Sunday, March 17, 2013

To kill off or not to kill off: Some thoughts on killing off a character

I was several years into writing my first novel, a spy thriller, when I had a sudden revelation. If I changed the nationality of a beloved character, I could breathe new life into him. Let me give you an example. In my novel, "Spy Island", the protagonist, a girl named Abigail, is compelled to cross the Caribbean Sea by steamer during WWI to live with her spinster aunt. On the journey, she strikes up a friendship with her room steward, a plucky Venezuelan named José whose character is vital because he teaches Abigail all about the nature of German spies and how she can protect herself from catastrophe. In so doing, José awakens in Abigail an innate love of adventure and intrigue that drives the story forward.

Yet something about José's character remained flat; I couldn't make him dance off the pages. He was nice and everything, but not memorable. And then I had the afore-mentioned revelation. If I turned José into Ian, an Irish sailor, I could incorporate those witty Irish expressions and that unmistakable Irish sense of humor that wraps around you like a Shamrock wool blanket. I recall wrinkling my brow at the notion. Could I do that? I asked myself. Could I just wave my pen and turn José from Maracaibo into an Irishman? Well, I did. And all at once, José took on a whole new life. As Ian, his Irish red hair burned the pages of my manuscript. His Cheshire cat grin, his twinkling eyes, his Gaelic sense of humor and manner of speaking, and his vulnerability captivated my Writing Class. And now we come to the "killing off part". Out of a sense of duty and patriotism, Ian stalks a wanted German spy and turns up dead—a corpse lying in a pool of blood—on the boat deck.

Could this be Ian McShane, our intrepid Irish sailor/amateur sleuth?
The ladies in my Writing Group bristled at the notion. They demanded a rewrite. "But it's crucial to the development of my story," I argued. "If Ian doesn't die, Abigail has no reason to hunt down German spies."  They shook their heads. "Change it!" they demanded. Again my brow wrinkled. Change it? And so, pen in hand, I kept the ominous pool of blood but removed the corpse. The ladies were satisfied. But the question remains. When is it appropriate to kill off a character?

In Peter Benchley's "Jaws", the death of the beautiful, young Chrissie, is the inciting incident for the entire novel. Her death and the subsequent death of a schoolboy are what arouse the feelings of horror and revenge in the protagonist. Likewise, in Sarah's Key" by Tatiana de Rosnay, the tenuous fate of little boy locked up in the closet gives his sister a vital purpose. She must escape in order to save him. Other times, the death of a character gives a novel a natural ending. Think "Rainwater" by Sandra Brown, "Sunflowers" by Sheramy Bundrick, and "Anna Karenina" by Tolstoy. In these cases, the death of a main character signals either a peaceful closure or an ignoble ending.

According to Codey Amprim in Killing off Characters-Knowing When to Drop the Guillotine, there are three conditions to killing off a character:

1) Moving the plot forward. There must be a valid reason for killing off the character and not just as a convenient way of removing him from the story. Make sure a valid outcome arises from his death.
2) Are you killing the character merely for dramatic purposes? Are you trying to shock or frighten your reader like in a horror novel, or does his death enhance or improve the story?
3) Before killing off the character, consider the bond between you, the character and the audience. According to Amprim, some writers become so attached to their characters that they make sure their life is like an aspirin commercial: they're always bundled before they go out and their insurance premiums are always paid. In certain cases, that is a form of torture to the reader because they read to vicariously experience danger through those characters. There are valid and appropriate reasons for killing off certain characters, but withholding the axe may hurt more.
In the final analysis, killing off a character finishes off that part of the story. If his death doesn't cause an unnatural break in the narrative flow or doesn't leave gaping holes in the plot, readers will generally forgive you. But tread carefully. In the words of one blogger, make sure his death doesn't make them want to throw your book across the room.
Writers and Readers:  Let me know what you think.  Did you ever get furious when a beloved character in a favorite novel was killed off?


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Traveling the World through Historical Fiction

In a recent review of Spy Island, a book blogger writes, "Sophie really managed to make me feel like I was right there with the characters in this (novel) and it added a lot to my enjoyment of the book. Plus it's made me feel as if I need to travel to these places." Naturally the book reviewer got me to thinking, when did my fascination with exotic and mysterious settings first take root?

