Story Prompt: Newes from the Dead

Anne Greene
Anne Greene

Whores of Yore (yes, a catchy title) at Twitter  is stuffed to the gills with crazy interesting historical tidbits having to do with women’s lives and sexuality. The description on Twitter: ‘A catalogue of jilts, cracks, prostitutes, night-walkers, whores, she-friends, kind women & others of the linnen-lifting tribe.’  (18+)’ 

Often the bits posted there are just too good for a storyteller to ignore, as is the case with the life of Anne Greene. If you have been looking for material for a historical novel, this might be it.  It’s true that Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost includes a character based on Anne, but she is peripheral in that otherwise very dense and challenging novel. 

The case is so interesting that there was an 1982 article about it in the British Medical Journal: “Miraculous deliverance of Anne Green: an Oxford case of resuscitation in the seventeenth century” which you can download as a pdf.  

Anne was convicted of infanticide and hanged. The next day when the anatomists were getting ready to start a post-mortem exam, they realized she was still breathing. This was considered a miracle and act of God, and she was pardoned.  Her father saw the possibilities, and once she returned home, starting charging people to come have a look at her. From the BMJ article:

This collection and a subsequent financial appeal on her behalf produced many pounds, which paid the bill of the apothecary, her food and lodging, and the legal expenses of her pardon. Anne Green’s fame continued after her full recovery, when she returned to some friends in the country taking with her the coffin in which she had lain. She then married, bore three children, and lived for 15 years after her famous execution and resuscitation. 

If I were to take this on, I’d start with the day she was revived and the aftermath. I keep wondering what use she made of that coffin. 

Researching Names for Writers of Historical Fiction

I read a lot of 19th century newspapers for all kinds of reasons, but this clip from the NYT (November 1885) is a great example of one of the ways I find names.

NYT November 1885
NYT November 1885

Here we have Giuseppe Giudici who shot and killed Maggiorini Dagahiero, as well as Ling Chun, Ling Yum, Chun Fong and Lung Mow who are all involved in a perjury case.

central reporter title page
Click for full size. Central Reporter. 1886 on cases heard in September 1885.

A word of warning: even the NYT was really bad at getting the names of immigrants right. Maggiorini Dagahiero strikes me as off, anyway, so I see if I can turn up either half of it elsewhere and find that even mighty Google produces  not a single example of the name Dagahiero beyond the one in this very newspaper article. However, Daghiero does come up — in fact, if you search it will bring up a whole story that is in itself interesting.

Death penalty cases were appealed, I assume, automatically, as they are today. This publication provides both details of the crime and the legal ruling. Because the book is long out of copyright, you can download the whole pdf through Google Books or (my preference). I can almost guarantee that if you sit down to skim through a volume like this, you will find many stories waiting to be told, the majority of them tragic in one way or another. Some of them bordering on the farcical. 

In this case the details just raise more questions, for me at least. 

I haven’t yet looked into Ling Chun and Ling Yum, but I can predict, based on past experience, that it will be next to impossible to get any details. First, because the crime was minor and didn’t involve bloodshed (newspapers then, as now, subscribed to the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ rule) but also because Asian names were so regularly and extremely mangled.

In case you’d like to know more about the murderous baker (the details of the legal appeal are missing):

Appeal to Death Penalty Case
This is a large graphic. Click to open it on another tab, and be patient.


Mea Culpa, Mea Cliffhangers

This post is 1 year old.

I hear from readers who are confused or irritated by unresolved storylines in The Gilded Hour.  Specifically two storylines seem to raise the most questions.

  1. The Russo children (where was Tonino, and where is Vittorio?)
  2. The identity of the individuals who were responsible for the deaths of at least six women.

Here’s an email from Nancy. 

Dear Sara I just finished your new book the Gilded Hour. I have a question. On page 696,after looking for a killer through most of the other 695 pages Oscar says, no reasons to give up now, in reference to finding the killer. Then there is not another word in the remaining 36 pages about finding the killer. What???? Who was the killer??? It turned out to be a very disappointing read I must say.

