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A Fly on the 19th century Wall July 18, 2010

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George Eliot

Image by Steve Hunnisett via Flickr

While looking over my last plinky prompt (the product of a burst of late night energy) I began to wonder what perspective I had been writing from. I was too tired to think up any names, so both of the characters remained nameless. However, I also wrote some of what the characters were thinking. This led me to ask the question: Where would you put this sort of dialogue in a novel?

An interesting thing that I’ve noticed about novels (and yes, the 19th century novels in particular) is that there is not always a consistent perspective. The author sometimes switches from third person limited to omniscient without another thought and sometimes even switches from first person to third person!

A dramatic example of this is in George Eliot‘s Mill on the Floss. She starts the novel with this totally ambiguous narrator in the first chapter. It’s written in the first person and someone can spend ages deciding if its Maggie, or her brother, or one of her two lovers. This is because the second chapter begins in the third person suddenly, and the reader asks the question: is the narrator really referring to his/herself in the third person? Weird. Where did the narrator go?

This is, of course, not playing by the rules. And while the students of modern literature scoff at straight-laced Victorian writing, these so-called conservative Victorians did, indeed, break all the rules of perspective that we now hold in high regard. When someone asks you what you wrote your story in, a budding novelist of today will tell you readily “Oh, third person limited” or maybe “First person, of course.” They probably won’t say: “Well, I started in third person omniscient, but then I switched to third person limited, and ended it in first person.”

Since the Victorian writers are no longer with us, the conventions/rules are that your perspective should be consistent. If you start changing it in the middle,  your readers will (supposedly) be confused and it shows amateurish writing…But not if you do it purposefully.

Let’s take the example above. How do you write a novel in third person omniscient, third person limited, AND first person?

Well, first you would start with a very sparse third person omniscient. Like a fly on the wall only with partial access to characters’ thoughts. Maybe it’s a dialogue between two henchmen:

Henchman 1: “If the boss says we take care of him, then we’d better take care of him.”

Henchman 2 shrugged as he took two guns out of the locked cabinet labeled “Cadbury Eggs.” It was time they changed the label to something classier, he just didn’t know what. He wasn’t looking forward to the job either. He had finally gotten tickets to the big game and now this would eaten into his schedule.

Henchman 2 nudged him and gestured to the fly on the fall, suspiciously listening to their conversation. “Hey, what’s that fly doing there?”

Then, it switches to third person limited surrounding the main character.

Joe Walker, successful businessman, philanthropist, and secret organizer of Project 51, sauntered across the street. He checked his watch demurely. He was already twenty minutes late to work thanks to a faulty alarm clock. But he didn’t worry about that too much seeing as he owned the company. His morning appointments would have to wait. As he waited at the next intersection, he saw two dubious characters lurking in front of his office building.

And finally, near the end of the novel, the first person narrative.

As Joe opened up his mailbox, a mysterious and very hefty letter fell out. Not wanting to stay long in the lobby of the apartment complex, Joe dashed up to his penthouse suite where he could read the letter without an attempt on his life. He had a feeling that this was going to be important and perhaps explain the events that had happened. It was from Sylvia, the maid at number 27 and a secret agent:

In these pages, I am enclosing the details of what happened on September 18th. If you are reading this, something has happened.

Then, there is a narrative from Sylvia’s perspective. Usually during this narrative, the reader forgets about Joe and for a few chapters it is essentially a first person narrative with dialogue, plot, and characters. Some of this account might even overlap with events that have already happened in Joe’s third person limited account.

This switching of perspectives always keeps a reader on their toes and is also a nice addition to a mystery novel, or even any novel. And if someone tells you that this is “just not done!” simply tell them: “You see it all the time in 19th century literature.”

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A Chase in Alaska July 17, 2010

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Svalbard, tundra landscape

The tundra was cold and desolate. As the cops looked across the barren field, they noticed that there were no houses or buildings in sight. Nothing but snow and the occasional shrub. The endless sky was already beginning to darken.

“I think we lost him,” one of the cops remarked dryly. She brushed some snow off of her special issue uniform. As an animal rights activist, nothing but synthetic fur would do. Her partner looked at her incredulously.

“How’d we lose him? There’s nothing here for miles!”

“Beats me. I wasn’t the one who fled the scene. Now I guess we’re lost, thanks to your clever pursuit.” The sarcasm was lost on the second cop, however. He went back to the squad car and looked around. There was, indeed, no sign of the road they had left nearly a half hour ago. He started to miserably hunch back into the driver’s seat.

“Oh no,” the other cop started for the car, “I’m driving this time. Back to the station.”

“But he couldn’t have gotten far,” he protested.

“In a white car? At dusk? In the middle of the tundra?”

The car was white, he had to admit. And not a grungy white either, like the car had been around the block a couple of times. No, it was a white as pure as the driven snow, like it had just been driven out of the dealers’. Probably hot, he thought to himself. He couldn’t remember seeing the license plate. But, he reflected as he grudgingly scooted over to the passenger’s side, even combining the two crimes it wasn’t worth pursuit at night. It had been ages since they had seen a gas station. In fact, when was the last time he had filled the tank up?

The car gave a few grumbles as she tried to start the engine.

“Not working?” he asked.

“No…” the other cop answered absently. Then she caught a glance at the fuel gauge. “We’re out of gas! I thought you were going to fill this up.”

“I thought you were. You said you were going to the convenience store so I just thought…”

“Not the store at the gas station!”

