Category: Novel

Marianna Baer’s THE INCONCEIVABLE LIFE OF QUINN and Pencil Detonators

By July 1944, it was obvious to a growing number of Germans and Nazi higher-ups that Deutschland had all but lost World War II.  Further, it was clear that Hitler’s obstinance was having a negative effect on whatever post-war future that Germany would have.  As a result, many Nazi officials plotted to take out their Fuhrer and some even took steps toward achieving that goal.

On July 20, 1944, the Third Reich only had nine more months to live. Claus von Stauffenberg didn’t know that. The German army officer joined a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfsschanze), one of the control centers Hitler maintained outside of Berlin.  Von Stauffenberg placed his briefcase under the long table Hitler was pounding as he dictated strategy on the eastern front.  After a few minutes, Von Stauffenberg excused himself and beat feet from the Wolf’s Lair.  Soon after that, the meeting room exploded.  Four people were killed.  Hitler was largely untouched.

Why do I bring up an interesting event from recent world history?  Because it relates to writing craft and Marianna Baer‘s Amulet Books YA novel The Inconceivable Life of Quinn.  Von Stauffenberg planned to detonate the bombs he left beside Hitler with a pencil detonator.  The device is a relatively simple one.  It’s a spring-loaded cylinder.  On one end is a percussion cap that makes the explosives go boom.  On the other end is a vial of liquid chemicals that, when burst, will begin to eat away the spring mechanism.  When the wire fails…kaboom.  Here’s a diagram:

Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr
Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr

Marianna Baer has a pencil detonator in her novel.  Quinn, the protagonist, finds out that she is a couple months pregnant.  Can you hear the acid eating away that wire?  Babies generally take nine months of oven time to cook.  Two months have already passed.  When a baby is in a mommy’s tummy, it gets bigger every single day and (unless there’s a problem) nothing can stop it.  You can’t close your eyes and pretend a baby isn’t coming any more than you can stand on tracks and expect the train to disappear.  Pregnancy is a great pencil detonator because it causes disarray and change by its very nature.

Ms. Baer makes smart use of Quinn’s pregnancy by allowing the drama surrounding the baby to increase as time goes on.  The author did, however, have a little bit of a problem: everyone on Earth has either given birth or been born.  There are currently more than 7.5 billion people on the planet; being pregnant is not unique in the grand scheme of things, but it is very special to the child’s parents.  So.  That’s the big struggle: you must make the mundane special in your work.  As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman taught his recruits to repeat of their rifles: “This is my rifle.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.”  Everyone has been bullied.  What makes the bullying in your story different.  Everyone has fought with friends.  What makes this fight different?

Fortunately, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn has a hook that makes the pregnancy worth reading about.  Quinn is not only the daughter of a politician during an election year, she is a virgin and has no idea how she has come to be in the family way.  In this way, there are two questions that keep us reading:

  1. How’d the baby happen if there was no sex?  Who’s the father?
  2. What’s going to happen with the election?  How crazy will the media get about the daughter of a NYC politician getting knocked up just before an election?  (Shades of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston!)

The great Lee K. Abbott loves to drop the following truth when it comes to writing: recite-1a4r72o (1)

On page 34 of the hardcover, Ms. Baer gives us a very sweet description of the first time Quinn hears the baby’s heartbeat.  Her mother asks, “There it is.  Can you hear that?”  Then the narrator says:

A muffled, rhythmic sound.  A distant drumming.  Fast and strong.

A heartbeat.

A heartbeat that wasn’t Quinn’s own.

So this moment is nice and nicely written, but there’s a problem: there’s math involved.  I’m the reader…I’m not supposed to have to do any work.  Why should it be my job to go to the Wikipedia entry for “pregnancy” to figure out when the fetal heart starts beating?  Should I be expected to get out a pen and paper and open the calendar on my phone?

Thank goodness, Ms. Baer saves me from this only five pages later.  On page 39, she tells us that Quinn has been given a two-week window during which it was possible for her to become pregnant.  (I think the author also says how many weeks the baby has been gestating, but I can’t find it in the text.)  Don’t make your reader do math and don’t make them scratch their head and try to figure out, in this case, the baby is due and when it was conceived.