I am hoping for a reply .

This next email is from Sandra, who is also curious, but in more general terms.

Hi Rosina/Sara

I have never written to an author before but I had to write you. I loved The Gilded Hour and was heartbroken to finish it. When I saw on your webpage that “a new series was launched” I assume that means you are going to write more. Whew! I just have to know what happens to all these people. I am in love with them and am imagining futures for each one of them. I want to read more about Anna & Jack, Sophie & Cap, Rosa & her siblings, Ned, Aunt Quinlan, Margaret, Elise. I feel like I know them now so want to follow their lives.

My first thought:  It’s really uplifting to hear from readers, even when they are irritated. It means the story got under that reader’s skin. My second thought: I hate disappointing readers.   Then back to the first thought: These are people who have read the book I wrote and felt strongly enough about it to write to me. That’s good. That’s what I focus on. 

There are only a few things I can say to this kind of letter from a reader: I’m sorry that the story didn’t work for you, and/or:   I’m writing as fast as I can, and I hope that the next novel will both answer your questions, and be worth the wait.

But there’s also one thing I need to say about the nature of storytelling.  As I see it, good storytelling never tells it all.  A well done novel  leaves questions open to be considered and answered by the reader.   So it is true that you haven’t heard in detail about what Tonino went through, and you don’t know where Vittorio is; his adoptive family is gone. You may never know some of those things; in the end they may be for you to decide.

The question about the murders is, of course, far more pressing. Some people raced through the last part of the book because they just had to know who was responsible … And then were disappointed.  Really disappointed. One star irritated.  [Edited to note that this question comes up in the comments, below.] An old friend pointed something out to me that I hadn’t considered: in the mystery genre, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll know who the guilty party is by the end.  I don’t read much mystery, or I would have realized that.  If I had been aware of that expectation, I’m not sure what I would have done differently.

Could I have written a better novel? Certainly.  I doubt there has ever been a novelist who is totally satisfied with a piece of work.  I know a writer with a t-shirt that reads IT’S ALL A DRAFT UNTIL YOU DIE.   It’s the nature of the beast, and still:  I don’t like disappointing readers, and I do hope that when the next book comes out, those I’ve irritated or frustrated will find that the answers they were expecting really were worth the wait. In the meantime, there are a lot of documents about the murders dragged from the archives of the police department, sitting over there at The Gilded Hour  site. You might well figure out the answer to this question on your own. 

Story or Plot?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Craft
This post is 2 years old.

brokenguardrailNote: This is a reworking of an earlier post. I am making an effort (slowly) to gather all the posts about craft into a series.

The distinction between story and plot is a deceptively simple one.

Story: what happened

Plot: the artful rearrangement of what happened in a way that keeps your readers engaged.

A police report is a story told as a series of facts, in chronological order:

August 29 2008. At approximately 10:16am Officer Rodriquez and I were dispatched to the site of an accident on northbound State Route 12, approximately 500 yards north of Exit 15. Witness J.M. Corrigan had called 911 and was still at the site with his passenger, Maria Corrigan, of Tyler. The witness stated he had been travelling behind a 2004 Ford Explorer when that vehicle suddenly veered sharply to the right, left the highway, broke through the guardrail, hit the cement barrier, flipped end-over-end and then plunged over the precipice falling approximately 200 feet. While the witnesses did not see the impact, they heard it clearly.

Witness JMC stated he had been travelling at about 70 mph, as was the accident vehicle. On examination and photographing of the scene we discovered no skid marks. Witnesses JMC and MC both stated unequivocally that the vehicle’s brake lights never flashed.

Multiple fire departments were at the impact site at the bottom of the cliff. The fire had been put out by the time we reached them. Two victims released to the coroner at approximately 11:45 am. No identifying documents survived the fire. The wreckage is still being processed. The case has been handed over to Detective Ann Uribe.

