Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Research-Plot Integration in Historical Romance Part 4

Part 1 of this series is:

Part 2 of this series is:

Part 3 of this series is:

This series is ostensibly about Maggie Anton's trilogy, Rashi's Daughters.  Actually, it's about how you can write a better historical novel than that trilogy (as good as any novel is, you can always do better). 

This blog series is most especially about how to craft Paranormal Romance.

My Jan 2012 release, The Farris Channel is extremely Paranormal, not so extremely Romance, and very "Future Historical" since it answers the fans' questions about the historical background, the worldbuilding behind novels set later in the Chronology.  So my thinking has been focused on Paranormal Historical Romance, hence this relentless pursuit of the inner mechanisms of the Rashi's Daughters trilogy. 

The question is how to lure hostile readers into a suspension of disbelief that will let you ask them a question they'll never forget.  If you can achieve that, readers will force their friends to read your novel because they can't talk to anyone who doesn't have that background reference, and they want to talk about finding the answer to that nagging question.  Posing questions is what "science" is all about, which is the core essence of what "science fiction" is about.  Posing those nagging questions about the Paranormal as it relates to Romance is much harder than posing questions about simple physics and he-man Action Adventure.   

So here we go with the 4th part of this series, exploring what a writer does with their mind to integrate Research into Plot using Theme as the integration tool, to break up the lumps of exposition to create a smooth, unified product, "shaken not stirred." 

Last week we ended off with this idea from a musical analogy:

A theme is composed of ideas (beats) but defined by the "silence" between them -- by what is not mentioned, by what is ignored, deemed unimportant or non-existent, by how the idea is spread across time.

Consider the pixels on a TV screen.  The clarity of the screen is created by the deepness of the black surrounding each lit pixel, not by the brightness of the pixel itself.  You can research that on amazon or just remember what the Sony Trinitron screen had that nothing else on the market had -- and that was true-black surrounding each pixel.  Today, it's the Panasonic plasma screen (tightly held patents) that lead in BLACKNESS. 

It's the lack of signal, the lack of picture that makes the picture comprehensible.

And so it is with philosophy, the mother of theme.  What does not exist lets what does exist come together in meaning.

This sorting skill is usually learned in the earliest experience in school of "writing a term paper."  You have to learn what to exclude as well as what to include. 

The fiction writer, though, is an artist whose medium is emotion. 

The fictioneer can't transfer their own emotion to the reader.  The writer must activate emotions the reader already has.

That's why children's lit is so different from adult fare -- as we age, we acquire more emotions, more mixtures of emotion, and more emotional triggers. 

A baby's eyes at first only distinguish the primary colors -- and the brain can only experience the primary emotions (mostly in isolation from each other - hence the ability of a baby to be distracted).  A baby really only does one emotion at a time.  Adults can experience all the primary emotions at once, and many mixed emotions each with an identify of its own.   

Here is some recently reported research you've all heard by now on the development of the teenage brain, which gives a clue why YA novels have to be different from those aimed at older people.

It now appears the brain continues to change into the early 20's with the frontal lobes, responsible for reasoning and problem solving, developing last.
The decade-long magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of normal brain development, from ages 4 to 21, by researchers at NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) shows that such "higher-order" brain centers, such as the prefrontal cortex, don't fully develop until young adulthood as grey matter wanes in a back-to-front wave as the brain matures and neural connections are pruned...

In calm situations, teenagers can rationalize almost as well as adults. But stress can hijack what Ron Dahl, a pediatrician and child psychiatric researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center calls "hot cognition" and decision-making. The frontal lobes help put the brakes on a desire for thrills and taking risk -- a building block of adolescence; but, they're also one of the last areas of the brain to develop fully.
 ---------end quote------------

Indications in this research are that the brain continues to change with age, and especially with usage.  Thus a teen who reads ends up with a different brain than one who does not.  A teen who reads THIS as opposed to THAT may actually end up with a different wiring.  Given that books (cold text) delivers different emotional experiences, it could be that subject matter actually does make a difference.  Sexual excitement induced by reading cold text may differ from that associated with images, and from that coming via reality.

