Archive for May 2020

Dare You to Move   Leave a comment

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Getting It Right   5 comments

What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?

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Awesome Power

Telling people’s stories is a tricky business. When I was a journalist, I had a code of ethics I was supposed to follow. Believe it or not, journalists supposedly have a Code of Ethics. I don’t think any of us seriously believe today’s “journalists” follow that code. Maybe Sharyl Atkisson (an investigative journalist) does, but when reporters sit down with a gay, atheist classical liberal for most of day and then report he’s the leader of the American alt-right — clearly something has gone off the rails with regard to seeking the truth and reporting it.

Researchers dig into the lives of other people to tell their stories. When the subjects are living people they can sue you for getting it wrong, although it is really expensive and very difficult to actually win a case when you’re a public figure and since everybody these days has some public interface — you’re pretty safe in lying about anyone you like — which is why people do it. Most reporters today show no signs of ever reading that code of ethics and most of the people I know who have been the subject of a news feature didn’t think the reporter got their story right.

Living people have options for correcting the abusive retelling of their stories to support the political and/or social agendas of the news curators, but historical figures are not able to demand fair treatment. Many historians seem to feel free to cast historical figures in their own image and historical fiction writers — well, why do they need to get their facts right? They have a message to assert. What should they feel obligated to present the historical figure as the person they were when they were alive?

I am not speaking of all historical friend writers. My friend Becky Akers spends years researching her subjects before she writes about them, just for one example. She usually writes from the perspective of someone who was near the historical figure, so that she can allow the actual person to remain who they are and leave the interpretation to the fictional character. I’m sure there are other writers who take their craft just as seriously — and then there are all the others who don’t.

Great Responsibility

As a reporter, I felt a great responsibility to get the story right. I didn’t always have editors who agreed with me — which is one reason I am no longer a reporter.

Similarly, I don’t write historical fiction because I am aware of the great responsibility to get the story right. The only foray I’ve made into that arena is an alternative history short based on the question – What might have happened if the US Constitution had not been ratified?

I based the main character on an ancestor who I know a little bit about because his son told his story in a journal 20 years after the fact. The satellite characters were, many of them, historical figures who we know a little bit about by what they did in history. It was a short, so I couldn’t go deeply into their personalities, but I tried to write their broad strokes to correlate with what is known about them from history.

I felt I had an obligation to get my presentation of their characters right.

We Are Writing Their Story, Not Ours

One way that I make a little side money is to edit Master’s theses and Doctoral dissertations. I live in a university town with a large portion of the student body coming from other parts of the world, so I generally pick up a project or two every year. I’ve gotten to delve into all sorts of subjects, most often science subjects, but including treatment of historical events and characters. My job is to correct their English errors, but I’m a journalist at my center, so I often google their facts. I’ve learned some wonderful things about many people who lived in history. I’ve also learned that a lot of historians feel free to make claims about people who would never have agreed with that backward-looking take on their lives.

Some of that is understandable. We view history through our cultural lens. I think slavery is wrong and was a horrible institution because I was raised in the 20th century where every school child is taught from kindergarten forward to believe slavery is evil and those who owned slaves were irredeemable scoundrels. Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner, couldn’t possibly have been against slavery. If he were, he’d have freed his slaves. Of course, his story was more nuanced than that. The son of slave owners, he inherited the slaves he owned and that inheritance already had an encumbrance of debt on it. By law, he couldn’t free his slave because they were collateral on his father’s debt, which he still owed when he wrote “all men are created equal”. He wasn’t being disingenuous when he wrote those words. He was actually trying to be crafty. The only way he could get out of being a slave-owner was for the government to outlaw slavery. England was still more than a half-century away from outlawing slavery, so Jefferson’s only hope of the law changing was another government. That’s not the only reason he supported the American Revolution, but it was the reason he wrote that controversial phrase. The American government didn’t outlaw slavery in his lifetime, therefore he remained a slave-owner who was against slavery. But we see him through out own cultural lens and historians and fiction writers rarely struggle beyond that barrier because it’s easier to write themselves into the character rather than get to know the character’s reality.