The Inconceivable Life of Quinn keeps the reader turning pages (or swiping the screen) by taking Quinn’s pregnancy and relationships in a number of unexpected directions. Ms. Baer populates her story (told from third-person vignettes from each character) with relatable characters who speak and act the way they should, even if those actions are not always pleasant. Quinn’s father should doubt her and ask several times about the father of the child. Some of Quinn’s classmates must be unpleasant to her.

The most interesting choice the author makes might be the way that she does so much to add unexpected elements to the pregnancy narrative. (I don’t want to reveal too much about those.) In this way, Quinn’s pregnancy, like so many others, is not simply an accident or a happenstance of biology, hormones, and impulse. The story of of Quinn’s “inconceivable” pregnancy becomes an emotional journey for the reader as much as it is for the prospective mother.

Chelsea Sedoti’s THE HUNDRED LIES OF LIZZIE LOVETT and Main Characters Who Never Appear in the Story

When I was in eleventh grade, Miss Rowe introduced me to Tennessee Williams and his play The Glass Menagerie.  I related to the characters in a number of ways, but most strongly when the playwright described a certain section of the Wingfield apartment:

Nearest the audience is the living room, which also serves as a sleeping room for Laura, the sofa unfolding to make her bed.  Just beyond, separated from the living room by a wide arch or second proscenium with transparent faded portieres (or second curtain), is the dining room.  In an old-fashioned whatnot in the living room are seen scores of transparent glass animals.  A blown-up photograph of the father hands on the wall of the living room, to the left of the archway.  It is the face of a very handsome young man in a doughboy’s First World War cap.  He is gallantly smiling, ineluctably smiling, as if to say, “I will be smiling forever.”

That photograph of Tom and Laura’s father is a constant and tangible reminder of why the characters are in their situation.  That man is part of why Laura is shy and reserved, why Tom is angry and wants to leave, why Amanda is in denial.  Wingfield père never makes an appearance on the stage…but he is always there, from curtain up to curtain down.

The same kind of dynamic appears in Chelsea Sedoti‘s The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett, a YA novel that is a little bit of suspense, a little bit of romance, a little bit of character study.  The protagonist is Hawthorn, a high schooler who always looked up to Lizzie Lovett.  The latter graduated a few years ago; she was the most beautiful, most graceful girl in school.  Hawthorn just knew that Lizzie is the kind of person who has an easy life because they’re perfect.

Then Lizzie goes missing.  Hawthorn wants to know why, wants to know where Lizzie went.  So she investigates Lizzie’s life.  She takes Lizzie’s old job and quickly develops a crush on Enzo, Lizzie’s boyfriend.  I got a Raffaele Sollecito vibe from Enzo, who is a dark and passionate painter; he’s also a suspect in Lizzie’s disappearance in the eyes of some.

Ms. Sedoti sends Hawthorn on an interesting personal adventure as she and Enzo cope with their loss.  I don’t want to give away too much plot (like I said, it’s partly a suspense novel), but the author does a good job of creating a meaningful arc for Hawthorn and giving her interesting things to do.

Speaking of which, Ms. Sedoti gave herself a big problem in choosing her narrative, but also gave herself great opportunity.  Stories about disappearances and murderers and the like are very interesting!  Just think of any episode of Dateline NBC.  These are what I call “shiny” stories because they attract a lot of attention very easily, just like shiny things you see when walking down the street.  Ms. Sedoti created an interesting narrative out of a story that is decidedly far less “shiny.”  Hawthorn didn’t know Lizzie well.  She wasn’t involved in the disappearance.  Lizzie remains missing for quite some time.  This is not exactly the kind of story that will be made into a pure horror movie.

