Friday, February 13, 2009

Writing Journey: Part VI

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

When I set off on the adventure of writing a historical novel, I went into it refusing to allow myself to commit a personal pet peeve.

I'd read historical novels with chunks that were thinly disguised history lessons. You probably know what I'm talking about: a real historical event must be shown because, well, it was real and important and happened right then, but it doesn't have much bearing on the actual plot. But it MUST be shown! So characters A and B just happen to be at the real event, and therefore, it's in the book.

Peeve, peeve, peeve.

To me, that isn't good storytelling. That's shoving a history lesson down the reader's throat. In my mind, the history should be the backdrop to the story, the hanger on which the plot drapes. It should impact the story in natural ways. It should never be so far into the forefront that it's what we see at the expense of an actual story.

Think Gone with the Wind. Yes, the Civil War was a huge part of the story. But the point wasn't the war. The point was Scarlett and Rhett. In theory, the story could have been set during another war.

I decided early on that any history I included in this historical novel experiment would be relevant to either characterization or plot (and preferably both). It would NOT be there for the sake of being there.

I sat down with my notes about the Logan Temple and analyzed them. The book I relied on most told about the construction by topic: here's a section on the lime kilns, now one on the wood camp, then the plasterers, and so forth. It wasn't at all chronological.

That's why, during my second read, I made a master chronology. Then I analyzed what happened when, which events were near one another, and which months not much took place. I wouldn't cover the entire construction of the temple, I knew. Seven years is a long time to stretch a story without boring readers to tears. So what period should I focus on?

I decided on some of what I felt were the events I most wanted to talk about, which meant the book would begin right before the cornerstone dedication. At this point, I had a pretty good idea of some of my characters and a good chunk of the plot.

I'd already discovered Abe, who has turned out to be my readers' favorite character to date. He was "born" after I read a paper published in Nearly Everything Imaginable from Brigham Young University Press. The book has research papers all about life after the Utah pioneers' arrival, what daily life was like for the next generation. Which I was writing about. One paper was about Mormons who indentured and adopted Native Americans. Ding! A lightbulb went off in my head. I knew immediately that one of my main characters fit that description.

I also knew exactly when I would place the epilogue, because there was a way cool thing discovered inside one of the temple walls during the late 70s demolition and remodel that is (as far as I know) still unexplained. I wanted to use it, giving a possible explanation for why it was there and what it meant.

I began the first couple of chapters. Then I totally rewrote them. Probably six or seven (or heck, twenty? It felt like that) times. (I have serious first-chapter issues; just ask my critique group.)

When I finally made it into the first real temple construction stuff, I ran into a problem: I really wanted to show the cornerstone dedication, but at that point, I had no plot or character reason for doing so.


I had to set the manuscript aside for a week or so before moving on. I couldn't get myself to throw in that real event just for its own sake, no matter how cool it was. (Peeve!)

Eventually I realized where the cornerstone dedication fit: it's where we begin to learn much about Lizzy's faith issues (characterization) and, more importantly, she first lays eyes on Abe (plot!). With those two pieces, I was able to move forward.

This book was an interesting writing experience for me on several levels. Placing characters more than a hundred years in the past was extremely different than setting them running loose in a modern-day setting, of course. But the story itself morphed several times. It started out being a more light-hearted, surface-level story, but my editor made me dig deeper and find the other layers (it's an onion!).

She pushed me and even gave me a 2-week deadline to do some significant rewriting. The final version ended up much longer (by nearly 100 manuscript pages) than the one I turned in. Best of all, some of my favorite scenes are ones she forced me to uncover. (Can you see why I mourned in sackcloth and ashes when she left the company?!)

I submitted the historical while we were still in the rental (well after we were supposed to be OUT of it, but we won't go into the pains of house construction). I didn't hear back for over three months, well past the time I should have.

See, one nice perk to being an in-house writer is that your submissions go through the evaluation process much faster than those of someone submitting cold, which takes much longer. But for me, by book three, I knew that this was longer than I should have to wait. I finally got up the courage to inquire.

Angela's response: "No one told you? It was accepted weeks ago. Sorry about that." I was too happy to be annoyed.