Our Obligation

So, the answer to the question is, I believe we have an obligation to our subjects to be considerate of who they were when they were alive. Don’t write them as a paragon of virtue or a troll of evil, but also don’t put yourself and your cultural biases into a character who lived in another era. I think the ethics of writing any story demands we get the character’s story as right as we can possibly make it.

It was their life after all, not ours. Which is not to say that you can’t have some fun, invent some interactions they didn’t have but could have, and have some of those side characters represent your viewpoint, but that writing historical fiction does not, in my opinion, grant us a right to lie about the person whose story we’re writing.

Beautiful Feet   Leave a comment

Go Went Gone … Urggg!   5 comments

What are your top five writing mistakes? Either mistakes you make or mistakes that make you cringe when you see them in print?

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Good, Better, Best … Never Let It Rest

Journalists are, supposedly, terrible spellers, but I came to the reporting game with good spelling and strong grammar. My training just enhanced that and make me more sensitive to common errors. That doesn’t mean I never make a mistake. It means I rarely let other people see my mistakes — I catch them in the editing process. I know how to make good writing into better writing, always striving for the best.

Grammarly asked users what their most frustrating grammar errors were and they said

  • Incorrect verb forms
  • Subject-verb disagreements
  • Run-on sentences
  • Comma splices
  • Pronoun antecedent disagreements

Watch for the other three fingers

I certainly have made these mistakes myself, but they do drive me crazy when I see them in other people’s writing — particularly if it’s already been published. Really, people, at least get a couple of beta readers to go over it before you put it on Amazon. By “people”, I mean me and anyone else who has made these mistakes.

Incorrect Verb Form

Irregular verb forms can be challenging because so often we make these errors while speaking and don’t even find them odd when we see them in writing. I was taught to take a pause and remember my credibility as a writer is hanging in a free-fire zone if I get this wrong. Here are the most common verb conjugation mistakes:

Is it “seen” or “saw”? Sometimes you can hear you’re wrong when you read it aloud.

“I seen the movie last week”

Or is it?

“I saw the movie last week”

You can hear the error easily.

But is it?

“I been there” or “I have been there.?”

Most people say “I been there”, but, when writing, it’s really “I have (in the past) been there.” That one really trips some people up and I read it in their books and not just in dialogue, where it is acceptable. Take a pause, folks, and think about it. Unless you’re writing narrative in a regional dialect, it pays to question the words that come out of your mouth and whether they belong on the page.

Subject-verb disagreement

In Spanish and American Sign Language (my other two languages) the subject of the sentence must correctly align with the verb conjugation for both number and gender. I especially found Spanish to be challenging because of this. Less so ASL probably because it’s a visual-gestural language.

In English, compound subjects follow a simple rule. They’re plural. “Mark and Jane” are two subjects (compound). “They” are compound. “We” are compound. So much easier. But then you run across irregular verbs. Oh, those can be so frustrating.

Consider “forces of nature.” Nature is one subject … right? So the verb would be “is”, right? But, no, it’s plural subjects. It’s the forces of nature. Nature itself may be one thing, but it has multiple forces.

“The forces of nature are knocking the heck out of deck furniture.”

I corrected a supervisor one time over “rights of way”. He was planning to send this letter somewhere important, where his credibility was at stake and I was trying to save his career. Trust me, I have that correct. It is definitely “rights of way” (plural). But he spent a good half-hour arguing with me that it’s just one “right of way”. Yes, we were talking about just one “rights of way” in front of a business, but it’s still plural, not singular. We finally looked it up in two grammar books and on the Internet and I won the debate. He’s an engineer. I wouldn’t argue with him about how to build a road, but he wanted to argue with a professional writer about grammar. It was hilarious.

Grammarly suggests you memorize irregular verbs, but you can usually reason them out — that’s how I do them, though I also still pull out my 30-year-old Associate Press Style Guide when I get stumped.

Run-on sentences

A run-on sentence contains two or more independent clauses (a group of words that contains a subject and a verb and that can stand alone as a sentence) that are not connected with correct punctuation. 