So Ms. Sedoti reflected Lizzie and her life through the lens that Hawthorn represented.  All of the characterization for Lizzie came from a girl who wasn’t very close to her.  One on hand, this kind of information is objective; on the other hand, it’s filtered through the perspective of a teenager.  (And one who admired her.)  Ms. Sedoti also made sure there were a few subplots to suggest the passage of time and to keep things rolling.  There’s a homecoming dance!  There’s a terrible bully!  There’s an annoying but devoted brother!  Most of all, there’s a romance that unspools very slowly and methodically.

My favorite thing about Ms. Sedoti’s conceit is the way that Lizzie hovers over the narrative in the same way that the Wingfield patriarch dominated Tennessee Williams’ narrative.  The book opens:

The first thing that happened was Lizzie Lovett disappeared, and everyone was all, “How can someone like Lizzie be missing?” and I was like, “Who cares?”

So as the novel starts, Lizzie is already out of the narrative picture and can’t appear.  (You know, unless and until she’s found or returns, yada yada.)  Absent Lizzie is a mirror that reflects upon the characters.  To Hawthorn, she represents the flawless princess lucky girl she wants to be when she grows up.  Eventually, she reflects upon Enzo as an artist and a human being.  Those who aren’t optimistic about Lizzie making a return are exposed as pessimists or realists.

In a way, Lizzie is not so much a character as a symbol.  Have you ever met Abraham Lincoln?  Didn’t think so.  Like Lizzie, writing about him means projecting your own ideas onto him.  These kinds of characters are (often) symbols.  Hawthorn is a compelling teenage girl.  She has romantic desires and fights with her brother and seeks wisdom from the hippie caravan near her house.  She’s a living, breathing person!  (In prose form.)  Lizzie, on the other hand, is a kind of ghost who drives and reveals the characters.  

Of course, Lizzie also reveals information about us, based upon how we perceive her and how we think about the search for her.  Ms. Sedoti gives us plenty to think about, but in that good way.  Hawthorn experiences a number of twists and turns.  She grows up in some ways and not in others.  The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett (like The Glass Menagerie) is a work about how we cope with absence and how we grow up in the face of grief and longing and will be enjoyed by those who are young adults in addition to those who merely remember being young adults.

Colonel Sanders/Catherine Kovach’s TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE and Why We Love Reading and Writing in the First Place

The news stories seemed too good to be true: Colonel Sanders had written a romance novel(la), just in time for Mother’s Day.  Tender Wings of Desire was offered as a free download on Amazon.  A lot of the discussion has centered around the obvious: the book is obviously part of a KFC® marketing campaign.  KFC® wants to make money, so they came up with the idea to get attention and spread goodwill by hiring a writer to produce a novel that they could make go viral.

While I have my compunctions about marketing and corporations and the like, I immediately thought this was a great campaign and a very fun and honest way for KFC® to build excitement around their brand.  Ad industry people have written about Tender Wings of Desire from their perspective, and I am writing about it from the Great Writers Steal perspective: what can we learn from the book?

Quite a lot, actually!

I absolutely love that Wieden + Kennedy Portland used an honest-to-goodness book as a freebie giveaway.  A book!  Literature!  Not some branded Frisbee or stress ball that will be thrown away the next day!  The ad agency is treating a book as though it’s an everyday object that people need.  (Which it is.)  As reading rates decline, anything that we can do to get people to smile and chuckle about a book is a blessing.  We need to get our books into the hands of readers any way we can.

Best of all, the book is good!  It’s fun!  What else do you want?  Yes, it is a romance novel; the genre carries an unfair stigma in some places.  The identity of the real author is no secret.  Catherine Kovach seems to have been on the scene for the past several years, and points out the unfair attitude some have toward romance authors:

Yes, every writer has different goals, and that’s fine.  But don’t we all want to produce work we love and to have an audience for that work?  Romance writers (and those who trade in any genre) make their readers happy.  Lots of romance writers outsell fancy-pants literary writers who win all the awards.  Ms. Kovach has succeeded on all counts and is building her audience.

Let’s look at the most important thing: the book itself.  Ms. Kovach followed the conventions of the romance novel without satirizing them.  What do we have?

