About Writing

Background in Historical Fiction


One of the hardest things in writing historical fiction is to describe the world fully enough for the modern reader to imagine it while at the same time not having the character exclaim over, or even notice, items that are common to them.

In our everyday lives, for example, we pass by buildings in our neighborhood without noticing them, to the point that when one of them is demolished, we say, “I remember something was there, but what was it?” In my current work in progress, Aloha Spirit, I need to describe Honolulu as it was in territorial Hawaii. My protagonist never had to even notice buildings along the route from her home to the downtown shopping district. As an author telling her story, though, I need to describe it to provide historical context.

Another place authors of historical fiction have to pull back is when characters are doing normal household tasks. These tasks need to be described so the reader understands what is going on, and the process must be historically accurate. In Aloha Spirit, my character does the laundry, a task we all know well. But what did it look like in 1925? What type of machine was used? What brand of soap? These details give the story a historical accuracy and flavor, but it’s important to remember that the character isn’t going to notice the washing machine any more than you notice your coffee pot. Joan Blos wrote an article in the School Library Journal. She included the passage “Mother stood in front of the white box and carefully adjusted the black dial” to illustrate the awkwardness of this type of description. A modern writer surely wouldn’t describe cooking as Blos did in the above passage, so why should a historical fiction writer do so?

Personally, I prefer a little more detail about the setting in historical fiction because it helps me envision the era. I can honestly say I have never felt a historical fiction piece to be over-described. I appreciate the research that goes into novels of this typed, and I get tired of blow-by-blow accounts of battles and political intrigue, but the details of the furnishings, clothing and food, for example, captivate me.



About Writing, Expository, Narrative

Creative Nonfiction

writingOne of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is personal narrative. A narrative is a story, or fiction, but a personal narrative is based on a real event. The struggle is getting students to write good stories about an event in their lives.

Now personal essay, or memoir, is supposedly a different genre. It is defined as an actual memory or experience that is enhanced by imagination. Sounds the same to me.

When we remember something from our past, we tend to remember the important part, the climax, the culmination. For example, we remember opening a present and getting something we wanted, or falling off our bike, or swimming in Hawaii. In order to make that a good piece of writing, you need to add details. Who else was there? What was the weather? What happened before that led up to it? What happened afterward? What did you feel before and how did this event change it? What did people say? These details, however, are what is usually forgotten. You are left with a story like this: I went swimming in Hawaii. It was cool. Bad story.

To enhance the memory of the experience, you need to add details. If you don’t remember what the weather was like, it’s safe to assume it was warm and sunny since Hawaii is usually warm and sunny (and you’d remember swimming in the rain). If you were on vacation with your family, you can safely assume they were there with you, even if you have to make up dialogue on what they most likely said.

So where is the line between fiction (personal narrative) and nonfiction (personal essay or memoir)? Nonfiction stories serve up just the facts, like a newspaper article. And many novelists  do a lot of research into facts to help make a novel believable. Remember, too, that memories are colored by our age at the time, and they fuzz a bit over time. When I compare childhood memories with my brother, we are often amazed we are talking about the same event. Our brain already adds creativity.

You may ask, why is it important to know if the story is nonfiction or fiction if it’s a good story? One of an author’s duties is to give the reader what they expect. If a book is billed as memoir, the reader expects that everything in it actually happened. If it’s sold as fiction, the reader assumes it’s all made up. Some people are using the title ‘creative nonfiction’ to bridge this gap. In creative nonfiction, a reader can assume that historical facts are checked and still accept that some of the characters or events are made up. My own book, Under the Almond Trees, I call historical fiction because most of it is fictionalized based on very little information. What about you? Do you like your nonfiction to be factual, or are you a fan of creative nonfiction?


About Writing, Narrative, Teaching Writing

Writing Exercise

anpencil4This week in a writing class, we have a fun assignment. Try it yourself!

*It needs to be one paragraph, exactly seven sentences. No dialogue.

*It should be the first paragraph or the last paragraph of a Young Adult novel, meaning the main character should be a teenager.

*It can be in first person, but you can’t use ‘I’ more than three times. It can be close third person, but you can’t use the character’s name more than three times.

*The paragraph must start with a long sentence and end with a short one, OR it can start with a short one and end with a long one.

Before you decide that I’m waiting for YOU to write MY assignment, here is a first draft of mine:

I love this computer, my dearest friend, closest companion, and hardworking colleague. Flipping open the lid, the screen lights up, notification icons blink. On Facebook, I stare in horror at a photoshopped picture of me, barely dressed, in the arms of some skinny nerd. Four of my closest friends have ‘liked’ it. Change to email before anyone sees me online. An English teacher didn’t get my final paper, some refugee in a third world country needs money, and no message from Thomas after last night’s wonderful date. I hate computers.

