Suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a “civilization of love.”John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, 30
And at this sound [the descent of the Holy Spirit] the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
— Acts 2:6
Find your voice. Every writer has her own.
Find your story. My story is mine. Yours is yours.
The Holy Spirit speaks universally, but He does so to each of us in our own language. Let me take a liberty with Scripture and expand the definition of language to include temperament, family of origin, culture, and life experiences. The Holy Spirit speaks His universal Truth to each of us within the context of our individual personhood. He speaks my language.
I’m a firm believer that writing is a charism of the Holy Spirit. Given this, the idea of finding our voice is, in some sense, speaking in our language. I cannot write the books Cormac McCarthy wrote, because I’m not Cormac McCarthy. His voice is not mine; his stories are not mine.
This matters for the reader as much as it does for the writer. After all, what good is it to speak in tongues without someone to interpret? When a story resonates, it’s because something in that story speaks to my individual experience as much as it speaks to some universal truth. I “get” it. We are kindred spirits. I could even say that we share a charism in the same way the Franciscans or the Dominicans share a charism. We’re speaking each other’s language.
In this light, I suppose I shouldn’t worry about whether or not I’m writing a “good” novel. All that matters is that I’m speaking my language. My Holy Spirit language.
Image credit: Detail from the Corsini Triptych by Fra Angelico (Wikimedia Commons)
I could see / the whole span of human love / and its precipitous edges. / When someone slips over such an edge / he finds it very hard to get back, / and wanders alone below the road he should be on.Karol Wojtyla, The Jeweler’s Shop, 53
Your approach to editing is quite striking. Your characters have this very composed manner, but what adds a dose of realism is that you often cut into a scene late and cut out early — so that the conversations are often in medias res, and we get the sense that we really have walked in on life proceeding, like we’re catching a documentary glimpse of it.
Absolutely. It makes things much more interesting if the audience has to fill in some of the blanks. It keeps them on their toes. You get a lot of grief from development people about this: “Well, people won’t understand what’s happening in the scene.” But if you found some way to explain it at the beginning of the scene, then the rest of the scene would be completely boring. Nunnally Johnson, the screenwriter and later producer, would say that the most boring lady at a party is the one who tells you everything. Don’t tell people everything; let them figure it out.
Movie poster of Love and Friendship via Wikipedia.
While we’re on the subject of rare books… another book I needed to hunt down—this time for Josiah—was an 18th century edition of the letters of Saints Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna, all first and second century Christian bishops.
For a variety of reasons, religious matters interest Josiah, to the point that he’s something of an armchair theologian. Like most Bostonians at the time, he’s a Congregationalist, but he has a lot of questions. And he’s not one to accept another’s say-so with having first examining matters himself.
Such things run in Josiah’s blood; he’s the grandson of a minister. And thanks to the father of my main character, he received a private education that included the study of Latin. In the 18th century, knowing Latin opened intellectual doors: most everything worth reading could be read in Latin. And Josiah has a knack for languages.
Following the Reformation, theologians were increasingly interested in the writings of the early Church Fathers, as the differing Christian factions sought to establish themselves against Catholicism. The argument was that the Catholic Church has veered from its apostolic moorings and needed to be purged of its accumulated trappings. (Disclosure: I’m a practicing Catholic.)
Being married to a theologian and patristics scholar, I knew that if my character was going to read the Church Fathers, then I had better find the actual book, double-check its contents, and come up with a plausible account for how my character acquires said book. Not the easiest task! Fortunately, Josiah is an officer on a merchant ship, and with that comes mobility. When one travels the world, one is more likely to find things that other people wouldn’t.
What I found was this:
Once again, hat tip to Google Books.
This edition was edited by a Lutheran divine name Littig, who published the volume in Leipzig in 1699. It includes an opening essay by Professor Littig, followed by the letters of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp in both the original Greek and Latin translation on facing pages.
A rare book, indeed! And when Josiah finds it in a Savannah, Georgia bookshop owned by a grumpy French ex-pat, he knows that this is the book he wants!
But will he manage to haggle his way to a bargain? When that surly Frenchman knows exactly what kind book he has, beyond a shadow of a doubt?
Good luck, son. Good luck.
We only love truly if we love in a sphere which is superior to us.Jean Guitton, Human Love.
Mrs. Robb, one of the main characters of my current work in progress, is an excellent cook. She was taught to cook and bake by the daughter of a French Huguenot refugee in Boston who had been a pastry chef in Lyons. Her cooking is a blend of French, British, and American, with a preference for anything involving pastry.