  • A free-spirited, beautiful young woman resisting social conventions
  • A “more beautiful” sister who loves the social conventions
  • An arranged marriage with a handsome royal
  • A fancy ball where the women wear pretty dresses
  • A midnight horse ride to escape
  • A new life of the protagonist’s own choosing, when…
  • A handsome stranger takes the protagonist’s breath away.

I got a real Austen vibe from the plot and the prose is solid and fun.  Every reader enjoys (or should enjoy) a change of pace every so often.  I’m not in the prime demographic for romance novels, but what does it matter?  I contain multitudes.  So do you.  Tender Wings of Desire is a part of a balanced reading diet.

Perhaps it’s just my own perception, but a “balanced diet” seems far more “acceptable” when we’re talking about other kinds of media.  Joyce Carol Oates enjoys the fancy-pantsiest possible literature out there.  She also loves and has written extensively about boxing, a sport where two musclebound people try to punch each other unconscious.  (The sweet science, of course, has its own poetic beauty.)  If you look at some of your “literary” friends on social media, they’ll talk about the latest Pulitzer winner and then tweet about The Bachelor.  I’d love it if the much of the barrier between “literary” and “entertaining” would fall away.  Ms. Kovach fulfills her responsibilities as a writer: she made promises to the reader and kept them.  Two promises apply to all books: the writer must give the reader a reason to pick up the book and must entertain him or her.

Now let’s get specific about Ms. Kovach’s prose.  Narratively, the book is solid.  The handsome Harlan appears virtually halfway through the book.  Had Ms. Kovach been making a goof, she would have brought Colonel Sanders in earlier, seeing as how his presence is the “joke.”  (She also avoids gratuitous references to delicious KFC® Original Recipe® chicken or their scrumptious gravy®.  Or that butter substance® you can put on their flaky biscuits®.  I’m hungry now.)   Ms. Kovach plays it straight, knowing that a good, entertaining novella will do more good for the reader (and her boss) than a throwaway read.

Here’s that critical moment.  Are you ready to see the instant in which Madeline’s life changed forever?

wings1 wings2

Ms. Kovach does the smart and expected thing; Chapter Five ends on a cliffhanger.  The reader doesn’t see the romantic lead, but Madeline does.  We get the reaction–Madeline is speechless–and are tempted to turn the page.  (Well, to swipe the location or whatever.)

Ms. Kovach also plays with the reader’s current knowledge and expectations in a smart way.  She doesn’t need to describe everything about Colonel Sanders’ accent.  We’ve all heard it.  We’ve all heard Norm Macdonald and others do the accent.  Instead, she remains committed to the honest nature of the book and simply writes, “a soft version of an American accent.”  The reader’s mind does the rest.  No overkill.

No, I don’t expect that Tender Wings of Desire will start a trend in which companies give writers money to produce branded books that are written with a surprising amount of dignity.  (And a surprising lack of obvious mentions of KFC®‘s several delicious $5 Fill Up® options.)  But here’s hoping that other ad agencies and corporate bigwigs will take note that you can get attention and make money by making literature a small part of your branding.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to resist going to my local KFC® restaurant (where the employees are all exceedingly polite, by the way) to get a 3pc. Chicken Big Box Meal® so my day will end with a HEA, just like Tender Wings of Desire.  (“HEA” is romance writer jargon for “Happily Ever After.”)

Freshman-Suggested Alternate Reading Group Guide Questions for Tom Perrotta’s JOE COLLEGE

I often assign my students to read Tom Perrotta’s fantastic Joe College.  (And if they don’t read the book, I ask them to at least follow the advice I gave people about how to discuss a book they didn’t read.) Continue Reading

Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)

The unthinkable has happened.  Okla Elliott has shuffled off this mortal coil.  It is also fair to jettison the euphemism and to point out that he died, but the truth is that he accomplished so much and touched so many in his years that he could only have died in the biological sense.

Okla was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, though one of the most giving.  He devoted so much of his limited time on this planet helping other writers in large ways and small.  In the few days since his passing, I have been comforted by reading so many anecdotes from writers he took under his wing at a conference or who received hours of counsel about their manuscript.

