Formula Fiction: Bad or Good?

Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in this book.

As I opened a dresser drawer, my eyes fell upon a slender leather case. Tan in color and in mint condition, I knew what it was. Once I slid back its flap and opened it, I found inside it something else in mint condition. It was the slide rule I used in my high school’s physics class. Well, let’s say I bought it for that purpose, but I never used it much because I never truly learned how. And that’s why, after forty-plus years, it’s practically new!

You see, with the exception of archaeology (history-related), I never much cared for science. Numbers and letters and formulas, math and physics and chemistry … Just mentioning these subjects prompts my yawn.  

Other formulas, though, do hold my interest. Story formulas, such as in Westerns and mysteries. Some people ridicule these genres by calling them “formulaic fiction.” We’ll deal with this criticism shortly.

A Few Elements of Formula Fiction

Predictable/Familiar Plots. The detective, with his/her superior gifts of deduction and insight, will always catch the criminal. Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes are excellent examples of this. Agatha Christie was an expert on poisons, which is why she used it so often in her books.

Familiar settings.These can be reused in one story after another. For example, lots of Westerns have saloons and perhaps a showdown or two on the street. But as a matter of fact, showdowns were rare in the Old West, though there were a few, such as the Earp brothers’ fight at the OK Corral.  

Predictable characters. In Romance novels a strong, handsome hero and a beautiful sympathetic heroine fall in love, maybe have an argument and separate, then they come back together and get married. Readers of these books expect this.

Is Formula Fiction Bad?

Not necessarily. Many readers enjoy such stories. As stated earlier, I enjoy good Western and mystery novels and those of us who read them expect the authors to follow the genres’ formulas.

The main negative, though, is that if these stories aren’t well written, they can become boring. We all know the guy will get the gal, the sheriff will get the outlaw, and the detective will get the killer. Even so, we can still make these stories interesting.

Agatha Christie, for example, had a special gift for surprising readers with her mysteries’ endings. Her readers enjoy trying to figure out “who done it.” Our romantic hero may have an interesting flaw — perhaps he’s afraid of water and so, he doesn’t swim. In Westerns, maybe a sheriff can handle himself without needing a gun.

A Response to Critics of Formula Fiction

To one degree or another, lots of stories are formulaic. That is, every traditional genre has a structure with its own guidelines and rules.

On the other hand, experimental fiction is a different style of writing which I won’t discuss here.

The Author’s Job

Our job as writers is to concentrate on writing well. Strive for excellence in the basic elements of fiction: creating unique and interesting characters, including conflict and plot twists and tension, using fresh imagery, and writing powerful scenes with good dialogue. When we do this while following our stories’ formulas, no matter what those formulas are, we’ll keep our readers reading.

Epigraphs: What They Are and How To Use Them

Troy, with walls still far from old

Had been destroyed, that noble, royal town

And many a man full worthy of renown

Had last his life—that no man can gainsay—

And all for Helen, the wife of Menelay,

When a thing’s done, it may then be no other.

John Lydgate, Troy Book, circa 1412-1420

This quote begins Margaret George’s excellent novel, Helen of Troy. She doesn’t put it in the body of her writing. Instead, it’s on a page by itself, right before the Prologue. There’s a word for such quotes—epigraph.

An epigraph can come at the beginning of a book, like George’s, or at the beginning of each section of a book, or introduce a chapter. They can also be used in both fiction and nonfiction. In a book I’m working on about the Creek War (1813-1814) in Alabama, I use epigraphs to bring historical context to my story. In my epigraphs, I briefly quote historians and others to help these readers follow and understand my tale’s historical events and tie my various plotlines together.

Chief William McIntosh (c. 1775-1825), one of the leaders of the Creek War.

Epigraphs can be funny, serious, taken from the Bible, a philosopher or theologian, or even from one of the book’s characters. Also in my Creek War novel, I’m using quotes from a character’s fictional journal.

Using Epigraphs

  • Under copyright law, if the epigraph comes from a source published after 1923, writers must get permission to use it. Before 1923, a work is in the public domain—free for everyone to use without permission. Although copyright law has a Fair Use Doctrine giving authors a little freedom to quote from copyrighted sources without permission, it also has certain guidelines to follow. We won’t get into that here. But in my opinion, it’s always best to “play it safe” and request permission from a copyrighted source.
  • The epigraph must have a connection to the book’s, section’s, or chapter’s content. In other words, epigraphs cannot be used randomly. So if you use epigraphs, choose them carefully.

