What is Historical Truth?

Charge of Terry's Rangers

Charge of Terry’s Rangers

I’ve been working on the timeline for my novel, Here We Stand, which concerns the Eighth Texas Cavalry, better known as Terry’s Texas Rangers, in the Civil War.

I began the timeline some years ago and obtained a good deal of information from the letters and diaries of these men on the Terry’s Texas Ranger Archives on the web, which has since been removed. After recently combining additional information from a purchased book, Terry Texas Ranger Trilogy, I noticed a difference in what these men at war wrote home and what they put in their reminiscences years later. Not surprisingly, they were much less forthcoming regarding the realities of war in letters to family and sweethearts.

In other words, first-person original accounts of history can only go so far.

Their letters, and often even diaries, were full of patriotism and enthusiasm for the war and bravery of comrades, as well as love for those left at home. Little emotion is shown concerning what is actually happening to the men who do the writing. For example, in one letter written by cavalryman M. A. Harvey: “Col Evans the best friend I had in the regiment was shot here I brought him off the field.” He immediately continues about the next move of the regiment. This is typical.

The letters and diaries are full of the wonderful local people they meet, how they are fed and taken care of by local citizenry when they are wounded or ill, even the beauty of some of the countryside (though not as wonderful as home in Texas).

It is only in the later reminiscences we hear of the frustration with poor leaders (nearly all the generals under which their regiment is brigaded), the lack of clothing, food, and almost constant combat and riding, often with little or no sleep. Yet even here, the horrors of war are written of as an everyday occurrence (which they were).

“‘Sam, you look for a place as smooth as you can find, as clear of the flint rock as possible, and let me know and we will fix for bed.’ In fifteen or twenty minutes he came to me [and] said, ‘I have found a fairly good place, but there are two dead men on it.’ I said, ‘They are as dead as they will ever be, are they not?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Then we will remove them a little space and occupy their place,’ He said, ‘All right,’ and we went to the spot selected and turned one an over one way and the other the other way “they were lying parallel with each other), made our bed between them and slept sweetly until day light next morning: and behold one of the dead was a Confederate and the other one a Federal soldier. Both had fallen on the same spot and died near each other.”

He wrote it; it obviously stayed in his mind quite clearly for all the years. Is PTSD only a modern ailment?

What do you think?

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Be Your Character

My knees and arms are crossed and I’m trying to breathe slowly and evenly.  My fingers are cold, and I’m gritting my teeth.  Shoulders tight.  Mind buzzing furiously–put something down.  Now.

I just did.

Be in your character.  Write the emotion.  Write from where you dream.

I closed my eyes and went into my dreamspace.  I had no idea how to begin this blog, so I connected to the place I was in and wrote about that.

Sometimes the ideas come whirling out from mind to fingers to keys, and sometimes writing is like, well, pulling teeth.  I am sure you know what I mean.

What I am blogging about today is:  Don’t merely write about your character, be your character–particularly in what are, or should be, emotion-filled moments or scenes.  If you ever wanted to be an actor, this is your chance.  I close my eyes, relax, breathe deep and slow, and imagine I am that person in the situation I have created.  How do I feel?  What do I feel?  What is my body doing?  What am I thinking?  Can I think?  What do I hear, smell, see?

Being your character is handy for other scenes, as well.  Your character is lying in the grass.  How does the world look from down there?  Does she see a ladybug crawling up a blade?  Is the grass green with spring or dry in summer?  What do you smell?  Does she have allergies that make her nose tickle or make her sneeze, her eyes water?  What else does she feel?  Is the grass damp from early morning dew?

Of course, you can’t bring this kind of detail into every scene.  Detail only the scenes where such moments are important to character development, mood, plot, etc.  Choosing which moments are important is part of what good writing is all about–when to show and when to tell.  For example, perhaps you have a male character who, so far, has shown only aggression, anger, and contempt toward everyone.  You might have a key scene where, when alone, he  shows kindness and compassion for a hurt animal.  This scene would be best written in great detail in order to impress it upon your reader’s mind.  Aha, this character has more to him than he shows to the world–what does this scene mean?  You have made a flat, one-dimensional character intriguing.  Readers like mysteries and surprises, as long as they make sense.

