Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 2

Deb during one of our classes

Deb during one of our classes

This is the second 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 in case you missed it.

Having learned our fill on character, our lesson for day 2 was on plot and history. A lot of people find plotting overwhelming, but as Deb said, “all we’re doing [with plot] is taking a person from point A to point B.”

How History and Plot Work Together
The elements of a historical narrative are the same as the story historians construct about the evidence they have found. We tend to think of history as what really happened, but a lot of times we just can’t know, even with a lot of evidence. Many times the evidence, even eyewitness testimony, is contradictory.

That’s why historians look at evidence and then go back later and construct a narrative to tell a particular story. Like historical fiction writers, they end up leaving 99% of what they’ve learned off the page. It may sound like they aren’t being true if that’s the case, but if they included it all the book would be overwhelmingly lengthy and boring. They, like fiction writers, have to stick to a central point or purpose and only radiate out so far from that, and only when doing so enriches the overall point they are trying to make.

Genre and Plot
There are tons of traditional plot models out there, but Deb told us none of her books follow any of them. She believes that is a perfectly valid choice for an author to make. (Honestly, my books don’t either.) We explored the traditional three act structure, the hero’s journey (often used in fantasy) and a basic plot structure and talked about how they are alike and how they differ. (By the way, the images I’m linking to here are the exact ones Deb gave us as handouts, so you can pretend like you were there with us.) It’s a good idea to at least familiarize yourself with the elements of these and other models so that you know the basics of what’s expected from a story, even if yours doesn’t fit neatly into one of them.

Deb doesn’t define herself as a genre author. This means she writes broader fiction that doesn’t fit into a category like mystery, paranormal, romance, etc. However, many writers, myself included, do choose to write within a given genre. It’s important to note that different genres have different expectations. As an author you have three choices:

  1. Work within your genre – All genres have expected conventions, word limits/page expectations. (For example, romance has very particular word counts and expectations of what has to happen by a certain page. Thrillers are also known for having strong pacing expectations.)
  2. Work outside of genre – This is what Deb does. It tends to give you more freedom in length and what you can and can’t do, but it can also be difficult for agents and publishers to classify when it comes time to sell it.
  3. Work against genre – In order to do this, you need to know the rules of the genre well. After all, you can’t break rules (well) you don’t know or understand. And if you break them badly, you won’t have a story people want to read.

History defines the outer limits of where you can go in historical fiction. Within in historical fiction, your sub-genre (fantasy, romance, mystery, thriller, etc.) constrains the genre. In other words, if you’re writing historical fantasy (as I do), you’re still subject to the general rules of fantasy writing; you just happen to be setting your fantasy in another time period.

Bringing History into Your Plot
Deb made the very interesting point that very few people are participants in historical events, but history still affects each one of us. There are three main ways we interact with history:

  1. History that is going on around you that shapes what you eat, wear, etc. – This affects everyone. For example, if I was setting a book in pre-Roman Britain, my Celts would likely not eat onions or celery because the Romans brought those to Britain. However, because my Arthur and Guinevere live after the Roman invasion, it’s logical they could eat those things.
  2. History you are a direct participant in  –  Fewer people will be part of a battle or other significant event. This could be due to their station in life, or they might just happen to live where something of import takes place and get caught up in it. For example, because they are rulers, both Arthur and Guinevere are active participants in the historical battle of Mount Badon.
  3. Doing historical things – Deb gave the examples of being a blacksmith, riding side saddle or teaching in a one room schoolhouse. These are things that you wouldn’t really know are historic while you are doing them. It’s only by looking back through history that we can define them as historic. For example, Guinevere is a Druid priestess. To her, that is a natural part of her religion. Only to us, 1,500 years later, is this considered historical.

This is a continuum. Characters can move on it and different characters can be in different categories at the same time as one another. So your main characters might be doing historic things or being directly involved in historic events, while your secondary characters are only doing historic things. Or your main character may always be doing historic things, but those historic things might change in the course of the book as the history that is going on around him or her affects his/her life.

We all know this, but it bears repeating, especially in the context of historical fiction: history for history’s sake is boring. You may be impressed by what you know, but you will lose the story and your readers if you include all of it. (This is why I started this blog, so that I had something to do with all that extra knowledge and didn’t feel like it was going to waste if it didn’t end up on the page.) Pick the historical things that allow your character to work within your plot. History is a pot of resources you can dip into to find something that makes your characters work i.e. show something about a relationship, help in character development. It shouldn’t be there just because you learned it.

Story Openings and Other Various Tips
As any writer will tell you, knowing where is the best place to begin your story is very difficult. As writers, we often have to “write our way” into the novel and so where we started writing isn’t necessarily the best place to actually begin the book. Deb’s suggestion for finding the elusive “inciting incident” is to find the moment where everything changes for your character and start there. As she said, “It’s like sinking an anchor for yourself and the reader.”

Deb’s tip: Look at your WIP and start reading at page 151. What before that is truly necessary and what is you writing to get to where you need to be? Delete anything that isn’t absolutely essential.

Trivia: Deb told us that A Discovery of Witches originally had a lot more of Diana at the library at the beginning, but she cut it because nothing was happening.

Other tips:

  • Create a file or a book for yourself that is your “bible” with all the information about your characters, plot, and references so you can easily refer back while writing and editing.
  • If you’re going to use something extraordinary like time travel, magic or reincarnation in your story it has to have a reason beyond you wanting to do it. It has to add something to the story.
  • Letting information out slowly over time is always better than a dream, flashback or other contrived tool.

Next week: What Deb taught us about setting.

What do you think about Deb’s advice on plot and history? Writers, what tips do you have? What’s worked for you? Readers, what do you like the best in the plots of the books you read? What annoys you?