Put your paragraphs in the notes below! Feel free to offer me encouragement…


Revising a Narrative


Now that NaNoWriMo is over, a LOT of people are revising the novels they just finished writing. Revising is a difficult skill to teach. I’ve told students that revising is changing the words to make it better. That helps them understand, but it really doesn’t tell them what to do.

I’ve heard of teachers who tell students to write down the first word of every paragraph looking for too many repetitions, or to count the words in each sentence to make sure there are both long and short sentences. Nothing kills a joy of writing faster than these drills.

The reality is that most writers have a hard time looking at their writing objectively. It’s very clear in your head, so why isn’t the reader getting it? Or you write a scene you love that doesn’t further the story. It hurts to cut them out. What all writers need is an honest voice to give them feedback. In the classroom, I use the students’ peers to do this. They read each other’s stories and tell the author what works as well as what doesn’t. They’ve all written their own novels, so they have a good feel for missing description or unclear dialogue. Notes the reader makes on the story are very helpful to the author.

It’s also important for the author to distance themselves from the novel for awhile. Wait until the pressure of finishing and the euphoria of completion have faded. You will be in a much better position to revise. I catch myself wondering why in the world I ever thought that chapter was done!

When you are revising, it’s difficult to tell when you are finished. In reality, you are never finished. It can always be made better. It’s your piece, though, so you have to decide when it’s good enough to turn in. With students, I have to train them to raise their personal expectations a bit higher. Otherwise, they would turn it in with zero revisions!

I tell my students that I spent seven years revising and rewriting my first book. If I ask them to revise a story again, I don’t want to hear any complaining!

Narrative, Teaching Writing

Emotion in Narrative

At the beginning of the school year, I teach Personal Narrative. Students who are reluctant writers always do well in this unit because Everyone Has a Story. They learn how to take a memory with impact and turn it into a story that can impact a reader.

To begin, I ask students to remember an incident with a person close to them. Usually they choose a parent or a sibling, and the event is always a special time: fishing with Dad, snorkeling in Hawaii with family, getting lost in a mall. Wait! Getting lost isn’t a special time! The events students remember always center around great emotion: excitement, anticipation, joy, grief, or fear.

Every story has emotion, but the event they remember is really the climax of the story. For example, when we use Think of a First Time as a story prompt, many students write about the first time they rode a scary ride at Great America. They were terrified, and the terror is what they remember. Without the buildup of growing fear, the realization they can’t change their mind, the thrill of the ride itself, and getting back in line to ride it again, you don’t have a story.

So starting with the memory, I take the writer back in time to when they first heard someone suggest the ride. I never allow them to write, “I was scared.” They must convey the emotion by Showing How They Feel, what they did and how they looked, or use metaphors/similes. That’s how I get a paragraph with wide eyes, dry mouth, swallowing, nervous toe tapping, or knees knocking like trick-or-treaters at neighborhood doors on Halloween.

From that first suggestion, events move forward as the group of family or friends agrees to go on the ride, gets in line, discusses previous rides and their anticipation, gets buckled into the seat, hears the ride rev up, chugs up the first big hill, zooms down into the swirls and dives of the ride, screams, laughs, gets off the ride, and gets back in line to go again. I never allow a simple recitation of events because that results in a diary entry, not a story. Each step of the process, as listed, has emotion. The fear heightens, then there’s resignation, then delighted terror, then joy, finally eagerness to do it again. Showing the emotion of the narrator, set against the obvious confidence and eagerness of the rest of the group, is the most important part of the story.

Once students master the story arc of the emotion and can weave that into the story arc of the plot events, they begin to see themselves as real authors. They enjoy writing narratives, and they enjoy reading each others’ narratives. More importantly, I look forward to collecting a class set of narratives and sitting down to read them!

♥ On my Kindle: Walking the Dog by Linda Benson


Everybody Has a Story

Republished from the archives because of its relevance to a new crop of students! Enjoy!

Personal Narratives are probably the easiest type of writing to do because everyone is full of stories.  Maybe the stories in your life aren’t as exciting as Harry Potter’s, as romantic as Bella Swan’s, or as frightening as Anne Frank’s, but they are stories.  So how do you decide what events in your life are good stories?  The best ones come from your most vivid memories of a special person, a unique event, or a time you felt a strong emotion.

One mistake people make when they are choosing ideas for personal narratives is that they want to tell the story of a week at Disneyland, or a summer spent in another country.  Those events have hundreds of stories in them!  Choose one piece of that vacation to develop into a story.  For example, when our two sons were very young we took them to Disneyland.  One son was afraid of the costumed characters, but the other one ran right up to them (His favorites were the mice from Cinderella).  Contrasting the two boys’ reaction to the characters might make a nice story.

