In Defense of Fiction, Part One: Novels That Changed Society

Perhaps these folks aren't aware of the numerous novels that have changed society ... and the world.

I’ve often heard well-meaning people say they don’t read fiction. They believe stories and novels serve no good purpose except to entertain, and that nothing can be learned from them. As one who writes both fiction and nonfiction, I disagree. Perhaps these folks aren’t aware of the numerous novels that have changed society … and the world.

A Few Novels That Changed Society and the World

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

In the early 1900s, Chicago’s unsanitary stockyards posed a serious health risk to meatpackers. Sinclair, after going undercover in its meatpacking plants for several weeks to research the situation, wrote his famous novel to draw attention to these workers’ plight. Because of The Jungle, President Theodore Roosevelt launched an investigation which led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act (1906).

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell

Anna Sewell loved horses and wanted England’s upper classes to quit using “bearing reins.” These reins, designed to keep the horse’s head close to its chest, abused the animal. They made it hard for the horse to breathe. Such abuse led Sewell to write her novel from the horse’s, Black Beauty’s, point of view. When people read this book, many quit using these reins. This one work of fiction, Sewell’s only book, changed a feature of nineteenth-century British society, ending this abusive practice.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Christmas was never the same after Dickens wrote this novella. Prior to its publication, many Protestant Christians didn’t celebrate this holiday because it was too Catholic and rowdy. However, thanks to Tiny Tim and other characters in Dickens’s story, Christmas became more family-oriented. So, do you enjoy a wholesome Christmas with your family? Well, we can all thank Mr. Dickens for it.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

This novel gave lawyers a good name in its protagonist, Atticus Finch, who defended a Black man unjustly accused in twentieth-century rural Alabama. It inspired many thousands of young men and women to pursue a legal career and become as good and honest a lawyer as Atticus.

A Final Thought

Those listed above are but a few of many novels that have impacted society in one way or another. Many others, such as Beloved (Toni Morrison), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe), The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) … Well, I’d best end here, because the list is long. Even in this technological society, fiction writers can influence their culture and, perhaps, change the world. Who knows, that next great, influential novelist may be you.

Sources

Ron Charles. “12 Novels That Change the Way We Live.” The Washington Post, May 7, 2020. 12 novels that changed the world – The Washington Post

Nicholas E. Barron. “How ‘Black Beauty’ Was Written and Changed History,” Bidwell Hollow(blog), July 13, 2021. How ‘Black Beauty’ Was Written and Changed History | by Nicholas E. Barron | Bidwell Hollow | Medium

Next week: In Defense of Fiction, Part Two

Dealing With Loneliness

When David, his men and their families fled King Saul, they escaped to the Philistine city of Gath for protection. Here, they joined forces with Gath’s King Achish.

After establishing a base at Ziklag, David raided the Amalekites, Geshurites, and Girzites. Then, to gain Achish’s confidence, he lied and told the king he’d raided Judah.

One day, during a march against King Saul, none of the Philistine commanders, except Achish, trusted him. Soon, they forced David to leave their army.

Three days later, David and his men arrived in Ziklag. Horror and anger shot through their veins. The Amalekites had burned it and kidnapped everyone in it, including two of David’s wives and the wives of his men.

Consequently, his men turned against him. To quote one of my favorite Old Testament passages: And David was greatly distressed; for the people spake of stoning him, because the soul of all the people were grieved, every man for his sons and for his daughters: but David encouraged himself in the LORD his God (1 Samuel 30:6, KJV).

Not only did David feel alone, he also felt distressed. His men who’d been with him throughout his ordeals now wanted to kill him. Have you ever been in a place where all your friends suddenly turn on you, or where it feels that the whole world has turned against you? I know I have. Feeling lonely is not fun.

Unfortunately, in this “all about me” society we’re living in, encouragers are rare these days. That’s why I like this verse. David shows us what to do when no one gives us comfort or encouragement during difficult times when we need it most. He encouraged himself in the Lord.

Next time you feel isolated or alone, try it. Sing songs of praise, quote scripture and pray. Tell yourself God loves you and is for you, because He does love us and He is for us!

NOTE: This blog is based on 1 Samuel 27, 29, and 30.

