Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts sharing what I learned from author Deb Harkness during a week-long Master Class at Hedgebrook. Here’s part 1 and part 2 in case you missed them.

All credit to cartoonist Charles Schulz

All credit to cartoonist Charles Schulz

Day three at Hedgebrook was all about setting, plus Deb gave us some additional research tips, which I will share here.

Setting the Scene
Setting is actually my second favorite part of writing, next to character. I’ve been told by editors that I have a talent for writing beautiful descriptions of place (I’ll take that compliment), but as with anything else, it needs to be done carefully. Too much and you will bore your reader; too little and they won’t be immersed in your world.

Deb describes setting as “putting your story in fancy dress.” It not only includes the room, weather, time period and location, but also things like dialect and costuming. In historical fiction, you need to be deliberate in your deployment of historical details. Too much (especially with dialect) will distance the reader; less is more. Like every word in your book, your setting has to do some work. It shouldn’t just be there for its own sake.

You may need to write a bunch of detail before you learn what is really needed in a scene. To illustrate this, Deb gave us copies of three drafts of the same passage from Shadow of Night. The first was her really getting a feeling for the place. She called it a historical sketch based on generalities. The second was longer, as she flushed out details as they related to Matthew as a solider and a spy. The third (which was the published version) struck a nice balance between giving the reader a sense of location and helping the details show us something about the characters in the room. As she put it, “editing is what made it clear to the reader.” Deb’s advice:

  • Write your description, then go back and look at all you’ve written. Pick out only three things that are important and think about why they are important. The “why” is just as important as the “what” in constructing a good setting.
  • Think about this: if your historical story was set in present time, would you stop the action/dialogue to describe this? (She tells a story about how many people get caught up on describing a certain type of  button, when just calling it a button would suffice.)
  • If your description stands in for character development, plot or dialogue, delete it. These three things are much more important than description.

Deb compares writing to cooking. “History [and setting] are like cayenne pepper or tarragon; a little goes a long way. A really effective story is a balance between character, plot, dialogue, setting, action and reflection.”

Nine Historical Research Resources
I’m not sure how we got to talking about research (maybe from the question of how to recreate setting for a previous time period?), but we did. And I’m glad. These are the resources Deb recommends:

  1. Wikipedia –  Yes, she really did recommend this. Using keywords or names, it’s a great place to look for books (fiction and non-fiction) that have been published in a given area/topic. It’s also great for “creating the scaffolding” of your story. But double check facts with other sources and don’t rely on it for interpretations of historical events.
  2. Abe Books – Great source for books written by antiquarians which will give you a lot of time period detail.
  3. Local historians – They can often give you detail you won’t even find in books because history is to them a living, breathing thing that they interact with regularly through their location.
  4. Amazon – (I wrote a blog post about it as a research tool a while back.) Deb suggests sorting your results by date, rather than relevance, and looking for new scholarship. If you are writing about/looking for information on women, family, household life, etc., look for books written after 1974, which is when the old male-dominated mindsets in research began to change. Also, don’t rely on conduct books from a given time period. They often reflect the ideal woman/child/family, rather than reality.
  5. Google Books – It gives you access to at least parts of thousands of books, including Harvard’s entire collection prior to 1890.
  6. Local library’s database collection – Your local public and/or college library should have a good database collection. If you need help with a specific topic or aren’t sure how to access the databases, talk to the reference librarian. That’s what he/she is there for.
  7. Church of Latter Day Saints – Their records include London’s register from the 16th century on and their libraries are gold mines. You can also find some of their information on ancestry.com if you do a family search.
  8. Primary sources – Always read first-hand accounts, if such a thing exists. Primary sources such as letters, journals, and novels written by women are ideal to get a feel for the time and the people.
  9. Newspapers – If they existed in your time, use them. Many are being digitized. Three months of issues will give you a lot to work from.

One More Tip from Deb
Writing isn’t the only thing a writer needs to do. Reading, watching a bird, staring at the fire (or anything else that lets you dream/imagine/use your brain) are part of your job.

Next week: Deb’s lecture on worldview.

What do you think of Deb’s advise on setting and research? How do your favorite authors handle setting? As a reader, what do you like/dislike? If you’re a writer, did you learn anything from Deb’s research tips?

Hedgebrook Master Class with Deborah Harkness

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Our Master Class group, including teacher Deb Harkness

How do you begin to describe the opportunity of a lifetime? Knowing me, it’s not with few words, but I’ll try to limit myself.

IMG_0500Many of you know that I just got back a week ago from attending a Master Class led by #1 NYT Bestselling author Deborah Harkness. It was held at Hedgebrook, a magical area of land on Whidbey Island, about two hours outside of Seattle that is dedicated to advancing female writers.

I found out in mid-January that Deb would be teaching a class on using history in fiction when she tweeted about it. At first, I didn’t think I could afford it, but then a wise soul (my mom) pointed out that it would not only be a great opportunity to learn about writing, but also allow me to cross off several items from my bucket list (meet Deb Harkness, take a class from her, go on a real writing retreat, see the Pacific Northwest). So I applied and was one of six writers chosen. Deb later told us that she hand-picked us because she saw potential in us and our writing, plus we were creating stories about strong women that she wanted to read.