This book's title and cover were easily my favorite yet. House on the Hill just fit. And no more stock photos! Instead, I got actual artwork, details from paintings by Al Rounds (the Logan Temple) and William Whitaker (the girl). I loved the cover. I still do:

I was apparently rather clueless. After writing a historical novel, I didn't realize that this was my forte and what I should keep doing. Either that, or my writing attention span was the size of a gnat's.

Whatever the reason, for my next project, I landed on what I thought was a totally cool idea for murder mystery, a sequel of sorts for Lost without You, set ten years later.

[Angela is now a high school senior. Her cop father is now a detective. Angela's best friend is murdered, and he's on the case. Booyah!]

When I told my husband about the idea (including more detail than what I just told you), he said, "But hasn't Angela been through enough?"

Well, yeah, I guess. But isn't it a cool idea?! (Writers are so sadistic.)

I submitted that mystery next. When I heard back, it wasn't my editor calling. The company's managing editor was on the line. The head honcho. I wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. I gulped, wondering if I was in trouble (with no clue why I would be). I couldn't imagine what she'd be calling about.

What she said wasn't at all what I expected, and it sent my feet on a path I'd follow for years to come.


Kristina P. said...

Such an interesting process! I think that writing a book against an historical backdrop must be very challenging to get all the little details correct.

Lara Neves said...

That is a huge pet peeve of mine in historical novels, too. I'm glad that you felt the same way!

Anonymous said...

HEY! Not cool leaving off with a tease like that! I'd like to see Part VII up this afternoon (please). :)

Anonymous said...

You're a big ol' tease!

I totally agree with you about the historical-facts-for-no-good- reason. I feel like I'm being ripped off in a really trasparent way.
Dang it. More hyphens.

Michele Holmes said...

I know! I know what happened :) And it was marvelous, though . . . well you know how I feel about the mystery you wrote.

The Blonde Duck said...

Popped in from Kristina's blog to say hello! Great post!

Erin said...

Thanks for leaving us on a cliff-hanger like that!

Shauna said...

Hope you have a very Happy Valentines Day! ♥ Hugs :)

Brittany Marie said...

That sounds so fun. I'm excited to read House on the Hill. I have to finish up Persuasion and then I'll all set. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. For years, I have been at a loss to explain why I do not like certain historical fiction series, and also how to explain what it is that I do like about others.

As you so eloquently expressed it, it isn't the events so much as the impact they had on the people that I enjoy reading. Maybe that's why I like reading pioneer accounts of their lives. It's first person and about the event's impact on them.

Thank you for this post.

Heffalump said...

Oooh, a cliffhanger ending!

I have to admit that Abe is a favorite character out of the ones you have written. I enjoyed his evolution over time.

Heidi said...

Ack! I so want to read this but I want to be able to give it my full attention. Right now I am more nervous and excited than I have ever been in my entire life. How crazy to plan a book signing (with speech and reading) AND have people over to my house AND have a party with food, etc. AND plan to meet new blog friends AND plan to see a high school friend I haven't seen or spoken to since my wedding day ALL IN ONE FRICKIN DAY!!! (I'm just going to go throw up now . . .)

Josi said...

As to your peeves, that's why you're one of my favorite historical writers--because the story comes first. Will we ever see that sequel?

Annette Lyon said...

LeeAnn, Thanks so much! I really appreciate that.

Heffalump, I get that a lot. For that matter, Abe's one of my favorites too.

Heidi, Hang in there. I have a feeling you'll not only wow everyone, but you'll do so vomit-free. :D

Josi, I've actually toyed with pulling out the mystery again. It's a definite possibility.

Amanda D said...

You are so cruel ending this one on a cliff hanger! I can't wait to hear what comes next.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Ooooo! I just read House on the Hill for the first time this week (Dedee gave it to me for Christmas) and was so swept up by the story...specifically by the depth of it. You had me in tears on three seperate occasions!

An Ordinary Mom said...

What a cruel way to end your post!

And I still need to read your Logan Temple book.

Little GrumpyAngel said...

Wow, writing a book is a lot of hard work. But I guess, that is what distinguishes real writers like you from those who think they can write and just sloppily slap things together. As if discerning readers can't tell. Thanks for sharing the process.


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