I started Great Writers Steal on December 2, 2012 out of the same kind of desire to serve the writing community.  Even though he was deservedly a zillion times more successful than I am, he was always happy to help out with my endeavors.  This, combined with my love of his work, means that there’s a lot of Okla in GWS.

Here he is on my podcast to talk about his epic novel The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-written with Raul Clement):

I featured him in a QuickCraft:

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I built upon an argument Okla put forth in an essay about the big MFA debate:

I reviewed his novel for Serving House Journal.  He deigned to publish some of my thoughts on As It Ought to Be.  You get the point.  I am pleased to know that he had affection for me and I certainly returned that affection.

I am very grateful to have known Okla during his all-too-short time on this all-too-often cold and unfeeling planet.  Please do yourself a favor and check out his work.

Here‘s a list he compiled of his online publications.  (Wow…this is sad.  It occurs to me that I need to archive the page, as Okla is no longer around to re-up his web hosting.)

Here is his Amazon page.  Here is his Barnes & Noble page.  Here is his Kobo page.  (We need more than one bookstore on Earth, friends.)

When I was looking for a real writer’s story to reprint in and thereby add value to my collection of essays about the 2012 Best American Short Stories, Okla instantly volunteered one of his own.  I’ve changed the price of the book to free; please download and read his story.  (You can ignore the bits I wrote.)  Download from Amazon here.  Download from Kobo here.  Download from Barnes & Noble here.

You don’t even need to act on my recommendation.  Okla was the best and he earned laurels from the best:

oklae

It is somehow unthinkable that life will go on in the face of our loss, but such is the nature of human existence.  I was and remain distraught at the news, but Okla (who was as alive as ever mere days ago), would not want us to mourn to excess.  He might ask us to remember his kindness, to remember his work, but most of all to remember that those who remain deserve to be treated with human dignity.

This is the first Okla-less sunset.  There will be so many more.  Let’s keep him in our hearts and minds and forge a world that more closely resembles the one he was trying to build.IMAG0410

 

 

Christi Barth’s GIVING IT ALL and the Voice of the Romance Narrator

Logan and Brooke had crushes on each other during high school, but never told each other how they felt.  A decade later, they have an improbable meeting in the Caribbean and engage in a steamy love affair that may just turn into something more…

Giving it All is Book 3 of 4 in Christi Barth‘s “Naked Men” series.  (Purchase at Amazon or Barnes and Noble or through your local indie store.)  The “Naked Men” are occasionally naked in literal terms, but the title refers to the blog set up by the male protagonists.  The Naked Men are friends and help each other through their problems.  Will Logan and Brooke share a HEA (Happily Ever After)?  Time will tell, but there will be a lot of hot lovemaking before we find out.

I don’t know how many of my readers or friends have picked up a romance novel recently, but I maintain that we are all missing out if we don’t work them into our balanced reading diet.  They’re fun!  And why are they fun?  Because the author is focused on making sure that the reader is having a good time.  He or she makes some very clear promises and (one hopes) fulfills them.  As I pointed out in my GWS essay about Wendy S. Marcus’s The Doctor She Always Dreamed Of, the narrator in a romance novel can add greatly to the fun.  Ms. Barth uses her narrator to great effect in Giving it All.

No matter what you write, the narrator’s persona must fit the purpose of the work.  Or as Hamlet said, “suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”  Take a look at the opening of the beautiful but dark and sad Thomas Keneally novel Schindler’s List:

schindler1 schindler2

Keneally’s narrator makes it very clear that this will not be a laff-a-minute joy ride.  Look at the chauffeur’s joke–“icy as a widow’s heart.”  That’s sad.  The widow (and the teller of the joke, I suppose) don’t express full empathy and humanity.  We are told this is a story about evil.  We read “the beast” and “fatal human malice.”

