Description: What and How Much

Snapshot Hazel Hart, for blog copyIn the first two books of the Pierce Family Saga series, my characters were on the go. Descriptions of surroundings could be brief. In this third book, much of the action in the early chapters takes place in Hidden Springs. Suddenly, the town and the people in it need more than passing thoughts. While mulling over how many and what kind of descriptive details to use, I came across an excellent Glimmer Train article  on the subject by Abby Geni.

As I read through the list of qualities for a good description, I compared the following paragraph from the rough draft of my novel-in-progress  and found it lacking in sensory details. In particular, I might add details that signal the general feel of the store (neat and well-kept or disorganized, bright or gloomy) that indicate the character of the proprietors.

General store description from Ambrose Pierce’s point of view:

Fletcher’s Emporium was straight across the street. As I crossed, I saw their door was open to catch what little breeze there was on this blazing hot August day. I stepped inside and stood for a moment to let my eyes adjust to the dimmer natural light within. Blinking, I looked around to find no one at the front of the store. There were some thumps and voices from the back, though, so I figured they were unloading freight and headed on back through the long center aisle. I was perhaps five feet from the door to the back loading dock when I heard Mr. Fletcher’s raised voice. “We’ve got a good life here. I hope Ava’s not going to mess it up for us like she did back in New York.”

Character description

One of Geni’s most interesting rules is to stay away from what she calls “police blotter” descriptions of characters. In my partial description of Hiram Pierce below, I manage to do that. However, I do make use of the “mirror reflection” which is an overdone technique. Hopefully, it works here.

Hiram Pierce considers his appearance:

I checked my clean-shaven reflection in the mirror, rubbing my hand across my smooth chin, and once again considered whether to grow a beard. I’d want a full one if I did it. No sense going halfway. But a full beard around a blacksmith forge could be a fire danger. Almost unconsciously, my hand went to my chest and the almost square four-inch area where the border ruffians had branded me with a blazing hot horseshoe. I shuddered at the thought of sparks catching a beard on fire, at the pain of the burn and the scar it would leave. The puckered flesh on my chest was ugly enough.

Change in point of view and overall progress on Hiram’s Boy

I recently changed Hiram’s point of view from third to first person. What sounded acceptable in third person doesn’t work as well in first. However, that is what revision is all about, something I’ll get to when I have a complete rough draft. I have sixty-five pages so far.

If you are a writer, I hope you find Abby Geni’s article on description helpful.

 

Advertisements

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.

 

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.

 

Which Book Cover: Please Vote

 

I’m still revising For Want of a Father, so it may seem a little early to worry about a book cover, but I need something to visualize. Thanks to writing buddy and Photoshop whiz, Bonnie Myrick Eaton of Keyhole Conversations, I have the above three possibilities. Now I need your opinion, so there is a poll at the end of this post. Before you take it, though, here is a back cover blurb in process.

Back cover blurb

1859, Kansas Territory

Half-sisters Cordelia, 17, and Lucy, 13, suffer from the lack of a father in their lives.

Cordelia has never met the man who dazzled her mother Minerva with promises of love and a life together, then disappeared, leaving Minerva with child. To save her parents from the shame of a daughter bearing a baby out of wedlock, Minerva marries a man who demands sons, but she produces only one living boy. She dies in childbirth, trying to fulfill his demands and leaves Cordelia, the bastard child, without a parent.

On their mother’s death in 1855, Cordelia, Lucy, and their two younger sisters go to live with an Aunt in Westport, 150 miles from Lucy’s father. In the four years since she last saw her father, Lucy has idealized the life she could have with him if he would only send for her. She has grown up and is ready to take on the work of running a house, certain her father will appreciate what a fine daughter he has in her.

Two events occurring within ten days of each other give the girls the opportunity to learn more about the men responsible for their existence. Cordelia gets word that her father is prospecting near Denver; Lucy’s father wants her to return to his home in Hidden Springs. Cordelia cautiously decides to search for her father, unsure of the kind of man she will find while Lucy is overjoyed that her father wants her home. Will either father live up to his daughter’s fantasized image of him, or will each father break his daughter’s heart?

Cover ideas

I considered a couple of possibilities on the way to the picture-frame images in this post. I thought of a split front cover showing a miner panning gold (Cordelia’s father) and a blacksmith (Lucy’s father), but I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find the appropriate images and the cover would be too busy. Next, I thought of an empty chair at the head of a dining table, but I’d need furniture for that. Finally, I settled on the empty photo frame, which is not to say it is the best idea. If something better comes to mind before publication (I’m planning on June or July, 2016) I will use it. I know it is asking a lot, but if you choose none of the above, I’d love to have you leave a comment with your opinions of a cover that might work better. Thank you for your help.

 

 

 

November 2: Still in the Game

blog nov 2 trifecta b

I’m feeling a little crazier tonight than I did yesterday, but I’m keeping up for the moment. Here’s my report.

