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?

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