How do I describe all these emotions?  Every serious writer should have a good Thesaurus.  Mine is a big, fat Roget’s International Thesaurus, and I have sticky-tagged much of it for quick reference.  Even better, a couple awesome ladies have just published The Emotion Thesaurus for all us writers which you can find on their blog here.  For a limited time they are giving away an Emotion Amplifier download.  Check it out–their blog is one of the best on the web for writers.

I watched Game of Thrones last night and what a scene between Lady Stark and Jamie Lanister!  I watched her as he went on about Ned Stark’s betrayal of her with another woman and imagined how I would write the emotions she was feeling at that moment.  Powerful stuff!

More Joy of Writing Sex

Here is more from The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict, and whatever else comes to mind.

  • Narrate from with the characters’ bodies and minds and connect them with their physical surroundings.  A buttock in warm sand (or cold), the bite of a mosquito – something or anything that contributes to the mood you want to create.
  • They may not speak, but they might.  Dialogue can reveal your characters, create conflict, resolve conflict, reveal attitudes toward sex.  Perhaps a little humor?  Talk leading up to sex can be more fun and interesting than the sex, itself.
  • Be specific and add a little detail, but not necessarily explicit.  Use details that reveal emotion or distinguish one character from another, time, place, status.
  • Surprise!  Something about the scene the reader remembers, which is not necessarily a great orgasm.  What happened that was unexpected?

In writing about sex, remember the realities of the world in which you are writing.  Today we must consider AIDS, how the characters feel about it, safe sex – are they reckless, restrained, what controls their decisions?  There is a great deal of exploration to be done here when writing about the gay community, in particular.  As the author states, “Gay characters, and the primarily gay writers who create them, live in an environment in many ways defined by the ravages and repercussions of AIDS.  Illness and death have an inescapable immediacy and weight for the infected and uninfected alike; fictional characters, like their real-life counterparts, often exist in extremis, forced at every turn to explore the fusion of love, sex, mortality, and grief.”

Because of AIDS, the year and location in which you set your characters is crucial and will vary between gay and straight couples.

  • In our current time, most gays take practicing safe sex for granted.
  • You can use the preparation for safe sex between straight couples for further revelations about your characters.  Embarrassment about the condom?  Use it.

Here are titles of following chapters:  “Losing Your Cherry and Other First times to Remember; Great Expectations: The Wedding Night and the Honeymoon; Life Sentences: Husbands and Wives; Three Cheers for Adultery; Your Place or Mine: Recreational Sex; The Illicit: Sex Forbidden by Law, History, and Politics; Solo Sex: Alone, on the Phone, and on the Internet.”

You get the picture.

We love to talk about it, don’t we?  Now write and have fun.  This can be the most fun writing of all.  Truly.

Scary Things and EBooks

I was not sure, but NanoWriMo is a good thing.  Once again, I have found that the things that scare me are the things from which I learn.  Things.  Such an all-encompassing word, one most of us cannot do without.  My things, your things, whatever you wish to put in that mammoth open bag, or box.  Imagine what you will.  That is why we write, isn’t it.

I am writing better.  Each day.  Pushing for those 1,677 words.  I knew it was true.  I declared so earlier on this blog, and I have proved myself correct, at least for me.  It gets easier, too.  After the sixth day I noticed a difference.  Write every day.

I was writing before, sporadically.  Trying to “get out” short stories for those magazines and epublishers.  “They” said, those who supposedly know, that a writer should include a list of all previously-published stories when submitting a query along with all the other information that agents and/or editors generally require with a sample of your novel.  They want to see that you are successful, that you have previously been published.   So I am trying.  Only I am not a short story writer.

Some are.  So many wonderful short stories out there, anthologies and all that.  All those literary magazines.  All those popular erotica sites on the web from which you can buy something to turn you on from one to five dollars.  How do I know about those?  No comment.

I love novels.  I love to get deep into a character and watch him or her grow.  I love to go somewhere else and live there for days or weeks.  I love to learn about other times, other places.  I practically never read short stories, never buy an anthology, even at the used book store.  I appreciate a well-written short story.  A few have amazed me; others have made me chuckle.  Only they are not my “thing.”

I am so much happier writing my NanoNovel.  I live it.  I think about the characters.  My writing is more fun and it is improving.

It remains to be seen whether a publisher will take a novel on its own merits.  Maybe this is another place where ebooks offer more possilities for us all, particularly yet unpublished writers.

