I enjoy writing down stories and thoughts, although I have to slice and dice them vigorously before I can share them. I tend to ramble.
Retirement and blogging are giving me a chance to see if I can become more effective at storytelling. Of course, one way to practice writing and seek a comfortable writing style is to emulate the writers you most enjoy reading, then fine tune what works for you. The corollary to this, of course, is that you have to be willing to discard what doesn’t, and that’s never easy!
Through my life, I’ve had quite a few favorite authors. When I was a teenager, I loved Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Grahame Greene and J. D. Salinger. Lots of angst and passion. As my tastes matured a little, and I took time to understand them, I came to love (and envy) the spare, economical poetry of Robert Frost and imagery of John Steinbeck. A somewhat starker end of the spectrum.
I’m a fan of biographies, mysteries, history, and fiction. In my forties, as I read more novels to unwind, I began to appreciate some of the devices authors use to share a story. One of my favorites is a change in point of view. I like seeing all facets of a story and understanding how they fit together. Authors who leave dangling facts and ideas out there undeveloped drive me mad, in both senses of the word. I love it when a good book comes together.
Many authors have used the shift in viewpoint in one way or another, but I’m partial to three I believe have done it very effectively, and each a little differently.
Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost is a classic example of this technique. Pears exposes his story of a murder in Oxford during the 17th century through the eyes of four different characters – each with a distinct viewpoint and agenda. As each character shares the “truth” through a particular filter, we revisit events – sometimes up close, sometimes from a distance, and the reader becomes privy to details certain narrators may lack.
The style and tempo of the narrative varies with each viewpoint, and Pears does a wonderful job of forming each character’s voice and personality. If you haven’t read it, give it a try – An Instance of the Fingerpost is a good read, if for no other reason than to understand how even small things can affect our judgements and interpretations of events – and how easily a good narrator can persuade us. There’s some fascinating historical framework, too.
Another master (or mistress) of this technique is Susan Howatch. Not only does each chapter in her books pick up the story through a new character’s eyes, but she employs a second interesting device for developing plots – she pulls them from history. She might take the Plantagenets, for example, and translate their family intrigues into the world of the 1940’s.
I love the way Howatch uses both of these devices, and the way she can inhabit both male and female characters, making them equally passionate and believable in the first person. The interesting thing about first person narratives is that we can become sympathetic to even the most difficult characters, at least for a while. Because Howatch writes her books in series, we can follow the consequences of actions, and perceptions of them, through several generations.
The last example is my current favorite guilty pleasure – Diana Gabaldon. Gabaldon is the author of the Outlander series of novels, and a number of related novellas, graphic novels and short stories. She has almost a cult-like following of readers who are caught up in the story, and the storytelling
Gabaldon’s stories have several layers that help draw us in: She is actually, by training, an accomplished biologist and so infuses her stories with scientific and medical detail that is fascinating; she uses the device of mystical time travel to transport us to Jacobite Scotland, Revolutionary War America, and the mid- to late-20th century; she has developed a life-long love story in the intense romance between James and Claire Fraser. If you plan to start reading, start with the novels and read them in order to avoid “spoilers” and help keep track of her increasingly complex cast of well-drawn characters.
Gabaldon tells her stories with ruthless adherence to the difficulties of the times, but also with a wonderful sense of humor and whimsy. This she accomplishes by using two voices. About half of the story in the Outlander novels is told through Claire’s eyes, and with her wry sense of things. The rest, in order to complete our understanding of other points of view, is done in the third person. Chapters move back and forth between the two voices in Gabaldon’s very conversational style, and I’m prone to laughing right out loud when Claire is “speaking.”
What each of these authors has done, and masterfully, is draw each character so well and so finely that the reader hears the individual voices and recognizes them. Consistent character development takes time and effort, but it pays off in smooth and engaging storytelling.
So, how do I translate my loves of change in viewpoint, inner voice, and history to my own writing? Well, I’m working on that. I’ve garnered some interesting historical snippets from my family history research, and am working on stories laced with the journal entries of my fictional key characters. The journals are helping me draw and understand my characters, giving me an opportunity to develop their distinct voices inside a more cohesive, conversational framework. We’ll see how it goes. It’s an interesting exercise, at the very least.
Historical fiction is fun, but getting the details right and the voices balanced is a craft that will take some honing. The idea here is that learning from my favorite parts of the books I love reading will help me find my own singular style, and it might be one that you will enjoy reading.
One can hope.
This post was written in response to a WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge. This week’s theme is Stylish Imitation. To see more about this challenge and about the writing styles inspiring other bloggers, click here.
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