Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Giving Thanks to Historical Fiction: Where does history end and ‘historical’ begin?

An interview with author Elaine Cougler
As a writer and a lover of history, I admire novels that blend the compelling elements of a good story with historical realism.  Readers want stories that engage our interest and emotion, but little is more disappointing than to find out after you’ve read a book you loved that the historical details on which it was based were too far off the facts. It is therefore gratifying to meet an author who shares this love of historical accuracy, while embracing the elements of good story-telling.

Elaine Cougler
Photo by Paula Tizzard

In Canada, it is interesting to note that our Thanksgiving might have been in November, as it is for our American neighbours, if it weren’t for the events depicted in Elaine Cougler’s novels.

ElaineCougler is a fellow WCDR (Writers’ Community of Durham Region) and HNS (Historical Novel Society) member and historical fiction writer, and her series of books in The Loyalist Trilogy span the years around the War of 1812. 

I asked Elaine to tell me more about her historical research and story elements for her most recent novel, The Loyalist Legacy:

When the War of 1812 is finally over, William and Catherine Garner flee the desolation of Niagara and find, in the wild heart of Upper Canada, their two hundred acres straddling the Thames River. Dense forests, wild beasts, disgruntled Natives, and pesky neighbors daily challenge them on this wild but valuable land, and the political atmosphere, laced with greed and corruption, threatens to undermine all of the new settlers’ hopes and plans. William, who longs for word from his parents after two years of silence, hurries back to Niagara, leaving Catherine and the children to work their land and fend for themselves. 

Sally: What challenges do women face today that echo the struggles of Catherine and women of her era in Canada?

Elaine: Women in the early 1800’s struggled along with their men as pioneers and innovators here in North America and especially as they began to build farms and communities and lives in what is modern-day Ontario. No modern appliances to drop the washing into and walk away. These women had lots of physical work to do and, though our lives are very different, we still take on huge jobs every day. I am of that generation who in large numbers were encouraged to work outside the home, but Catherine did that in the beginning of The Loyalist Legacy when her husband disappeared for months and she hitched up the horse to plough and plant their land.

Sally: With your characters facing the elements and nature, aggressive human forces, war and famine, do you think love conquers all, and what is the importance of love in this story in relation to the struggles of the characters in your story?

Elaine: While love is a part of this story, as it is with all human stories, my take on it is more implied than stated. With all the dangers and struggles the Garner family faces—loss of children, fear of authority and their own government, famine, wild animals and countless such dangers—the need for love and support is absolutely crucial; in fact, I don’t know how anyone could survive without it. There is one scene where William and Catherine are getting ready for bed and she realizes he has done something unconscionable. She loses her temper. But as soon as she sees his utter despair she pulls him back into bed.

Sally: What is the one flaw or failure of Catherine in the story and how does she overcome it? 

Elaine: Catherine has a temper and I used that in the opening scene of this novel. I could just see her working out her frustrations with that bread dough!

Catherine stood against the raw wood table and pounded the greyish dough into a glutinous sticky mass. With each stroke her anger rose. She picked the bits of batter from her fingers and pushed them into the dough with perhaps a little more force than usual. And heeled her hands into the ball once more. Slapping it into the meagre flour bits on the table, she saw the loaves begin to take shape and, in spite of herself, breathed a little easier.”

Sally: William is loyal to his parents, rushing back to Niagara to ensure they are well.  What is Catherine’s reaction to his departure? 

Elaine: This plot detail gave me the chance to let Catherine shine and, I suppose, to show how strong women are, a theme I’ve written about over and over. So often neither men nor women have choices but must take an impossible road. Catherine certainly understood her husband’s need to find out what had happened to his parents and, yes, I would have done what William did.

Sally: What has been your family and friends’ reaction to your success as an author?

I expected my immediate family to be absolutely on my side and they were and are. I named the main male character in my first book John Garner, and have a brother of the same name. (We’re descended from Loyalists.) Quite a while after the first book came out my brother John, who doesn’t usually read historical fiction, told me he had to read the book because his friends and neighbours kept talking to him about it. Well, he loved it! It’s fun to see people who have known me all my life as a teacher, a singer, a mother, a wife, and lots of other things, now make the adjustment to me as a writer. I am so lucky to have their support. And I am forever grateful to one of my brothers-in-law who always greets me with “How is the world-famous author?” Gotta love that!

Sally: The Historical Novel Society showcases authors of HF, including North American stories.  Since you are also a member of HNS, where do you fit in to the roster of writers who appear there, and how is your story different?

