Tag: St. Agnes’ Stand

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS–SETTING by CHERYL PIERSON


Are you a reader who loves descriptions and details of settings? Glittering ballrooms, the bone-chilling cold of a winter in the Rockies…or maybe the oppressive, killing heat of the desert? What about something idyllic, like a river or creek babbling through the woods? A beautiful rose garden, or even the ugly side of description—such as barren prison walls, or a Civil War battlefield?

 

 

 

 

It depends on the story, doesn’t it, and again, how much importance those descriptions have on the impact of the action, and the outcome of the story.

Let’s use a ball as our example.

If you’ve never been to an 1800’s ball—and none of us have—we need to know at least the barest details.

Five basic things we need to know are:
What is a ball?
Why is the ball being given?
Who will be invited?
When will the ball be given?
Where will it be held?

That’s enough for some stories. But the main question is—how important is the ball to the plot?

This is where layering comes in—and this one scene, and the details it contains—can be vital to what comes next, or even many scenes later.
So many things can happen at a ball!

Guests can meet for the first time, uninvited guests can show up, clothing can have significance, music can bring back memories, the food can even be poisoned!

Or, the ball can just be a ball, like the old saying attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…” –and if that’s the case, then tedious description and intricate detail is wasted because the ball is just a vehicle to get from one scene in the story to the next, and has no real underlying importance.

 


Describing the details of the clothing worn is sometimes distracting as it pulls us away from the action. We may be reading about a blue satin gown when we need to be concentrating on the man who lurks in the shadows. Too much description can bog down the reader and deaden the story rather than bring it to life.

Why? Because deep description of the things such as décor, clothing, and meals stop the action of the characters. The plot “takes a break” while our minds process all of the description of the scenery, the meals, the clothing. In this case, again, sometimes, “less is more” and we need to let the reader’s mind fill in much of that kind of detail.

Consider this: We know certain facts—a ball costs a lot of money to host. So we already understand that those who are invited are most likely people who move in the same upper crust social circles. Therefore, we know they, too, have money, so are appropriately dressed, arrive in style, and are schooled in proper societal customs. One excellent way to cut through the “red tape” of description (of things we already know) is to describe something that is out of place, or “not right” as this reminds us of what should be—and those details of descriptions we’re already aware of.

Perhaps an impostor at the ball commits a social faux pas without realizing it, alerting others to the fact she isn’t who she pretends to be. Maybe an unlikely hero comes to her aid quickly, offering an excuse, or correcting the mistake before others notice.


This scenario does several things for the story that simple description can’t achieve.

1. Points out the discrepancy in what should be and what is.
2. Allows our characters interaction, and possibly dialogue and observation, rather than the author filling the page with scenic description.
3. Allows the reader the opportunity to learn more about the characters and their personalities through this interaction, and can be a vehicle to reveal something of importance.
4. Can possibly further the action during such a scene rather than slowing it by miles of scenic description.

This is not to say that there isn’t a time and a place for detailed descriptions of settings! We can’t call ourselves authors and take the “easy” way out by saying, “It was a ball like any other” by way of description, unless—we put it in the right context.

How about this: 
Jake looked around at the opulent ballroom –the surroundings were familiar in a tiresome, cloying way. Or…maybe was jaded. It was a ball like any other—except for one thing. Something that made him catch his breath and inwardly let go a streak of curses he’d love to shout to the skies. She was here. The woman he’d thought he’d never see again…

Well, anything can happen now, can’t it? Maybe she’s wearing an inappropriate shade of red amidst a sea of violet and blue. There are so many ways to make setting come alive without endless description that many readers become bored with and skim over.

If you read my last installment of this blog series about main characters, the examples I used from Shane (Jack Schaefer) and St. Agnes’ Stand (Tom Eidson) are also prime examples of description of setting as well as character.

But here’s another good one I really think is wonderful from Conagher, by Louis L’Amour. In this story, Evie from “back East” has come out west to marry a man with two children. Evie tries to make the best of things, but she lives in fear at first. The land is so different, After she’s been there a while, she finds there is a beauty in her surroundings she had to grow to love, in time.