These are the facts, and they are singularly unsatisfying. Was this a mechanical malfunction, or something more sinister? Detective Uribe’s report will not directly address this questions. It will simply provide more facts and raise further questions.

The victims have been identified as Georgia Jackson, age 34 and her daughter Milly, age 3.

Forensics report no immediate evidence of mechanical failure. Preliminary findings from the coroner indicate no alcohol or drugs in the driver’s system. The mother’s driving record was clean. No criminal history. No history of psychiatric illness. The driver was a pediatric nurse at Stanley Memory Hospital. No overt hostilities with coworkers.

Married to Robert Jackson, a pediatrician. The marriage was, by all reports, a functional one without conflict or financial difficulties. One son survives, James, aged six.

Robert Jackson has no document history of drug abuse or any other compulsive behavior. Both father and son were visiting with Robert Jackson’s sister Rayanne and her family in Springfield, and had been there for three days at the time of the accident.

Six weeks ago Milly Jackson was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. According to the doctor treating her, she was responding well to treatment and her prognosis was very good. Interviews with family members, coworkers and friends indicate that there were no overt suicidal gestures. We have been unable to contact the driver’s mother, who is traveling in South America. An interview with her might provide more insight into her daughter’s state of mind.

There are some strong indications here of what might have happened, but we only have part of the story. And still, the facts you do have, the things you know add up to something that won’t let go. You want to know what happened, and why Georgia and her daughter died.

Every novelist will approach this differently, but here’s a method that has worked well for me in the past. My experience is that old-fashioned index cards are the best way to proceed. On each card I enter one fact about Georgia’s life based on what I know already. I lay out the cards in chronological order, and consider. What other events in Georgia’s life are important? As I work, facts and scenes, bits of dialog come to me. Each goes on a card, until I have a chronological accounting of major facts in her life:

1. Georgia Adams is born into a middle class family in a small town.

2. When she is three, her younger brother Michael is born.

3. In grade school she is praised for her meticulous, careful ways.

4. At age seven, her brother dies of leukemia.

5. She gets through high school and nursing school, still careful and thorough in all her work.

6. As a pediatric nurse she is fiercely protective of her charges, who love her. However, she never manages to make a connection to parents.

7. She marries a pediatrician she works with, someone she admires for his skill and perceptive way with children.

8. They have two kids, a boy named James and three years later, a daughter they call Milly.

9. At age three, Milly is diagnosed with leukemia.

10. On a cold February morning, Emma takes her daughter to the hospital for a chemotherapy treatment and everything goes as expected.

11. On the way home, Georgia purposefully drives the car off a cliff.

spellingbeecardNow you’ve got something – but it’s still only in its infant stages. We know the facts, but it’s all very clinical. We don’t have a plot. This is where you start shuffling your index cards, because the truth is, you could start telling this story anywhere. As the characters take on form, possibilities suggest themselves:

Card #6: start with a scene in which Georgia is being peppered with questions by the oblivious and disruptive parents of a sick kid, and she comes close to losing her temper – but doesn’t. She never does.

Card #11: Officer Rodriquez tells his mother the story of the accident. He’s only been on the job for three months, and he’s finding it difficult to cope with such a tragedy.

Card #3: Georgia wins a city-wide spelling be because she is the only fifth grader who can spell intravenous. Her parents are absent.

Card #11: We experience the funeral from Paul’s perspective, or his father’s.

Card #7: From Georgia’s own POV we walk through the house she and her husband are thinking of buying when they are newly married. In her mind she keeps comparing it to her childhood home.

Card #11: Detective Uribe interviews Georgia’s husband Paul.

There are dozens and dozens of possible starting points. Any of them could work, but only one will work best for you.