Elaine: I love the Historical Novel Society and look forward to every issue of their magazine. Last year I submitted the first two books in the trilogy, The Loyalist’s Wife and The Loyalist’s Luck, for review and received a complimentary joint online review of both. I will be submitting The Loyalist Legacy very soon, especially as it completes the trilogy. I hope to attend the 2017 HNS Conference in Portland. I love meeting as many people as I can. So much fun to meet others who love what I love!  As to where my books fit in: They are 18th and 19th century from the American Revolution, through the War of 1812, to the end of the Rebellion of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada (mostly Upper Canada). There are lots of stories about the American side of the Revolution and its aftermath but not so many about the Canadian side. This makes my historical series new material for many readers.

Sally: You’ve attended re-enactments about the era in your books, and even written about re-enactors in the area.  Can you tell us about your experiences with these events and the people who run them?  With your extensive historical research, how accurate would you say the re-enactors in this area are?

Elaine: The thing about historical fiction that I’ve found is that I don’t have to know everything about the era. This surprises me still as good historical fiction makes a reader think the author knows every little detail. Of course you have to know everything that affects your story and you better know enough to make that happen or readers will spot flaws. For example, the Butler’s Ranger uniforms. I learned that at first those who joined Butler did not have uniforms although they did later on and you will see the re-enactors wearing exact replicas of those uniforms. I knew enough to describe in great detail the uniforms of those who met up with Lucy on the road to Fort Niagara, in the first book, but when I go to re-enactments I learn about many of the other uniforms not used in The Loyalist’s Wife. Re-enactors do a marvelous job of bringing history alive for us. Would that we had those when I was a kid in school!

Thank-you, Elaine, for this insight into your writing and historical perspective on a turbulent time in North American History.  We look forward to the next installment in the series and can't wait to hear all about the launch of The Loyalist Legacy.

 #historicalfiction #Warof1812 @WCDR @histnovsoc @histnovel


Elaine Cougler can be found on Twitter, Facebook Author Page, LinkedIn and on her blog

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Plotter or Pantser: Ins and Outs of First Draft

A Writer’s Guide to the Nefarious Methods of Great Story

Plotting once meant to me the nefarious rubbing together of hands and a long thin mustache.  Pantsing sounded equally horrible, like something the neighbourhood toughs did to the gifted kids on the playground.  In more enlightened times, I discovered that writers divide themselves into these two categories. 

Plotting still sounds rather evil to me, an implication of over-planning and pre-destiny that amounts to controlling the characters in your book until they are nothing more than a puppet at the mercy of plot.  An evil plot.  Pantsing, once I knew what it was, sounded much more like what I do as a writer, so I confidently put myself in that category: a crazy dreamer who has no idea where her stories come from.

Except, it’s not that black and white, and what I do, I discovered, is not pure pantsism.  There are some writers who don’t know anything before they write.  They just write and eventually a character presents herself, someone challenges her, and maybe a bad storm and earthquake wreck havoc on all their plans—or not.  We’ll see.  They have no idea how it will end until it does.  Oh, the humanity!

I know several things before I write.  I know the ending.  Yes, that’s right, I am absolutely, 100 percent sure of the last few pages of the story.  I even write the last scene and rarely change a word.  So there is some element of plotting going on, plotting to bring my characters to the conclusion I intended when I decided to write this story.  I know the main character and the main antagonist and then I write the first scene, and just keep on and on until the character arrives at the conclusion.  And boy, have they been through hell in the process. 

For me, the reason I write this way is because I have a reason for what I write, a point I want to make, a moral of the story.  I know that these two characters will end up making a huge sacrifice to be together, or that they will suffer the consequences of putting money before people, for instance.  I want to present an aspect of human nature or the world we live in and shed some light on what happens to people in these circumstances.  I have an opinion, and I want my readers to think about that. 
Plotters like charts. They like to take the elements of their story and see it on a graph or a bulletin. or on pink and blue cards spread out over their office.  It’s a good way of organizing a story and documenting what each plot point does and how it serves the story. There are plenty of templates in books such as Robert McKee’s Story, and even software to help you do this from Dramatica to Scrivener. For the plotter, this is nirvana. 

Robert McKee, author Story
 I appreciate, even admire this process.  Power to you, if you can do it well.  It will save you a ton of rewrites, especially if you are writing for genre or a more commercial audience, because readers and certainly editors of these books look for those markers, and you had better have them if you hope to find a publisher and then an audience.  Trying to fit them in later is possible, but much more difficult.

