defend their Talmud? What gods did the ancient Babylonians pray to? What did Ancona look like during the Napoleonic era?

In addition, I use the closet doors behind my head to pin up images – portraits of real-life characters and objects that will find their way into the work, as well as maps, street scenes, and renderings of what people in that time period wore.

What’s incredible about all this research are the story elements that grow out of it. Real life characters are woven into the fictitious story. Scenes suggest themselves. Slowly, the plot and arc of the novel take shape.
And then I start writing. But the research doesn’t stop there. In fact, the research never stops. The writing is often put on pause as I discover more I don’t know and need to. Which returns us to the title of this blog post.

Scene: a printer’s press in Paris during the French Revolution. I know why I need the printing shop, but I don’t know anything about what one would be like during that time period. Where is it located? What type of presses were used? What’s the process for turning out the pamphlets, the broadsheets? What time of day did the printers do their work? Since this is during a time of great turmoil, did they have to do their work in secret? What would happen if the King’s police raided them? What was the social structure like in the shop? How did the printed pieces get from the press into the hands of the revolutionaries, inflaming loud and passionate debates in the coffee shops?

It began with a single paragraph, all the questions above, and the need to do a lot of digging. Four days later – spent online and in various books – I have a full picture. Now I can keep writing – being very careful not to “dump” the history I’ve just gleaned into my work wholesale, instead using it just to flavor the work as needed.


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A Visit to The Writers Circle with Michelle Cameron

Guest blogger and author Michelle Cameron has shared her thoughts on The Writers Circle Blog before. This past weekend, she visited one of The Writers Circle children’s classes at Luna Stage. Michelle and I are working together to introduce The Writers Circle to the Chatham, Madison, and Florham Park, NJ area this spring. More on that in the weeks to come. Meanwhile, here she shares her impressions from her visit.

It was a small, warm cocoon of a space, with a single rug in the center of the floor. The kids walked in, each one clutching a well-thumbed notebook. Coats were slung over chair backs, boots left akimbo on the floor. The children sat, knees drawn to their chests or folded under them, or they kneeled at the edges of the rug. A striped, snowman-and-snowflake box in the center of the rug held pencils; there were large pads of paper and an enormous selection of markers. The kids were noisy and excited, anecdotes about their week and their writing tripping over one another as they settled down. They knew this was a creative space, a place where they could bring forth fantastic ideas with confidence, could tell the stories that were clamoring to emerge from their imaginations to spill onto the page.

Judith played the role of Pied Piper to these third through fifth graders, who started the session by sharing their work. “Louder, slower,” she said when shyness or softness made a child hard to hear. “Time out,” she’d call, bringing her hands up in a T-symbol when the thoughts flowed too fast and furious. “Who has questions?” she’d ask, and then point her way around the waving forest of eager hands.

In every case, some principle of writing emerged from the young work. Point of view. Conflict. Too many characters. Evocative description. Realist vs. fantasy stories. Judith never talked down to these kids. She shared technical concepts many adults struggle to master. The youngsters absorbed what they could and stored the rest to access later.

The Writers Circle Kids' pencil boxA fifteen minute writing prompt ― the hero being faced with a challenge ― didn’t intimidate these young minds. Many lay on their stomachs to write. Some left the circle and found chairs to sit on. An initial rustle of movement and the flapping of paper gave way to the focused silence of pencils moving across the page.

As the session ended, parents waited in the lobby while the kids collected themselves and reluctantly left the warmth of this creative cocoon. A few parents lingered, talking to Judith about their son or daughter’s progress. “This class has grown so popular!” said one. “It’s been a godsend for my son,” said another.

Could anyone who loves writing and creativity witness this and not be moved and excited? Any parent of a curious, inventive child knows the difficulty of finding a warm, supportive, and challenging outlet for their son or daughter. I’m thrilled to be invited into The Writers Circle and to have the opportunity to bring such an inspired venture to my own community this spring.

Michelle Cameron’s The Fruit of Her Hands: the Story of Shira of Ashkenaz (Pocket Books, September 2009) is based on the life of the author’s thirteenth-century ancestor, Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, a renowned Jewish scholar of medieval Europe. Michelle lives in New Jersey with her husband and two college-age sons.


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Two Great Friends, Three Great Events

These past few weeks have been busy ones for me with several friends launching and promoting their latest works.

First came Marc Aronson’s If Stones Could Speak. Then the joyous hullabaloo shared by all The Writers Circle over Stuart Lutz’s The Last Leaf. You all heard from Susan Barr-Toman yesterday and will hopefully make it to her event next Friday at Words. But there are three other critical events that I cannot fail to mention, given that two are for one of my oldest and dearest writing friends and the third is for one of my newest and dearest.

