Exploring a Character’s Past Wound

About five or six weeks ago, I rolled my ankle while walking to work. It wasn’t significant, I didn’t even lose my balance. Just a slight not okay and then okay and I continued on my way to work.

To you, this may seem like a non-story. People roll their ankles ALL the time. But this ankle has been traumatized. Many times. Over many years. This ankle was first really sprained when I was 14 years old, then again throughout the rest of high school. This is the ankle that I had reconstructed six years ago. This ankle still swells when there is a massive switch in the weather patterns, one that I am intentionally rehabbing once a week.

So a minor roll, a quick not even worth noticing not quite injury is, six weeks later, still sore, still slipping, still swollen. The small, non-injury is clearly an injury, and the emotions that I had after tearing two ligaments, after having it reconstructed, after trying to come back with atrophied muscles and incredible soreness are all living in the forefront of my mind.

When we are looking at why a character is the way they are, why they act or react the way they do, we need to make sure readers understand the emotional impact of events in their past and remember/recognize that even purely physical traumas can be accompanied with significant emotional contexts.

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Honoring the Past

While we don’t want to detail every single thing that has happened to a character in our book (really, please don’t), we, as the creators of these people do need to have a familiarity with what has made them who they are at the time of the story. People aren’t just self-conscious. They don’t “get big” when confronted for no cause, and they don’t shrink away in the same situation without a reason to be cautious.

Then, after you have learned/created/acknowledged this, you need to make sure that your readers have the same opportunity to understand. You need to pick the just right time that will deepen the moment of the current situation by allowing the memory of the past to penetrate the awareness we have of what made the character who he/she is.

Merging Then with Now

One of the reasons reconciling with the past is so powerful is that it can often serve as catalyst for where the character is when the story begins and where the character would like or should like to go. Their past can be something that happened a day or week ago, or it can be something that is months, years or decades old. What is important is that the character can first, learn what it is to reconcile what they did or what happened to them with the reality of the situation.

The second is to brace themselves for what the reality means for how they have to heal, and how they have to move forward. This may mean a candid conversation with themselves, and it may mean the incorporation of a therapist, counselor or trusted confidant.

The Reality of a Past Wound

There may be some wounds, some damages, that do not allow someone to heal completely. This, too, is something that needs to be explored: how will the character continue while a little bit broken? How will they adjust to a new reality that is different from what they wanted?

Exploring a character’s past with intentionality will solidify an arc and improve the quality of a story as a whole.

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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. A co-founder of Thinking Through Our Fingers, she is the managing editor of the writing-focused website as well as a contributor to Writers in the Storm. She is passionate about helping women nourish their creativity and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, where she serves as a board member. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven and is the mom of three teens. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Writing About Guns Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

triggerTrigger Warning (heh): This post talks about guns and how to write about them. If that makes you squeamish, please go read something else. Thanks.

Good writing requires research. If you’re writing a story that involves open-heart surgery, you’re probably going to do some in-depth reading on the topic so you don’t get critical details wrong. If you’re writing a novel about hackers, you’ll likely want to consult with a computer expert or two to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself.

Unfortunately, too many writers ignore this advice when it comes to writing about firearms. Even well-respected authors tend to rely on what they’ve learned on the topic from movies, television and the news media. And sadly, much (if not most) of that is just plain wrong.

You don’t have to be a gun expert to write about guns. In most cases, you’re actually better off being as non-specific as possible. Getting into a lot of details about models and actions and calibers is a sure-fire way to put most of your readers to sleep. When details matter, though, it’s important to get them right. Failing to do so can turn readers off to your writing.

Whether you’re writing about guns or diamond mining or pigeon racing or square dancing, always remember:

Dave’s First Rule on Writing About Technical Details

When you mess up the technical stuff, not everyone will notice, and not everyone will care. But those who notice will care.

I have a friend who is a respected firearms instructor. He’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of firearms knowledge. A number of years ago, a best-selling author contacted him and said, “I need you to teach me about guns.” My friend spent days and days on the range with the author, teaching him everything from gun basics to marksmanship to defensive tactics.

