grammaticality: not your every day definition

There are a lot of weblogs out there that are focused entirely on helping people keep … weblogs. How to maintain a blog, how to write an article, how to promote what you’re doing so you get more visitors. I don’t often take the time to keep up with this particular kind of blog, but then somebody sent me a link to a post.  The evocative title: Are bloggers and blogs ruining the English language?

What irritates me about this kind of discussion is the failure to distinguish between (a) written and spoken language;  (b) grammar and punctuation; and (c) form and function.

A.  The tyranny of the written word is such that we give it authority over the spoken language. Which is, if you think about it, not very logical. We write things that tax our ability to remember, or to project our thoughts through time and space. We speak everything else. But (I hear you ask) aren’t they the same thing, just as water is water whether it  flows, or freezes so that we can walk on it? Isn’t it just a matter of presentation? Can’t speech and  writing be treated as different manifestations of the same mental phenomenon? Wouldn’t spoken language be more efficient if we treated it like written language?

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getting started

Everybody approaches a new novel in their own idiosyncratic way. Some people do no prep work at all, and don’t need it. With a germ of an idea they sit down and struggle through, page by page. Some take a year or more to get organized and comfortable with the material and characters.

Historical novelists can approach a new novel in a variety of ways, but in general terms you’ve got two choices: do the research up front, or leave all that detail work for later and simply put brackets in the text where research is necessary. Of course most people use a combination of these two approaches.

Historical fiction requires a lot of background work no matter how you approach it. A writer who is an avid gardener may decide to write a novel about André Le Nôtre who designed the Sun King’s gardens at Versailles. The writer’s interest in gardening will make the research more pleasant, but it won’t necessarily make it easier. Luckily various scholars have looked into the life of André Le Nôtre and his relationship to Louis XIV, so you’d have some place to start (for example, Ian Thompson’s The Sun King’s Garden: Louis XIV, Andre le Notre and the Creation of the Gardens of Versailles . Another thing: if you’re really serious about the time and place, you’d have an easier time if you happened to be able to read 17th century French.

Which face it, most of us are not. My advice to anybody thinking about historical fiction: don’t commit yourself to a topic unless you are really, really intrested in it. Because if you are not so keen on Egyptology, it’s going to be hard to write a novel about Cleopatra, no matter how much her character interests you. I learned my lesson about this one day when I was trying to make sense of a diagram of an East Indiaman, and I realized that I had had more than enough of ships, and really, had never much liked them to start with. At that point I had no choice but to muddle through.

So here I sit with the Wilderness world spread out around me. The first five books, the lists of characters in those books, timelines, age charts, maps, notes. The first thing I do is to construct the world in which the new book is set. That means determining year and month, and once that is done, looking at what’s going on in the world in general. From there I work my way down to the specific: where are all the characters? What are they doing? Are they settled? Any major problems or conflicts pop up while I was busy with Pajama Jones?

All this stuff gets written down in a chart where I can draw connections and write notes. I ask myself questions. Where did Anna go? What did she die of? Is her husband thinking of remarrying? Most important I look at major issues of the time and place. Is there a war brewing? How will that effect the village? Was there a drought that year? That might be the key to the whole structure of the novel.

This process takes a couple days. When I’m done I’ve got lists and pages of notes and drawings, a long series of subjects I’ll have to research, and also, if things go well, an idea of the major and minor conflicts that will drive the story.

So I’m getting my paper and colored pens and drawing pencils organized. Stay tuned, and I’ll see if I can describe the process as I go through it.


I like architectural drawings. Always have. Every once in a while I wonder about taking a drafting course and then of course the reality of my daily routine makes short work of such fantasies.
architectural drawings
There’s a wonderful Canadian website on the architectural heritage of British Columbia, with lots of visuals and historical information. For example there’s extensive information about the South Park School, including a perspective sketch (seen here), and a whole series of measured drawings on elevations, sections, floor plans, and design details.