It has already been shown that adult and elder brains can repair or relearn function after motor injuries.  So targeting your reader by age, and by experience is important in delivering the emotional roller-coaster ride a novel is expected to carry. 

The adult's emotional triggers are the hooks or handles by which the writer can take hold of the reader. 

Back to art, music and now dance.  The writer is dancing with the reader, rhythmically moving with the reader's emotions, leading them into other emotions, and onwards perhaps into unexplored territory and new emotions.

As with music, it is the pauses in the dance that give it meaning, just as the silence gives the musical beat it's rhythm.

A fictional theme is composed of abstract ideas, each one lit up like the pixel on a TV screen or computer monitor -- the clarity of the piece of fiction, it's penetrating ability, it's gosh-wow-gasp effect depends not on what is said but on what is not said -- on the stark, absolute darkness and silence surrounding each idea.  But the theme is not "art" unless all the ideas composing it add up to a picture of "Life, The Universe, And Everything" - on matters of ultimate concern. 

This can be done in many ways.  The bestselling way is to use the writer's craft to depict the universe in the exact way that the majority of readers either see it or wish it were.  The "genre way" -- the smaller, more defined audience way (i.e. Romance fans, History buffs, Geeks, Murder Mystery fans, Western Action fans) is to depict the universe in a way that the target reader has never seen or thought of before - to say something that has never been said in fiction, to astonish, mesmerize, and impress. 

If you have something new to say, genre rules and strict structure can give you the  backbone of a story which can be the vehicle for that theme.  By using an established structure the reader knows (like picking a "theme" for your email), you can showcase your idea in the forefront.  The security of already understanding the structure lets the reader focus on what you have to say.

If you're saying the same old thing everyone already knows, you invent a new way to say it, a new genre structure or variation, or you find a new setting against which to fling your old-hat idea as Maggie Anton has done. 

If you put a new idea into a new structure, the reader gets the impression of a "busy" field of view, a 'cluttered' page, something they can't sort any sense out of and so don't pay money for. 

To get rid of the "cluttered" or "busy" impression, the writer integrates the story-structure elements into a unified whole.  You smooth and blend, to get that effect, you shake not stir. 

So how do you "shake not stir" Research into Plot? 

What's the exact mechanism a writer's mind uses to achieve that smooth blend of hard facts the reader already knows and the Events in the story that happen to the character? 

What is it Maggie Anton didn't do with her novels?

She did take the old, worn, done to death, feminist vs. the establishment conflict and fling it into a new setting -- 1040 C.E. in Rashi's family. 

She astonished us by showing Rashi's family just barely resisting the feminist daughters who won all their freedoms with barely a struggle (while in the rest of their world, women were killed for less but Anton doesn't discuss that except via one character, the daughter of a parchment maker -- from whom we learn a lot about how parchment is made).  And Anton got the Rashi's Daughters trilogy published without a genre label. 

That's a fairly solid publishing success, but what do you do if you want to go Anton one better?

You ask yourself questions - certain HARD questions about the reality in which the characters are embedded and how the character would see the world differently than the writer would in the same circumstance.

Instead of projecting yourself onto your characters (Mary Sue) - you project your characters onto yourself and look for the life lesson to be extracted from the events, a lesson you wouldn't be aware of if you were living through the events because it would affect you subconsciously, not consciously.

The life-lesson is the origin of the theme; the events become the plot.

Here are some previous posts I've done on theme and how to apply it to plot and story generation:

which has links to the previous parts in that sequence.

The post topics are:

Believing in Happily Ever After Part 1, Stephen King on Potter VS Twilight
Believing in Happily Ever After Part 2, The Power of Theme-Plot Integration.
Believing in Happily Ever After Part 3, Standardization vs Customization
Believing in Happily Ever After Part 4, Nesting Huge Themes Inside Each Other

So I'm going to proceed on the assumption you've read those posts and the posts referred to inside them. 