I recently re-read this writer’s series from the beginning and it was easy to tell the exact point in the narrative where the author got his firearms training. First of all, the author named a character after my friend, so that was kind of a giveaway. Second of all, the author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics went up exponentially at exactly that point. A little knowledge went a long way.

The Language of Guns

Words, like guns, are tools … and we all know what happens when you use the wrong tool for a job. If you refer to a Glock 24 as an “automatic,” talk about inserting a “clip” into a revolver or describe a character “cocking” an AR15, you’ll reveal to your readers that you really don’t know what you’re writing about. This intrudes on the willing suspension of disbelief, and can lead to readers abandoning your narrative.

Major Categories of Guns

If you’re going to write a story that involves guns, you should probably know a few of the basics. The following definitions are adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Handgun: A weapon with a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand, which fires a projectile from one or more barrels. (Subcategories include revolver, pistol and derringer.)

Revolver: A handgun featuring a revolving cylinder that typically holds five to ten cartridges, each within a separate chamber. Before a revolver fires, the cylinder rotates, and the next chamber is aligned with the barrel.

Pistol: Any handgun where the barrel and chamber are a single unit. Pistols can be manually operated or semiautomatic. A semiautomatic pistol generally holds cartridges in a magazine located in the grip of the gun. When the semiautomatic pistol is fired, the spent cartridge is ejected, the firing mechanism is reset, and a new cartridge is chambered.

Derringer: A small single- or multiple-shot handgun other than a revolver or semiautomatic pistol.

Rifle: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed metallic cartridge to fire a single projectile through a rifled bore—one projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Shotgun: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Note that some people call revolvers “pistols” as well—that distinction is not entirely agreed-upon. For obvious reasons, rifles and shotguns are often referred to as “long guns.”

If you’re writing historical fiction, there’s at least one other type of gun you need to know about:

Musket: A muzzle-loaded long gun that was the precursor to modern-day rifles. While rifles are distinguished by the “rifling” grooves that spin a bullet while it travels down the barrel, muskets generally feature a smooth-bored barrel.

Because of their smooth bore (and because the musket balls are often smaller than the barrels they shoot through) muskets are much less accurate than rifles. It’s said that rifles are aimed, but muskets are pointed. If you’re writing about the American Revolutionary War and you describe Redcoat soldiers “pointing their rifles” at someone, lots of your readers are going to laugh at you. The earliest muskets date back to the 1500s, and muskets were still in common use through the U.S. Civil War and even up to the turn of the last century.

Readers of historical fiction tend to be pretty particular about accuracy, so it’s worth doing some research if you want to sound informed.

Firing Action

Another way to categorize guns is by their “action,” which is a component critical to their design:

Fully automatic: A weapon capable of firing a succession of cartridges while the trigger is depressed, until the ammunition runs out or a malfunction occurs. Automatic weapons are considered “machine guns” and are highly regulated under the National Firearms Act and subsequent U.S. gun laws.

Semiautomatic: A weapon that fires a single shot each time the trigger is depressedA semiautomatic uses the energy of each fired cartridge to cycle the action and advance the next available cartridge into position for firing.

Machine gun: A fully automatic weapon that fires rifle cartridges (as opposed to handgun cartridges). Machine guns are usually designed to be shoulder-fired, and generally feature a barrel 14 inches or longer. Larger machine guns may be fired from a tripod or bipod.

Submachine gun: A simple fully automatic weapon that fires a pistol cartridge instead of a rifle cartridge. “Sub guns” are often short-barreled variants of light machine guns. Smaller submachine guns, called machine pistols, have no shoulder stock and are not designed to be fired from the shoulder.

The distinction between semiautomatic and automatic is an important one. Lots of smart people get this wrong. Plenty of famous authors get this wrong. Consistently.