“Phone the station. They could send over a truck.”

The other cop nodded as she picked up the handset. “This is car 14 requesting assistance. We’re out of gas, over.”

A static-filled voice answered on the other side. “What’s your position?”

The cop in the passenger side turned on the gps, scrutinizing the small, glowing screen carefully “Uh…” The other cop leaned over his shoulder.

“We’re in Canada?! We just crossed the boarder! He’s way out of our jurisdiction now!”

“Assistance might take a while,” the static voice at the station replied. “If you see a polar bear, try to keep a low profile, over.”

The cop in the driver’s seat pulled on her heavier jacket, “That’s not funny.”

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Fiction in a Flash July 9, 2010

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Ah ha! No sooner had I posted Plinky Prompts than I saw this post, also on how to use it to help the creative writing process. On the weekend (apparently when people have more time to write) Plinky users can choose to participate in the “Weekend Writing Challenges.” The first of which will be writing in the third person.

However, the post directs you to a flash fiction story, an example of what you could write in the third person. And flash fiction without a warning label would just be false advertising:

Warning: Flash fiction is not for the faint of heart. Entire story arc must be completed in a limited word count. 

While I agree that flash fiction would be very useful for this era of short/compressed messages, a writer has to put as much thought into it as a novel or short story (sometimes more). I first heard about this genre under the title “sudden fiction” and that’s an even better description. It’s speed dating for the world of fiction. The story starts out slowly but frantically as the writer adds as much subtle detail as possible. Imagine a swan swimming across the water gracefully while its feet are paddling under the surface. Then, the end pops up suddenly and the whole thing abruptly stops. If it’s good, the reader feels that the whole story was extremely clever without knowing quite what it was about.

I’m not sure if all flash fiction is written in the third person or if it could also work in the first person.

For more information on flash fiction, or sudden fiction, there is a wikipedia article on it.

Dreaming of the Arctic July 8, 2010

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Aurora Borealis, the colored lights seen in the skies around the North Pole, the Northern Lights, from Bear Lake, Alaska, Beautiful Christmas Scene, Winter Star Filled Skies, Scenic Nature

While I would usually answer this question with “any warm place” I am less inclined to do so during this tremendous heat wave we’re having right now. So, to think cool thoughts, my dream vacation would be northern canada or Alaska–To trek through the snow all bundled up, see the gigantic polar bears, the clever penguins, the seals with liquid black eyes, and especially the aurora borealis.

I have always wanted to see the northern lights and (to anyone wanting to make it a real vacation as opposed to a dream vacation) this is a good year to take the trip. According to Discover magazine, the solar rays are more active this year causing your chances of seeing the northern lights to increase.

And there would be something magical about standing in the middle of a frozen lake looking up at the sky with no sound except for the mysterious crackling and whistling of the aurora borealis.

Plinky Prompts July 8, 2010

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After dragging my heels a bit about signing up for plinky prompts, I finally gave it a try and really enjoyed it. And who doesn’t like answering questions about themselves? (This might be the reason that rampant Facebook quizzes are so popular).

This also sparked a revelation. While plinky is designed for people who don’t know what to put on their blog posts, it can also be useful for the regular kind of writer’s block as well, outside of the blogosphere. For instance, today’s prompt is–Describe your dream vacation. This could be used for a number of things:

1) You could describe your personal dream vacation

2) If you are stuck on character development, you could imagine what their dream vacation would be like (and try to make it unusual to avoid stereotyping)

3) You could take a second look at your dream vacation and use that as a setting for your next story

Plinky acts as a virtual writing prompt book. And, if you’re anything like me and flip through a writing prompt book to get to the good prompts, it helps you pace yourself and encourages you to work with just the one prompt you’re given. It is also good in that it encourages writing every day–using the prompts to write well or creatively will help you ultimitely improve your writing.

My Favorite Comfort Book July 7, 2010

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I have, possibly, the most beaten-up copy of Howl’s Moving Castle sitting in a special place on my bookshelf right now. Diana Wynne Jones, the author, is a British children’s fantasy genius and this is one of my favorites. I read this book every year (sometimes twice a year) and also enjoyed the Miyazaki film. I am also known to hoist it onto other people to read and everyone who has reports back that they also enjoyed it.

I first checked out this book years ago from the library and I kept checking it out so often that I decided to buy a copy for myself. It is part sophisticated fairy tale, part romantic comedy, and part whimsical fantasy. The novel follows the story of Sophie Hatter who runs away to seek her fortune when an evil witch turns her into an old lady in a hilarious case of mistaken identity. The novel deals with such subjects as challenging social norms, not judging people or things on appearance, and Welsh Rugby.

Howl’s Moving Castle is my “comfort book” and I can vividly remember my first night in Scotland, studying abroad, when I started to re-read it for maybe the dozenth time. I had had a harrowing time navigating through Heathrow on practically no sleep (not to mention the nervousness that comes with traveling alone for the first time) and waiting out a layover that took hours. Then, after a long bus ride, I somehow stumbled across the right dorm and, after unpacking all of my important items, grabbed blindly for Howl’s Moving Castle to read the first few lines that I had practically memorized. I forgot all about worrying where to find the mysterious Tescos that the orientation volunteers told me about or what my new roomate might be like. Diana Wynne Jones invites you into new worlds by the first sentence and it is definitely a book that I can continue to read over and over again.

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