Thoughts on NaNoWriMo

I have been going back through my files (mostly from Writer’s Magazine) and rereading Robert Owen Butler, From Where You Dream in preparation for NaNoWriMo.  Here is what I have found:

  • I will write first thing in the morning for two hours, before I am bombarded with all the words, other’s words, life’s everyday stuff, while I am still partially in the dream state, so I can more easily get to that intuitive place of true emotion and imagination.
  • Write every day.
  • Be fearless.
  • Some beginnings:  a line (poems, billboards, conversation you hear), a list (Who is making it?  Why?), a title (Does it suggest a theme?  Character?  Place?), a character, a situation (Is it troubling?  Does it make you wonder?), an event, an image, a subject (a drought, a flood, grade school), an oddity.
  • Get unstuck:  Write a scene where the character enters a new place.  Bring in a minor character.  Write a monologue for a character you would like to know more about.  You don’t have to write in order of your story.  Write a group of crucial scenes.
  • More getting unstuck:  Free-write on an emotion, a character, a place.  Free associate on a word, a character’s name, a place.  Write a list of possible character choices in a particular situation.  Why that choice?  Have another character make a declarative statement about your main character – does it surprise you? There is less chance of getting stuck if you write every day.
  • Trust in the writing process. The first draft is exploration and discovery.  It is an adventurous journey you begin not knowing where you will end up.  I read this by John Dufresne, and got even more excited:
  • “You have nothing to prove in the first draft, nothing to defend, everything to imagine.  . . .  You write the draft in order to read what you have written and to determine what you still have to say. . . . You may have a destination in mind, and you may well set off in that direction, but what you encounter along the way will likely alter your course.  This uncertainty, though daunting, is crucial to the writing process.  It allows for, even encourages, revelation and surprise, while it prevents the manipulation of character or plot to suit a preconceived, and usually ill-conceived, notion of what the story must be.  In writing the first draft, you begin to work through all the uncertainty and advance toward meaning.”
  • You may remove words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters in the second draft, but nothing is ever wasted.

The purpose of the first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written. John Dufresne wrote that, and he has completed two story collections, three novels and a book on fiction writing.  www.johndufresne.com.

Have fun on your journey, everyone.  I plan to have fun on mine.

The Second Draft

You are ready to edit into your second draft.  First, do the mundane stuff:

  • Run spellcheck, only do not depend on spellcheck to catch everything.
  • Check grammar and punctuation
  • Look for those extraneous adverbs, particularly those pesky ones ending in “ly.”  She does not speak softly, she murmurs.
  • Delete cliches with something original.  This includes overused words.
  • Turn passive to active.  The book was not dropped by him.  He dropped the book. This also includes words like was, is and have – be more descriptive.
  • Have you varied sentence length?
  • Check for words such as like or as.  A metaphor would be better.
  • Many editors do not like the word, There, to begin a sentence.
  • Points of view should be clear.
  • Fix pronouns without clear antecedents.

The not so mundane:

  • Does your beginning have a “hook?”  Are the first paragraphs interesting enough to make the reader want to keep reading?
  • Does the ending satisfy?  You have given your readers expectations.  Have you satisfied them?  Recall the books you have read where the ending either disappointed or was “just right.”  Why?
  • Does the end of each chapter make the reader want to continue to the next?
  • Be sure you are showing, not telling.
  • Timing/pace.  Do not include information all at once.  Build intensity, then give the reader a break.
  • Are your characters’ motivations clear?
  • Use figurative language and simile whenever possible.  (Again, be careful of cliches.)
  • Stephen King came up with an idea.  If you have not beforehand, when reading through your manuscript, look for symbolism and theme.  He cites the recurrence of blood at three crucial times in his novel Carrie.  He realized how its meaning for sacrifice, virgin blood and its emotional connotations would add to the meaning of the book.  Symbol “can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work.”  He also says beware of forcing it; it should come naturally.  If it does not, do not force it.
  • Theme relates to why you bothered writing the story.  What is it about?  In your second draft, you want to make this clearer.  Focus.  If there are paragraphs, scenes, even whole chapters of your manuscript that do not relate to this theme, delete them, or save them somewhere for another story.

I will have the detail about all this in future posts.  Stay tune.