Though there are different kinds of run-on sentence errors, most often writers neglect to use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, etc.).

“I enjoy writing immensely but my deadline is looming I am starting to feel overwhelmed.”

It’s rare for me to include a run-on sentence even in a draft because I am a fan of Hemingway and trained as a journalist. Journalists HATE commas, so are told whenever we feel like putting one in a sentence, we should ask ourselves if we couldn’t use a period instead. If you can use a period instead of a comma, you should use the period. See, you don’t even have to memorize a rule for that, but there is a rule.

Each independent clause must be set apart from other independent clauses with punctuation or a comma and conjunction. Punctuation marks that are ideal for marking complete sentences are periods (full-stops), semicolons, and em dashes. Got it! Use it! Stop frustrating me!

Comma splices

Comma splices and run-on sentences are kissing cousins. Comma splices are really run-on sentences.

“He was very hungry, he ate a whole pizza.”

When a writer joins two independent sentences with a comma instead of separating them with a period or a conjunction, that’s a comma splice and it makes my head pound. Cut it out!

Pronoun-antecedent disagreement

“John had a card for Helga but couldn’t deliver it because he was in her way.”

When you use the pronouns “him” or “her”, readers need to know to whom those pronouns refer. Otherwise, they get confused.

Who is the second “he” in the above sentence — John or someone else? If the reader has to look back at the last sentence to be sure, you’ve not done your job as a writer correctly.

“John had a card for Helga but couldn’t deliver it because Tim was in Helga’s way.”

But what about me?

The one that drives me crazy in my own writing is actually a typo. Sometimes, my fingers get to moving so fast, they write a different word than the one I am thinking — “form” instead of “from”, “dog” instead of “god”, “left” instead of “felt”, and “who” instead of “how” — or the reverse of those. All the grammar-check programs in the world won’t catch them and I think it’s sometimes unavoidable. It happens so often when I’m “in the zone” and I just don’t notice it. I usually catch it when I have Word read the text aloud, but it’s frustrating because it’s so simple and yet so-really-hard to catch and correct. You have to catch an error before you can correct it.

I Will Rise Again   Leave a comment

No Magic Formula   9 comments

May 11, 2020

How soon is too soon to include a real-life event in a fictional story?

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That’s a Personal Question

A personal and individual answer is necessary for something like this. I don’t think there’s a single answer because writing is incredibly personal. What bothers me might not bother you. Or it could be the other way around.

I admit I have kind of thick skin. Journalism teaches you to be that way. I have to watch myself not to interview friends who face tragedy. It’s second nature. But I do know when it’s inappropriate, so I don’t know that I’ve ever actually done it, but it’s occurs to me when some things have happened. And sometimes, that talent has been useful. I know how to ask questions that cut to the heart of the matter.

A Very Personal Example

Some friends of mine lost their daughter to a serial killer. I was still in high school and didn’t know them until 10 years later. I knew them about another five years before their granddaughter started asking questions. I was her youth leader in church and the questions she asked deserved to be answered, so I sat down with her grandmother and interviewed her. I did it for her granddaughter, but Annie said telling her story helped her because she finally got some closure.

That was nearly 20 years ago and I still haven’t put it in a story. It’ll be too soon until Annie passes from this world. It’s too personal to someone I care about and I would not want to hurt her.

Protecting the Not Guilty

About 25 years ago, my husband sat a jury for a Murder 1 trial. The brief story is an Alaska miner was having problems with an abusive neighbor. He and his wife were headed to breakfast at a roadhouse 120 miles from the nearest police station. Coming out of grizzly country on a 4-wheeler, they were both armed for their own protection. The neighbor sat on the screened porch of the roadhouse and assumed they were coming to shoot him, so he started shooting at them first. They hit WG’s wife and he took a bullet to the shoulder. In the meantime, the neighbor’s wife exited the roadhouse by the other door and started shooting at WG from behind. Confused, injured and bullets whizzing around his head, he shot the neighbor six times and killed him.

The trial was really fascinating because it showed the difference between the law and reasonable human behavior, and my husband learned about the power of the jury system to get justice.

