How to Write Historical Fiction Without Really Trying

Today I’m excited to have a guest post on Amie Winters’ blog, the author of Strange Luck and soon-to-be-published The Nightmare Birds (available for pre-order now!). Amie and I write very different books, but we have tons in common, from collecting fun socks to being writers from childhood. In fact, tomorrow is her monthly Throwback Thursday Writer event (#tbtwriter), so check back in with us both for this month’s fun (and usually funny) posts.

Before I wrote Anatomy of a Darkened Heart, I was sure I would never write historical fiction, even though I enjoyed reading it. In fact, I didn’t think it was possible for me to include that much research in a fiction book. So how does someone who is convinced they can’t write a genre end up with a debut novel, an upcoming fall publication, and a 10-year publishing plan that all revolve around that “impossible-to-write” genre? Find out in my guest post on Amie’s blog! Click here to read.

YouTube Review of Anatomy of a Darkened Heart!

Yesterday, Peter Clark the Writer left a magnificent YouTube review of Anatomy of a Darkened Heart. I’m so excited to share it with you! He even reads some of his favorite passages and lines, and see that in the background? That’s the wallpaper wrapping paper I used to send him his signed paperback. It’s pinned to his board! Coolest guy ever? I think so.

If you’ve read Anatomy of a Darkened Heart or if you’re interested in reading it, please pass on his video! Peter really covers the book and its many facets well. Thanks for watching!

Anatomy of a Darkened Heart Review by Darker Voice!

Yesterday I was blown away by Travis West’s (Darker Voice’s) wonderful words about Anatomy of a Darkened Heart. Travis isn’t a guy who likes any ol’ book or movie, so I was on tenterhooks as I read every word he wrote. Here’s a sample of his review: “The language is melancholy and beautiful, concise but with a Victorian flair that keeps you reading page after page, word after word.”

See Travis’ full opinion here, and if you want to learn more about the man himself, visit him here.

 

19th Century Jewelry!

The website I’ve sponsored this month, The Victorian Era, has a well written and visually stunning post up about Victorian jewelry. You’ll find everything from symbolism in jewelry (you know that’s my favorite section) to styles you may not have heard of, summarized beautifully and succinctly, and did I mention the beautiful pictures?

Come visit Geerte’s post here. I’m sure you’ll love it!

Monday Thoughts on Creativity: Ditching Clichés

Aaaaand we’re back from the weekend. Happy Monday!

creativity-think

I think this quote is true of success in general, but creativity in particular blooms from original thoughts about the same old thing. In particular, think about descriptions.

There are so many clichés out there, so many overused phrases that we accept in every single book. It’s really special when I read a description of someone frowning, or a gesture, or even a color in a way I’ve never read before.

As a writer, sometimes I think, “Well, how else am I supposed to describe a frown?” Really there is an uncountable number of ways, but we tend to automatically feel cornered into clichés like “brows knitted together” or “eyebrows drawn into a V” because they’re what we’re used to – pre-approved and always understood. Creativity is looking at simple things like that and turning them into something that works off the ambiance of the scene, the situation, or the personality of the character: “She didn’t frown – it was too harsh an expression for her, too base and unattractive. Instead, her face remained an unreadable stone, even blank where natural creases should have been.” Here we learn something about the character’s personality (self-righteous and cold), what she thinks of others who frown (vulgar), what she thinks of herself for not frowning (attractive and well bred), and her looks (wrinkle-free skin).

Creativity is thinking outside the box – way outside the box – so that everything comes alive in 3D ways you can practically reach out and touch.

 

Alice in Wonderland is 150 Years Old!

I know I’m a few months late on this (read: 3 months late – “I’m late for a very important date” indeed), but this year Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland turned 150 years old. WOW! Even though it’s been around so long, somehow it still seems new. Maybe that’s because it’s constantly being refreshed through new movies, videos games, short stories, poems, etc. Imagine a 150-year-old story being redone and reinvented so many times. What an accomplishment!

In honor of this momentous occasion, I want to share with you my favorite rendition of Alice in Wonderland.

Have you ever heard of the video game Alice by American McGee, put out in 2000? How about Alice: Madness Returns, a more recent follow-up published in 2011? The former was a very underrated, under-the-radar game with a twist on Alice like you’ve never seen before, and it’s my favorite of the two because of its originality.

In the game, Alice is now a teenager. The beginning sequence shows us that when she was young girl, a fire started in her house, and her parents were trapped behind their bedroom door. She escaped, but her parents died, which scarred her psychologically not only for losing them but for not really trying to help or save them and instead just saving herself. She is admitted to a psychiatric hospital because of this traumatic event, and the game picks up when she’s a teenager still in the asylum. Cue the rabbit hole and Wonderland, which keep her trapped inside her mind as her only way to deal with the trauma in a way she understands. Now Wonderland is tainted and some characters are helpful while others try to kill her. They all represent sticking points in the recovery from her childhood trauma, and she must fight her way through Wonderland and, ultimately, the Queen of Hearts in order to escape her own mind.

That storyline was love at first read for me. What a way to spin a children’s classic into a teenage adventure. It’s also a great way to discuss trauma and recovery through a familiar character. It’s never mentioned straight out in the video game, but on the main menu screen and a couple of images in the video game, self-harm is implied, brought on by survivor’s guilt. Self-harm is a HUGE and important topic for teenagers (and other ages) since many of them deal with serious issues by hurting themselves. For it to be dealt with in a teenager-geared video game, regardless of that fact that it’s only implied, is something to be applauded. Ultimately the video game sends the message that Alice is standing in her own way of recovering and she can only escape if she’ll let herself, a positive message to plant in teens’ heads.