A Few Novels That Use Epigraphs

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

The Fort, by Bernard Cornwell

Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway.

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

An Incident in the Life of David Crockett

David Crockett, by Chester Harding

David Crockett, a sportsman whose name is well known to all the world, was more celebrated for his blunt honesty than for his good manners. Whilst in Congress he contracted a sincere dislike for a Mr. W—, who was in no wise a model of manly beauty, and moreover wore a monstrous pair of green goggles. Once visiting an exhibition of animals in Washington, Crockett observed of an enormous baboon, that “he would be as like W— as two peas, except for the goggles.”

          Turning round he saw Mr. W— standing by his side, and in order to retrieve his slip, he continued—

          “Oh! is that you, W—! Well, I s’ppose I owe an apology somewhere, but upon my soul I don’t know whether I ought to make it to you or the monkey.”

The above story is taken from the

American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, vol. XIII, June 1842.

Hey, Let’s Get Verbal!

Authors enjoy debating writing and other literary issues. One issue up for debate is the verbs that end with -ing. Some authors don’t use these constructions, others do. Some editors don’t mind them, other editors do. So, what gives? Let’s look a little closer.

Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com

A FEW DEFINITIONS

What is a verb that ends with ing?  Actually, they’re not verbs. In grammar, they’re called verbals. Examples: walk/walking, jump/jumping, sing/singing, etc.

What is a verbal? It’s a verb form used as another part of speech.

  1. Verbals used as adjectives are called participles.  Here’s an example: The cackling seagulls soared in the sky.

Cackling is the participle that modifies the noun seagulls.

2. Verbals used as nouns are called gerunds. Here’s an example: Jane enjoys sewing.

Jane is the subject of the sentence, and sewing is the direct object. Sewing, then, is a gerund (i.e. a noun).

Using verbals like those above is fine. Sometimes, we have to use them. However, the debate surrounds whether authors should use participial phrases. Now, let’s look at them.

The Participial Phrase

  1. What is a phrase? It’s a group of words that, when strung together, work together to carry a certain meaning. A phrase does not have a subject or a verb. Here’s an example: the duck on the water.
  2. What is the purpose of a phrase? It modifies other parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, and verbs. It can also modify a complete sentence.
  3. Types of phrases: prepositional, infinitive, gerund, participial

Since we’re discussing participles, we’ll limit our discussion to the participial phrase.

  1. What is a participial phrase? It’s a phrase that begins with a participle, contains an object, and is used as an adjective. Here’s an example: Running toward town, the dog chased a squirrel up a tree.
  • Participle: Running
  • Object: town
  • Modifies the sentence’s object: dog
  • Possible revisions:

Some Final Thoughts and Comments

Is it possible to have too many participial phrases in our story? In my opinion, yes. That said, I also believe it’s fine to use them sparingly. No more than two per page, as recommended by editors Renni Browne and Dave King in their excellent book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Why?

  • Too many on a page are amateurish.
  • Too many on a page hinder the flow and smoothness of our prose.
  • They present problems in clarity and believability. For instance: Getting into her car, Mary accelerated it past the speed limit. It’s impossible for a person to get into a car and accelerate it at the same time, yet this is what that sentence implies.
  • Where is the best place in the sentence to use them? In the middle of it, or at the end, are the strongest places.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you use participial phrases or none at all?


Bibliography

Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. Second Edition. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2004.

Thoroughbred Racing in the “City by the Bay”

Oakdale Race Track in Mobile, Alabama. c. early 1900s.

When most folks think of Thoroughbred racing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Deep South, one city usually comes to mind—New Orleans. However, another city on the Gulf Coast shared equal popularity during this era—the “City by the Bay,” that is, Mobile, Alabama.

While New Orleans had its Metairie Race Track and the Fairgrounds (the nation’s third oldest track still in business), Mobile had the Bascombe, Arlington Fairgrounds, and Oakdale race courses.

Bascombe Race Course. In the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, a popular magazine in the antebellum era, Bascombe’s 1838 racing schedule is listed, along with the names of the various horses competing, the days when different races will be held, the purse for the winner, and so on. These were the races the publication had omitted in an earlier issue. In 1860, the course was used as an encampment for volunteer troops called “Camp Montgomery.” Nowadays, Mobile uses it to train its Mounted Police Unit.

