Would Cordelia Sleep Here?

Cover 1 with green text

Revision steps and concerns

I have spent the past week revising pages in For Want of a Father that show main character Cordelia arriving in 1859 Denver. In the original Nano manuscript, I had her check into a hotel. Then I got worried. Were there hotels in Denver on or about June 1, 1859? I made several online searches and poured over my personal research library of western history as well as the public library’s stacks. One reference indicated there were about twenty houses in Denver at the time. Another mentioned the first newspaper being published in April, 1859, but I could find nothing on hotels. After complaining to writer friends about this lack of information, someone said, “It’s fiction. If you want a hotel, make one up.” So I did.

The trouble with details

There was little description of the hotel in the first draft. Cordelia got a room and had a pitcher of water delivered so she could wash off the grime from her twelve-day stagecoach journey. The writer in me said, “You need more details,” so I added them.

Cordelia reacts to her hotel room:

When I opened the door to the cramped cubicle, my nose was assaulted by the stench of tobacco, whiskey, and sweat. Smoke stung my eyes. Seeing what appeared to be a window on the outside wall, I crossed to it, pushed the wooden slat open, propping it with a board and pressing my face close to the opening, filling my lung with fresh air.  Hoping the room would air out, I stepped away from the window and took in the furnishings. A bed of sorts made of board slats on top of nail kegs stood along one wall. On inspection of the mattress, I concluded it was straw stuffed into a stained cotton ticking. The two woolen blankets smelled of tobacco and sweat but seemed otherwise clean.

Be careful what you describe

For a short time, I was proud of my description. It sounded like the kind of accommodations Cordelia might find in a new, rough mining town. Then I got worried. Would Cordelia sleep here? Several already written scenes depended on her doing that. Obviously, I needed to give her a good enough reason to stay in spite of the unsavory surroundings, so I attempted to do that.

Cordelia struggles with staying: 

My impulse was to leave, but where would I go? This was a new mining town. Other accommodations might be worse. I did not know Miz Wilma’s situation, and I did not want to inconvenience those who were caring for her. Best to stay here. It was only for one night.

Good enough?

Now that I’m reading the motive for staying again, it doesn’t seem good enough. But then this is only the second revision. A few weeks ago, a new writer asked, “How many times do you revise a novel?”

Answer: I revise as long as each reading of a scene gives me a deeper understanding of character and better ways of presenting the story. The end of the process does not come with a number but with a feeling that I have told the story to the best of my ability.

 

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Defining Panic

FWF5cover blog

In last week’s post, I lamented the lack of closets in nineteenth century houses, but fixing that error in my novel was easy compared to the other problem my astute critique partner, Wes, brought up. First, the offending sentence from thirteen-year-old Lucy’s point of view:

In his letters, Ambrose had said even with the depression the last couple of years, the town and Pa’s blacksmith shop had done well.

The problem?

In the nineteenth century, economic downturns weren’t depressions, they were panics. Yes, Lucy was referring to the Panic of 1857. It was easy enough to remove depression and insert panic, but I couldn’t help wondering how a modern reader would interpret panic. I felt a definition was necessary, but definitions tend to slow down the action and take readers out of the story. Below is my attempt to explain without author intrusion. Does it work?

In his letters, Ambrose had said even with the Panic the last couple of years, the town and Pa’s blacksmith shop had done well. All I knew about the Panic was what I heard folks at the hotel say: In 1857, a ship on the way from the San Francisco Mint to the States in the east had sunk with thirty thousands pounds of gold on board. I couldn’t even imagine what that much gold looked like. Aunt Hannah said banks were shutting down, railroads were going broke, and farmers were getting less money for grain and not paying their mortgages. With fewer people going west, fewer people were staying at our hotel. For most of the last year, Aunt Hannah said the hotel barely made enough to stay open, and my pa and uncles complained they weren’t seeing the profits they once did. Those hard times seem to have gone by without touching Hidden Springs.

Just writing it out here, I’m thinking I’ve overdone the explanation. I question whether I needed all the facts I gave about the Panic. Should I take out the part about the sinking ship and go straight to what Aunt Hannah said? Is the definition of a panic clear? Is it credible that Lucy has this information at the age of thirteen? These are all questions I will continue to mull as I finish the second revision and move on to the third. Any advise will be appreciated.

 

No Closets?

One of the pluses of a critique group is that each person comes with a different set of knowledge about the world. This month, I e-mailed eighteen pages of For Want of a Father to my critique partners. One of them, Wes, commented on my use of an anachronism: closets and hangers in a mid-nineteenth century house.

Of Closets and Coat Hangers

Wes’s comments got me thinking back to the farmhouse I lived in as a child. There were no closets. My mother had a free-standing wardrobe in her room, and there were hangers, but I am talking the 1950s. My novel takes places one hundred years earlier in the 1850s. I clicked on Google and did a search, hoping for exact dates when houses had closets.

I didn’t get exact dates for either the closet or the coat hanger, but rich people did have closets. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and third President of the United States, invented the wooden coat hanger so he could hang his coat in his closet. However, while my characters are well off compared to their neighbors, they are not rich and probably had neither closets nor hangers.  I have made the necessary corrections.

 

First Chapter: Whose Point of View

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I have begun the revision of For Want of a Father, this year’s NaNo novel. Scenes are outlined through page 100. I have made notes on needed changes using the CASTS system I learned from Nancy Pickard at a workshop several years ago. The CASTS system involves looking at each scene and checking for Conflict, Action, Suspense, Turn, and Sensory. You can read more about CASTS at Writer Unboxed or watch Libby Hellmann’s video explaining the system on her site.  However, I’m tired of outlining. I want to get to work on the actual draft. Therefore, I am attacking the first chapter and point of view.