QUICK TIP: Listen

If your computer has a voice recorder or if you have some other type of recorder, try reading your manuscript into it. Reading aloud helps writers spot mistakes they missed through silent reading. By playing back their words and listening closely, writers hear their prose’s rhythm and pace, spot poorly written dialogue, wordiness, and numerous other stylistic errors.

An Important Writing Lesson

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Many years ago, in the early 1980s, I began taking my writing seriously after having a small article published in The Upper Room, a United Methodist publication. One of the earliest lessons I learned then was this: many folks shrugged at my desire to become a writer. Others considered me lazy when I decided to launch out on my own and try my hand at it full time. Fortunately, some of my early writing teachers taught me to expect these reactions. Had it not been for their warnings, I might have quit. As most of us know, writing at a professional level is hard work and often lonely.

On the other hand, it became such a passion that I gave up certain activities so I could pursue it. The biggest thing I gave up was my Saturday golf outings with my friends. They didn’t understand. Not many people did. But that’s all right, because the Lord has enabled me through these thirty-plus years to “roll with the punches.”

I think one reason why the average person doesn’t understand writing (or writers) is because they don’t understand the hard work that goes into writing prose and other literary works. They don’t understand that the easier a piece is to read, the harder an author worked to make it look easy.

Don’t let naysayers discourage you from your calling. Our God is good, and He will bring your literary dreams to pass if you continue to follow and obey Him, and persist toward your goal of publication.

Dr. Luke’s Missing Man

Why did Paul’s partner-in-ministry, Dr. Luke, do this? And to a fellow Gentile believer, of all things. Why didn’t he include Titus in his book of Acts? Well, I have no idea. Titus was involved in Paul’s ministry almost from the start. After all, Paul might have led him to Christ (Titus 1:4).

In Galatians, Paul writes that he and Barnabas took Titus to Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1). Perhaps Titus accompanied them when they brought relief for a famine that struck the city (Acts 11:28-30), or maybe he was present at Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) when Paul and Barnabas defended the Gentiles coming to faith in Christ.

During Paul’s third missionary tour, Titus was most active. Though Paul refers to him often in 2 Corinthians, he’s also mentioned in 2 Timothy and, of course, Galatians. Paul wrote a letter to him that bears his name, either in 64 or 66 A.D. Its date depends on whether Paul had one or two Roman imprisonments.

On his third missionary tour, Paul spent lots of time in Ephesus (Acts 20). Upon leaving that city, he sent some coworkers ahead and then traveled to Troas, on the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to meet Titus. Titus, however, never showed up (2 Corinthians 2:12-13).

So, Paul continued to Macedonia where he finally rejoined Titus, who’d been in Achaia (Greece) working on Paul’s behalf (2 Corinthians 7:5-7). The church at Corinth had a myriad of problems Titus was trying to deal with. We know this because he brought Paul a report about them (2 Corinthians 7:5-6, 13-15). This prompted Paul to write 2 Corinthians, which Titus probably carried back to that church.

If Paul had two Roman imprisonments, the second one not recorded in Acts, then Titus accompanied him to Crete. And Crete’s mission field was just as difficult as Corinth’s. What was Titus’s mission there? To establish and oversee its church (Titus 1:5). Paul described the Cretans as “liars, evil beasts, slow bellies “(Titus 1:12, KJV). Slow bellies is sometimes translated gluttons.

Church tradition says Titus became the first bishop of Crete. Like the Apostle John, he lived a long life. It is said he passed away peacefully at age 97, into the presence of Jesus.

Paragraphs: The Long and Short of Them

Among today’s reading pubic, most readers prefer lots of white space on the page. That is–short paragraphs.

Although I enjoy such literary classics as Ivanhoe and The Man in the Iron Mask, with their long paragraphs, I try not to write many lengthy paragraphs in my articles and stories.

Note that I said: not many. Why? Because an occasional long paragraph is acceptable. However, long paragraphs should be the exception, not the rule, because stories abounding with long paragraphs are hard to read. And face it, thanks to movies and television, today’s reading public have short attention spans.

What are the rules for an average paragraph length? There are none. Ideas are a paragraph’s central focus, not sentences. Here I share some of my thoughts on the subject.