Of course, cooking has evolved over time. While I always do a quick internet search to check the history of any particular dish before including it in my story, it’s often easier to pick dishes from period cookbooks. The two I find myself returning to again and again are American Cookery by Amelia Simmons and The Modern Cook by Vincent La Chapelle.
And thanks to the wonders of Google Books, facsimiles of these books are not only available online for free, but also searchable. If historical cooking interests you, check them out!
Let’s keep in touch!
Today my kids and their cousins were watching Robin Hood, which reminded me of this post, which I wrote for an old blog of mine. This one is for the writers and story analysts out there. Enjoy!
My son has been watching Disney’s Robin Hood lately. A lot. As in, every day if I’d let him.
There are certain advantages to the three-year-old tendency to stick to familiar things. I’ve had plenty of time to study this movie. Conclusion?
Robin Hood has fantastic plot structure.
get away employ certain jokes Disney could never make now—I told my son that he’s never, ever allowed to cat call a woman, no matter how funny it is when the foot soldier whistles at Little John in drag—but the movement of its plot line is pitch perfect. I’m learning a lot, watching it.
Let me go scene by scene. I’ll be referring to both Michael Hague and Larry Brooks’ plot structures.
1) Introduction: Robin and Little John walking through the forest, being chased by the Sheriff’s posse.
This is the hooking scene. It also shows Robin, Little John, and the Sheriff in a characteristic moment. We know that Robin is an outlaw, that he and Little John are friends, that they have a good sense of humor (which makes them immediately empathetic), and that the Sheriff is their enemy. We have conflict, but we do not have the direct presence of the story’s main antagonist, Prince John, which, according to Larry Brooks, is just as it should be.
2) Robin and Little John talking up in the tree, having escaped pursuit.
Here we have the set-up. There’s a bit of light conflict as the two converse—Little John asks, “Are we good guys or bad guys? You know, our robbing the rich to feed the poor?” to which Robin objects, “We never rob.” The first scene establishes the story’s stakes, and this scene establishes their moral character, motivations, and skill—Robin’s playful display of his archery skills, an important part of the plot.
Their decision to rob whatever trumpet-blaring procession is passing by constitutes the 10% opportunity, or (according to Michael Hague) the 1st Turning Point leading in the New Situation. To cite the usual examples, this is Thelma and Louise deciding to head out of town for a girls’ weekend away, or Luke accidentally finding the message from Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi and deciding to go in search of him.
3) Prince John and Sir Hiss in the carriage, discussing taxes and usurping King Richard’s crown.
Enter antagonistic force. The previous scene establishes the protagonist’s motives and backstory, this one establishes the antagonist’s.
4) Robin and Little John putting on disguises in order to rob Prince John.
Conflict: once Little John realizes who they’re going to be robbing, he doesn’t want to. Establishes stakes.
5) Robin and Little John rob Prince John.
The inciting incident: Robin and Little John incite the action by choosing to rob Prince John. This scene makes Prince John aware of their presence—until then, Robin Hood was not on his radar screen.
It also establishes the antagonist’s motives for the 25% Turning Point—not only did Robin Hood steal Prince John’s money, he left him humiliated, in his underwear, wet in a muddy puddle.
6) Narration; the Sheriff versus the people of Nottingham, Part One: Friar Tuck and Otto the blacksmith dog.
We enter the next scene, set in Nottingham (up until now we’ve been in Sherwood Forest), focused in on the new reward poster. In a few lines of narration, the Rooster moves us through the 25% Plot Point: Prince John wants to capture Robin Hood, and Robin Hood decides to ignore it and keep robbing the rich.
Now we’re introduced to secondary characters and the direct, visible motivation for Robin’s actions: the poor people themselves versus the heartlessness of the tax-collecting Sheriff. As Otto says, pious puppy-dog eyes lifted to Heaven, “God bless Robin Hood.”
The Sheriff of Nottingham is Prince John’s puppet and part of his antagonistic force.
We also see Friar Tuck in a characteristic moment: he loses his temper. It is a character trait that advances the plot, later in the story.
7) The Sheriff versus the people of Nottingham, Part Two: Skippy’s birthday present.
The Sheriff interrupts little Skippy the bunny’s birthday party and swipes his birthday gift (“One whole farthing!”) for the tax collection. Definitely an action aimed right at the heart of our youngster movie-watchers. Now we all understand Robin Hood’s motives.
Here is Brooks’ “pinch point”—the driving antagonistic force halfway between the 25% and 50% points.