Arlington Fairgrounds. This track was located near the Bascombe Course, on a road that followed along the Mobile Bay southward for seven miles. Called the Bay Shell Road at the time, it was paved with oyster shells and to travel on it one had to pay a toll. Arlington’s track began around the 1870s, and its use for racing continued into the early twentieth century.

Oakdale. A track in this community was also in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Some local historians consider this one to have been Mobile’s best.  

In Turfmen and the Prodigal, due out this September, I use a fictional track in Spring Hill, Alabama, west of Mobile. During the antebellum era, Spring Hill was a late spring and summer refuge for many of Mobile’s wealthy citizens.

Bibliography

“Camp Montgomery,” Alabama Historical Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1958): 293

“Fairgrounds History Remembered in New Documentary,” Mid-City Messenger, November 18, 2014,https://midcitymessenger.com/2014/11/18/fair-grounds-history-remembered-in-new-documentary/.

“Horsing Around,” Mobile Bay Magazine 37, no. 4(2021):82.

McLaurin, Melton and Michael Thomason. Mobile: The Life and Times of a Great Southern City.  Woodland Hills, CA, 1981.

“Omissions in the Racing Calendar,” American and Turf Register and Sporting Magazine 10 (January and February, 1839): 94.

Preston, Ben C. “Mobile Alabama Nostalgia Back in the Day,” Facebook, December 23. 2016, https://www.facebook.com/groups/MobileNostalgia.

Scott, Mike. “From Horses to Corpses: How Metairie Race Course Became Metairie Cemetery,” The Times Picayune, April 12, 2017; Updated July 22, 2019https://www.nola.com/300/article_4d8f567b-5039-5e52-88b7-9e6a4331925a.html

Jimmy Winkfield, Hall of Fame Jockey

In the 1890s, an African-American jockey named Jimmy Winkfield was the last Black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. Throughout the nineteenth century, African-Americans dominated Thoroughbred racing. Most of them in the South, before the Civil War, were slaves. Winkfield gained fame in America as well as in Europe and Czarist Russia.

Today, in Queens, New York, a race is held every year in his honor–The Jimmy Winkfield Stakes. I’ve attached a short YouTube video that tells about his fascinating life.

Turfmen and the Prodigal: A Novel of Antebellum Mobile, due for release in September, features some fictional jockeys as they train and compete against each other.

Lottie Deno: The Real Miss Kitty Russell

When Amanda Blake was chosen to play Miss Kitty Russell in Gunsmoke, it wasn’t an accident she was a redhead. The historical “Miss Kitty,” Charlotte Tompkins, was a redhead too, and she inspired Amanda Blake’s character.

But Charlotte wasn’t any ordinary saloon girl. In fact, in Kentucky where she was from, she was born into the state’s upper class. She was a well-mannered and attractive Southern belle whose wealthy father taught her how to gamble and win at cards, bet on horses in races and gamble on riverboats … all to support her sister when the need arose. During the Civil War, her family lost its fortune. So, she turned to gambling, first on riverboats.

In 1863, she went to San Antonio where a part-Cherokee gentleman named Frank Thurmond hired her to be a dealer at his University Club. He gave her a percentage of the profits.

In keeping with her upper-class breeding, she always wore nice clothes, maintained the manners with which she was raised and kept the men at her card table honest. “You gents will not swear, smoke or drink liquor at my table,” she told them while she shuffled the cards. Most players were agreeable to this.

Today, she’s known to history as Lottie Deno. No one is certain how she got this name. According to one story, when she was living in Fort Griffin, Texas she’d had a run of luck playing poker at the Bee Hive Saloon. At the end of the evening, a cowboy said to her: “Honey, with winnings like that, you oughter call yourself ‘Lotta Dinero.’” She liked the name and began using it to protect her upstanding family’s reputation.

Eventually, Lottie married Frank and they both quit gambling. She became one of the founders of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Deming, New Mexico. She used $40,000 of poker winnings in a game Doc Holliday had participated in to finance its original construction. Frank eventually became president of a bank. They were well-respected, and wealthy, citizens in their community.

Frank died in 1908. Charlotte (Lottie) died in 1934.