A Few Thoughts

  • Avoid long descriptive paragraphs. Instead, work the description into the story’s action and give just enough to establish setting and/or a character.
  • Vary the length of paragraphs to establish rhythm. Just as music has rhythms and beats, so should our writing. Variety helps writers establish their “music on the page.” Want a relaxed rhythm for a while? Use long paragraphs. Want a fast rhythm? Use short paragraphs.
  • Use long paragraphs to give readers a break. If we use constant tension and short paragraphs, we exhaust readers. This may cause them to stop reading our book. Hey, everyone needs a break!
  • Use long paragraphs to give readers a “false sense of security.” That way, you can surprise them with something unexpected, such as an event or crisis.
  • Use frequent short paragraphing to create tension.
  • Use snippets of dialogue between the characters to strengthen conflict.

An Example

In Book Two of my Civil War naval series, Southern Sons-Dixie Daughters, one of my protagonists is Danny Yates, an escaped slave who’s found service aboard a Union warship in Admiral David Farragut’s West Gulf Squadron. In this brief scene, Danny gets in trouble with the ship’s steward, named Bridges, as well as his captain, Charles Vincent. The dialogue snippets are in bold type.

“Quit dragging your feet,” Bridges snapped.

“Don’t rush me,” Danny snapped back.

“Belay that back talk!”

“Belay yourself.”

“Yates.”

Danny halted at the wardroom hatch. Captain Charles Vincent called his name, his voice an iron fist in a velvet glove.

His scowl deepening, Danny looked at the captain.

“Did Bridges tell you not to talk back to him?” Vincent said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Then why do you keep doing it?”

“Because I wanted to. I ain’t nobody’s slave no more. I ain’t in the mood.”

“You aren’t a slave on this ship.”

“I feel like one.”

Hopefully, you get the idea.

  • Use one-sentence paragraphs for emphasis. One warning is in order, though. Do not use this technique often because it will lose its effectiveness

An Example

This example comes from a work-in-progress, tentatively titled, Circuit Rider: A Novel of the Creek War. I wrote this one-sentence paragraph to emphasize Barnaby’s pending mischief because it was central to what happened in the scene.

Barnaby reached into his bulging coat pocket and gripped one.

At the same time, Reverend Phineas Able Steward strummed his violin and sang a hymn, pausing periodically with an enthusiastic gesture for his small audience to join in. Two raccoons trotted past him, and two coyotes from somewhere in the woods gave earsplitting howls.

Rigid as statues, the town’s citizens stared straight ahead at the lanky, hollow-cheeked preacher, the tension tauter than a banjo string.

I didn’t reveal what Barnaby had in his pocket here because I wanted to create some suspense and urge my readers to keep reading.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Browne, Renni, and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. 2nd ed. New York: William Morrow, 2004.

Cheney, Theodore A. Rees. Getting the Words Right: How to Revise, Edit & Rewrite. 3rd printing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1985.

Madden, David. Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers. New York and Scarborough, Ontario: New American Library, 1988.

A Word of Wisdom From Maya Angelou

“[My mother] said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.” Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Historical Fiction Research: Newspapers

Scan_20170116 (2)These photos were taken by my father, Dr. John M. Cunningham

Many years ago, while four friends and I traveled to Tennessee during a Labor Day break from college, my car struck a huge concrete culvert head-on at sixty miles per hour. My engine erupted into flames, and we were nearly killed.

Upon my father’s arrival at the hospital where we were recovering, he handed me a local newspaper that “told what happened.” I put this in quotes because the reporter got most everything wrong. The major thing he got wrong? He said we were sideswiped by a truck. Though in pain, I chuckled. Ours was a single-car accident due to careless driving. A passing truck driver had rescued us. It was then that I learned not to believe everything I read in a newspaper. 

I carry this knowledge into my historical research. Like today’s newspapers, old newspapers’ facts are sometimes either outright wrong or twisted, and they’re also biased just like our modern newspapers. Though studying old newspapers can be helpful, my motto is this: “Researcher, beware.”

What value, then, do we find by using newspapers as a source? Since my specialty is the nineteenth century, let me share some useful things we can glean from them and incorporate into our historical fiction. I’ll be using as my source The Daily Ranchero, a newspaper once published in Brownsville, Texas. I’ll be using various issues of this paper, all from the year 1865, after the Civil War ended.