At this point, only Robin Hood is fighting back against the Sheriff. The people are in doormat mode—an important point, as this changes later in the story.
Robin Hood himself enters the scene and rectifies the sad birthday situation, as well as temporarily relieves Mother Bunny’s money situation, further establishing him as the hero of our story.
At this point, Robin Hood is fighting the antagonistic force, but not well—more stemming the tide than solving the problem. Larry Brooks calls this the “wanderer” phase of Act II—while Robin’s decision at the 25% point locks him into conflict with his antagonist, he has yet to effectively fight him.
8) Skippy shoots his arrow into Prince John’s backyard; we meet Maid Marian.
What a cute scene. We need an introduction to Maid Marian, whose presence is important to forwarding the plot, and this does the job splendidly.
The scene has clear conflict: Skippy needs his arrow back, but it’s in forbidden territory. Maid Marian is there, and in a characteristic moment: playing badminton (so upper-class) and laughing with her funny lady-in-waiting, Lady Kluck. Immediately we know she’s good-natured, young, refined, and, if not exactly a woman of action, her playing a game of badminton shows her be alive. When Skippy enters the scene, we immediately see that she she is “awful nice” and loves children. Finally, when the kids ask her about Robin Hood, we see her faithfulness in her love for him.
In short, an Ideal Woman, and worthy of the affections of our hero.
9) Maid Marian and Lady Cluck on whether or not to give up hope.
A short scene and, coming off a scene with the children, a peek into grown-up life and grown-up love. Conflict: Marian thinks he’s forgotten her, and Lady Kluck thinks not.
10) Robin burning the chow.
Domestic scene back at Sherwood Forest, and a setup scene for the all important Midpoint. Conflict: Robin thinks Marian has forgotten him and wouldn’t have him, regardless. Little John thinks not.
Enter Friar Tuck with news about the archery tournament Prince John is hosting. Motivation: Marian will give a kiss to the winner. (The Prince has instinctual knowledge of Robin’s internal motivations: pride in his skill and love for a woman.)
11) Prince John’s trap: the Archery Tournament.
This is a long and complicated scene, this midpoint scene. What makes a midpoint scene? The hero is drawn out of himself to take a huge risk, fighting the antagonist, in order to achieve a particular goal, the action of which changes the entire course of the story. It’s the Point of No Return. This scene does this brilliantly.
What does Robin want? Marian’s kiss.
How will he achieve it? In disguise. It’s the path with fewest risks.
Does he get these things? Yes. But not without Robin becoming undisguised and entering into open battle with Prince John… the Point of No Return.
It also involves Robin’s first martyrdom. He’s arrested and ordered to die for his actions, but it’s his, “Long Live King Richard!” that puts Prince John over the edge. While he doesn’t choose martyrdom, he forwards it along by acting according to his principles.
(Midpoint martyrdom. Paging Christopher Vogler!)
This scene effects the entire cast—because, of course, everyone shows up to the party as a good Midpoint would have it. We have main protagonists against main antagonists, secondary heroes against secondary villians, and, by the end, the whole of Nottingham has joined in the fight, on one side or another. This battle royale (heh) transforms Nottingham from passive victims to active fighters. Even the refined women have tossed in their lots, with Marian choosing Robin and Lady Kluck’s football player antics. I doubt they were let back into the castle after that.
12/13) Lovey-dovey and a party.
These don’t really constitute scenes, as there’s no conflict, but they do function as a “little resolution” following the Midpoint. Plots need these down times, especially here, after the Midpoint. Go-go-go action is exhausting after a while; the quieter plot moments set the stage for more elevated conflict.
Two things are established: 1) Robin and Marian love each other, and 2) the entire town is now joined in their efforts against Prince John, who’s now an object of open mockery.
14) Prince John fights back.
When Prince John learns of the town’s open mockery from Hiss and the Sheriff, he reasserts his power by raising taxes in revenge. Pinch Point #2.
15) Townspeople in jail.
Again, not so much of a scene (conflict is implicit) as showing the results of Prince John’s decision.
16) Friar Tuck gets arrested.
Here is the 75% point, the lowest of the lows for our heroes. The conflict is between Friar Tuck and the Sheriff over the money in the poor box. Friar Tuck, angry and raging, calls Prince John a number of names and then attacks the Sheriff with a pole. The Sheriff arrests him for high treason.
As Hiss makes us aware in the next scene, this is the height of evil, a step gone too far—they’ve arrested and plan to execute “a man of the Church.” I suspect the full implications of this are lost on today’s audience; it seems Prince John has inherited his father Henry II’s penchant for overstepping Church-State boundaries.
