Here’s one of the 10-minute exercises from a writing workshop I just did for the Knoxville Writers Guild on using real people in fiction or memoir. In this exercise, we looked at making a more rounded vision of a historical figure. Several people used the prompts with great results for someone in their families (living, dead, or long dead).
There are only two rules: 1) Don’t overthink. Finish this in 10 minutes; and 2) Be bold. Make up what you don’t know.
PEEKING BEHIND THE MYTH
1. Name a historical/famous person (or family member) with a strong persona or image.
2. What quality stands out?
3. What other quality (perhaps a weakness, dark side, or unlikely ability) might s/he also have?
4. Name a little-known quirk, behavior, or dream.
5. A deep memory/scar/loss.
6. A secret ambtion.
7. One day, your character wanted . . .
8. But . . .
9. So your character chose to . . .
Have fun and if you had good results with this, please share in the comments section.
It’s good thing for this country that the Puritans never quite figured out how to combine a theology of predestination with an ethical system. And it’s a very good thing for novelists. Free will makes plots much more interesting than “as you know, dear reader, I’m predestined to do X.” Characters have to plan their course and make choices without knowing what is supposed to happen. The reader doesn’t know either, and this keeps us engaged.
I’m listening to Margaret George’s epic Helen of Troy (30.5 hours). Everyone knows the basic story but the abundant back and side stories and local color bumps you along. Still, at every key plot point, Helen does exactly what she wants (leave her husband, daughter and kingdom and get it on with Paris) regardless of guilt or ownership of consequences with the handy out: “Well, this was all foretold, so what’s a pretty girl to do?” One is caught between annoyance and envy. She’s not responsible for the nasty Trojan War with all those bodies and walls torn down because, sigh, she’s only Aphrodite’s pawn. Interesting that some centuries after Homer, the Oedipus plays somehow managed to grant Oedipus free will inside of the prophecy that he’ll kill his father and marry his mother. So he doesn’t shrug like Helen and say: “Gee, sorry folks, Mom, Dad, but you can’t really blame me.”
It’s a struggle for George, one can see, to design new complications, and create suspense with a main character who keeps behaving like a divinely entitled, spoiled little bitch. One has to admire George’s willingness to take on what feels like a huge writer challenge. And as an addendum, one of her early books, The Autobiography of King Henry VIII, with Notes by his Fool, Will Somers, is a fabulous read for anyone remotely interested in Tutor England, or brilliant, somewhat contorted minds.
I made carrot and ginger soup last night for my book club which was reading Under the Same Blue Sky. In theme with the book, I’d challenged myself to a brightly colored, light, vegetarian German summer menu. A 6-year old honorary club member declared it “delicious,” so the recipe seems worth sharing. The thickener is carrots, not flour, so it’s gluten free, with a true taste of carrot. Freezes well and goes well with historical fiction.
Carrot & Ginger Soup (for 4-6)
1 onion, peeled & chopped
I T ginger root, peeled & sliced thin
2T white wine
1 1/2 lbs carrots, peeled and sliced
2 C vegetable broth (or chicken broth)
1 tsp salt
ground nutmeg to taste (I used about 1/2 tsp)
1 – 1 1/4 C whole milk.
1 T butter
juice of 1/2 lemon (or more)
parsley or mint for garnish
Saute the onion in butter until soft. Add carrot and ginger, saute briefly, add wine and cook for 30 sec. Add broth, salt, pepper, nutmeg. Bring to boil, then simmer until the carrots are tender. Put in food processor or (better I think) use an immersion blender. A few chunks are fine. You can store for a day or so at this point or, to finish, add milk and return to simmer. If you want it thinner, you can use water or broth. I happened to have some carrot juice, but other times I’ve used broth. Just before serving, add butter and lemon juice. Stir until butter is melted. Garnish as desired.
I was recently asked for an interview with the Pittsburgh Examiner. This turned out to be questions about History in general, with an invitation to time travel. Here are my answers. You can imagine yours.
(I’m traveling without much internet, so I can’t pretty up this post. Sorry).
The other day I was crossing the parking lot of the Knoxville Museum of Art when a young man got out of a dusty van wearing a full length tie-dyed robe. Time warp to the Sixties? He seemed to be leading a Great Dane. No. It was a billy goat with decorated halter. “Excuse me,” said the man. “Do you know where I can find some wi-fi?”
Not the question I expected. “Someplace you can take him?” Meaning the companion animal.
“No. My friend needs it.” He pointed vaguely at the van. A shadow inside might be the “friend.” Or another goat. I directed them to the public library, which unfortunately only allows service animals (including goats?) and has no forage nearby. But it was the closest wi-fi I could think of.
The van license said Virginia.
I’m wracking my brain for structure of a fourth novel which (so far) features no goats. So the opener is yours. What drove them from Virginia to Knoxville? Where are they headed? Why the goat? Why the robe? What were they going to Google? Have fun.
When I was about 11, my parents took me to a Broadway production of All the Way Home which nearly ended badly from an excess of dramatic involvement. Based on Agee’s Death in the Family, a young father dies in a car accident on a bumpy back road. The grieving widow’s none-too-helpful brother is explaining how Jay hit his chin just hard enough on just the exact “right” spot to create a fatal blow. A half inch over, the brother continues, and Jay would be right here with us, or . . . a little to the left or right, or with less force, he would be horribly crippled. Imagine, just that one spot . . .
The drama barreled on, but I didn’t, musing on the mystery of that spot. I leaned forward, tapping my chin thoughtfully on the seat in front of me until a strong hand took me by the shoulder and yanked me back. “Stop that!” my father whispered.
“I was just trying to find . . . ”
“Well don’t.” That’s the problem with drama. You want audience involvement but maybe not too much.
Years ago there was a children’s book, Flossie and Bossie, about two Bantam hens, the good, drab one, Flossie, and the mean, beautiful, vain Bossie. And their transforming friendship. I remember it as pretty gripping.
However there was a spook element for me in this drama of the hen house. Major figures are the hired hands, who I believe don’t have names. See the black and white illustration by the great Garth Williams (he also did E.B. White’s children’s books). Only hands. Never a body. Somehow these “hands” walked, talked, thought, ate. So of course I was spooked, especially when it turns out they lived in a house which first Flossie and then Bossie visit. A special house built for hands? What did their chairs look like? Did they sleep in hand-beds? Was the boss a regular person or was he a hands-only being too? It’s the sort of thing to keep a kid up at night.