The important thing to know about automatic weapons is how rare they are. They’ve been highly regulated since 1934, when Congress passed the National Firearms Act. It’s illegal for civilians to own any automatic weapon manufactured after 1986. Pre-1986 guns, when you can find them, are extremely expensive—$15,000 to $30,000 at the low end—and they require an intensive colonoscopy from the BATF to acquire.

Semiautomatic guns are a different story. They’re nothing special. In fact, the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S. are semiautomatic.

Calling a semiautomatic gun an “automatic” demonstrates either profound ignorance or an intent to deceive. Smart authors need to stop doing it.

Misunderstood Concepts

Assault Rifle vs. Assault Weapon

selective-fireAssault rifles, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, are “selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between sub-machine gun and rifle cartridges.” The “selective fire” part is the important part: a true assault rifle has a switch to select between semiautomatic and fully automatic modes. (Some assault rifles include a “three-shot burst” option as well.) This is a very specialized type of firearm, available only to military and law enforcement purchasers, virtually impossible for civilians to acquire. Roughly 99.999 percent of the time, when someone on the news is talking about “assault rifles,” they have no idea what they’re talking about.

barrel-shroudThen we have the “assault weapon.” From a functional perspective, “assault weapons” simply don’t exist. This is a purely political term coined in 1989 by anti-gun politicians who needed to classify an arbitrary group of firearms for the purpose of banning them. On both the state and federal level, “assault weapons” have been defined and redefined in contradictory ways. In many cases, the legislators creating the definitions don’t even understand what they mean. This is humorously illustrated by the famous interview with a politician who, when asked if she knew what a “barrel shroud” was, said it was “the shoulder thing that goes up.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

“Assault weapon” is a completely meaningless term unless you’re writing about the politics of gun control.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the “AR” in AR15 does not stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for “ArmaLite Rifle.” (ArmaLite was the company that originally developed the design.) An AR15 is not an assault rifle (nor is it a high-powered rifle). In truth, it’s a garden-variety semiautomatic that shoots a middling cartridge (.223 or 5.56x45mm NATO) that looks a lot like a military weapon but isn’t.

Magazine vs. Clip

mags-clipsThis is another one lots of writers get wrong.

Clip: A device that makes it easy to insert multiple rounds of ammunition into a gun’s magazine.

Magazine: A device that feeds ammunition into a gun’s action. Some guns have internal magazines, while other magazines are removable. The term is often truncated to mag.

If you’re talking about the rectangular thing filled with ammo that pops into the grip of a handgun, you’re talking about a magazine, not a clip.

Bullets, Shells, Rounds

If you buy ammunition for a rifle or handgun, you’re buying cartridges or rounds. Each cartridge consists of a brass or steel casing (or shell), a bullet or projectile (usually lead, sometimes jacketed in copper), a primer and propellant (also called a charge). Ammunition comes in lots of different sizes, and you have to use the right caliber and cartridge for the gun you’re shooting. Some common handgun cartridges include .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 9mm Parabellum, .380 ACP, .38 Special, and .22 LR (which is also a rifle caliber). Common rifle cartridges include .22 LR, .223, .243 Winchester, .22-250 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield. There are literally hundreds of different caliber/cartridge combinations.

If you buy ammo for a shotgun, you’re buying shotgun shells, or shotshells. Shotshells are measured in gauge, not caliber. The most common are 12-gauge and 20-gauge. A shotshell is generally a plastic casing with a metallic base, which contains the primer and propellant (or charge). A plastic or felt wad helps keep the powder in place. In front of that is the shot (multiple pellets or BBs) or slug (a single, big-ass bullet). Shotshells are subcategorized by the size of their shot, with birdshot and buckshot being the most common.

Incidentally, ammunition is referred to as rounds because … bullets used to be round.

Other Considerations

Counting Rounds

Don’t tell anyone in Hollywood, but guns don’t come pre-loaded with an unlimited supply of bullets. If you write a gunfight, you need to know the capacity of the gun or its magazine, and then keep track of how many rounds have been fired (and where they went). Does your character carry additional mags or speed-loaders? If not, your character is limited to the ammunition already in the gun.