Column written for and first appearing at WriterUnboxed

You’re wondering why you can’t tell the story from beginning to end. Of course you could do that, but most authors can’t afford to take the chance. You’ve got maybe two pages to hook your reader. You might be able to do that with beautiful prose about Georgia’s childhood home, her mother’s diffidence about having children, the stunted apple tree outside the kitchen window. There is one genre that values prose and imagery and characterization above plot. If you’re hoping to catch the interest of the lit-criterati, that stunted apple tree might be the perfect place to start.

On the other hand, most readers don’t think of plot as a four letter word. They don’t think of it as a word at all. They want a compelling story, and a reason to turn the page. The trick is, finding that starting point.

The index card approach works well for me, because it makes me really think. Once I find the right place to start, I may never refer to my index cards again. Or if I do, I might see how the story evolved in a different direction than I had anticipated.

Best of all, it gives me a way to watch Georgia grow up and turn into the woman who drives over that cliff with her three year old daughter strapped into her car seat. Because I understand how she got there, I can, if I do my job right, make you see it too.

Ethan, once more

This post is 2 years old.

Recently I’ve had quite a few emails with questions about the Wilderness series. They are maybe four or five questions that keep coming up, so I’m posting this first, to provide some general insight into this phenomenon, and second, to point people to answers.

Here’s my philosophy about questions arising from a novel: if the author has to tell you, she didn’t do her job very well, OR, you need to think about the questions some more on your own. Because for every question you can ask, there are many answers. Every reader takes away a different reading, and it’s not for me to agree or disagree. So for example, many people have written to me asking about Ethan and the ‘secret’ that brought him home to Paradise and then motivated his proposal to Callie.

It’s not really a secret. All the clues are there, but for me to tell you would be forcing a reading on you that should be your own. I know what I meant, but you are free to read the story, read the clues, and come up with an answer of your own. This is the kind of question that makes a good book club discussion point.

Now, do people sometimes get the wrong end of the stick? Yes. If somebody tells me that Ethan was clearly abducted by aliens and suffering post-traumatic stress, I would say: huh. Really not what I was going for. I might go so far as to say that that person did not read very closely. But that’s as far as I’ll go.

Having said that, there’s an older post that does go into more detail, and you’ll find it here.

Finally, here’s my general explanation of things: authorial confessions.


Digging down to Conflict

This post is 4 years old.

Update: I spend a half hour or an hour every day sorting through old weblog posts in an effort to bring some order to the chaos (for example, if you care to have a look, the FAQ section is actually starting to come together). But every once in a while there’s a post that’s been culled somehow from the herd, so I have to either do some research to figure out where it originated, or repost it. Today time is short, so I’m reposting this, after some editing.

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The nature of conflict in a story is so complex it’s hard to talk about. I’ve rarely run into a teacher or book that does a good job of laying out the very subtle manouevering that goes into establishing and building on conflict. There’s a good chance I won’t pull it off either, but I’m going to try.

People who are just getting started with writing fiction often take things too literally. Yes, you need a major conflict. A couple married seventy years who are thinking about divorce? Yes, excellent conflict. But how do you put that idea into actions, into a story that makes the reader want to turn the page?

You might set the whole story at the breakfast table, your two characters arguing and fighting — but that’s very restrictive for you as a writer, and really hard to pull off well. Your characters will give you an idea of where to start.

Imagine them sitting at a table with you. You are interviewing them.

Writer: Sam, can you tell me why after seventy years of marriage you want a divorce?

Sam: She’s too damn picky. She never lets up. I’m ninety-two, I think I deserve a little peace in whatever time I’ve got coming to me.

Sally: Aren’t you going to ask me?

W: Of course. What’s your version of this story, Sally?

Sally: Sam is selfish. He never thinks about anybody but himself. He gets up, goes to the kitchen, gets a cup of coffee. Does he think to ask me if I want coffee? No. If I ask him will you bring me a cup too? — He makes faces like he’s got a sore tooth. For seventy years I have put dinner on the table. You know how many meals that is? 40,320 meals! And that’s just dinner! And he makes faces about bringing me a cup of coffee.