Of course we're talking about HISTORICAL (actual, factual) fiction here, Rashi's Daughters.

We all know how unhappily ever after the European Jewish population lived.  We know that the era in which Rashi's family lived had been preceded by a number of really horrendous slaughters, and that more slaughters were to come.  That was Maggie Anton's problem - to depict convincingly the flourishing years of that historic community through the eyes of one generation of that historic family who knew the past and weren't oblivious to where it all was headed. 

Anton had the historic fact and the ambition to show us how strong, heroic women might have survived in and contributed to that  flourishing intellectual culture.  She had a feminist mindset to project onto historic figures, proposing the notion that our current feminist breakout may have had its roots in the spiritual heritage all Jewish women share. 

Anton hit on a hellishly commercial fictional CONCEPT -- like in "Hollywood High Concept" that I've written about at such length.








I wouldn't be surprised if these novels are made into films or a TV miniseries -- this stuff is high concept to the max.

Assuming you've got the principles discussed in those posts fully internalized, let's move on. 

Anton just didn't use the writing techniques to blend her HIGH CONCEPT into the historic facts without distorting them.  She didn't generate her fictional facts from the historic facts to create characters with enough depth to make readers such as I quoted in Part 2 of this sequence of posts suspend disbelief long enough to entertain the notion that Rashi's daughters might have been feminists in an anti-feminist society. 

The hard-fact research truth is that Rashi's daughters did not live in an anti-feminist society because that's not the kind of atmosphere Rashi's community generated -- as the commentator I quoted in Part 2 mentioned, that's the truth.  The surrounding Christian community, though, is a totally different kettle of themes. 

If Anton's research is as well done as indicated, Anton knows that truth.  In a number of places, she indicated that the customs lived in Rashi's times were different from the customs later introduced by an even more beleaguered Jewish community after even more slaughters, so I can only assume that she also knew that Rashi's community was not anti-feminist.  Even today, in a certain corner of the community that lives the world-view that Rashi chronicled in his commentaries, feminism is a non-issue because there's no oppression to spark it.  Therefore, to those in that community, Anton's novels seem to lack verisimilitude. 

But the novels didn't have to fail to engage that corner of the community if suspension of disbelief had succeeded. 

Remember the connection between plot and story is the character whose decisions and actions cause events which splash-back to affect the character.  Those decisions and actions are the only real clue the reader has about the theme. 

The story is the sequence of emotional states and reactions the character experiences when impacted by events that leads the character to CHANGE -- to "arc" -- to learn a life lesson in the school of hard knocks. 

The plot is the sequence of events that ensue BECAUSE the character acts prompted by emotion.

The story is the sequence of inner emotions the character experiences that CAUSE the character to act in specific ways, that cause the plot to happen.

The character's actions cause reactions which deflect the character from his/her intended course of action -- the plot is the sequence of events that take the character either back to their original target (achieving an objective) which is the "Likeable hero struggles against seemingly overwhelming odds toward a worthwhile goal" plot, or to a new destination that is either a) better than the original target or b) worse (in which case there's a sequel coming) -- which is the "Johnny gets his fanny caught in a bear trap and has his adventures getting it out" plot.

So where does theme come in?  How can theme integrate Researched facts with Imaginary facts (worldbuilding) and with plot?

The theme embodies what the character learns about life, a transcendent truth that becomes customized specifically for that character.

A life-lesson has a practical, concrete component, but it also has an emotional component.  After one of those hard-knocks that only "life" can delivery, our emotional triggers are changed, and we react differently to situations, colors, tastes, the sound of a voice, the flash of a camera in the face. 

For example, consider a rape victim learning to love and have sex freely again.  Consider a soldier who dives under the bed every time it thunders learning to walk in the rain and laugh. 