Most handguns, when they run out of ammunition, don’t go “click, click, click” when the trigger is pulled. Many revolvers do this, but most semiautomatic pistols don’t. In most cases, when a semiautomatic handgun runs out, its slide locks open. Pulling the trigger will do nothing.

Oh, and anyone who’s ever bought a gun knows they’re not cheap. You don’t throw your empty gun at the bad guy when you’re out of ammo. That’s ridiculous.

Manual Safeties

A manual safety is a mechanism built into a gun that, when switched to safe, makes the gun incapable of firing. Some guns have them and some don’t. One guaranteed way to make a lot of your readers roll their eyes is to write about a character unholstering a Glock and clicking off the safety. Glocks don’t have manual safeties. Most revolvers don’t, either.

Most modern handguns (including Glocks) do have multiple integrated passive safety mechanisms to help prevent accidental discharges. These include hammer blocks, firing pin blocks, grip safeties and trigger safeties. This type of safety can’t be switched on or off, so if you mention a character flicking a safety, make sure the gun you’ve put in his or her hands actually has one.

Working the Action

You know the scene where the bad guy appears and the cop racks his slide or pumps the action of his shotgun in dramatic fashion?

Yeah, that’s stupid. Just about anyone legally carrying a gun will have “one in the pipe”—a round already chambered. This is especially the case if the person is a law enforcement officer. Working the action with a round in the chamber just ejects a perfectly good catridge onto the ground.

Hollywood does this all the time because it looks and sounds dramatic. But it’s not realistic.

Guns Are Loud

You know that scene where your protagonist runs into some bad guys, exchanges gunfire, and then hides in a closet or something listening intently for footsteps on the stairs?

That’s bullcrap. Guns are LOUD—especially in enclosed spaces. If your character fires a gun without hearing protection, he or she won’t be hearing anything but a nasty ringing sound for half an hour or so. At the very least, your characters won’t be whispering to each other just moments later, because they won’t be able to hear the whispers.

“Silencers”

You know that scene where the hit man shoots his “silenced” gun and there’s a tiny little sound like a mouse fart and the target collapses to the ground? Complete bullcrap.

Earlier this year, a prominent U.S. politician tweeted: “When someone gets shot by a gun with a silencer, it’s quiet. Witnesses might not hear. Police will be less likely to track down the shooter.” This is exactly the type of thing you expect from someone who learned everything they know about guns from Hollywood.

First of all, “Silencer” is the name of a specific product created by Maxim in the early 1900s. The generic term is suppressor. Suppressors are regulated by the National Firearms Act, the same law that controls the sale and distribution of automatic weapons.

Second of all, a suppressor only partially reduces the sound created by the rapid expansion of gasses at the muzzle of a gun. It doesn’t do anything for the telltale crack that occurs when a bullet reaches supersonic speed (1,127 feet per second, at sea level). Most suppressors reduce a gun’s noise output by about 30 dB—just enough to shoot without hearing protection and avoid permanent hearing loss.

If your character fires a big handgun (say, a 1911 chambered in .45 ACP), each shot generates up to 162 dB of noise trauma. Suppressing such a gun can “silence” it to around 132 dB, which is still louder than the noisiest rock concert or NASCAR race. A suppressed .22 rifle could be as quiet as 112 dB, or even a little less if low-powered subsonic ammunition is used. But that’s still roughly the same noise output as a household leafblower.

Any gunshot, suppressed or unsuppressed, is going to be heard by the people in the next room—and probably across the street. Suppressors don’t “silence” anything. They just muffle really really loud noises so they’re only really loud.

Most People Can’t Shoot

Seriously—most people can’t hit the broad side of a barn from 50 paces. And yes, this often includes law enforcement.