1. We can learn the prices of goods sold at the time. On one of The Daily Ranchero’s broadsheets, we find a list of items that would be sold at auction along with their prices. Here’s a sample: star candles ($18-$20), quinine ($1.50 per ounce), rip saws ($1.35), etc. The list is way too long to reproduce in its entirety.

2. Weather reports for a particular day are often found in these newspapers. This helps keep our scene’s weather accurate if we’re writing about a specific day in history.

3. Advertisements are great! Not only do they tell us which businesses were around in the era we’ve chosen, they often give street names and specific addresses. We can learn the names of restaurants, hotels, and stagecoach lines, such as Arnold & Wheeler’s, in The Daily Ranchero.

4. What kind of medicine did they use in 1865? A drug store advertisement gives us an idea. The Brownsville Drug Store advertised the arrival of a new stock: citrate of magnesia, seltzer aperient, etc. It added, “Prices very much reduced in accordance with times and market.”

5. What about standard news articles? We can and should also use them, of course. However, as I mentioned earlier, “Researcher, beware.” Study these articles with a critical eye, watching out for bias and errors of fact and similar things. Always double-check these articles with other sources before using the information in our work.

Well, I hope this has given my readers a few ideas on how to use newspapers in historical research. Till next week, friends, keep on writing!

Copy editing, Proofreading, and Style Sheets

A style sheet is an important tool for authors. Today, we’ll discuss it, as well as copy editing and proofreading.

Good copyediting is crucial to presenting an article, story, or book to the public. In traditional publishing, every piece of writing goes through the copyediting process before publication, and other edits and proofreading follow.

Good copy editing is crucial to presenting an article, story, or book to the public. In traditional publishing, every piece of writing goes through the copy editing process before publication.

However, as we shall see, copy editing and proofreading aren’t the same things. Copy editors have numerous duties when reviewing a manuscript. First, this editor looks at the book’s overall picture then he/she delves deep.

A Few Things Copy Editors Look For

  1. Readability and flow: In other words, is the writing smooth, or is it awkward and difficult to read?
  2. Omitted or misspelled words
  3. Inconsistencies: For example, consistency in characters’ descriptions throughout the book. If a character is described as having red hair in one scene and black hair in another scene, the copy editor would catch this and tell the author.
  4. Punctuation: For example, Oxford commas or serial commas. Keep all punctuation, such as this, consistent. Whichever way the author uses commas (and other punctuation), the use must be consistent throughout the manuscript.
  5. Style: Did the author follow the publisher’s style requirements? For example, a publisher may want chapter headings spelled out (Chapter One) instead of using an ordinal number (Chapter 2).
  6. Format: Did the author follow the publisher’s format? Does the publisher want all the lines double-spaced? What kind of font does the publisher want writers to use? These kinds of things can usually be found on a publisher’s website. In the pre-computer days, we writers would send publishers a self-addressed, stamped envelope(SASE) for writer’s guidelines.
  7. Fact-checks: Were the author’s facts accurate? Did the author misquote a source? And similar things.
  8. Plagiarism and Libel: Checks the author on these, and other literary legal matters, to be sure he/she didn’t break the law.

When writing our stories and books, I recommend using a style sheet. These come in handy for both nonfiction and fiction writers. I create my own style sheets, though templates are also available on the internet. By referring to them, we keep our writing consistent and make the copy editor’s job easier.

Fiction Style Sheets

Though this list is not comprehensive, here are a few things to consider when creating a style sheet for your novel or short story:

  1. Title and subtitle (if any)
  2. A brief summary of the book
  3. Style Used. Most traditional publishers use The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)
  4. Punctuation, such as Oxford commas
  5. Unusual words/terms to keep their spelling consistent
  6. Format
  7. Characters: Names & nicknames, description, dialogue & special words they use, personality, occupation, motivations
  8. Setting(s), buildings & streets, etc.
  9. Time/Distances between settings (if needed)
  10. Dates of Events

Every writer, whether fiction or nonfiction, can (and should) design a style sheet to meet his/her own literary needs.

Proofreading

After a manuscript is copy edited, the next step toward publication is proofreading.

Whereas copy editors make suggestions and help improve an author’s work, proofreaders don’t do this. Proofreaders review a manuscript’s proofs—a manuscript’s final copy before it goes to print.

Proofreaders look for such things as grammar, punctuation, syntax, and typos. In other words, the small thing before the work is published.