For a pantser, these charts and programs are frustrating, fascinating, helpful and infuriating.  How can you daydream from a chart?  How can a new character walk onto the page and take your story by the throat, running in a whole new and exciting direction, taking your protagonist with it?  Plotters will tell you that this is exactly what they are trying to avoid.  That if you’ve planned the story you want to tell, these nefarious characters will not be able to hijack your story and tie your protagonist to the railroad tracks, rendering him a victim and not a hero. 

But wait a minute—who is writing this story anyway?  If your protagonist is strong enough, he will find a way to take the story back from this nefarious character, and what a ride that will be.  The element of surprise is a big part of what makes a story unique, and rivets readers to your page.  So it comes down to a key element of the true storyteller, plotter and pantser alike: however you arrive at your story, controlling or dreaming as you go along, the story structure has to be strong and equally unpredictable. 

Your main character is the love of your life and she is the centre of this story.  Her actions drive the story and the rest is background.  If he starts out as a victim and does nothing about it, just takes the hits over and over, that’s not a story but a list of events.  So if you plan out your story with a great flood, and your intention is that your main protagonist is going to change her life and those around her, then it’s what she does when the flood arrives that makes the story. 
If you can plot that out, you can start to see what you are trying to say, and build the story elements around that.  If your point is that meek people can overcome incredible odds because they care about others when things go horribly wrong, then planning out a setting that restricts your character at the beginning and showing how they chafe at that will set up the central conflict when the waters rise.  (For a riveting historical fiction against the backdrop of a flood, read Ann Weisgarber’s The Promise.)

For instance, let’s say our hero has been shifted from place to place, a spinster with no home, who is eventually put in a teaching position she does not want, but is given no choice.  So she makes the best of it and bonds with the children, endearing herself to the reader.  And then, little Bobby is beaten up in the school yard, and Miss Teach goes to see the bully’s father.  Only Mr. Bragg is proud of his son for defeating the weak and ensuring his place in his world. 

Does Miss Teach go hide in a cupboard?  No.  She shows some backbone and ingenuity.  She may not be able to do anything about Mr. Bragg’s hold on the community, but she isn’t taking this lying down.  She risks her reputation and her position to stand up for little Bobby. It might be a small action, like finding someone to teach him to fight back, or giving him a chance at a scholarship so he can get out of this backward town, but she’s going to assert herself.  So when the flood comes, and her charges are in danger, we know she will rise above her natural timidity and sacrifice herself to save the children.  Where it goes from there is up to you and Miss Teach.

 As a plotter, you might look at the first page, third page and thirtieth or fiftieth page, and determine the hook, the introduction of Miss Teach and what’s at stake for her (ie overcoming her timidity and the social circumstances that repress her), the inciting incident that brings her to the school, and the crack in the world that changes her new normal to crisis. 
K.M. Weiland in her blog post “Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is” contends that there are actually three inciting incidents that take place in the first act, and five steps to achieving them.  Her First Act Timeline is outlined in the blog and in her book, Structuring Your Novel. 

Driving plot through character is so crucial to a good story, because readers know how they might react to a crisis but they want a window into the soul of someone they care about, so they can empathize on how this person reacts and where that leads them—to heroism or tragedy.  If a writer relies too heavily on plot to drive the story, it will seem predictable and uninteresting, a series of events that don’t change the character.  If however, a writer relies only on what the character is feeling, and this does not change the character’s actions or the world around them, then the reader will lose empathy and want to get out of the character’s head.

Plotting and pantsing are both important writing techniques: one ensures pacing and the other surprise.  There is no recipe to ensure a writer will get this right, and each author will have to choose for themselves what works best for them.  In my sphere of creative writers, many of them WCDR (Writers’ Community of Durham Region) members or partners, about half are plotters and half pantsers, demonstrating that both methods can be effective. 
But within those two groups, most use some combination of plotting and pantsing, however much they fall to one side. 
Notorious pantser Stephen King stated in his book On Writing, “I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible.”

The main thing is that writing should feel good, whatever method you use to get it down.  I love first draft work because I can’t wait to see what happens next as my characters take over the world I created for them.  For plotters, I suspect the thrill of seeing their blueprint come to life is a driving factor.  Some writers, mostly plotters, hate first draft, but love the subsequent edits. 

So is there a right or wrong way to tell a story?  Snidely Whiplash may try to harass and lasso the dreamers, but in the end, the hero always wins.  And so we know that whatever begins the tussle, the main character will come to the rescue.  And that’s what really makes a story work and a reader want more.