The narrator of Schindler’s List establishes the tone of the book and sweeps the reader along with him or her.  Giving it All is a very, very different book (obviously) and deserves a different narrator.  And what a fun voice it is!

barth1

Ms. Barth’s narrator fits the plot and the characters, doesn’t it?  If you’re willing to read a romance novel, you are probably having a good time with this narrator.  (If reading about people seeing each other across the room and feeling sexual attraction is a problem for you–Brooke gets her chance–then you probably aren’t going to pick up a romance novel.)  The narrator of the book doesn’t stand at a distance; he or she is right beside the reader, acting in the same manner as a person with whom you are sharing guy talk or girl talk.  The tone is so much fun and invites you to pretend that a buddy just jabbed you in the ribs and said, “Hey, bro.  Isn’t that that cheerleader you had a huge crush on in high school?  Shoot.  She’s looking good.  You should say hi.”

Which is a good way to introduce another reason that Ms. Barth’s book is successful: Giving it All appeals to a universal desire.  Didn’t we all have at least one big crush in high school?  No matter how happy you are in life, no matter how many years have passed, doesn’t the memory of the proverbial Little Red-Haired Girl or Boy have a place in your heart?  Young crush love is very pure.  Sure, Brooke and Logan wanted to have sex with each other when they were in high school.  But because they were teenagers, their hearts unscarred by life, there was a purity to their feelings.  Readers enjoy living vicariously through literary characters…particularly the ones in romance novels.  Ms. Barth taps into these common desires, gaining easy access to the reader’s heart.

Giving it All is a satisfying read, not only in the context of the romance genre.  Ms. Barth includes plenty of “heat,” as romance people say, but also makes the reader care about Brooke and Logan and their individual problems.  Perhaps most impressive (and pleasing), the men in the book feel like men.  They speak like men and think like men.  Sometimes we love to say cruel things to our friends.  Sometimes we are 100% focused on our redhead friend lying beside us.  Sometimes we just want to provide for everyone we love.

The book, like the relationship between the protagonists, is not merely a white-hot sexual bacchanalia.  It’s also the chronicle of two people falling in love…after a white-hot sexual bacchanalia.

 

Nicola Yoon’s EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING and Kinetic Narratives

When I learned about the conceit of Nicola Yoon‘s Everything, Everything, I was engaged as a reader, of course, but the book attracted my interest as a writer.  The novel is a YA book about a young woman who has spent her entire life in a clean room because she is sick.  Madeline has severe combined immunodeficiency and cannot enter the real world or have contact with people who have not been decontaminated, or else she’ll die.  She’s a bubble girl, essentially. Continue Reading

Hey, Jim Pransky, Why’d You Do That in Your Novel THE TENOR WITH THE GOLDEN ARM?

Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.

…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…

These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things.  In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.

Jim Pransky is an interesting man who has the kind of career to which many of us aspire.  He’s been a baseball scout for many years and is currently with the Colorado Rockies.  When he isn’t identifying talent and evaluating young men for their suitability to make it in The Show, he likes to write books about our great National Pastime.  In addition to writing biographies of overlooked players that deserve attention, Mr. Pransky writes novels that use baseball as their setting. Continue Reading

Wanda E. Brunstetter’s The Amish Cooking Class – The Seekers and Bringing Characters Together for Drama

Hey, everyone.  It’s time to be a little bit jealous of Wanda E. Brunstetter.  But not too jealous; that would be a sin.  Ms. Brunstetter has published a lot of books and has a devoted audience for her Amish inspirational romances.   I know many people aren’t literary omnivores, but I love reading all kinds of books, even though I’m not exactly in the stereotypical demographic for these kinds of novels.  Still, Ms. Brunstetter has a lot to teach us.  More importantly, she writes fun books and fulfills every promise she makes with her books.

Check out this book trailer for the first book in The Amish Cooking Class series: The Seekers.  

The novel is centered upon the farm of Lyle and Heidi Troyer.  They are a proud Amish couple–but not too proud; that would be a sin–who have a beautiful place in Ohio.  Lyle is an auctioneer and Heidi decides to make a little money and to share her gift with others by teaching a weekly cooking class.