One of my fondest childhood memories is the day my fourth grade class discovered a new book sitting  unobtrusively on our library shelf. One glance at the title, The Cay by Theodore Taylor, and its depiction of castaways on a deserted beach, and we proceeded to fight tooth and nail over the book. Over the next several weeks, The Cay was the most checked-out book in our school library. And for good reason. The protagonist, Phillip, was easy going and likable, and Timothy, the elderly deckhand from Charlotte Amalie, could have been any one of the old men we saw playing dominoes on the waterfront, or over at Market Square. Taylor's characters and settings were so real, they captured life in Willemstad, Curaçao, and the deserted cay to perfection. The book recreates the feeling you get when a good friend travels to an exotic location and tells you all these first-hand, intimate details about his experiences. I dreamt of traveling to Willemstad Curaçao—now a UNESCO world heritage site—for over 20 years until I finally flew down and saw it for myself. Part of the reason was to catch a glimpse of Phillip hidden somewhere among the colorful denizens of Willemstad.
Willemstad, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles
Another historical novel with an exotic location that captured my childhood imagination was Exodus by Leon Uris. Uris' retelling of the legendary story of a ragtag group of Jewish refugees who make it to the modern-day land of Israel, and then successfully wrest control away from the British Mandate is nothing short of miraculous. Uris' descriptions of Jerusalem, the Jezreel Valley, Acre, Haifa and even Cyprus fascinate the reader, and make him feel as though he is experiencing the events first hand. His characters are flesh and blood people, with all their human quirks and failings. But like all true heroes, they inspire the reader to not just sit back and observe life's events like a spectator, but to strive to somehow make a difference in the world.

Standing at a height of 29,029 feet, and straddling the borders of Nepal and Tibet, Mount Everest is undoubtedly one of the world's most inaccessible spots. Yet despite the tremendous odds of dying on the mountain, the lure of conquering Mount Everest continues to haunt mankind's more daring elements. In addition, the Himalayas hold a strong spiritual and geographical fascination, and none possessed it more ardently than George Mallory, a British mountaineer who set off in 1924 with the young, inexperienced Andrew Irvine to conquer the roof of the world. Lovers of Historical Fiction who relish the chance to relive this epic adventure can find it in Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer, a marvelous retelling of this heroic and unforgettable tale.
Mount Everest
The Thorn Birds took the world by storm with its searing depictions of life in Australia's Outback and its cast of unforgettable characters who struggle against life's obstacles and tragedies. The imagery of sheep country is unflinching; the characters are almost feral in their realism. The Thorn Birds is one of historical fiction's greatest crowning achievements for its grand scope and its minute attention to detail. But through it all, the single unchanging element is Australia, a land that can never quite be tamed.

A Graham Greene novel is a like a travelogue of expatriate communities in former colonies around the globe. Take for example The Heart of the Matter, which takes place in Sierra Leone, or Our Man in Havana, which takes place in Cuba on the brink of revolution, or The Comedians, which takes place in Haiti, Greene's novels accurately portray the culture, setting, and the political turmoil and upheavals that the citizens faced on a daily basis. While not technically historical fiction since the events depicted occurred during Greene's lifetime, the novels are excellent research material for writers looking for an accurate depiction of the mindset, attitudes, and behaviors of people who lived during some of the most epochal times of the early 20th Century.
Havana, with its cavalcade of perfectly preserved 1950's era automobiles.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Thoughts from a Bookseller

Reblogged from The Huffington Post

This Book Will Change Your Life
by Allison Hill
President & COO, Vroman's Bookstore and Book Soup

