Here’s a quick tip from one of eighteenth century England’s greatest writers, Samuel Johnson. A poet, essayist, literary critic, and editor, he compiled and organized A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. This dictionary was used for 150 years before the Oxford English Dictionary’s publication. He said: “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.“
I have a confession: I’m a tortoise. No, not a literal tortoise, a writer tortoise. My writing speed is…well…it’s slow.
When I see advertisements about helping writers “write fast,” I often take a pause. Me? Write fast? Well, I have nothing at all against writing at hare speed so long as the writing is well-done. However, I prefer to write slow. For me, writing is akin to eating a half-gallon of ice cream during a four-hour long, Oscar-winning movie. Both take time to enjoy.
I love playing around with words and phrases, taking things out and putting things in till I’m comfortable with how my writing sounds. Sometimes I do catch myself envying those who can write both fast and well, but if I write too fast, I feel that my writing is sloppy. This is just me, though.
Every writer is different, I’ve come to realize. Tolkien spent twelve years writing his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949). Other writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates, are super-prolific.
No, it’s not wrong to write fast as a hare, neither is it wrong to write tortoise speed. Each writer must write at the pace that he or she is most comfortable with. And even though I’m a literary tortoise…Hey! I’m enjoying the process!
When we look at our manuscript’s pages, imagine them as a verbal warehouse. A literal warehouse uses different machines for lifting different types of products. Neat warehouses, like neat writing, are well-organized. Some machines, such as forklifts, can lift heavier items than other machines, such as hand trucks.
The same is true in our English language. Some parts of speech are forklifts, others hand trucks. Our language also has “pasteboard” boxes, as we shall see.
The Forklifts: Nouns, Pronouns and Verbs
These parts of speech, if well-chosen, do the heaviest lifting in a sentence. More often than not, hand trucks aren’t needed.
The Hand Trucks: Adjectives and Adverbs
Sometimes, though, these verbal hand trucks are needed. When? When concrete nouns and dynamic action verbs alone can’t create a precise image in readers’ minds.
Pasteboard Boxes: Prepositions and Conjunctions
Every warehouse I’ve ever been in has merchandise in boxes, usually pasteboard boxes. These keep the merchandise clean and well-organized. Similarly, verbal “boxes” are necessary to help our sentences flow smoothly and clearly by keeping them well-organized. But do they pack a lot of weight? Most often, they don’t. But we do need them, and when we use them with “forklifts” and “hand trucks,” they help make our sentences the strongest and clearest they can be. Use them carefully, though. Too many in a sentence can also cause clutter.
1. The horse ran very fast through the field. 2. The thoroughbred galloped through the cotton field. 3. The brown thoroughbred galloped through the cotton field.
Which of the three sentences is the strongest? The third one, because it creates the most visual image in the reader’s mind.
“horse” and “field” – too general. We don’t know what kind of horse, nor do we know what kind of field the horse ran through.
“very fast” – also too general. How fast is “very fast”? More often than not, “very” isn’t needed, so be on the lookout for this adverb.
“through” – this preposition, though lightweight, is needed for clarity. It shows us the direction the horse is running.
“thoroughbred” – a strong concrete noun. Here, we see a specific breed of horse.
“galloped” — more specific. We can see how fast the horse is running.
“cotton field” — more specific/concrete. We can also visualize the field.
“brown” – an adjective that’s needed. Because thoroughbreds come in several colors, “brown” helps readers visualize the horse even better.
Coming next week, an interview with Jodie Wolfe. author of To Claim Her Heart, a novel set during the Oklahoma Land Rush. Be sure to visit the Interview page next week to read it.
“The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.” Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.)
As a historian and historical fiction writer, I’ve always loved this great Roman statesman’s quote. If we aren’t objective in our study of history, if we twist the facts or rewrite history to suit our own opinions about the past, we not only cheat ourselves–we also fail to learn our ancestors’ past lessons that we can apply to today’s events.
We historical fiction writers should strive for objectivity, which also means accuracy. While weaving our fictional characters’ stories into historical events, we should accurately depict these events and the historical figures involved in them.
Is it ever acceptable to engage in a bit of artistic license? Maybe twist a small fact? I believe it’s acceptable, but shouldn’t be done often. Bernard Cornwell shows us how to do this in his novel, Redcoat, set during the American Revolution. In a historical note at the end of the book, he tells readers that he took “some liberties with the Revolution’s chronology,” and then he explains what these liberties were. So if we do engage in a bit of license, follow Cornwell’s example and let your readers know.
Cicero’s advice is sound, though. We historians and historical fiction writers do well to heed it.
Throughout my thirty-plus years of writing professionally, people have sometimes told me they want to become a writer. Well, that’s great.
Once I start explaining everything that’s involved in pursuing the craft, though, most of them, but not all, back away.
On some occasions when people tell me this, I just nod and smile unless they ask for advice. Why? Because I’m waiting to see how serious they are, to see whether or not God has truly called them.
Let’s face it. Writing isn’t for the faint-hearted. Like any ministry, if a person isn’t called to write, then I don’t recommend doing it. I wouldn’t recommend myself to join a choir, either, since I sing like a coyote with a sore throat.
How does someone know whether or not God has called him/her into the literary world? Here are a few things to consider.
1. Psalm 37:4 “Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.”
This verse doesn’t mean we can desire anything and the Lord will give it. It means that if we delight in Him and put Him first in our lives, He’ll put His desires in us. If we follow this pattern, He’ll give us a desire to become a writer. This desire will grow into a passion which will become so strong that we’ll refuse to quit no matter who or what tries to hinder us.