Point of view

There are two point of view characters in the novel: those of sisters Cordelia, 17, and Lucy, 13. I would tell you more, but that might color your judgment of which would be the better beginning. There will be a poll at the end, so please vote for the beginning you believe is more effective.

Chapter 1: Lucy’s POV

I hovered around the hotel check-in desk, waiting for Cordelia to do her job and sort the mail. She knew I was expecting my weekly letter from my brother Ambrose, but she always made me wait, sorting through every piece: the regular boarders’, Grandma’s, Aunt Hannah’s, and business mail addressed to the hotel before handing me my letter. She was being spiteful because Ambrose addressed the letter to me instead of her.

I whisked my feather duster over knickknacks that lined shelves along the walls, sneaking looks at her as she put letters in piles and slid some into the row of cubbyholes behind the desk.

She stopped, frowned, and lifted a small, letter-sized package about a half-inch thick.

“For you, Lucy,” she said, holding out the small parcel to me.

I dropped the duster on the desk, hurried across the room, and seized the package, glancing at the return address. “It’s from Ambrose.” My fingernails clawed at the tightly sealed package. When at last I worked through the outer paper, something fell and thumped on the floor. I picked it up. “A twenty dollar gold piece!”

I unfolded the letter and scanned it. “Pa wants me home. I’m to go on the next stage. This money is for my fare and anything else I need. I’m going home!” My deepest wish had come true at last, and I wasn’t going to let anyone talk me out of going.

 

Alternate Chapter 1: Cordelia’s POV 

Lucy was hanging around the hotel lobby like she always did on the day the mail stage came through, pretending to be working while sending me dirty looks, thinking they would make me sort the correspondence faster. I always gave her the letter from our brother Ambrose as soon as I spied it, but because I didn’t make it a priority and fish it out of the pile first thing, Lucy spent every mail day madder at me than usual.

I sorted all the letters and put them in the appropriate boxes behind the check-in desk for pickup; none were from Ambrose. Lucy gave me one of her sideways looks, a look that said she thought I was keeping the letter from her on purpose. In a minute, she would be marching across the room demanding to know where her mail was.

I met her eyes and shrugged, turning my palms up and shaking my head as I reached for the small, half-inch thick parcel I had put to one side, thinking it would be easy to hand over if anyone called for it while I was sorting the other mail. When I saw it was addressed to Lucy, I knew she would think I kept it from her on purpose, that somehow I was jealous because Ambrose wrote directly to her. After all, I was only his half-sister.

I held the package out to her. “For you, Lucy. From Ambrose.”

She dropped the duster and raced across the room. “It took you long enough.” She ripped the package from my hand and tore at the wrapping. Something thudded to the floor.

She stooped to pick it up. “A twenty dollar gold piece!” Her eyes widened in excitement as she scanned the letter. “Pa wants me home!” Her voice was filled with pure joy.

At last, Lucy had gotten what she dearly wanted. Somehow, four years of separation had allowed her to forget what a mean man her father was.

Poll

I have been trying to insert my first poll in this blog post and am having issues with the technology. If a poll does not open correctly below, please make a comment and let me know which point of view you would choose to begin the second book in the Pierce Family Saga: Lucy’s or Cordelia’s. Thank you for your vote.

 

 

 

Nano Novel: Revision Steps

My second course commitment for December

In my previous post, I said I had committed to two new courses. The first is Blogging 201: Branding and Growth, which was the subject of Monday’s post. Today, I’m discussing the second course commitment, Joan Dempsey’s course on revising fiction. Through the course, she has made some excellent suggestions on determining the revising method that works best for an individual writer. While it’s too late to join her course, you can find the videos on YouTube.

How I Revise

Reading for Story

I start with chapter one and read straight through, making notes on each chapter. I list the characters in the scene and make sure their motives are clear and the scene contains conflict that moves the story forward. Since this is the second book in the series, I need to make sure readers do not have to have read the first book in order to fully understand what is happening and why. At some point, I will need beta readers who have not read the first book to ensure I have reached that clarity. Any volunteers?

Checking Character and Point of View

I am using first person point of view in the Pierce Family Saga. That means I must have an intimate understanding of each character’s background and motives. Some characters, such as Cordelia and Lucy, I know from the first book in the series, Cordelia’s Journey. However, these characters are now four years older. The relationships and world views of the characters have changed. Their biographies need to be updated. Since I wrote For Want of a Father during NaNo with only a general idea of the story, I created characters on the fly, characters I know almost nothing about. During the revision, I will be learning much more about each of the characters and deciding which ones will go on to the third book in the series.

Checking Dialogue and Description

For me, dialogue and description are important tools for conveying character and conflict, so I will work on both as I read each chapter. When it comes to setting, I describe only those things that matter to my point-of-view character. If there is no reason for my character to notice a gun or a fireplace or a team of horses, it will not be in the story. I don’t want to slow down story for the sake of providing details. Every detail is important to what is happening at that moment and/or during the final scenes of the book.

Submitting to my Critique Group

Before submitting revised chapters to my critique group, I try to make the writing as perfect as I can. That doesn’t mean I don’t have faulty sentences and needless repetition. It simply means I try to make the writing the best I can do at that moment, so my critique partners aren’t so distracted by sentence level issues that they can’t feel the story.

Deciding the Number of Revisions

There is no set number of revisions to make. The process is complete only when formatting and sentence level errors have been eliminated, and the joy and sadness, laughter and tears felt by the characters are so clearly depicted that they touch readers’ hearts.

Comments, Please

If you are a reader of novels, what makes a story memorable and satisfying for you?

If you are a writer, what are some of your revision methods?

Cordelia_final front_cover copy

Cordelia’s Journey is available as an e-book on Amazon

or as a paperback on Create Space.