Shooting is a skill. It’s one that must be perfected through hours of training and practice. A top competitive shooter can blow through 25,000 or more rounds of ammunition in a year. Military snipers will shoot far fewer rounds, though they make every round count. Also, to be fair, their ammunition is much more expensive.

By comparison, most police officers shoot fewer than 200 rounds per year. Law enforcement qualifying tests are notoriously easy to pass, and most departments allow their officers to retake the tests as often as needed. It’s not hard to find stories of extremely poor shooting by law enforcement personnel. In one notorious case, two NYPD officers fired 16 total rounds to take down a single bad guy … while also managing to wound nine innocent bystanders.

I don’t mean to knock LEOs. Sure, they carry weapons, but their primary role is to investigate crimes, not prevent them. Most departments have very little budget for live fire training. Also, most officers never fire a single shot while on duty, and many don’t do much shooting outside of the qualifying range.

If your character is a firearms noob in a high-pressure situation, he or she probably won’t be pulling off amazing feats of marksmanship—especially at distances beyond a couple of yards.

Even in the hands of a trained shooter, handguns are only accurate for so far. You know that scene where James Bond shoots down a helicopter from a moving boat with a single shot from his Walther PPK? Total baloney.

Kinetic Energy

A person doesn’t get blown back 20 feet when hit by a bullet. This may look dramatic, but it ain’t realistic. A bullet just doesn’t have enough kinetic energy to do something like that.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the effects of bullets on ballistic gel (an analog for human tissue) or animal corpses. I won’t post any links here, but it’s really easy to find that kind of thing, if you need to know more.

Shooting to Disarm or Wound

You know that scene where the cop takes careful aim and shoots the gun out of the hand of the bad guy? Pure nonsense. Likewise, the whole “shoot the bad guy in the leg to wound him” thing is complete hogwash.

Anyone with any law enforcement or self-defense training knows that you don’t “shoot to wound.” You “shoot to stop the threat.” If a situation calls for the use of deadly force, a trained shooter will aim for center mass, or the middle of the torso. Aiming for a person’s gun hand only increases the likelihood that a defender will miss and hit an innocent person. It also increases the chance that the shot will miss, and the defender will end up being hit by return fire.

Character Counts

Much of this goes out the window if you’re writing in the voice of a character who doesn’t know much about guns. In the movie “Stand by Me” (which is based on a fantastic novella by Stephen King), Chris Chambers shows his friends his father’s 1911 service pistol, which he’s brought along on their journey. Gordie asks, “Ya got shells for it?” It’s totally the wrong word, but Gordie is a kid and he probably doesn’t know better.

We don’t expect Gordie to know the difference between a cartridge and a shotshell. But when a soldier or police officer in your story uses incorrect terminology, it sets off warning bells. Similarly, no trained shooter who wants to actually hit his target would hold a handgun “gangsta style,” but a gangbanger (or a wannabe who’s watched Boyz N the Hood too many times) might actually do that.

If your characters are going to display their ignorance of guns, it’s a good idea to cue your reader that the mistakes they make are the characters’ mistakes … and not yours.

John picked up an empty magazine and tested the spring. “How many bullets does the clip hold?”

“It’s a standard thirty-round mag,” Mary said, trying to hide her irritation. “Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.” He picked up the rifle and fiddled with the charging handle. “Is this how you cock it?”

“John!” Mary yelped, pushing the muzzle aside. “Stop being an idiot and put that thing down!”

What to Do?

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

No amount of research can equal the experience of sending rounds downrange. If you’re going to write about guns, you owe it to yourself to actually do some shooting so you know what it feels like. And you don’t have to pay a firearms instructor to for one-on-one time at the range. Practically everybody has a friend who’s part of the “gun culture.” It might be that friend of yours who’s a hunter, your cousin in law enforcement, or a neighbor who’s a competitive shooter. Just approach the person and say: “I really want to get a little experience with guns. If I pay for the ammunition, would you take me shooting?”

From my experience, most gun owners love to take newbies shooting. Make sure you go somewhere safe and always follow the Four Rules of gun safety.