I wrote article about the trial within six weeks and it was published in a magazine. I’ve played with writing it as a fictional story several times. The thing is, I wouldn’t want to write THAT story. I’d want to base a fictional story upon the real-life event, but I wouldn’t want to stir up crap against the man who did the shooting because opinions vary. I would want to change some of the details protect those who were found not guilty.

Opinions Vary

So that story was ready to be written in six weeks, but not ready to be fictionalized even now. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ve just got too many stories and I’ve not found time to write this one.

Both of these stories have come up in writing workshops. Some writers recommend writing those stories, never mind anyone’s hurt feelings. Others have said “no, no, no, never write those stories”. Opinions vary and I’m not sure there’s an appropriate waiting period on writing based on the personal tragedies of other people. Then again, there might be some useful explorations involved in reading about them. It’s just not that easy to know.

What about BIG events?

Walt Whitman wrote two poems about Lincoln within a couple of months of his death. Both are acclaimed as classics and tributes to Lincoln. Sometimes current events compel writers to delve into them immediately.

I was asked this week if I would write about cordonavirus. My answer was that I started writing about a flu epidemic more than two years ago and it just happens that the topic features fairly prominently in my current WIP (Winter’s Reckoning, due out this autumn) — not because of the current situation. I planned from the beginning to write a biological weapon into the series; it just happens that now is the time to write that part of the story. Will the story be better because of what we’re learning from coronavirus? Possibly, but my story isn’t actually based on CVD19, so I must pretend it doesn’t exist in my books. And frankly, I’m not willing to fictionalize this particular virus until we’ve had some space from it to find out what it really does. Imagine if I’d fictionalized it and declared millions of people died from it. I could certainly do that based on the 1918 Flu pandemic, but CVD19 doesn’t currently look like it will result in millions of deaths like that historical virus did, so letting a bit of time pass keeps me from looking foolish.

Artifacts

Of course, current events are seeded throughout my writing. Some are referenced as they really occurred, some are fictionalized and some are given new meaning by the memories of those characters who survived those events. Sometimes those events used as a model happened yesterday and sometimes they happened decades ago.

When to use a real-life event in fiction is a very individual decision, personal to the writer or the people involved in the event and it will vary according to circumstances which will be different for every writer.

Posted May 11, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Feel Invincible   Leave a comment

Posted May 10, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Sunday Morning

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Open Book Blog Hop – Should we have more bank holidays?   1 comment

IMG_4058May 4 2020 is the unofficial Star Wars Day.  What other days should be recognised as holidays but aren’t?

South Africa has twelve public holidays which seems to be more than many other countries. The holidays fall on specified dates which means that they can occur on any day of the week including weekend days. South Africa also has a traditional holiday shut down period of about three weeks over the Christmas period. Many business close between 16 December (a public holiday) and the end of the first week in January.

It is nice to have holidays but they can result in a loss of productivity especially when more than one holiday occur in the same week or when the public holiday occurs mid-week. When this happens, many people take a whole week’s leave and that does create strain when a lot of people are all away at the same…

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Posted May 4, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Uncategorized

Open Book Blog Hop – May the 4th (be with you).   1 comment

Stevie Turner

Welcome to this week’s blog hop.  This time the subject is:

May 4 2020 is the unofficial Star Wars Day.  What other days should be recognised as holidays but aren’t?

That’s easy.  These holidays should be applied to any or all months of the year (except the 31st, as you will discover):

  1. The 1st of any month should be ‘Impecunious Self-Published Authors Day‘.  This is when the nation is forced to buy an Indie book, whether they want to or not.
  2. The 2nd of any month should be ‘Throw a Rotten Tomato at a Greedy Small Publisher‘.  This is self-explanatory and should be adhered to most religiously.
  3. The 3rd of any month should be a ‘Name and Shame all Marketing Company Workers Posing as Judges in Writing Competitions Day’.
  4. The 4th of any month is ‘Gaze out the Window and Gain Inspiration Day

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Posted May 4, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Uncategorized

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