W: Any response, Sam?

Sam: There was that week I went fishing with Marty, you didn’t cook that week.

Where are you now? You know quite a bit about your two characters’ personalities, but you still don’t know what’s really up. Ask them one more question.

W: But you’ve been coping with things that irritate you — both of you have been coping — for seventy years. Why now? What set this off?

Sally: Mind your own damn business.

Sam: See, now she’s got nothing to say.

At this point you have the backbone of the story. Something happened before the curtain opened. We don’t know what. Sally is defensive about it. Sam is resentful. Maybe she lost all their money at roulette. Maybe she revealed an affair she had fifty years ago. She might want to move to Argentina, while Sam is comfortable outside Santa Fe. As the story unfolds, you’ll start to understand how these two communicate, and a lot of that won’t have anything to do with talking. So I could narrate a scene:

At dinner Sally puts a big pot of Carbonada Criolla on the table. It’s her mother’s recipe, which Sally brought with her when she came from Argentina eighty years ago. She serves Carbonada Criolla only when she really wants to irritate Sam, because she dislikes it as much as he does.

This narration would be the absolute wrong way to handle this scene, but for the moment I just want you to think about what’s the conflict of the moment. Any conflict of the moment has to feed the big conflict, or it doesn’t belong in the story. Does this scene about Carbonada Criolla move the story along? It could. Carbonada Criolla can serve as a big fat symbol for what’s wrong between them. Sally insists she wants to go back to Argentina, and she won’t stop harping about it… but on some level she’s counting on Sam to talk her out of it.

On the other hand, Sam always wanted to travel, and he likes the idea of Argentina — but after seventy years of saying no, he’s got to find a way to say yes that will save his pride. In this chapter or story, there will be very little direct discussion of Argentina, but you will see conflict on an every-day-to-day level. And each scene with its conflict of the moment moves us closer to a crisis in this ongoing struggle of wills.

I’m going to jump over the crisis for the moment and get straight to the resolution. You could be lazy. You could send them off to Argentina, and wave goodbye. But isn’t it more interesting to let the reader participate? If you followed the story of the HBO series The Sopranos, you probably heard all the controvery about the ending. It left everything up the air. Maybe a hitman was going to come through the door and shoot Tony; maybe the FBI was going to arrest him on some charges that he won’t be able to sidestep; maybe he’ll just have a dinner with his family. As the viewer, you take everything you know about the characters and what’s happened thus far, and draw your own conclusions.

In a nutshell: The resolution doesn’t have to be a summary about Sam and Sally’s trip to Argentina. You can lead the reader up to that point, and if you are devious enough, you can leave the question for them to answer. Here are some possible very symbolic final scenes to this story — each of which provides a very different idea of the story that went before it:

Sam goes into a travel agency and asks for brochures about visiting Sweden.

Sally calls her awful sister in Argentina and says she’s sending her a first class, one way ticket to Sante Fe.

Sam opens a book to find a photo of Sally when she was twenty-one.

Dinner time, and Sally puts Carbonada Criolla on the table.

Sam buys a bathing suit.

So what we’ve done here is: we’ve got our characters fleshed out and moving around. And we’ve got the resolution. With only this much, a whole story can blossom into being. I realize this may not be very clear at this point, but bear with me a little longer.

Yesterday you put down some thoughts about a character based only on a photograph. Today you’re going to think up five possible symbolic resolutions — not for your character, but in isolation. These symbolic resolutions may not be huge or emotional events; they may not be completely passive, either. Here are some examples:

(character unknown) …. buys a red velvet cape. …. jumps the stile instead of paying the subway fare …. takes a half eaten sandwich out of a public trash bin and tucks it in his/her pocket

resolutions that won’t work: Character X gets run over by a train (too big); brushes her teeth (too little).

Tomorrow I’ll pair the characters with yesterday’s exercise with resolutions from today’s. You’ll be astounded at what pops out of the Story Machine.