As L’Amour describes the heroine’s (Evie) dismal hopelessness at the land her husband (Jacob) has brought her to, we wonder how she will survive. Yet, Jacob has plans, sees the possibilities that Evie cannot, or will not see. The underlying message is, “The land is what we make of it.”

As the story continues, she begins to appreciate the beauty of the prairie, while acknowledging the solitary loneliness of her existence. She plants a garden, nurturing the plants, and gradually she sees the farm being shaped into a good home from the ramshackle place she’d first laid eyes on.

The land is beautiful, but unforgiving. Her husband is killed in a freak accident, and for months she doesn’t know what has happened to him. She faces the responsibility of raising his two children from a previous marriage alone.

In her loneliness, she begins to write notes describing her feelings and ties them to tumbleweeds. The wind scatters the notes and tumbleweeds across the prairie. Conagher, a loner, begins to wonder who could be writing them, and slowly comes to believe that whomever it is, these notes are meant for him.

At one point, visitors come from back East. One of them says to Evie something to the effect of “I don’t know how you can stand it here.”
This is Evie’s response to her:

“I love it here,” she said suddenly. “I think there is something here, something more than all you see and feel…it’s in the wind.

“Oh, it is very hard!” she went on. “I miss women to talk to, I miss the things we had back East–the band concerts, the dances. The only time when we see anyone is like now, when the stage comes. But you do not know what music is until you have heard the wind in the cedars, or the far-off wind in the pines. Someday I am going to get on a horse and ride out there”–she pointed toward the wide grass before them–”until I can see the other side…if there is another side.”

The land, at first her nemesis, has become not only a friend, but a soulmate. L’Amour gives us this description through Evie’s eyes and feelings, not in writing about it from his perspective as the author.

Think of your own writing projects, and books you’ve read. What importance do you give setting in description, plot, even characterization? Within 40 pages of ‘Conagher’, we understand that the land, with all its wild beauty and dangers has become enmeshed in Evie’s character. She can’t leave it, and it will never leave her.

Endless, detailed description can’t do what L’Amour does through Evie’s eyes in a very few sentences. Do you have a favorite description of a setting you’ve read about or written about?

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS–MAIN CHARACTERS! by Cheryl Pierson

Are you the kind of reader who likes to have a detailed description of the hero or heroine in romance books? What about other secondary characters? And do you feel the same way about characters in books of genres other than western historical romance, or romance in general?

To me, there is a big difference in how much character description is needed in romance novels versus other genres, and here’s why.

When we read romance, we put ourselves in the story, empathizing with both the heroine and the hero. Of course, we need enough description to let us be familiar with them both, but this might be a case of “less” being “more.”

In our personal lives, we have preferences in how our romantic “leading men” look, speak, behave, and so on. If our preferences are toward the tall, dark, and handsome hero, it will be hard for us to be vested in a story with a hero who’s short, fair, and ugly. Or one who has habits we personally don’t find attractive.

I knew a woman who didn’t like blond heroes. If he had blond hair on the cover, she’d color it brown or black with a marker. In the book, if “blond” was mentioned, she’d mark through it and write whatever color of hair she’d decided he needed. I asked her about the heroines. “They’re all me,” she answered. “I don’t pay attention to their descriptions.”

It made me wonder how many others felt this way.

Stephen King had mentioned at one time in his book ON WRITING that “description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

And in genres other than romance, character description is different and maybe more important, because the reader doesn’t have any preconceived expectations of the story, such as romance readers do.

When I taught creative writing classes, this description was one I used to illustrate how so much could be packed in to a short amount of words without being an info dump.

AMAZON LINK FOR ON WRITING BY STEPHEN KING

http://amzn.to/2EdXjVy

 

 

 

AMAZON LINK FOR ST. AGNES’ STAND BY TOM EIDSON

http://amzn.to/2T4bXZU

This is the beginning of St. Agnes’ Stand, by Thomas Eidson, who also wrote The Missing. Take a look:

He was hurt and riding cautiously. Thoughts not quite grasped made him uneasy, and he listened for an errant sound in the hot wind. His eyes were narrowed—searching for a broken leaf, a freshly turned rock, anything from which he could make some sense ofhis vague uneasiness. Nothing. The desert seemed right, but wasn’t somehow. He turned in the saddle and looked behind him. A tumbleweed was bouncing in front of the wild assaults from the wind. But the trail was empty. He turned back and sat, listening.