NaNoWriMo

The goal is 1667 words per day. I have a total of 4158 for the two days, so I am over goal. After writing a couple of hours at home, I attended my Emporia group’s kickoff party at the public library and wrote another 1,000 words.

Fiction MOOC

I’m barely hanging on here. My assignment is due tomorrow at 11:59 p.m. I need three characters who disagree about an event and place in which they were all present in the past, and I need to include a present setting, all in 800 to 1,000 words. The characters will be Hiram Pierce, the father, Ambrose Pierce, 14, and Lucy Pierce, 13. The current setting will be their new house. The previous setting will be the cabin they built and lived in when the first moved to Hidden Springs. The event is the death of Minerva Pierce, Hiram’s wife. Given the lateness of tonight’s hour, I will have to do some fast writing tomorrow. The good news is that the words will count for NaNoWriMo, too.

Blogging 201

Today, I checked out features and themes. When I chose the theme for this blog, I thought it was responsive. Now, I cannot find that word in any of the description of the features. I did see that it would work on mobile devices, so I’m hoping that is the same thing. I found information on how to make the menu the way I want it, but I didn’t have time to do that. There is tomorrow.

That’s it for today. I’m stumbling off to bed, probably to a night of wide-awake thoughts on one or all three of the above subjects.

November Trifecta

piercenano 1

As if the fiction MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I’m taking isn’t enough, I’ve signed up for the WordPress Blogging 201 course and NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). There’s so much to learn and so little time. However there is overlap. I told myself that when I got up this morning, stumbled to the computer, and delved into creating the Nano word count for the day.

I’m in the fifth week of the  MOOC through the University of Iowa and have been immersed in developing characters, point of view, and plot. I’m working on voice and setting this week. Through all the lessons, I have used my saga characters in my assignments. There is overlap one; the MOOC has been helpful in  preparing for NaNoWriMo.

Where is the Blogging 201 overlap? This blog is supposed to be all about keeping my fans updated on my saga in progress. It is pretty obvious when looking at this post that my blog needs help. I have not yet figured out how to use widgets and set up sidebars the way I want. In fact, I really need to add a fourth tool to November’s learning marathon: making graphics. I’ve noticed that when my blog post shows up on Facebook, there is a big blank space where a graphic should go. It’s an ugly blank space. I tried to make something in Photoshop Elements, but I still haven’t learned that program, so I tried Microsoft Publisher. As you can see, I managed a graphic, but if I had a day job, I wouldn’t dare quit it.

So here I am with 1700 words, a bad graphic, and this post. Come back tomorrow and find out if I am still committed—or being committed.

Preparing for NaNoWriMo: Mapping My Tasks

 

Mapping my way to a rough draft
Mapping my way to a rough draft.

 

Between almost-finished and future books

Estimated arrival date for the proof copy of Book 1 of the Pierce Family Saga is September 2. In the meantime, I am getting a jumpstart on plotting Book 2, which has a working title of For Want of a Father. I plan to use NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to write the rough draft. I participated in NanoWriMo when writing the rough drafts of Possessing Sara and The Survivalist’s Daughter. While I didn’t reach the goal of 50,000 words in a month, I did go on to finish the books.

Overcoming Procrastination

I tend to procrastinate when it comes to any project not in front of my nose, so I taped a poster board to my office door and started putting up stick-on notes for areas in need of development. For years, I have avoided using the mapping/clustering method of prewriting because deciding where to put a circle on a board and what text to put in the circle makes me freeze. My current method allows me to change my mind about topics and their placements. I have chosen poster board from a dollar store and pads of various stick-on notes I have accumulated from conferences and fairs as the medium for my project map. If I don’t like the position of a topic, I can move it. If I change my mind about the topic, I can throw the note away and my basic poster in still usable.

The board so far

The year is 1859, four years after the end of Book 1. I originally thought the year would be 1858, but I decided Lucy should be a year older, so the first change I made was the year. The two main characters are Lucy, 13, and half-sister Cordelia, 17. Above each girl is a stick-on note about her father. Lucy’s father, Hiram Pierce, 48, is a blacksmith and city council member in the small town of Hidden Springs, Kansas Territory. Readers of the first book probably have strong opinions about Hiram. Cordelia’s father, Justin Quinn, 43, is something of a mystery. She has never met him, but knows he was a fur trapper when she was conceived. The first order of business is research. The blue notes down the side contain the various items I need to know more about. They range from the major events of 1859, including the Colorado gold rush, to everyday items like food, clothing, transportation, and occupations.

Justin Quinn: The backstory

I have chosen Justin Quinn as the first character to develop. I know least about him, and Cordelia’s story will hinge on the kind of man her father has become. He is probably not trapping since that trade diminished in the early 1840s at about the same time he met Cordelia’s mother. To get a better sense of mountain men and the life Justin might have led, I am reading Give Your Heart to the Hawks by Winfred Blevins. I’ll let you know what I learn from the book and reveal Justin’s backstory in future posts.

The mail just came!

The proof copies of Book 1 have arrived. Time to get to work.