Finally, if your story involves a lot of firearms, invite a knowledgeable shooter to be a beta reader. Ask your reader to pay special attention to the gun-related content in the manuscript. Your story will benefit from having an expert double-checking the details.

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Postscript: I like to practice what I preach, so I had my friend (the one mentioned at the top of this post) check my work in advance of publication. He made some great suggestions, which I have incorporated into this piece. He also asked me to be a guest on his weekly radio program. You can listen to the program here. It’s the 1-06-18 show. My segment starts around 00:11:50.

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Writing Real People in Unreal Settings

Raise your hand if you’ve ever stared too long at someone because you were trying to memorize their features for a character description. Ten points if there was awkward eye contact. Twenty-five if it was a work colleague, and you were casting a villain.

There’s a whole lot of great advice out there for developing characters. Maybe you have an entire notebook filled with information about yours, up to and including their favorite ice cream. If you do, I confess I’m jealous. I’m a great believer in outlines, but I’m an inveterate pantser when it comes to character development. I have no idea who my characters are until they start interacting with each other. Only then can I figure out whether they prefer vanilla or mint Oreo.

If you write contemporary fiction, you may have been able to transplant your real-life human subject into your story with few modifications. However, those of us who write historical or speculative fiction have a bit more work to do. We have to think about language, the mannerisms and habits, and especially the fundamental assumptions of the time and place. Each of those could warrant its very own post, if not its own textbook chapter.

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This is my short advice: research, research, research. Write what you know, sure. But also: write what you’d like to know. Write what you’d willingly spend hours reading books, articles, and web pages about. This doesn’t only apply to historical fiction. Even if you write high fantasy, your setting will have at least some similarities to an actual historical period, whether it be fourteenth century Italy or feudal Japan, Viking Denmark or Queen Victoria’s England. I mean, come on, you know you didn’t make everything up. (And if you write science fiction, I’m begging you to know at least a little science first.)

Say you’ve got this wonderful character in this fantastic setting. Say it’s 1543 Munich. You know what your character looks like, because you’ve taken your spouse, your neighbor, or that guy in line at Starbucks, and put him in a doublet, beret, and, ahem, a bright orange codpiece.

He’s waiting for a friend. Since it’s not 2017, he’s not going to pull out his phone and catch up on social media. Will he pull out a book instead? Would he own a book in 1543, and if he did, would he take it outside and risk exposing it to the elements? Would he pick a flower? Pick his nose? Say he steps into a mud puddle. What does he say?

The most enjoyable research I’ve done in months was to read Holy Sh*t! A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr. It’s not for ready blushers, but it’s humorous and contains a world of information of how (mainly English-speaking) people have used obscenity and swearing since Roman times. It discusses how oaths—the “holy”—and obscenities—the “sh*t”—have waxed and waned in their relative gravity over the centuries.

Our sixteenth century man might have used an excremental word to convey his displeasure. But if he were really, really mad, he might say something like, “God’s teeth!” And you see what side of the pendulum swing we’re on now, since I didn’t have trouble typing his oath, but hesitated before typing the other expletive. But our man lived in a different world than ours, in which sex and bodily effusions were rather more out in the open.

For this gentleman, an oath before his god would have been worse than epithets about excrement. The pendulum was swinging, however, with the rise of a new middle class, who showed off their hard-won respectability by declaring barnyard activities obscene. (This is why people have sworn like lords, tinkers, and sailors, but no one ever accused someone of swearing like a grocer.)

So now that we’ve figured out how our character talks and acts, how about his assumptions about his world? I’m not talking about the things we need to tell a good story—his hopes, fears, flaws, or his emotional arc. I’m talking about the things in his environment that he probably will not question—ever, unless our plot forces him to. Like the role of religion in his society. Or women. Or kings. Or the plague. Or the intelligence of children and peasants and dogs.

