Quit Clearing Your Throat

Portrait_of_Sir_Walter_Scott
Sir Walter Scott, dog lover and creator of historical fiction, my favorite genre.

All writers have their own writing methods and styles. Regardless of how we write, though, every novel has a basic structure. It comes in three parts: the opening, the middle, and the end.

While all these parts are important, the opening is the most important. If our first sentence or paragraph doesn’t hook readers and draw them into our story, they’ll likely put down our book and look elsewhere for entertainment.

One common mistake beginning writers make is “throat-clearing.” In novel-writing, it means loading the opening pages with lots of information—backstory, description, and/or too many characters, for example. It’s coughing up words before we actually write the story.

When writing openings, think about a favorite movie. What was its opening scene? How did it hook us? I mention movies because they’re one of the main mediums we authors are competing against. Of course, we must also consider our favorite books. Study their opening lines. How did they motivate us to keep reading?

The best opening is the action opening. It begins in medias res (in the middle of things). These openings can start with something spectacular, such as an earthquake, or something seemingly innocent such as a knock on a character’s door. It can also include dialogue. We must either see a character in action or hint that something is about to happen. Also, be sure to mention your character(s) names as soon as possible.

In my book due out this coming fall, 2019, Squire, Tales of a Mascot, I didn’t “clear my throat” by writing lots of narrative background information and description while building up to the main story. Instead, I jumped right into the action. Here are my novel’s first two paragraphs:

Well, I’d sure as sand say he is going with us.” Jesse Webb sauntered down the steps of his father-in-law’s brick furniture store.

Rachel Webb folded her arms, her billowing hoopskirt spanning the slatted walkway in front of it. Her hazel eyes narrowed. “Oh no, he’s not. Besides, how could you take the most popular dog in Coughlin with you? What if he gets killed?”

I did four things in these opening lines:

1. I introduced the main characters—Jesse, Rachel, and their dog, Squire.

2. I identified the setting, the town of Coughlin.

3. I showed conflict between Jesse and Rachel.

4. I hinted at future danger for both Jesse and Squire. A few paragraphs later, we’ll learn what this danger is—Jesse and Squire are heading off to war.

So, let’s not “clear our throats” before we begin our story. Instead, jump right into it and hook our readers from the start.

The Civil War’s Longest Siege

map_porthudson842x1052The Defence of Port Hudson, Louisiana

Although Ulysses S. Grant’s final campaign against Robert E. Lee is sometimes referred to as the Siege of Petersburg, it was not, by definition, a genuine siege, though Grant did have Lee’s army with its back against the Appomattox River.

Grant’s siege started on June 15, 1864 and ended on April 2, 1865. The two commanders fought several battles around Petersburg, Virginia during these months. Grant’s maneuvers and attacks stretched Lee’s defenses thinner and thinner till at last, only one escape route remained open—a road north which Lee finally took.

Once Petersburg fell, Richmond fell soon thereafter. However, thanks to Lee’s earlier warning via telegraph, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had fled the Rebel capital. 

If Petersburg wasn’t the Civil War’s longest genuine siege, then, where did that event happen? In the village of Port Hudson, Louisiana, a small rebel garrison on the Mississippi River. Totally surrounded by a vastly superior Union army and its navy, the garrison held out for 48 days. It surrendered on July 9, 1863, five days after Vicksburg surrendered.

Jebba

Against the backdrop of this siege, I tell the story of Squire, a canine mascot for an Alabama regiment. While men in blue and gray fight and die Squire battles his own enemies, humans and beasts. Squire, Tales of a Mascot is scheduled for release this coming fall, 2019. As the release date draws nearer, I’ll be sharing more on the siege of Port Hudson as well as tidbits from the book.

I hope everyone will enjoy it.

Historical Novels: Their Importance

 

Louis_L'Amour

“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.”

Louis L’Amour (2008). “Education of a Wandering Man”, p.15, Bantam

Mister L’Amour’s words have proven true in my life. My three favorite genres have always been history, historical fiction and biographies, even as a child.

The historical fiction books I read during my growing-up years, such as The Horse Soldiers (Harold Sinclair), The Black Arrow (Robert Louis Stevenson), and The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) spurred my youthful hunger for more knowledge about these books’ eras. Getting lost in the past was, for me, sheer joy.

Sadly, many people today have little knowledge of the past. They learn their history from “historical” movies, most of which aren’t entirely accurate. It’s become easier to watch a film than it is to read.

So, we historical fiction writers have a challenge. Our writing must be at the “top of our game.” Not only must we write well, we must also keep our facts accurate. Our books may not win a Pulitzer Prize write like Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, about the Battle of Gettysburg, but if our historical novels get more folks interested in learning about the past, our time and labor is worth it. 

Research, write, and read! Till next time, friends. Have a great week.

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