Sources

Lottie Deno and Mary Poindexter – POINDEXTERHISTORY

What do we know about Lottie Deno? – True West Magazine

lottie deno – Search (bing.com)

TSHA | Thurmond, Charlotte Tompkins [Lottie Deno] (tshaonline.org)

Marjorie Holmes’s Perseverance

Marjorie Holmes (1910-2002)

Marjorie Holmes was a beloved Christian author. Early in my Christian walk, I became familiar with her when my sister brought home from college one of her books, now a classic, Two From Galilee. It’s a love story about Mary and Joseph and became a bestseller.

One thing about this book most may not realize is that she spent nine years working on it. For three years, she researched it. For six years, she marketed it, trying to find a publisher. Publishers told her Mary and Joseph acted too much like real people, so that’s why she had trouble finding a suitable place for it. Finally, Bantam agreed to publish it, and it’s never been out of print.

If we want to succeed as a writer, follow Marjorie Holmes’s example. Persevere!

In Defense of Fiction, Part Three: How Fiction Techniques Improve Nonfiction

In his excellent bestselling book, Sea Stories, Admiral William H. McRaven used fiction techniques to write this work of nonfiction. Such writing is called creative nonfiction, Readers love it! I highly recommend Admiral McRaven’s book.

Thirty-plus years ago, when I started writing seriously, I sought to learn everything I could about fiction and nonfiction techniques. And what did I discover? Fiction techniques used in nonfiction heighten reader interest. Let’s look at four ways nonfiction writers benefit from reading/studying fiction.

Nonfiction: Benefits of Fiction Techniques

Benefit Number One

Fiction: I’ve often had to cut out unnecessary scenes, change character POVs, add new scenes, etc. And, I’ve had to add new chapters and scenes to make my story fuller.

Nonfiction: I’ve also had to cut and add things, such as chapters, paragraphs, words, and illustrations.

Benefit: Fiction teaches us things to look for, what to add and what to cut, and the right balance between the two. This can carry over into nonfiction.

Benefit Number Two

Fiction:  In well-written fiction, writers use fiction techniques that bring their stories to life.

Nonfiction: Creative nonfiction is based on true events but uses fiction techniques.  A recent example is the bestselling book, Sea Stories, by Admiral William H. McRaven. Admiral McRaven shares stories from his life in the Navy SEALS. Although it’s nonfiction, he wrote it like fiction, filled with heart-stopping action, conflict, dialogue, and other techniques.  

Benefit: Reading and studying fiction teaches writers how to write creative nonfiction.

Benefit Number Three

Fiction: Details. Details bring a story to life and make it visual. Concrete (visual) nouns, strong action verbs, apt figures of speech.

Nonfiction: Details. Let’s do a Bible study based on Acts 16:22-40, using details to prompt reader interest while explaining the passage about Paul’s and Silas’s arrests in Philippi. To do this may require some research.

Details to Consider

  • Paul and Silas’ jail. What did it look like? Include a brief description in the Bible study.
  • Paul and Silas were beaten. How were they beaten? With rods or with a  whip? What did they look like after they were beaten? Research and try to find out, then share it with readers. It will add interest to the study.
  • Paul and Silas were released because Paul tells the magistrate he was a Roman citizen. Though Luke doesn’t mention it, Paul may have had to prove his citizenship. How? With a passport, just like foreign travelers do today. In Paul’s day, passports were wooden tablets with their owners’ names on them. We know this from archaeologists who’ve discovered lots of them in their excavations of ancient sites. Hey, I learned this from a nonfiction book mentioned in my bibliography,  and it might be of interest to readers. It interested me when I learned this.

Benefit: Fiction teaches nonfiction writers how to look for, and find, details that enhance their work.

Benefit Number Four

Fiction: It teaches writers how to establish mood and tone.

Nonfiction: Good nonfiction has certain moods and tones. Is it an angry tone, a comical tone, or a cheerful tone? Or, perhaps, a different tone. Readers gauge nonfiction authors’  attitudes by their writing’s tone and mood.

Benefit: Fiction teaches nonfiction writers how to establish the tone and mood they wish to convey in their work.

Benefit Number Five

Fiction: Fiction writers use action, conflict, and dialogue.

