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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #14: Scarlett and Melanie have more to teach us...

Sometimes, I write a post here and fling it out into the world, then spend the rest of the day thinking about more things I should have told you.  Fortunately, I am queen of my domain here, so I'm free to sit down the next morning and revisit a topic that has turned out to be more rich than I'd expected. 

For those of you who are novelists, I'll point out that this is the beauty of our art form.  We can spend a whole year exhausting a topic that interests us.  (Or even more!)  If we find out we have more to say, and if we said it well enough that our publisher would like to hear more, then we can write another whole book on the subject.  This is heaven for the long-winded. 

I had no idea when I wrote Artifacts that I would write another book about Faye, and now I'm working on her seventh adventure.  Fortunately, I find her endlessly interesting.  Her family background, rooted in both slaves and their owners, gives her an inner complexity that will never go away.  Her intellect and thirst for knowledge allows me to dive deep into things that fascinate me and, hopefully, my readers.  And her love (can't spoil the later books for those who haven't read them all) goes so deep that Faye herself is astonished sometimes.

So where do these indelible characters come from, and why am I still talking about Scarlett and Melanie and Gone with the Wind?  Because when I set out to write a book centered on the faded glory of an old plantation house, I knew that I was treading on heavily traveled territory.  In other words, Gone with the Wind had already been done, and I needed to find something new to say about the history of the American South.

When the house on the cover of Artifacts popped into my mind, I did my usual plotting thing and asked myself who would live there, and what would be her problem.   Here's the image, so you can walk through the process with me:
Artifacts (Faye Longchamp Mysteries, No. 1)
In some ways, Faye is the anti-Scarlett.  She did not grow up surrounded by wealth.  She was not accepted by high society, because of the color of her skin.  She and Scarlett do share the trait of intelligence.  (In the book, one of the reasons Scarlett was rejected by Atlanta society was that she was better at business than the men.  Particularly shocking was the fact that she could "add a double-column of numbers in her head.")  Faye does have Scarlett's tenacity, and after Scarlett loses her wealth, she is as driven to save her ancestral home as Faye is driven to save Joyeuse.  But Faye lacks Scarlett's ruthlessness.  She will break the law to save her home, but she will not hurt other people.  At the beginning of Artifacts, she has withdrawn from the society that rejected her, but she has not lashed out in revenge.

Faye's ancestor Cally, a freed slave, is like Scarlett and Faye in her drive to keep Joyeuse, and she is like Melanie in her passion to save her baby.  When Cally faces the Yankee soldiers down on the staircase of Joyeuse, her baby in her arms, she shows Melanie's quiet passion.  Only Cally gets to live.

My other Civil War heroine, Viola Bachelder, appears in Findings only in the form of love letters that passed between her and her husband Jedediah.  She is yet more like Melanie, in that she poured her life into tending wounded soldiers, Yankee and Rebel and white and black, in her own home, and it cost her everything.  But unlike anyone in Gone with the Wind, Viola used her quiet strength to convince her husband to free their slaves.  Her commitment to abolition, and Cally's passion to be free, and Faye's refusal to bow down to the pressures of growing up in the South in the 1970s as a woman of color, are the things that I think set my stories and my characters apart from the stories that we've all heard before.

When I first had the idea for Artifacts , I could have discarded it, figuring that Margaret Mitchell had gotten there first 70-plus years ago.  Instead, I asked myself, "What would be a story in this setting that would be right for 21st-century audiences?"  Seven books later, I think I did the right thing.


  1. Quick question. Have you ever read a book, liked a character (in archetype, of course), and decided on the spot to incorporate some of the specific traits into one of your own characters? In other words, do you "window-shop" as you read?

    And when you are writing, do you have to be careful about what you read so that you don't absorb voice or pacing or tone? Are you ever influenced?

  2. Nope on both counts. My internal world is pretty sturdy.

    My characters grow out of the setting, and their adventures grow out of who they are. So, as much as I might want to, I can't plug Bev into a Faye story. She would stick out like a sore thumb.

    As for absorbing someone else's voice...when I was still an apprentice novelist, I took a correspondence course. Next to a particularly characteristic bit of prose, my teacher had written in orange ink, "What a voice you have!"

    Notice that she did not say "What a wonderful voice you have!" or "What an awful voice you have!" She made no value judgment. But methinks that I will always, for good or ill, sound like myself.

  3. Knowing that your "voice" is completely safe, you read a lot?

  4. I'm a lifelong compulsive reader. I read the shampoo bottle in the shower. (Sodium lauryl sulfate, anyone?) If there is text in my field of vision, I'm incapable of ignoring it.

    I read for my work all the time--websites, nonfiction books for research, archaeology magazines--but my time for pleasure reading is sadly nonexistent.

    I love plane travel, because I can be trapped in an airport or on an airplane for an entire day, both ways. That's almost the only time I allow myself to read novels these days, but I'm planning to fix that. Somehow...

  5. ME TOO! I think that lack of time for recreational reading is an occupational hazard of pro writers who do a lot of research. I read a LOT, but not much for fun. As you are, I'm about to remedy this. (I say this every six months, but THIS time, I mean it!)