When you’ve chosen your topic, brainstorm every detail you remember about that time.  Think of the senses: what did you smell, hear, see, touch, taste?  How did you feel?  What was the weather?  Who was there and what were they doing?  Close your eyes and pretend you are watching the event happen.  Notice all the details.

Now take that twenty or thirty minute event and write it out in descriptive sentences.  Make sure you include your emotions and those of the people you were with.  Describe the setting and the event thoroughly.

Stories are much better when they are shared.  Post your personal narratives here!

On my Kindle: The Swan Maiden by Jules Watson


AID Your Writing

NaNoWriMo is over and I’ve completed my rewrite of On a Wing and a Dare.  Whew!  How about you?  I know that 62 kids, two teachers, and a parent at my school successfully completed a novel in November.  They are all proud of what they’ve accomplished, but are learning about December–NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month).

It’s very difficult to go back to a piece you’ve worked on for a month to revise and edit it.  First of all, you are probably sick of the characters and tired of their problems.  One way to renew your interest in your work is to let someone else read it.  Have them comment on plot believability and clarity of story line.  Then you can go through and AID your writing.

AID your writing is a device I teach my students when planning a narrative.  As you plan each scene in the story, whether you are using a Quick Sketch, a roller coaster, or some other organizer, it is easy to envision action.  Action alone does not make a story, and it can be poorly presented.  When planning, and later revising, your story keep in mind the three main pieces of each scene: action, internal thinking, and dialogue.

ACTION, as I’ve said, is the easiest part.  It’s what we see when we play the scene in our heads.  Make sure, though, that you have described the details.  What’s the setting?  Who’s there?  What are they wearing? eating? doing?  All the background noises and actions help set the main action into a place in the world.

INTERNAL THINKING shows us how the character changes.  If you just play out the action without telling us what your character is thinking and feeling, you don’t engage your reader.  The reader is an observer, like watching a play, instead of being drawn into the action.  Establish how your character thinks and feels at the beginning and show it through the characters’ words, actions, and mannerisms.  By the end, the character will have changed and so will those words, actions, and mannerisms.

DIALOGUE can add life to a story if done well.  I have other posts on dialogue that you can search if this is what you want to learn about.  Remember that dialogue must further the story.  It must give information or motivation that the narrative does not.  Dialogue also must be interspersed with narrative so that the reader can still see the characters and what they are doing.  No one stands and talks in a vacuum, their arms at their sides.  Show me what is going on.

If you’ve AIDed your writing when planning, revision is easier.  You can revise the action, internal thinking, and dialogue instead of racking your brain trying to come up with a way to communicate your ideas.  Here are some revising tips:

* Add sensory details so the reader can experience the action

* Use mannerisms, words, and actions to show readers what the character is thinking

* Add narrative tags to your dialogue so the reader can see the dialogue as well as hear it.

On my Kindle:   Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon, one of my favorite authors


Story Arc

All stories have certain elements.  If they are missing, you don’t have a story.  The most obvious example is CHARACTERS–you must have characters in order to make the events in your story happen.  The good news is I have never known a student to leave characters out of a story!

Another important element is the SETTING.  Yeah, yeah, I know you’ve heard this before, but I can’t tell you how many student narratives I’ve read that seem to occur in a vacuum.  Please tell me if we are at the character’s house, or in an amusement park, or lost in the woods!  Better yet, SHOW me the setting with lots of sensory details. (I get really excited about sensory details)

This one is a little tougher.  Every story must have a problem or CONFLICT.  Your main character is your protagonist.  This character can have a conflict with another CHARACTER (the antagonist) as in the classic good-guy-beats-the-bad-guy story.  The protagonist can also have a conflict with NATURE, as in the good-guy-battles-the-terrible-storm story.  Your protagonist can also have a conflict with SELF, as in the bad-liar-loses-all-his-friends-and-learns-to-stop-lying story.

Remember when you introduce the problem to the reader you need to show why it is a problem.  For example, bringing an elephant to school is not a problem.  When it breaks down the wall coming through the door, that’s a problem.

Finally, every story must have an ARC, which you may know as a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Without an arc, the story is merely a boring listing of events.  The arc gives it a reason to be a story.  Think of the story arc as a roller coaster.

The beginning is when you are in the station loading the cars.  Here is where you introduce your protagonist and the setting, and maybe hint at the problem.  The inciting event is what starts the roller coaster moving up the hill.  This might be where your protagonist first tangles with your antagonist.