Claude & CamilleDon’t miss Stephanie Cowell signing at Watchung Booksellers this Saturday, May 1, from 1:00-2:00 PM and at Words on Thursday, May 13 for a reading at 7:30 PM. The Boston Globe calls her new novel, Claude & Camille, “nothing short of masterful.” Stephanie and I have known each other for over twenty years (scary to write that!) and in several very concrete ways she was instrumental in my ever being able to call myself a professional writer. I’m honored to have such a loyal, generous and talented friend and can’t wait to celebrate her latest novel.

Tell Us We're HomeOne of my newest dear friends, Marina Budhos, shares a passion for rich, complex writing and the challenging juggle of career and family. So I’m taking my eldest, who is good friends with her son, to the launch of her latest young adult novel, Tell Us We’re Home. She’ll be reading this Sunday, May 2, 2:00 PM, again at Words.

Come and join the celebrations!


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Why I Write

So often I dwell on the unavoidable truth that writing is hard. Every day as I face the blank or unrevised page, I feel the dread that I won’t be able to fill or fix it, that somehow the difficult work is simply beyond me.

But in this terrific short interview from Oprah Magazine, Toni Morrison reminds me of something I somehow forget. In the face of inevitable struggle, writing is also magical. It has the power to transcend time and space and to bring to the fore the unquestionable gold that all of us are human.

Toni Morrison
That is certainly why I write historical fiction – to discover the humanity in times, places and people who are entirely different from those I know. I love to dig into that past to see life through a very different lens. I try to understand worlds where beliefs and values are utterly unfamiliar and yet, for those who live them, utterly true. Through this imagining, I find my compassion for humanity broadens and deepens. I can be less critical of others. I can smile at the foibles and quirks that might annoy me, and I can try to accept the many horrors that have always shook the world.

Writing allows us to step into one another’s shoes, to understand each other’s thoughts and lives in ways that, by ourselves, we might denigrate or condemn.

Writing gives us a window into the past and a way to imagine possible futures. Writing gives us the power to control things we cannot. It gives us a place to set down our greatest hopes and fears.

And though each of us struggles to give proper form to our invention, the effort to do so ties us to the magical self that can envision perfection.

Finally, for me at least, life without words would be hollow. When Morrison mentions her melancholy after finishing her first novel, The Bluest Eye, I can utterly understand. Without writing – without a project calling me, giving me purpose, without something to explore beyond the everyday world, without people – characters – talking to me in my head – I am only half a person, only half-present in this world. Strange as it may seem, that other dimension makes this one richer for me. It gives context and relevance to my life’s otherwise sometimes frustrating, formless meanderings.

Somehow the work of fiction gives my life shape. It transforms random experiences into plot and direction. If I occasionally interpret my own story as a novel, expecting an exciting climax and praying for a rare happy ending, is it the fault of my life’s work? Or do we all have a story to live – maybe one that one day will deserve to be written down?


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Stories That Move In

I walked rather blindly into writing historical fiction. Or perhaps it walked into me. For example, I was ignorant to its stigma as a genre, kindred to those other literary stepchildren, science fiction and fantasy. I had never read what Hilary Mantel, winner of this year’s Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall, calls, “chick-lit with wimples”. Instead, my imagination was formed on books like The Secret Garden, Little Women and Black Beauty. As I grew older, I sank my teeth into Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. I never really worried that these authors, for the most part, weren’t writing about the distant past. In many of their works, they were portraying fairly contemporary worlds.
Opening the Door
But for me, their stories spoke of history, different values, different customs and lifestyles, different ways of thought. If these novels and plays which so captured my imagination at very impressionable times in my life formed my eventual passion for writing about history, then call it a curse or a gift. What I’ve learned is that we rarely choose our stories or even our genres. More often than not, they choose us.

Hilary Mantel writes in a recent article in The Guardian: “A novel arrives whether you want it or not. After months or years of silent travel by night, it squats like an illegal immigrant at Calais, glowering and plotting, thinking of a thousand ways to gain a foothold. It’s useless to try to keep it out. It’s smarter than you are. It’s upon you before you’ve seen its face, and has set up in business and bought a house.”

There is no invalid topic, style or genre. There is only what bangs loudest at the door of our minds, that forces us to pick up a pad and pen or open a computer file at odd hours of day or night, tapping out nonsense that somehow coalesces into meaning for us and hopefully for others.

Each writer is unique and so is the “immigrant” that bangs at the door. Let’s welcome each of them in, make up a bed and be grateful when they stay a while.