17) Prince John stews, then plots.
Moving toward the climax—the antagonist makes the first move. Prince John decides to use Friar Tuck as bait to capture Robin Hood.
18) The Sheriff makes a gallows; Robin Hood finds out about Friar Tuck
Conflict: Robin Hood needs information about what is going on. He obtains it in disguise from the clueless Sheriff, but not without having to turn aside the suspicions of his guard. It moves the plot forward.
19) The Jailbreak. The Treasury-break. CLIMAX.
I’m going to count the entire jailbreak episode as one scene. It could be broken up into a series of smaller conflicts, each with their own resolution, for or against Robin Hood. But I think it functions as a whole.
The entire climax moves from heightened conflict to even more heightened conflict, to the pinnacle of conflict—literally so, as Robin Hood is driven to the top of the castle and forced to jump down into the moat to escape—forced to jump to his probable death. In the end, Robin Hood chooses martyrdom.
(Act Four martyrdom. Paging Larry Brooks!)
The scene is an appropriate response to the set-up preceeding it—we’re prepared and anticipating this specific conflict. It’s the most direct; it’s also both the protagonistic and antagonistic forces at their fullest.
Plus, the stakes are high: rescuing the innocent, who are now at risk for death (they’re being shot at!), and robbing Prince John of his unjust wealth motivate the heroes to risk their lives for others. We know from the previous scene that Robin’s capture will entail “a double hanging”—his and Friar Tuck’s.
In the end, our hero emerges from the moat water victorious, and Prince John’s actions have destroyed his entire self, as represented by his “mother’s castle.”
King Richard returns, fixes everything, Robin gets married. Happily Ever After.
See? I told you it was a near-perfect plot. 20 scenes and not a one of them out of place, all working toward the end goal: defeat Prince John. The pacing is great, the goals/motivations/conflicts are great, and the motion from Orphan, to Wanderer, to Warrior, to Martyr is perfect.
But that’s what Disney does, right?
And this is what I think about while my kids rot their brains out in front of the Boob Tube.
Let’s keep in touch!
“Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.”John Adams, Letter to Zabdiel Adams, 21 June 1776.
Molly, the protagonist of my current work-in-progress, is a talented mantua-maker (the 18th century term for dressmaker). Like today’s fashion designers, Molly sees her work as art and herself as an artist.
When it comes to fashion, Molly and I are nothing alike. I am neither a trendsetter nor trend follower, nor do I sew well. I know how to thread my sewing machine. I can make curtains, pillowcases, and simple clothes, like skirts. And that’s about it! In order to write this book, I have not only had to study late 18th century fashion and historical sewing techniques, but I needed to learn how clothing is constructed, simply.
A daunting task. Where to begin?
Vogue Sewing Book
I picked up the 1975 edition of the Vogue Sewing Book at a tiny thrift shop on West Street in Annapolis, fifteen years ago. (I well remember the shopping trip—my husband and I were either engaged or newlyweds and spent a pleasant afternoon wandering downtown Annapolis. Those were lovely days.) I’ve referenced the Vogue Sewing Book often over the years and especially as I’ve tackled this writing project.
Among the most important things I’ve learned from the Vogue Sewing Book: tailoring requires getting… up close and personal. Very personal. This was especially true of the 18th century men’s clothing, which was fitted snug against the body, without the aid of Lycra. Tailors were men for a reason!
Kyoto Costume Institute
The Kyoto Costume Institute’s collection of 18th century artifacts is beyond impressive. While their collection is available for viewing online, I recommend purchasing a copy of their book. The book is coffee table sized and, with its big, glossy photos and lovely close-up shots, is worth the $15 price tag. I refer to this book constantly.
Where would I be without the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking? American Duchess makes and sells historical footwear and is well-known in the historical costuming world. This book is mainly an instructional manual on how to sew period costume using period techniques but also includes narrative on the history of each fashion, commentary on materials, and instructions for how to put the bloomin’ things on!
The authors also point out some historical inconsistencies with regards gown names. For example, the Italian gown, which was the gown from the mid 1770s through the beginning of the 1790s, sometimes goes by robe à l’anglais. But the English gown, which is an entirely different style that was fashionable earlier in the century, also goes by robe à l’anglais. (Kyoto, for example, uses robe a l’anglais for labeling both.) For me, understanding the difference between the two was crucial.
Also, American Duchess recently released The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Beauty, which is a companion book to their dressmaking book. I have not yet purchased it, but oh, I want to! There’s nothing quite like big 18th century hair.