Over six feet and carrying two hundred pounds, Nat Swanson didn’t disturb easy, but this morning he was edgy. His hat brim was pulled low, casting his face in shadow. The intense heat and the wind were playing with the air, making it warp and shimmer over the land. He forced himself to peer through it, knowing he wouldn’t get a second chance if he missed a sheen off sweating skin or the straight line of a gun barrel among branches.

And then this, a couple of paragraphs down:

He had been running for a week, and he was light on sleep and heavy on dust and too ready for trouble. He’d killed a man in a West Texas town he’d forgotten the name of—over a woman whose name he’d never known. He hadn’t wanted the woman or the killing. Nor had he wanted the hole in his thigh. What he did want was to get to California, and that’s where he was headed. Buttoned in his shirt pocket was a deed for a Santa Barbara ranch. Perhaps a younger man would have run longer and harder before turning to fight and maybe die; but Nat Swanson was thirty-five years that summer, old for the trail, and he had run as far as he was going to run.

I absolutely love this. Can you feel that you’re right there with Nat Swanson as he’s riding? There are no wasted words, and this is just such an eloquent, masterful description of not only Nat, but the situation and the physical place he’s in as well as the dilemma he’s faced with.

Another excellent way of describing a character and setting the scene at the same time is from another character’s POV. This passage is from Jack Schaefer’s iconic classic, Shane—from the eyes of Bobby Starrett—when Shane first rides into his life.

AMAZON LINK FOR SHANE BY JACK SCHAEFER

http://amzn.to/2BWlIin

This is just the very beginning of the book—there is more physical description of Shane a few paragraphs later, but I chose this passage because it lets us know what’s going on in a few short sentences—and that is real talent.

He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father’s old chuck-wagon. I was on the upper rail of our small corral, soaking in the late afternoon sun, when I saw him far down the road where it swung into the valley from the open plain beyond.

In that clear Wyoming air I could see him plainly, though he was still several miles away. There seemed nothing remarkable about him, just another stray horseman riding up the road toward the cluster of frame buildings that was our town. Then I saw a pair of cowhands, loping past him, stop and stare after him with a curious intentness.

He came steadily on, straight through the town without slackening pace, until he reached the fork a half-mile below our place. One branch turned left across the river ford and on to Luke Fletcher’s big spread. The other bore ahead along the right bank where we homesteaders had pegged our claims in a row up the valley. He hesitated briefly, studying the choice, and moved again steadily on our side.

This is tough, because we’re seeing it through two “lenses”—Bobby is nine years old, and this is what he sees, but it’s filtered by the adult Bobby who’s now telling the story of what happened all those years ago.

In writing the story this way, the reader gets the full impact of experiencing the fears, the situation brings, the joy of having Shane there, and the anguish of his leaving all through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, with the adult overview that lets us know that Shane was not a hero—but he was to Bobby and those small time settlers who needed one so desperately. Yet, leaving was the only thing he could have done and kept Bobby’s view of him untarnished and intact.

Because we don’t know how the story will end, and we don’t know what to expect, we are learning about Shane’s character right along with Bobby so we are actively looking for details and descriptors the author might give us along the way—it will affect our opinion of Shane and let us know if Bobby is a reliable narrator, and it affects the outcome of the story.

I bring this up because in romance, seldom does the description have such a direct effect on the story itself, unless our main characters have scars, afflictions, or disabilities that might have some direct bearing on the story and its outcome. 

So what do you think? Do you like a lot of description and detail about the WHR heroes you read about, or would you rather “fill in the blanks” for yourself?

As far as heroines go, most people I’ve talked to are not as concerned with her physical description (maybe because each person sees herself in the heroine?) but are more concerned with her personality traits—is she likable? Is she determined?

If she is not a fierce match for the hero, the story line is doomed.

And what about our hero? Though he can get away with more “questionable” traits, he has to be endowed with almost superhuman strength to overcome everything that’s thrown his way, and that is description that must be thoroughly detailed—not left to the reader’s interpretation.

INTRODUCING UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTERS–WITH FLAIR!

