Friday, February 10, 2012

How She Does It - Smoky Zeidel

We all know there are six elements in writing fiction and often fact. Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. I believe the first five lead to the sixth which for me is the plot. What's your take on this?

I worked as a freelance journalist for years before making the leap to fiction, so I'm well-aware of the Five Ws. "Colonel Mustard murdered Miss Scarlett last Saturday evening in the library with a candlestick after he caught her kissing Professor Plum," tells the who, what, when where, how, and why, and is how a journalist would start off a story about this. Journalism gives the facts, and "how" is a fact--in this case, with the candlestick.

Plot, on the other hand, is what happens in a story. It goes beyond the journalistic approach of "Just the facts, ma'am." Plot embellishes on all five of the Ws and the how as well. Plot would tell about the deep love Colonel Mustard had for Miss Scarlett, how they fell in love, how and why they quarreled, why she cheated on him. It would tell what sent Colonel Mustard over the edge and made him murder the love of his life. If plot didn't embellish like this, you wouldn't have much of a short story or novel. You would have a news story.

I don't take this journalistic approach to writing. I prefer thinking the elements of great fiction are creating a great beginning that grabs the reader in the first few sentences, character development, setting, creating compelling dialogue, mastering point of view, and, yes, creating an interesting and intricate plot. You don't have to be a great journalist to write a novel. You have to be a great fiction writer, have a great imagination, and master these elements I've mentioned--and that just skims the surface. This is one of the reason so many bad books are out there. People think that just because they can create a sentence, they can write a book, and it just isn't so. Writers need to study their craft, just like a great musician has to study his or her craft to create a great piece of music.

1. How do you create your characters? Do you have a specific process?

I pretty much let my characters develop themselves. I create characterization charts with the basic information about them before I start, with things like their hair and eye color, pets, kind of car, etc. Details you can easily forget, and authors do forget. I get really annoyed when I'm reading a book and someone's Honda suddenly turns into a Toyota because the author has forgotten what kind of car their character drives.

But beyond those basic, external traits, I let my story dictate what kind of person the character is. Characters need to grow during a book. They need to learn things about themselves and the characters with whom they interact, and for me, this can only happen if I let them take the lead.

2. Do your characters come before the plot? Do you sketch out your plot or do you let the characters develop the route to the end?

I normally have a rough idea of what the plot will be to a story, but I like to let the characters take the lead. On the Choptank Shores began as a much different book than the one I ended up with, for example, because I let the characters tell me what their story was. I didn't force them into the wrong story. It's a better book because I listened to what they had to tell me.

3. Do you know how the story will end before you begin? In a general way or a specific one?

The first scene in On the Choptank Shores is actually the very last scene I wrote. I had to know how the story ended before I could know how it began. So I guess I would rephrase your question and ask, do you know where your story will begin before it ends? I don't know other authors who write this way, but it's what works best for me.

4. Do you choose settings you know or do you have books of settings and plans of houses sitting around?

In both On the Choptank Shores and The Cabin, the settings were dictated by the stories. The former book would not have worked had I placed the characters in aManhattan condo, for example. The peach orchard on the Choptank River in Maryland is the only place this story could have taken place, because the setting was integral to the story. It was like a character in the story. In The Cabin, the story could not have been set any other place than where it is set, on a route for the Underground Railroad. It couldn't have been in Colorado, or Canada, or Great Britain.

5. Where do you do your research? On line or from books?

Both. Most of my research, though, has come from my experiences. I spent every summer during my childhood at my aunt and uncle's peach orchard that was the setting for On the Choptank Shores. I could use it because I had experienced it. But I had to go to the library to research what sort of undergarments women wore in the 1920s. No bras back then, for example. Women wore bust confiners.

I'm working on two more novels currently, and both evolved from my own experiences one way or another. I find living a full and active life is the best research an author can do.


Malcolm R. Campbell said...

I never trusted Col. Mustard. On the other hand, Prof, Plum never really had a clue.


Smoky said...

Malcolm, I've often thought it would be fun to write a book based solely on popular games like Clue, Monopoly, and Jenga. All in one book. Hmmm...

Smoky said...

Janet, thank you for hosting me today, and tomorrow as well!

Charmaine Gordon said...

A lesson to be learned every time I read one of your interviews, Smoky. Thanks to you and Janet, I'm no longer a fledgling writer.

Anonymous said...

Like you, Smoky, I need to know the beginning of the story before I can continue writing. My process is writing and re-writing that first scene until I get it right. It may take 20 attempts, but once I have it, I KNOW and I'm good to go!