2. John 10:10 “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
Our Lord and Savior has called us to an abundant life, one that overflows with joy and fulfillment. If we’re called, we’ll feel that joy while we write. If we miss a writing day, we’ll feel let down. In my case, I am sometimes miserable.
3. I Samuel 17:36 “Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God.”
Before David accepted Goliath’s challenge, God had prepared him by teaching him to fight lions and bears. Likewise, God prepares us for whatever He’s called us to do. Just as He enabled David to kill Goliath, so He’ll enable called writers to succeed. Not fame and fortune, necessarily. Few writers have this. But they will reach the skill level where they can sell their work. It may not happen overnight, and usually doesn’t, but through hard work (preparation) and a little bit of God-given talent the bylines will come.
Has God called you to be a writer? Don’t ever give up your dream. He will always bless it.
While David, his men and their families fled King Saul, they escaped to the Philistine city of Gath for protection. Here he and his men joined forces with Gath’s King Achish. After establishing a base at Ziklag, David raided such peoples as the Amalekites, the Geshurites, and the Girzites. Then, in order to gain Achish’s confidence, he told the king that he’d raided Judah.
One day, during a march from Aphek against King Saul, none of the Philistine commanders, except Achish, trusted him. Soon they forced him 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 and children 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 was 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 was distressed and alone. 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 like the whole world has turned against you? I know I have. Loneliness, and the feeling of it, is no fun.
Unfortunately, in this “me-centered” 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’s around to give us comfort and encouragement during difficult times. He encouraged himself in the Lord.
Next time you feel isolated and alone, try it. Encouraging yourself in the Lord works, and that’s a guarantee.
NOTE: This article is based on 1 Samuel 27, and 29-30.
What do you do when you’re wearing pajamas? Do you go to bed, as I do, or do you go to work in them? This question may sound stupid, and the answer obvious. But such is not the case for one famous author—Shelby Foote.
Mister Foote once told The Paris Review that he lived in his pajamas. In other words, he wore them almost all the time at home. Another peculiarity about this famous twentieth century writer and friend of William Faulkner—he wrote with a dip inkwell pen.
Oh, he’d eventually type out his manuscripts, but when he whipped out his first drafts these pens were his preferred writing tool. He considered himself a novelist. And he was, having written five novels in five years. The French and Italians loved his books, all of them bestsellers in their respective countries.
However, in the United States, he wasn’t well-known until late in life. Thanks to his famous trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, he’s recognized in the States as a historian. He spent twenty years living in his pajamas while writing this massive series…with a dip inkwell pen.
What brought him to literary prominence in the States? Ken Burns’s television documentary, The Civil War (1990). In this series, Foote provided major commentary. His physical appearance and Mississippi drawl…It was as though he’d fought in that war himself and then stepped through a time machine to tell us “moderns” about it. Because of his “stardom” in this documentary, sales of his trilogy soared.
He passed away on June 29, 2005, at the age of eighty-eight.
Do you want to sell more articles and stories? Well, the answer’s obvious, of course. The more manuscripts we submit to editors, the greater the chances are that one of them will find publication.
That said, let me share a tip I learned early in my literary career. It’s called “The Rule of Ten.” The idea behind it is this: By constantly keeping at least ten manuscripts circulating to ten different publishers, at least one of them will likely find a home. Every time we sell an article or receive a rejection, submit another one to take its place. Ten, always keep ten in circulation.
This doesn’t mean we write poorly, but it does mean we must keep our creative juices flowing so we’ll have those “extras” to submit when needed.
When I tried this, I learned it served me well! Another benefit? It softened the blow of rejections. Hey, so what if an editor didn’t like my article or story? I had nine more making the rounds, and another tenth one about to go in the mail. Or as we say nowadays, “about to be e-mailed.”
Give this principle a try. It may work for you, too.
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 like what we often see in the movies, 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 was the one who rescued us. I learned then not to believe everything I read in a newspaper. Journalists are people; they do make factual errors.
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 in these old papers 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 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!
Has anyone ever told you that you write like you talk? That’s a great thing to hear if they did. Indeed, it’s a compliment, because good writing carries with it a conversational, natural-sounding style, whereas poor writing is stilted and sounds forced. Stilted writing bores readers, whereas conversational writing pleases them, thus encouraging them to keep reading.
What is stilted writing?
1. Stilted writing sounds formal. It uses formal words instead of the everyday words most people use.
2. Stilted writing doesn’t use contractions.
a. Stilted sentence: “I am sorry I was late.”
b. More natural sentence: “I’m sorry I was late.”
3. Read your prose aloud. Better yet, read it into a voice recorder, then play back what you’ve read. Does it sound like natural conversation? If so, great! If not, more work needs to be done.
As writers, then, let’s aim for a conversational style. It should sound like we’re talking to readers from an easy chair, telling them a story. To achieve this requires lots of work and lots of practice. Here are a few tips that’ll help.
1. Use contractions. Why? Because people use contractions in their everyday speech.
2. Vary sentence lengths but be concise. Good writing makes every word count toward the reader’s understanding of a sentence no matter what the sentence’s length. If a word or phrase doesn’t contribute toward understanding a sentence’s meaning, if it’s just hanging out there serving no purpose, get rid of it.
3. Vary our sentence structures. Since sentence structure is beyond the scope of this post, I recommend finding and studying a good grammar book that discusses it.