Nonfiction: We’ve already discussed creative nonfiction, but these techniques apply to anecdotes too. An anecdote is a brief story, usually true, that illustrates points shared in a work of nonfiction.  For some examples, check out Reader’s Digest’s  columns titled “Life in These United States” and “Humor in Uniform.”

Anecdotes are useful in various nonfiction genres— essays, Bible studies, newspaper articles … the list can go on. They’re an excellent way to grab reader interest as an opening for articles or chapters in nonfiction books.

Benefit: Learning how to write fiction enables writers to write better anecdotes in their nonfiction.

Some Final Thoughts

Fiction sometimes gets a bad rap from those who consider reading and writing it a waste of time. Trust me—it’s not. The broader we read in every form and genre— fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays, and even screenplays— the more our writing will improve.

God has given writers a wonderful literary gift He wants His children to use for His glory and kingdom. If writing creatively wasn’t important, He would not have given such a gift to us. After all, He is, Himself, a God of majestic creativity!

Till next week, friends.

Bibliography

Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993.

In Defense of Fiction, Part Two: Eight Reasons to Write Fiction

“I only read nonfiction.” Great! I, too, enjoy nonfiction. However, I also read (and write) fiction. So, why do I write stories? For many reasons. Read on, to find out what they are.

Eight Reasons for Writing Fiction

  • Thousands of people enjoy good stories. Thousands will read a novel before they’ll read nonfiction. This gives fiction writers a great opportunity to reach an audience in ways nonfiction writers can’t.
  • Fiction enables novelists to share their message without sounding preachy. About his Narnia series, C.S Lewis wrote: “At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them (Narnia’s characters); that element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the “bubbling.” In other words, since Lewis was a Christian, he wrote Narnia from a Christian perspective. The Christian symbolism in these books “just happened.”

Like Lewis, our points of view slip into our work because what we write is part of who we are and how we view the world. Narnia, with all of its symbolism,  doesn’t preach, but Lewis’s faith is evident. So it will be with us. When we write, we share a part of ourselves and our message with the story-loving world.

  • To educate people in a fun way.  In Education of a Wandering Man (Bantam, 2008), Louis L’Amour wrote: “Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850-1894

As a writer of historical fiction, I absolutely agree. I credit Robert Louis Steveson and Alexandre Dumas as two of the sparks that got me interested in history when I was in my early teens. The third spark was a nonfiction book written by Pulitzer Prize winner, Bruce Catton, which I also read in my early teenage years.

  • Jesus told His disciples, in Matthew 5:13, that they are the “salt of the earth.” Salt is a preservative. Christian writers and artists can be salt in our current culture. Through fiction, we participate in producing literature that helps restrain the onslaught of society’s ungodliness.

The Return of the Prodigal by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
  • Jesus believed in and taught by example the importance of a story. His stories, called parables, are loaded with truth.  His listeners could relate to the parables’ characters: the farmer who sowed the seed, the son who left his father and went into a far country, the good Samaritan, and so on
  • Not every work of fiction carries a message. Some novels simply entertain. And to that, I say: what’s wrong with some relaxing entertainment? Everyone needs a break from life’s busyness. People attend movies or watch television or go fishing or do other things to “get away from it all.”   Reading a good novel is no different.
  • God gave some people creative minds—gifts in music, gifts in painting landscapes and portraits and sculpture, and gifts in other artistic endeavors. One endeavor is writing, which He expects His literary children to use to further His kingdom, either through fiction, nonfiction, and/or other literary genres. If God didn’t think these gifts were important, He’d have never given them.
  • God is creative. Just look around you and marvel at all the beautiful things He created: birds, fish, mammals, the stars, and the solar system. He isn’t against any form of creativity, so long as that creativity honors Him.

Creativity and writing fiction are gifts, just as other callings and skills are gifts. To despise fiction because one sees it as useless is despising this gift God had given certain authors. Fiction isn’t useless. As I hope we’ve seen, it plays an important role in our society and culture.

Having said that, it’s perfectly fine to just read nonfiction. Everyone has their own preference in literature. I prefer reading and writing both. Though I don’t write poetry, I don’t see it as useless either. God uses every gift He’s given His children if they allow Him. Let’s respect all the gifts people use for His glory.

Next Week: How Fiction Techniques Improve Nonfiction


Bibliography

Ryken, Leland, editor. The Christian Imagination, “Creating Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1996. Ryken, 2002