Writing Advice – Study your history, it informs your writing with truth

Posted on Jun 25, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

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It always astonishes me how few writers (and readers) know their history, whether of place names, the guiding forces of both heroes and villains, or the effects of war and disease.

A reviewer called one of my books to task for having ‘too many battles’. Apparently he didn’t study his history. The Civil War alone made me look like a piker – I only had three or four. (Piker – one who does things in a small way)

The city name of London came from Roman Londinium, and Montmartre is named for a large hill. Stratford on Avon – of Shakespearean fame – was probably originally a ‘straight’ ford across the river Avon.

Names, too, have their genesis in everything from occupations – the surname Miller describes an ancestor who milled grain – while Douglas – my own last name – was likely a derivation of ‘dark glass’, glass in this reference meaning a lake.

Do you think G. R. R. Martin is bad?

To understand the forces that drive your heroes or villains – and that some of those villains either really weren’t, or didn’t see themselves as such – study the kings of England and France. Henry the 8th was hardly a nice guy – chopping off the heads of his wives if they didn’t give him boys. Richard III’s villainy has been debated for centuries.

How many writers know that more of history was shaped by disease than by religion or wars – although both played their roles in making disease so disastrous.

The black plague of history was exacerbated by the concept of ‘cleanliness was next to Godliness’ as quoted in Leviticus. The actual quote was to exhort people to keep themselves clean, so as to prevent disease, but in the Dark to Middle Ages was considered hubris to compare oneself to God, and so bathing was discouraged. The witch hunts of the period also contributed. Since cats were considered to be the devil’s animal, and a witch’s familiar, they were killed off in droves. Cats were the mouse and rat catchers, decreasing the fleas that were the carrier/vectors of the plague. Add the prohibition against bathing, and you had the perfect storm to create an epidemic or pandemic. The Black Death, as it came to be called, killed 25 – 50% of the population.

Few folks know that what became known as the Manifest Destiny of the founding of what became the United States was nothing of the sort. The Squanto who was of legendary aid to the English settlers had been kidnapped as a slave by traders and taken back to England. Those same traders brought the diseases of Europe to the new shores. Diseases like plague, smallpox, cholera, flu, and others, to which the natives had no exposure, and no resistance. When Squanto returned, he found his village gone. How many know that the early settlers clashed with the native population as much as learned from them? Or that those same settlers in some cases survived by raiding grave sites?

Of course, neither disease nor grave-robbing is exactly sexy.

History isn’t always pretty, but knowing your history can only help make your writing better.

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The Hardest Character to Write – Good/Bad Villains

Posted on May 23, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Snidely Whiplash – Wrongdoer_by_pengabob

Writing villains, writing ‘good’ villains, can be difficult, because even in reality not all villains see themselves as villains. In one of my books the villain definitely doesn’t see himself as the bad guy, he’s convinced that he’s doing the right thing. In another book, the concept of right or wrong simply doesn’t occur to him, he’s at best a sociopath and probably a psychopath, before there was a term for either.

I’ve always seen myself as a pretty nice person, but a good villain requires the writer to put themselves inside the head of that kind of person.

When I wrote a particular character, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of him, but an even harder time trying to understand why people would follow someone like him. It was too easy to paint him as some unknowable individual, I wanted readers to understand him and those who went along with him. *laughing* It wasn’t until I watched an episode of Survivor that I really understood. The ‘villain’ there wasn’t truly a villain, and certainly didn’t see himself as this monomaniacal individual – which he was – and the people around him didn’t either. He was their social leader, and he was the means to reach the possibility of a million dollars. For both those reasons, they were willing to follow him.

It’s even harder, though, when the villain isn’t a villain, per se, but a product of his time or culture, as in my current work in progress. He does allow terrible things, but he excuses his actions by dehumanizing the people he harms, and he does it under the cloak of his own personal beliefs. He doesn’t see himself as the ‘bad guy’ – and there’s one of those, too, although he doesn’t see himself that way either – but justifies what he does because he doesn’t see the people he harms as being people, certainly not as people equal to those with him. That’s something we’ve seen time and again throughout history. And still see to this day.
Mean people may suck, but those who don’t think they’re mean suck even more.
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