I was working in the bookstore late one evening when a customer asked for me. "I'm looking for a book," he said, "and I saw your staff picks around the store and thought you might be able to help me." I asked him what kind of book he was looking for. He paused for a moment, then his voice caught and it seemed like he might start crying: "I'm looking for a book that will change my life."
In 20 years of bookselling, I've had customers share surprisingly intimate details of their lives with me. A woman in her late 50s asked me for books on relationships, but after I walked her to the section, she started crying and confided the story of her daughter's marriage to an abusive man, and how she needed a book that could save her. A well-dressed couple, him in a suit and her in a wrap dress, came in over the holidays and asked me for books to give a friend who was just diagnosed with terminal cancer. They had tried searching on Amazon, but the titles that came up were about the mechanics of how to survive, not the particular poetry of living with dying. More than once someone has asked me for a good novel, "something that will make me laugh," only to admit once I'd found a book for them, that they needed something funny to distract them from some trauma or drama that they then proceeded to share with me. A hipster asked me for books on personal finances; she was determined to begin the long crawl out of a deep debt. A famous actor admitted his stage fright and asked for a copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. A young woman asked me for books on recovering from loss; she had recently lost a child...
In the wake of Internet competition, bookstores have been feeling like publisher showcases and promoting ourselves as literary curators. But our true value may be as basic as this: often people come to us simply to talk to another human being. In a world that is more and more automated, computerized, web-based, sometimes, someone just wants to tell their story to another human being, feel like someone heard them, and take away hope that things will change -- hope in the form of a book.
I walked with the customer downstairs and we went through my staff picks that he had seen earlier:Going to Pieces Without Falling ApartA Woman's WorthThe Gift of Fear. At various points these books had all shifted my perspective, changed my way of thinking, even saved my life one could say.Diet for a Small Planet inspired my conversion to vegetarianism when I was 18. The Comfort Traphelped me bring necessary closure to my 10-year marriage. Wherever You Go, There You Areintroduced me to meditation and a new mindful approach to my life. As Thoreau wrote, "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book."
These recent years have marked a new era for all of us, one full of changes. And for many people, those changes felt dramatic and alarmingly sudden. But they were years in the making, the results of hundreds of decisions we all made every single day: who we voted for, who we trusted, where we shopped, where we didn't shop, what we chose to not pay attention to, and so on. I'm not saying the global economic meltdown is our fault, but I am suggesting that perhaps right now we are making choices every day that will influence our future. A decision to save $6.00 on Amazon, multiplied by thousands of customers every day, means that your local bookstore, the place where you hang out, meet friends, met your partner, or found the book that changed your life, may not be there next year...
But for now, many of us brick and mortar booksellers are still here, committed to what I believe is a noble pursuit: putting the right book in the right person's hands. Tonight when I left work there were 30 people lined up for the grilled cheese food truck in our parking lot. There were another 40 people in our event space to hear a first-time author read. There were 10 members of a book club discussing a new novel, and another dozen folks in our coffee shop, most of them reading or writing. A family in the children's department was reading picture books together, and another 15 people quietly browsed the bookshelves. It is in these moments that I am awed by the role a bookstore plays in a community, a feeling made even more awesome by the realization that today we sold 1,087 books, any one of which could change someone's life.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Favorite Historical Fiction

My friend, Mary Tod, from A Writer of History tagged me to list my five personal favorite historical fiction books. As is often the case, some non-fiction books are often just as suspenseful as a great novel and I have listed those as well.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling.  I read this book in 2012 as research for my forthcoming historical novel about the Great Game and Tibet. What I didn't expect was that Kim would change my life forever. It affected me on such an emotional level, I was reduced to tears after only a few paragraphs. Kim challenged everything I thought I knew about parenting and about life in general. Kim won Kipling the Nobel Prize in Literature and contains some of the most unforgettable characters ever written, most of them based on real-life people.

The Sea Wolf by Jack London. Having fallen under London's spell, I checked out The Sea Wolf from the local library and was immediately gripped by Wolf Larsen, the tyrannical captain of the eponymous ship. Just before reaching the climax, my kids lost the book, forcing me to pay a huge fine to the library. Of course I could just buy the book from Amazon to find out what happens in the end, but I'm too terrified to return to that ship of horrors.

Longitude by Dava Sobel. A non-fiction book that reads like fiction, Longitude tells the incredible story of John Harrison, an 18th century clock maker who entered into a contest to create the first clock (chronometer) capable of withstanding the rigors of sea voyage so that mariners could determine their correct longitude at sea. When the organizers of the contest balked at awarding Harrison the prize, he took his fight to court. A spellbinding tale that became a mini-series starring Jeremy Irons.

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny Le Couteur. Organic chemistry intertwined with history to dramatic effect. This fascinating tome will answer questions like: What do Mexican yams have to do with ovulation? And: What does olive oil have to do with philosophy, logic, and the beginning of rational inquiry? Read this book and you will never look at nutmeg the same way again.

QBVII by Leon Uris. I was a bored high school student on summer break in 1980 when my father dusted off this book and gave it to me, an act that would set off a chain of events that would change my life forever. Left with no choice, I opened up this courtroom drama and couldn't put it down. After all these years, I believe even more firmly that it's books like QBVII that have set the standard for great historical fiction, and it's up to our generation to push it even higher.