For Pajama Jones I have permission (I have given myself permission) to get all involved in discussions of historical landmarks in the south, particularly older mills and manufacturing facilities that are historical, but have fallen into repair and need to be taken care of. Most likely I’ll be using a textile factory for PJ, but I have been thinking a lot about the possibility of an older tobacco processing plant or, more fun, a very old distillery. There’s one in Tennessee that dates back to the 1700s which has been neglected and falling apart for the last fifty years or so. Now if I could only find architectural drawings of it.


Chris took me up on my offer to address specific topics, wanting to know “how you go about plotting your stories. Do you work backwards, do you use mind-mapping, do you write bits and pieces and then thread them together..”

First, for every novel I’ve written so far I have had to provide my publisher with an outline. Which means that whether I want to or not, I have to do some plotting ahead of time. Now, I’m not obliged to stick to that outline, and I never really have. So why ask for it? I think they just feel better knowing that I can put a series of ideas together before they hand over an advance. Nobody has ever said to me, once the manuscript is handed in, hey! you said that Mr. X was going to kill Mr. Y, and he didn’t.

The outline aside, I usually start by writing down lots of stuff long hand. I’m very visually oriented so I get out maps and big pieces of paper. I sit down and think through

(a) where my characters are at a given point (I’m talking about plotting the Wilderness novels, of course, which come along with a complicated backstory);
(b) where they want to be (what their individual goals are);
(c) where I’d like them to be by the end of the novel;
(d) what’s standing in the way of (b) and (c).

Which is to say, I set up goals and complications. I make lists and spider charts and draw lots of lines to connect people and ideas. While doing this, things jump out at me, usually big questions. Like: what in the heck are these people doing in New Orleans in the first place? I write that in big red letters, and then I think about that for a while. Someplace on the main piece of paper I write a couple of things I have to keep reminding myself about:

— happy people leading easy, uncomplicated lives do not make a good story, or: bad things must happen to good characters;
— bad guys have to be interesting if they can’t be likable;
— one step at a time

By the time this part of the process is done, I have a lot of scribbled notes and odd drawings that don’t make sense to anybody else. I try to distill those down to some major plots points, of two types:

(A) actual historical events I can’t skip, or don’t want to;

(B) the pivotal character-specific events or scenes I know will have to happen someplace in the course in the novel.

Under (B) there might be (and these aren’t real):

(1) character X has been lying about something important in order to get Y and Z to go with her to Timbuktu, and she’s going to have to come clean at some point, which means a confrontation;
(2) He and She have been dancing around each other and are finally getting to the point where the relationship has to be acknowledged, that will be a series of scenes, and a lot of dialog
(3) Character Y is going to come down with (pick one) malaria, cancer, blood poisoning.

Then I make notes and diagrams about how (A) and (B) might intersect.

Are you still with me?

With all this material, notes, research materials, drawings, ideas, questions, I then spend a lot of time thinking about the opening paragraph and scene, which will set the tone for the whole novel. The first paragraph takes a long time to get right, the first scene even longer. I probably rewrite these few pages more than any other part of the whole novel, because I can’t really take off until I get them down to near perfection. Once I move beyond that point, I almost never go back and change anything substantive in them.

Still awake?

At this point, I feel my way, very slowly. The first scene/chapters have set up the primary conflicts, if I’ve done my work. I move forward from there, in order. I don’t write bits and pieces and then rearrange them and string them together. I know some people can work like that, but I depend on a sense of building something very measured and balanced, one piece on top of the next. Very rarely I’ll skip over a part of a scene because of technical or research questions and move on fast because the rest of the bit is right there, waiting to be spat onto the paper. But that’s pretty rare.

If I come to a dead standstill, it’s because I’ve forced the narrative in the wrong direction, and I never get very far. Usually my subconscious stops me right at that point, and won’t let me go on until I fix it.

So I proceed this way, chapter by chapter, stopping after every one to re-read, figure out where I am, and where the characters are going next. Often I get the sense that one character or another needs to be heard, and I’ll switch to that POV, which is a little bit like filling the tank and changing the oil and cleaning the windshields to roar off, full of energy, on a new morning of a very long road trip.

I think this pretty much covers my plotting methods for the Wilderness books. I can talk about the contemporary, stand alone I’m working on, too, if you’re interested in that.