The rising action is represented by the roller coaster moving uphill toward that drop. You know the drop is coming, and the anticipation builds.  In your story, every event, every bit of dialogue, every character interaction must build tension toward the climax of your story.  (You absolutely cannot do this with internal thinking….I’ll do a separate post on that)

The top of the roller coaster hill is the climax of your story.  This is the epic battle, or the event that changes the world.  Have you ever in your life known a roller coaster to stop at the top of the hill?  No.  Please do not ever end your story  here!

The last part of the roller coaster ride is the downhill plunge into the station.  Your story must have an ending that wraps up the loose ends and reveals what changed in your protagonist.  What lesson was learned?  Plan this part of your story as completely as you plan the rising action.  Please get your characters safely home!

As with most writing, careful planning is more than half the task.  When a story is well planned, the actual writing is very rewarding!

On my Kindle:  Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter (one I loved as a child!)


Make a Mental Movie

When students are learning to write narratives, either personal or fictional, a common mistake they make is to simply list events in the order that they happened. This may sound organized, but it’s not much of a story.  The most important part of the story is missing: the emotion, the sensory details that put a reader right there into the tale, flesh out the story and make it an interesting read.

To accomplish a narrative with good details, one of the strategies we teach students is to make a movie in your mind.  Close your eyes and imagine you are watching your story on the big screen.  Can you see the background details?  What do you hear?  Is it cold or hot?  Who else is there?  Most critically, what are the body language and actions of the characters telling you about how they feel?

A personal narrative that I use in class is a story about my son, Tim, and the time he learned about the circle of life–no, it wasn’t at the Lion King movie.  Here is the bare bones story:

After dinner in Santa Cruz, we walked along the pier.  Tim saw a fish flopping around on the ground.  He asked if he could save its life.  I, of course, agreed.  Scooping it into his hands, he took it to the railing and dropped it back in the water.  Unfortunately, a pelican sat on a railing below and caught the fish as it fell from the sky!  Tim recoiled in shock.  I wanted to laugh.

You may notice that the best part of this story is when the pelican grabs the fish.  It has the most, although not a lot, of emotion.  This is the very heart of the story!  So let’s make a movie in my head about this memory.

On Fridays in the summer, my family and I often drive over the hill from San Jose to Santa Cruz for dinner.  We eat on the wharf and have coffee at Marini’s afterwards because they put a chunk of fudge on the lip of the cup.  The rich dark chocolate and hot coffee are just perfect after a good meal.  When the boys were younger, Tim especially loved walking to the end of the pier and peeking at the sea lions who lay on the support beams below the pier.  The sea lions’ barking echoed for quite a distance, seeming to answer the crying of the gulls in the air.  The rough weathered wood of the pier and railings is covered with gull poop, and the birds swoop down on any bit of garbage left unattended.

On the evening of the fish incident, it wasn’t dark yet, but the sunlight was softening toward dusk.  A cool breeze came off the ocean, but it wasn’t cold. I was full of good seafood, coffee and chocolate, and happy to be with my family, building this tradition with them.  Tim spotted a small fish, maybe five inches long, flopping on the pier and ran ahead of us.  Fishermen ringed the end of the wharf, their backs turned toward the fish, their lines in the water.  Maybe a pelican had dropped the fish in the middle of the pier?  Tim looked stricken and begged to save the fish’s life.  My heart melted.  My son, the sensitive one, wanted to help this suffering creature.  I watched with pride as he carefully lifted the fish and raced to the railing.  He had to go up on tiptoes to be able to drop it into the water below.  I was right there next to him, watchful, making sure he didn’t somehow slip and plunge into the water himself.  Therefore, I was in a good place to see the gaping maw of the surprised pelican as it snatched this gift from my son’s hand.  The fisherman closest to Tim saw it, too.  He hid his face with his hand, but I could see his shoulders shake with laughter.  I smiled, but controlled my own laugh as I casually tossed off the comment, “It’s the circle of life, Tim.” I prayed that he would understand, and not be devastated that he had killed the little fish.  His brother was quick to tell him it was okay, reinforcing my comment by adding, “yeah, like the Lion King.”  Tim was smiling in an instant, but I am still laughing.

Okay, so that has a LOT more internal feelings, sensory details, and even some dialogue.  Now we are getting somewhere.  This is still not the polished version of the story, however.  There’s some unnecessary detail, and it could still use more details.  At this point, I encourage students to tell the story to three people.  In the retelling, more details are recalled.  Listeners ask questions, and that helps a writer know what needs more explanation.  So now it’s up to you.  What part of the story would you like to learn more about?  Ask me some questions!

On my Kindle:  Linger by Maggie Stiefvater