Hi everyone.  I know we’ve talked before about where our writing ideas come from:  Dreams, historical events, poetry or movies, or even from our own life experiences, to name a few.  As writers, we look at how our characters can be drawn from people we’ve known in our lives, whether we admire or despise them.

Have you ever gotten one of your characters from unusual places–such as song lyrics, or based them on historical figures of the past?  Characters can be born in our own imaginations completely–not based upon any actual person we ever knew or studied in a history book.  If you write futuristic stories, your alien creatures must be created entirely within your own flights of fancy.  If paranormal writing is your bailiwick, you must create your otherworldly characters from legends, lore, and once again, your own imaginings.

But let’s take a  look at what makes up a character’s basic framework, beginning with the external elements.  These will include all the components that have made our character who he or she is, from the most elementary choices of physical appearance to the limits of cultural and societal dictates that have been imposed upon the character.

One tried and true option that I figure most of us have used at one time or another is to design your own “character chart” for each character, assigning basics such as hair and eye color, and delving into as much detail as you want.  Age, birthday, even astrological signs can be included.  Did your character lose a parent?  Is he an only child, or the eldest of ten children?  Every detail you can assign is like the stroke of a paintbrush.  We are  artists, creating the picture of this person for our readers.  If we don’t allow the reader to see the details of the character, she can’t know them “deep down.”  The reader must learn through your description, your inference, or through the observations of your other characters.

This leads us to the internal process of your characters’ lives.  Again, as in the physical description, as writers we must delve into the characters’ minds and decide what we can allow  readers to know, and when to reveal it.  Our characters’ emotions, reactions, yearnings, and thoughts are all an integral part of developing them into people we are going to remember.  Will we like them?  Empathize with them?  Root against the villain?  Most importantly, will we care–one way or the other?

Defining your characters’ motives and feelings must be detailed, leaving nothing to assumption.  This is a key element in creating believability.

But physical and emotional character creation is only a part of the whole “ball of wax.”  Our characters have to have a world to live in–a plot to carry out. These components include the conflict (what makes the story exciting and why do we care?) and the point of view.  Point of view is extremely important, because this is the character who will be telling the story.  The setting can be a huge factor as well, at times, becoming a character in its own right.

How do you introduce your characters with enough flair to make them interesting, and to make your reader emotionally invested in them?

What books have you read with memorable character introductions?  Can anyone forget their first glimpse of fiery Scarlett O’Hara?  Or of the handsome scoundrel, Rhett Butler?  Grab a copy of “Gone With the Wind” and study the way Margaret Mitchell introduces her characters.  Her physical descriptions are matchless.  Interestingly enough, she doesn’t delve into deep point of view as much as she lets us learn things about the characters through their dialogue and what others say/think about them.

Another example of an unforgettable character entrance is Jack Schaeffer’s “Shane.”  Written in the late 1940’s, it remains a classic today.  This is an example of how very important the viewpoint character can be.  Though the story is about Shane, a mystery man who shows up and helps the homesteaders out of a jam against the most powerful landowner in the valley, seeing it through the eyes of young Bobby Starett gives us a poignant understanding of the other characters–Shane in particular.  Telling the story through Bobby lets the tension build to a climax that would be unattainable through any other character’s “voice.”

Another way of introducing a character is through dialogue.  Giving the reader a titillating bit of conversation that leads us to

a) the storyline, or

b) discovery about the character’s personality or circumstances

is a sure-fire way to garner interest in the character who delivers the line.

Circumstances can also be the means to provide the introduction of a character who is unforgettable.  In Thomas Eidson’s “St. Agnes’ Stand”, the main character, Nat Swanson, is in a dire predicament.  He’s been shot, and is being pursued by two men whose friend he killed in avenging a woman’s honor–a woman he barely knew.  He just wants to be left alone, to make it to California where a ranch he won with the turn of a card awaits–along with a new life.  However, he comes upon a group of orphans and nuns who are sure to be captured and killed by a band of Apaches if he doesn’t intervene–and he can’t walk away.  Again, he steps in to do the right thing–and it may be the death of him.

This is just my take on some of the different ways we are able to introduce unforgettable characters–with flair! What are some of your favorite characters?  Those characters that just won’t leave you alone to have their stories read–or told?