Those kinds of turn-arounds happen because of a deep and meaningful Relationship moving through various stages, impacting the person on many levels.  Those turn-arounds are the story, and what changes inside the character is emotional. 

What brings a reader into a story, making the reader want to suspend disbelief, and willing to work to shut off the mental jangle of "that's ridiculous" is the way the character's emotional responses connect to the reader's emotional responses. 

Where do emotions come from?

The various answers to that question that you as the writer have, and that your target readership has or wants to have, will determine how you work with theme. 

With my novel that I discussed last week, Unto Zeor, Forever, I used the theory that emotions come from your philosophy -- and vice-verso, your philosophy comes from your emotions.  Yeah, chicken and the egg -- they interact with and cause each other.

Think of that TV screen analogy again.  When the screen is turned off, the pixels are still there but they are as black as the surrounding background.  The screen still has a pixel array structure, but you can't see it without special instruments. 

The structure is a certain number of pixels in rows across and columns down - an array.  The pixels are all the same size, the rim around them, separating them is also uniform. 

That all-black pattern, or array of pixels is your philosophy.  It's a structure that is fixed and unwavering, a screen UPON WHICH you project your reality. 

The specific choices you make about story, plot, setting, characters, will light up the pixels, and each succeeding choice will reveal more of the whole picture.  But whether that picture is intelligible to your reader will depend on the blacks around each pixel.  In other words, your reader's suspension of disbelief depends on what you leave out.

You will "see" your mental reality only as clearly as the blacks around your pixels.  The smaller the pixels, the more numerous the pixels (or axioms and postulates of your philosophy) the finer your picture of reality will be. 

Some people work on their philosophy and achieve a picture quality like High Definition.  Some have LED quality screens, some have Plasma quality colors.  Some are still living with analog screens, large fuzzy pixels, a blurry picture of reality.

The artist's job is to show the consumer of the art how the world would look with deeper blacks around the pixels, with LED back-lighting, with clearer vision. 

The artist draws a picture of reality the consumer would never sort out by themselves by sorting the signal from the noise, and suppressing the noise until the signal reveals a coherent picture of life, the universe, and everything.  The artist distinguishes signal from noise by filtering the signal through a philosophy -- not necessarily the artist's own philosophy, though most beginners start there. 

The writer has a philosophy, her characters each have a philosophy, and the reader has a philosophy.  Very likely, all are different.

The writer's job is to know their own philosophy in order to know how it differs from the character's philosophy.  That's how you avoid writing a Lt. Mary Sue, who is just yourself idealized. 

Most ordinary people don't know their own philosophy -- don't know they have one, and barely have a notion of what the word means.  Normal people don't enjoy discussing philosophy.  Writers thrive on it.  Artists thrive on it.

The other thing writers thrive on is "research" -- most of us grow up reading the dictionary and encyclopedia for FUN not profit!  We love words, their meanings, their implications, their emotional nuances and semantic loading.  We collect facts like a dragon collects gems and brood on our hoard of trivia for years before hatching an idea for a novel using those facts.

Maggie Anton, in a comment on one of the reader comments on Amazon, says she studied Talmud for 10 years in order to make the story of Rashi's daughters authentic -- she believes she did it.  She also amassed a lot of information about the technologies and practices of the time period and location. 

So this week we'll leave off there and give you time to finish reading Anton's trilogy and/or the comments on Amazon or any other online source you can find.

Next week we'll finish up this study with a brief description of what Anton might have done instead, and how it could be done - what tools she might have used that you've seen discussed on this blog.

Remember, this blog series is about Research-Plot Integration, not a critique of a trilogy about a Medieval Jewish community.

Wherever the Jewish elements are mentioned, substitute the worldbuilding elements you might make up from the historic facts you might have amassed.

Soon, we'll talk a little about the Television Series, Once Upon A Time which has an odd thematic relationship to this Rashi's Daughters trilogy.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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