And yet we want to make our characters resonate to our readers, despite possible different worldviews. We want to identify with this man, codpiece or no. We want to look through his eyes, and feel his loves, hates, and needs. He needs to be like us—he is like us—in all the ways that matter most. So we walk a thin line between historical truth and emotional truth.

I’ve read a few novels written by historians, and in my opinion, most were dry as dust. I think these scholars spent so much time trying to be true to the historical figures they’d spent years studying that they’d lost sight of the fascinating people living behind the history. The books were nonfiction masquerading as fiction, and thus fell flat. I write historical fantasy rather than straight historical, so I can probably get away with a little more fact-tweaking. But I enjoy, and try to write, stories that strike a balance between historical accuracy and storytelling.

We writers have at least one advantage—we’re all experts at being human (apologies to any nonhuman writers out there). We enrich the worlds we create, intentionally or not, by placing the people we know into them. And no, I haven’t ever cast any work colleagues as villains. All right, maybe once, but it was years ago. Promise.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

Adding Historical Texture to Setting

I’m fascinated by the idea of place–how environments shape us in different and unique ways. (I may have written a dissertation on rhetorics of space). I grew up along the rockies: the mountains of Montana and the red rock of Utah are part of who I am. This is equally true of our fictional characters–the setting for the novel should be so much a part of them that the story could not have taken place in any other setting. Katherine Patterson wrote once that she was stumped writing Jacob Have I Loved–until she realized she needed to set it along the Chesapeake Bay.

Recently on this blog, Charlie offered some great tips on making your setting stand out. I’ve got one more critical dimension I want to offer to setting: its history.

As some of you may know, I’m deep in revisions in book two for a historical fantasy trilogy. The second book is a proverbial beast, and I’m still wrestling the story into shape. My story is set in 1848 Vienna, and while I’ve done some research on the city and environs (even spent a few days there last spring), it still seemed flat in my writing.

A writer friend suggested I check out a history book about the 1814 Congress in Vienna, which convened to decide how to restore Europe immediately after Napoleon’s defeat. On the surface, this might not have much to do with  my story–but as I read this particular book, ideas started sparking.

I’d forgotten a key aspect of my setting: the rich history of the city, the tangled political currents that would still be working some thirty years later. As I replotted the story with a better sense of this history, I was able to deepen the plot, flesh out character motivations, and generally (I hope!) create a better story.

The history of a place matters in its present moment. I recently read an advance copy of Adriana Mather’s HOW TO HANG A WITCH, the story of a young woman, a direct descendant of Cotton Mather (just like the author), who moves to Salem, MA, and triggers a series of dark events connected with that long-ago history of Salem. Her story would not have worked in any other setting–and the success of her story depends on readers’ understanding of the original witch trials as well as the psychological damage still present in those whose families were affected by the violence.

History matters to fantasy worlds as well: one of the things that made Naomi Novik’s UPROOTED so powerful was the long, complicated history between the main character’s village and The Wood–the evil presence that lurked in the nearby forest. Without knowing that history, readers would not understand what was at stake when the local sorcerer appeared, as he does ever sixteen or so years, to choose one of the village girls to “assist” him in keeping the wood in check.

Some questions you might ask about a place:

1. What happened in this place ten, fifty, one hundred years ago?

2. How do those historical events manifest in the present of the story? For Salem, MA, which still has a thriving tourist trade based on the witch hunts, the answer is pretty obvious. For other settings, this might be more subtle.

3. What is your main character’s personal experience of the setting? Do they love it, hate it, why? What about their past experience influenced this opinion? For instance, my family loves Capitol Reef, one of the lesser known national parks in Utah. But my love of that place is shaped by some very personal experiences of that place that are unique to me.

4. Is there any “hidden history” of the place? For instance, an event that was dark enough or tragic enough that local historians and civic figures have worked to actively suppress? (Scholars who look at public memory have pointed out that forgetting sometimes takes as much work as memorializing).

Some of these answers may never appear in your story–but the depth that they give your understanding of your world will influence the resulting story and give it added resonance.

Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming Spring 2017 from Knopf. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.