I guess I’ll introduce the first lesson here…Ms. Brunstetter very wisely came up with a conceit that allows her to put a bunch of drama-prone characters together.  Think about it.  While Heidi Troyer is a very calm and dignified woman who has most everything figured out, she surrounds herself with people who have far more problems than she does.  Ron is a Vietnam War vet who ends up camped on the Troyer property when his RV breaks down.  Kendra is pregnant and her family has turned her away, not that doing so will stop the baby from arriving.  Eli lost his wife and is looking for companionship.  See?  All of these people have discernible problems and needs.  Guess what?  Ms. Brunstetter allows the characters to grow and change based upon their interactions and their own internal struggles.  (And maybe Heidi has her own problem that needs to be solved…)

We certainly can’t fashion every single one of our stories in this way, but creating a nexus of conflict and drama is a time-tested tactic for teasing trouble out of our characters.  Here are some examples:

  • Cheers, the bar from Cheers, is populated by a number of well-drawn characters who unite in one place.  Each of them have their own problems and needs and the writers wring drama (and comedy) out of having all of these characters in the same place.
  • Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca is a meeting spot that facilitates conflict.  Everyone goes there.  The Nazis, the French, ridiculously beautiful refugees played by Ingrid Bergman…everyone.  Placing everyone in the same nightclub allows the drama to blossom.  (If you haven’t seen Casablanca, please do so.  It’s for the best.)
  • Eerie, Indiana is the new home of Marshall Teller, a town where all kinds of creepy and cool things happen.  The gents who created the TV show, José Rivera and Karl Schaefer, created a place where weird and wonderful things can happen.  The show could have (and should have) run forever.

Heidi’s Amish cooking class offers Ms. Brunstetter near-inexhaustible opportunities to cycle interesting characters in and out of the orbit of the Troyer kitchen.  This seems to be the plan, as The Seekers is Book One of a series…

This is an Amish inspirational romance-type book, so you know there won’t be any of the flashy kinds of conflict on offer.  The international spy rings, serial killers and terrorist attacks will appear in other kinds of books.  Still, Ms. Brunstetter allows her characters to be unpleasant, particularly in the context of the genre and story.  Ron, the Vietnam vet, repeatedly lies to the Troyers and takes advantage of their hospitality.  He even steals from his hosts.  Kendra made “one little mistake” and got pregnant out of wedlock.  Ms. Brunstetter does not examine these themes in the same manner as writers in other genres might do, but she is still allowing her characters to misbehave and to do things that the Christian characters shouldn’t do.  The principle applies to characters in all genres.  On occasion, I read YA books in which the teenagers are impossibly polite and respectful of the opposite sex.  Not only does this kind of attitude pose problems creating drama, but it’s also not realistic.

Those who write Amish books have a problem that is easily transferable to all other authors who include other languages in their work.  The Amish are generally fluent in Pennsylvania Dutch and the language is a very important part of their culture.  (As it is for every culture.)  Ms. Brunstetter has an obligation to include the language in her dialogue–the characters would use these words!–but she must also ensure that the audience knows what she’s talking about.  Let’s take a look at an example of how the author handles this problem:

brunstetter

See what she does?  She italicizes the word the reader probably won’t know and then defines it in the following line of dialogue.  We were already told that Lyle is married to Heidi, so we know fraa =  wife.  Kichlin = cookies.  There are other ways to handle the problem, but this is one.

I’ve read a few of Ms. Brunstetter’s books, and The Seekers is as fun as the others.  The world that the author creates, this Amish version of Ohio, is everything that her readers want it to be.  It’s simple.  Plain.  People still have conflicts, but they resolve them calmly.  (And with the help of God, as her target readers expect.)

The great strength of this book (and of so many others in the genre) is that the authors make promises to the reader and keep them.  Ms. Brunstetter promises the reader in this case, that they will learn about Amish food, they will see characters solve their problems together and with the help of their religion and that the book will be a calm and unobjectionable read that has a discernible conclusion that wraps everything up.  (Aside, of course, from the story strands that will likely be taken up in subsequent books.)

I don’t know how many Great Writers Steal writers have given the Amish inspirational genre a chance, but they should.  A writer must have a balanced reading diet.

 

The Great Writers Steal Podcast: Serena Chase, author of Intermission

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