Finally, American Duchess maintains a blog. This post goes over the basic types of 18th century gowns—an excellent primer for us non-experts. And their “Historical Analytics” series has helped me get inside Molly’s artistic, dress-designing head.
Corsets (stays) get a bad rap. The idea that women were restricted in too-tight harnesses, causing them to faint at every turn, is mostly fiction. No woman in her right mind would put up with such nonsense—not when there’s life to live and work to be done. Only vain, silly women tied their laces too tight.
What are stays? Support garments, plain and simple. They kept the girls and the mama belly/spare tires in their proper places, so that gowns fit correctly and lay smoothly. Stays also helped with posture. And like most garments of the 18th century, they were custom fitted to each woman.
To learn more about corsets or to purchase your own, check out Redthreaded. Browsing their site, you’ll notice that different centuries have different types of corsets, designed to accommodate the reigning fashions of the day.
Interestingly, while mantua-makers were women, male tailors were in charge of making women’s and children’s stays. I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this. Tradition?
18th Century Notebook
Another website I reference constantly is the 18th Century Notebook. This site has links to historic examples of not only clothing, but also accessories and common household items. For example: at a few points in the story, we see Josiah, my male lead character, carrying hard coinage. I needed to know what he was carrying his money in. From perusing the 18th Century Notebook, I learned about different kinds of men’s wallets, purses, bags, and pockets and was able to make a historically accurate choice.
As it turns out, historical costumers love Instagram! And I’m among their thousands of silent
stalkers followers, salivating over their pretty 18th century creations in silk, lace, and ribbon. Using Instagram’s “save” feature, I file away any interesting pictures, similar to the way people use Pinterest.
Not surprisingly, many of these costumers are real-life friends with each other. Once you follow one of them, you will eventually figure out who knows who, etc. etc. (Social media is weird.)
When it comes to 1780s and 1790s fashion, my favorite Instagram account is @modernmantuamaker. One example of her work: this amazing late 1780s/early 1790s gown:
She made that fly fringe by hand. I am in awe.
Other 18th century costumers I follow: @markslauren, @lydiafast, @timetravellingredhead, @alyssagallotte, @fabricnfiction, @before_the_automobile, @makethishistoricallook, @sewstine, @silk_and_buckram, @sew_18thcentury, and (not a costumer) @18th_century_cleophas.
I also follow businesses @americanduchess, @birnleyandtrowbridge, and @redthreaded, as well as the accounts for Mount Vernon (so good!), Colonial Williamsburg, Historic New England, the School of Historical Dress, 18th Century Society, and the DAR Museum.
These people are the 18th century fashion experts, par excellence. Highly recommended.
And so goes my continuing education on all things Federalist America. It’s been quite the ride!
P.S. Speaking of Instagram… I’m an expert of nothing, but if you’d like to follow me, I’m at @rhondafranklinbooks. See you there!
Featured Image: Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux, Self-Portrait with a Harp, 1791 (Wikimedia Commons)
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Speaking of Custom House…
This online exhibit from the National Archives about early 19th century merchant shipping and its paper trail is amazing. I’ve referred to it again and again as I continue with Book Two revisions.
From the exhibit’s introduction:
This exhibit features early federal records that document the first voyage made by the Ship Mount Vernon of Salem, Massachusetts in 1803. At that time, tall ships from Salem, like the Ship Mount Vernon, traveled around the world exporting and importing cargoes from the West and the East, including exotic locations such as Canton and Sumatra. These documents, and the information recorded on them, are typical examples of records for thousands of American ships of that time. They are also documents that were an integral part of the daily life of seamen, merchants, and officials.
All of the documents in this exhibit are from records created by officials of the Salem and Beverly Customs District for keeping track of American vessels, the cargoes that they carried, and most importantly, to account for the import and tonnage taxes that were the main source of federal revenue in those early days of the Republic.
As Josiah, my lead male character, says, “Paperwork is Custom House’s raison d’être.” While I would never bore my readers with the intricate details of said paperwork (snooze…), it’s always fun to see historic documents and artifacts. If you have a few spare minutes, head over to the National Archives site and take a look!
Let’s keep in touch!
Do not say / “I love her for her smile — her look — her way / Of speaking gently, — for a trick of thought / That falls in well with mine, and certes brought / A sense of pleasant ease on such a day” — / For these things in themselves, Beloved, may / Be changed, or change for thee, — and love, so wrought, / May be unwrought so.Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, XIV