Sherry Thomas appears on all my recommendation lists, and the one word I come back to again and again to describe her writing is “charming”. It’s woefully inadequate. There’s an ineffable quality to Sherry’s writing – it’s unlike anyone else, utterly unique. Beginning one of her novels is always, for me, like being told a fairytale as a child. A magical set of characters who draw you into a world that is lit up from the inside.
Her stories are pure emotion. Her heroes feel deeply, sympathetically human, even when they are supernaturally gorgeous, titled, clever, what-have-you. Her heroines are often not as young as they used to be (which is true of everyone of course *g*) and are suffused with a kind of nostalgia for all that has passed in exchange for hard-won wisdom and maturity.
It’s incredibly exciting for me to have Sherry on the blog – and I feel like her post makes a chip in understanding what gives her writing that quality I simply cannot name.
When I received Anna’s invitation to participate in the celebration of her blog’s face-lift by contributing an article, I asked her if there is anything she’d like me to write about. And this was her reply:
There is something specific I keep coming back to when I think about your writing, and I hope it’s something you feel you can easily write about. Even though Ravishing the Heiress was an emotional read in all sorts of ways, what stuck with me was Alice [the dormouse]. It was very straightforward imagery – Alice stood in for Fitz’s first love. But that didn’t make it any less powerful, or wonderful to read. I think its charm and power was probably IN its simplicity – and in how deeply you followed through on it, down to the taxidermied mouse representing Fitz’s mistaken feelings. (I would never have thought a boy soliloquising to his dead mouse could make me cry, but it did!)
So I’d love to hear you talk about how that part of the story came about – did you plan it that way, or did it happen of its own accord? How does imagery enrich a story, and how do you pull forward parts of your story to represent the larger, deeper and altogether more complex emotional story?
It is something of a two-part subject. But as it so happens, last month I wrote about the first half of it, the deployment of strong details to evoke strong emotions, at Writers in the Storm.
If you have time, I recommend you read that post first. But if you don’t, here is the short takeaway: You can pick just about anything and make it a striking detail that evokes emotions. It’s not the detail themselves that matter, but the world, the history, the characters you build around it. And you enter that state of emotions via the exactitude and specificity of details.
For example, Anna, in her request, had mentioned Alice the dormouse, from my book Ravishing the Heiress. Why was there a dormouse in the story? Well, when I started writing Ravishing the Heiress, I’d just finished the first full draft of The Burning Sky, my young adult fantasy, a reverse-Harry Potter story about adolescent mages plotting to overthrow the dark lord from a muggle school. The muggle school in question happens to be Eton College—yes, of course there is a girl passing herself off as a boy—and so I’d read quite a bit about the school and the life of the students during the 1880s.
And one of the things I’d learned was that there were hawkers who catered specifically to the student population at Eton, and at least one of whom sold dormice as pets. So why not have the hero’s beloved—the one he doesn’t get to marry—give him a dormouse as a present, and as a symbol of their passionate feelings for each other?
It’s not a bad detail. And it’s certainly an emotional one. But just as I never bother with a detail unless I can connect it to the larger emotions of the story, once I have such a detail, I’m never content with using it only once.
Years ago, when the great Judith Ivory was still actively writing, I went to Dallas to listen to her speak at a conference. During her workshop, she mentioned a story. When the hero and the heroine first meet, she is wearing the scarf. They would be separated for much of the book, so whenever the author wants to remind the readers that the hero is still very much in love with the heroine, she’d have him either have his eyes caught by a flash of something red while he’s walking down the street and whip around to see who is the wearer or have him take out the scarf from where it is stored to look at it.
I very rarely remember specific writing advice, but the way Ms. Ivory explained the scarf just made so much sense. You pick your meaningful detail—anything will do. Now you work consciously at it, weaving it into the fabric of the story and repeating it at crucial moments. And voila, suddenly you have a lovely emotional refrain that runs through your narrative.
For example, in Skyfall, [beginning possible spoiler] the latest Bond flick, the first time Bond and M meet face to face, he notices an ugly dog figurine on her desk. In the middle of the movie, the dog appears again, the only thing to survive her office after an attack. With these meaningful repetitions, the ugly dog figurine comes to stand for M. So that by the end of the movie, when the dog figurine is given to Bond, he understands the significance of the gesture and so do we the moviegoers. [End possible spoiler.]
Another example. In my book His at Night, the heroine is a young lady who lives under a tyrannical uncle. On the third round of revisions, still largely dissatisfied with the book, I decided the story needed far deeper emotions. And lo, I see that in the beginning of the book, my heroine is reading a travelogue about Capri, dreaming of being there and being free.
Why Capri? Because for a different book, I’d looked up Capri and had some research material lying around.
So in itself, Capri doesn’t have any significance. But I decided to make it significant to my character. Every time she is particularly lonely or upset, she reaches for the guidebook and imagines herself upon the island’s rocky shores. Capri, in other words, comes to stand for all her hopes and dreams.
When the hero has a nightmare, she cradles him and tells him about her Capri, about what keeps her nightmares at bay. And eventually, when the hero messes up—don’t they always—and needs to beg for her forgiveness, he finds that book on Capri she loves so much, memorizes the entire section, and recites it back to her, to let her know that he might have acted like a jackass, but he does understand her hopes and dreams and they are infinitely important to him.
So just to recap, pick something, anything that is significant to one or both of your lead characters. What makes it important to readers is the iteration.
(A slight corollary: We all know that the amount of real estate a character or an event receives in a book more or less correlates to their importance. What is sometimes left unsaid is that if any element is important to a story, it should be introduced early on. That is particularly true when you are trying to create a motif. Whatever details/symbols you plan to use, introduce them early. So that you have time to develop them, to make your readers understand their significance.)
And of course, my hearty congratulations to Anna, for the fabulous new look of this blog.
Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.