September 23, 2013


This morning, as I was sipping coffee and reading the few pages that now constitute the Monday morning newspaper, our lights went out. At least some of them did. In the kitchen, the fridge was still operating, but not the stove. The toaster worked, but not the microwave. Our computers were powerless, as were our chargers and garage door opener. The overhead light fixtures--in some rooms--worked, but not in others. Most table lamps lit up, but not all.

The automated response to a call to the power company promised that they were working to fix our problem. We were mystified about how they could tell what the problem was, much less fix it from a distance.  A few hours later a lineman came to climb our electric pole and investigate. He reported that one of the three lines into our house had come loose. It took him a while, but he repaired the line and seemed as pleased about that as we were.

This episode reminds me that two-thirds is never as good as the whole. Writing a novel involves at least three-thirds: plot, setting and characters. Try writing with only two of the three. I've gotten carried away with one of the three, jumping into great detail about a character's appearance and back story but forgetting the she exists in a time and place or that she has a problem to solve. So, like an effective electricity delivery system, it's good to keep all three wires firmly in place--at all times. If one comes loose and loses power, so does the novel.

September 16, 2013


I've learned that the research notes I accumulate while writing a historical novel can often lead me astray. I can get so immersed in the fascinating facts I'm uncovering that I forget my purpose--to write a piece of historical fiction that will carry young readers to a different time and place where they'll follow a likeable,  interesting character as s/he faces difficulties and solves a problem.

Two weeks ago I was working on a chapter of a new book set during World War I. It takes place in Kansas City and focuses on life on the Hone Front of the war. I had discovered a government leaflet about making a fireless cooker, the 1918 version of today's Crockpot. The main character's mother is continually thinking up projects to keep him busy and out of trouble, so making the cooker seemed like a gift from the research gods. I could show that the need to preserve energy and cook nutritiously was prevalent nearly a century ago.

The government's directions were detailed and precise. Too much so. My character and his buddy got so involved in the materials needed and the steps to construct the cooker that I lost track of my story. It turned into a massive info dump without adding anything to the plot and without revealing anything new about the characters. Three paragraphs of lists and instructions.

"Whoa!" was the unspoken but clear sentiment of my critique group. Did they really need to know all this? No. Did they find it interesting? A bit. Did they think I should deeply cut it? YES!

So I did and ended with three short sentences of dialogue that indicated what the cooker was for and that it was way too complicated for two 12-year-old boys to actually build. I was able to get across the government's purpose in promoting it during wartime.

I've always had this problem with research. I fall in love with every little detail, which leads me to another set of details and then to another and so on. I usually end up far afield from where I started, but fascinated by what I find in the process. I need to learn when to hold and when to fold when it comes to historical research so that I'll have a winning hand when I sit down to write!