It’s a generally-accepted truism that what makes for good, effective description is a combination of careful observation and a keen eye for the telling details.
What isn’t said so often is that you have to be careful which telling details you pick to use, and when you decide to use them. Your readers have years of training in the grammar of fiction, both popular and literary. They know quite well that some details have an extra job to do, and some of those jobs are hallowed by tradition.
For example: In the real world, anybody can have a cough. But in the world of fiction, things are different. If the coughing character is lucky, all that a cough will do is alert somebody to his or her presence when that presence ought to remain unknown. Characters in long or arc-based fictional formats have no such good fortune, however; for them, a cough almost always foreshadows a lingering and probably fatal illness within the next few chapters or episodes.
Similarly, people in the real world have occasional disagreements and even sharp words with their nearest and dearest without having the entire relationship fall apart as a result. In fiction, even a mild exchange of the “I thought you had the car keys!” variety tends to become the harbinger of breakups to come. (This may be why the obligatory “this is a happy family” scene that precedes so many disasters in film and television tends to be so sappily anodyne – anything else would be over-interpreted by the audience.)
A full catalog of all the possible traditional telling details would take more time and space than I have here. All I can say is, keep an eye on what you’re showing the reader, and make certain you’re not accidentally foreshadowing things that aren’t going to happen.
Someday, you’re going to be writing a story where you really, honestly need to know the time of sunrise, sunset, or twilight on a particular day in a particular place.
Maybe you’re writing historical fiction, and need to know whether your characters are going to have enough light left in the day to do whatever it is you want them to do.
Maybe you’re writing fantasy or horror, and need to know when your creepy-crawlies can emerge from their coffins or lairs or shadowy pits and go forth to rule the night.
If so, then the U.S. Naval Observatory has a web page for you.
The web page speaks of “civil twilight,” defined as:
the limit at which twilight illumination is sufficient, under good weather conditions, for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished; at the beginning of morning civil twilight, or end of evening civil twilight, the horizon is clearly defined and the brightest stars are visible under good atmospheric conditions in the absence of moonlight or other illumination. In the morning before the beginning of civil twilight and in the evening after the end of civil twilight, artificial illumination is normally required to carry on ordinary outdoor activities.
This is the kind of twilight you’ll probably be concerned with. There are two other, more specialized, twilights – nautical twilight is when “the illumination level is such that the horizon is still visible even on a Moonless night, allowing mariners to take reliable star sights for navigational purposes” and astronomical twilight is when “the center of the Sun is geometrically 18 degrees below the horizon.” But unless your protagonist is a navigator or an astronomer – in which case you’ve got more research ahead of you than a quick web page check is going to handle — you probably won’t need either of those.
In the meantime, think good thoughts about the U. S. Navy, figuring these things out so writers don’t have to.
Yes . . . it’s my sporadically-recurring post in which I wave my hands and point to the “Editorial and Critique Services” bit of this blog’s title, and to the About and Editorial Services links on this page. (Click on either one; the content is about the same either way. The salient details certainly are.)
Short version: One of the ways I keep the electricity and the internet running around this place is with freelance editorial and critique work. If you’ve got a short story or a novel that you’d like to spruce up for submission or for self-publication, or that you’d like to make better for some other reason (including the learning experience), then I’m available to help you out.
My base rates: $1500 for a standard 80,000-100,000 word novel; $100 for a short story or the first chapter/first 5000 words of a novel. Rates for odd lengths – novellas, extra-long novels – are negotiable. Also, if you go for the first-chapter deal on a novel, and then decide you want the whole enchilada, you get $100 off on the novel fee.
For years I didn’t have a crockpot, because all my previous encounters with the technology had been in the early days, before the invention of the removable stoneware crock, and doing cleanup on a piece of kitchen gear that couldn’t be fully immersed in water pretty much negated all of the time and labor saved on the prep and cooking end.
Then one day I looked around in the kitchen department of the local hardware store and saw that things had changed since I was an impecunious grad student, and I was, as they say, enlightened.
This particular recipe is about as mindless as they come, which is a blessing on those occasions when you’ve got a cold, or a deadline, or just a bad case of too much of the daily grind:
Chicken with Onions
Because it’s hot and humid this evening – great weather for feeling peevish.