Fir Cottage

Fir Cottage

Hedgebrook is a unique place. Each writer has her own cottage, named after the type of wood from which they are made. Mine was Fir Cottage. They are very simple, hand-crafted in an Amish style and heated by wood burning stoves. Each one has a small kitchenette with a toaster oven, single burner and just enough cookery and plates for single use. There’s a desk to work at, a comfy window seat and the world’s most relaxing recliner. There’s also a half bath and a loft with a bed and chest of drawers. That’s it. No wifi or anything fancy. As it turns out, this simplicity taught me that I don’t need so much stuff in my life and I’m beginning the process of purging, but that’s another story.

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My writing space inside the cottage

Every day (except for Saturday, which was a writing day), we had two hours of class with Deb. We were her first ever creative writing class, but if she hadn’t told us that, I wouldn’t have known. She’s such a great teacher! Every lesson had a different theme: character, plot, setting, world view, point of view, research, etc. I’m hoping to share with you a little of what she taught us in each lesson, but I’m waiting on final permission from Hedgebrook to do so. The really cool thing about this class is that it wasn’t taught from some rule book; Deb used her own experiences and encouraged us to share our own in order to make learning a group process. She even shared drafts of her own writing with us so that we could see how her writing evolved from one draft to another and told us personal stories of frustration and triumph with the writing process that made us all feel so much better, since it meant we weren’t alone.

The view from one of my windows.

The view from one of my windows.

One interesting thing that I will share is that Deb took great pains to convince us that we, as non-historians, are actually in a better place to write historical fiction than historians, like herself are. She made the point that historical fiction, at its core, is about telling a great story; the history is window dressing. As we haven’t been through the training emphasizing facts only that historians have, we’re more in touch with the imaginative side of our brains that wants to fill in the gaps, which is where the storytelling takes place. This doesn’t mean that we can just make up whatever we want or be sloppy about research, but it does mean we have greater freedom. That being said, she also explained how closely the job of a historian and historical fiction writer resemble one another, as even historians can never know the truth for certain; they have theory, use facts to back it up, and do their best to convince others that they are the most right. Not all that different from the stories we tell, albeit we go into our stories knowing they are fiction. This made me feel a lot better, as I’ve always questioned if I was qualified to write historical fiction.

IMG_1276After class, we’d go to the Farmhouse together for dinner. This building is where the kitchen and dining areas are, plus a cozy library/living room. Oh the food! I can’t rave enough! From salmon patties and curry to fresh mussels and clams and chicken Mirabella and the best vegetarian enchalladas – it was all so fresh, all organic, so good, made all the better because it was made with love. As we ate, the wine and conversation flowed. Boy did we tell some funny stories!

Hanging out after dinner.

Hanging out after dinner.

Deb fit right in. She is so open, so warm and so human. Each night after desert, we’d adjourn to the library/living room for conversation. She intended to do a little work, but always ended up joining us and answering questions about her stories. I learned more about movie deals, book tours, audio books and the behind the scenes of publishing from her than I could have in any class.

Once we were done, we all grabbed our groceries for the next day and walked back by flashlight (there are no lights and it was cloudy for all but one night so we didn’t have moonlight) to our cabins to shower, read, write or do whatever before we went to sleep.

Look! I learned how to build a fire all by myself!

Look! I learned how to build a fire all by myself!

We also each got at least an hour of one-on-one time with Deb. Some people gave her writing samples to critique. I wish I had part of book 3 that was ready for that, but since I didn’t, I spent my time talking with her about what it’s like to be a historian (and realized that a PhD is probably not right for me) and also about the publishing process and life as an author. I can’t tell you enough just how wonderful and wise she is. I am so blessed to have had this chance to spend time with her and get to know her.

Now, a week later, the whole thing feels like a dream. It really did go by fast. But as I reflect on my journal entries, hang new photos on my wall and keep in touch with my fellow writers on Facebook, I realize just what a special opportunity this was. I’m so glad that Hedgebrook provided it and that I went for it. I’m already planning on applying for a residency at Hedgebrook at some point in the future and I will be supporting them in every way I can. There’s a running joke among Hedgebrook alumni in the journals kept by residents of each cabin about the goddess of Hedgebrook, the spirit of the place. Call it what you will, but there really is something healing and inspiring about it. It is a place that women can come and feel creative, safe and nurtured, things sometimes very lacking in the outside world.

IMG_1223Thank you to everyone who made this opportunity possible – at Hedgebrook and in my personal and work lives. You don’t know what a gift you’ve given to me. To everyone reading this, if you get the chance to visit Hedgebrook, or do anything similar in your own life, go for it! You only get one shot at this life and it’s up to you to make your dreams come true. As a Hedgebrook alumna, I know I am several steps closer to mine now.

What questions do you  have about my writing retreat? Please ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.