Today’s peeve, writers and gentlethings, is that pair of not-quite homonyms, flout and flaunt. Not only do they sound sort of alike, the definitional territories they occupy are close enough together that it’s no wonder they’re often confused. (That’s not going to spare you my peevishness, though. Nobody promised you this writing thing was going to be easy.)
To flout something is to recklessly disregard something, or to openly disobey or act against it: Maisie chose to flout convention and run off to Paris with Duke Roderick in his private zeppelin.
To flaunt something is to display it in an ostentatious or deliberately provocative manner: The gossip-mongers were quite put out when Maisie returned two weeks later flaunting an engagement ring with a diamond the size of a cut-glass doorknob.
Got the difference now?
I’ve written before about how technological change has made some plot devices obsolete; and also about how social and cultural change have done the same. Today’s blog entry is about another example of the second kind of obsolescence: the changing fortunes of Forbidden Love.
Forbidden love has been a reliable plot engine at least since the day when Paris looked at Helen across King Menelaus’s dining-room and started a ten-year war. That much, at any rate, has stayed the same – but what counts as “forbidden” keeps shifting, and an observant writer needs to keep an eye on the trends.
It used to be that writers could add the plot-energy of forbidden love to their stories with a simple “Alas! Your/My parents would refuse their permission for us to wed!” That particular old reliable (and the related “Our countries/religions/ethnic groups frown upon our love!”) has fueled countless tragedies and probably an equal number of romantic adventures, but the passage of time has deprived it of a lot of its juice. Impatient modern readers are likely to say to the characters, “For heaven’s sake, you’re both over twenty-one; just go ahead and marry him/her already! Your parents will get over it. And if they don’t, you can always leave town.”
A similar fate has overtaken “Alas! If only one of us were not already married!”, along with all its lesser included tropes, such as the mad wife in the attic. So long as divorce was both difficult to obtain and a source of scandal, the lovers’ predicament could generate everything from romantic angst (the classic Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle, for example, and all its fictional cousins) to murder (The Postman Always Rings Twice.) Once again, a modern reader is going to wonder why the characters are making such a fuss over something that can be settled with a couple of visits to a good lawyer.
These days, not even “Would that we could acknowledge our love – but alas! we are of the same gender!” can be counted on to provide one’s plot with a forbidden love. And a damned good thing, too; an increase in social justice and general human happiness is worth losing the occasional plot device.
But social and cultural plot devices, like matter, are neither created nor destroyed; they just change form. My own candidate for the next likely source of forbidden-love plot energy is the workplace: “Alas! Would that we could acknowledge our love, but if we did so, one of us would either have to quit or request a transfer!”
It’s not quite as juicy as some of the oldies, but throw in a “Both of us are mission-critical personnel!” or “The only current job openings in my specialty are in Kuala Lumpur!” and maybe we’re getting somewhere.
The first is a link to an IndieGoGo fundraiser for Hadley Rille Books, a small press specializing in speculative fiction and prioritizing “new voices from women and other historically marginalized points of view” since 2005. They’re raising funds for the expansion necessary to stay competitive in today’s commercial environment.
Rewards at various levels include e-books, hardcover novels, and e-book bundles, manuscript critiques and full-manuscripts edits, tuckerization† in a novel by a Hadley Rille author, and more.
The second is a link to the on-line archives of Florilegium, the journal of the Canadian Society of Medievalists/Société canadienne des médiévistes, who now have the complete run of their back issues, dating from 1979 onwards, available in digital form. Writers of fantasy and historical fiction set in actual or pseudo-medieval societies would probably have a good time prowling through the articles available.
As usual, the internet is full of wondrous things. Go forth and enjoy.
†A term from the sf/fantasy community, referring to the inclusion of a person, or the use of the person’s name, in a novel or story, usually as a complimentary in-joke. Opportunities for tuckerization are often offered as prizes in benefit auctions and the like. The term derives from the name of sf writer Wilson Tucker, who pioneered the practice.
The weather is hot and sticky (well, for values of “hot and sticky” that obtain in northern New Hampshire, which means that folks in places like Arizona and Texas would think it pleasantly cool), but we’re happy anyway, because today is the day that our short story, “The Devil in the Details,” is up at Tor.com.