Some may see this as perverting an innocent classic tale, but I think the creativity is commendable, especially the positive message of escaping your own demons with time, dedication, and serious work. (Side note: Recovering from trauma without professional help is not necessarily possible for all victims of varying degrees of trauma, but this is still a positive message.)

Between Alice and its more popular sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, there is a ton of fan art, cosplay, and both official and homemade merchandise due to not only the character’s dark outfit but her strength in the face of inner demons. There are very few positive (and fully clothed) female video game role models out there, and even fewer that send an encouraging message about trauma recovery. I think it’s a great way to integrate serious messages into enjoyable entertainment.

What’s your favorite rendition of Alice in Wonderland? The original or a reboot?

Character Study: Psychopaths Are(n’t) Always the Same

I love studying the way different authors, filmmakers, and artists represent various kinds of characters, so why not share my conclusions with you? Sharing makes these things much more fun.

Let’s start with psychopaths. There are so many to choose from, but I have two particular ones in mind, and they’re not from books. My two favorite but opposite psychopaths are from films: Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947) and Johnny Depp in Black Mass (2015). You’d never normally relate these two characters, but while they have major differences in their superficial characteristics, they are extremely similar in the core of what makes them psychopaths.

How they’re different:

  • Widmark often laughs his insane, maniacal laugh, even during and after his despicable acts, while Depp is very serious and rarely laughs
  • Widmark never carries a gun so the cops can’t pin anything on him, while Depp is unafraid of being caught with a gun
  • Widmark takes his sweet time getting around to eliminating snitches, while Depp moves quickly to get rid of them

How they’re similar:

  • Neither has any mercy or compassion
  • Both know how to avoid being caught for their many crimes, yet both have spent time in prison
  • Both are masters of vetting potential members of their gangs
  • Both have trusted men on their side but turn immediately on those who show a crack in their loyalty
  • Both enjoy violence and not only don’t shy away from it, but they take great pleasure in threatening and hurting others themselves
  • Neither have respect for women and are just as violent towards them as men

But the most fascinating thing of all is how these actors portray their psychopathic characters. Because the characters’ cores are the same, they are drawing from the same place within themselves to outwardly exhibit their mental state. Just look at these pictures and how similar they are, even with the characters’ superficial differences listed above.

Psychopaths Widmark vs. Depp

What does this say? That psychopaths can have their own individual ways of handling things outwardly, but their inner cores are duplications of each other. You can creatively toy with their methods and the cause of their madness, but there’s only so much deviation you can believably make to their psychology. This may sound limiting, but it’s actually really great because it allows for unique characters at the same time that you already know what they’re made of inside. So their baseline creates certain expectations that are always fulfilled. As you can see from the time periods of these movies (and real psychopaths throughout history), the basic psychology has always been the same, something dependable, although that’s a strange word to use to describe it!

Who are your favorite psychopath characters, whether from fiction or fact? Film or book?

 

Symbol Sample: All That Heaven Allows

From the title, All That Heaven Allows (1955) sounds a bit soppy, but there’s much more to this than the title suggests. In fact, this movie is loaded with symbolism and social critique from quite a lot of varied angles.

On the surface, here’s what we see: widow Cary has two children getting ready to graduate from college, only coming home occassionally. She’s lonely and has only superficial society friends who talk behind each others’ backs, but that’s the world she and her children know. She’s used to it, although she doesn’t seem to enjoy it. Cue the tall, handsome young landscaper, Ron, who veered off his expected path and is still single at a time when people married young right out of school. He does what he wants, doesn’t care for money, and ignores other people’s judgments of him. He is true to himself, which is a new concept to Cary and everyone else in her circles.

Sounds like a pretty obvious setup, right? Here’s what you need to know: the setup isn’t the point. It’s everything surrounding it that matters.

My favorite symbol in this whole movie – and there are lots of symbols in it – is the TV set. TV is mentioned several times
throughout the movie as a cure for loneliness, something to keep a woman company when she has no husband. It’s supposed to be a solution to the problem of having nothing to do and no one to talk to. I’m not going to give anything away about the movie, but when Cary’s kids decide to move on with their lives and leave her behind, they think a TV is the solution to everything. Now Mom won’t be lonely! With the turn of a switch, she can have all kinds of people in her living room, whether they’re on gameshows or dramas or commercials. Yes, the TV will take the place of the kids AND the dead husband.

In All That Heaven Allows, the TV set is something dead, something without a heartbeat, of course. Ultimately, if you watch and listen closely, you’ll find that it is equated to the superficial society group that also has no feelings and no care for anyone in the world but themselves. Just as a TV cannot take provide the warmth and comfort of human contact, people who care nothing for you can make you feel lonely in a crowded room. Both the TV and the false friendships are shallow and only for entertainment purposes. They are projections of life instead of actually living it. And so a physical object that is at your disposal 24/7 is just the same as humans following cookie cutter molds of what they think they should be, what makes them appear social and higher up on the class scale, but provides no warmth or depth, no love or true affection – no meaning to life. And the fact that Cary’s children are the ones who think a TV set will make up for their departure shows what she has inadvertently raised: more of the very society that shuns Ron, who is the essence of warmth, care, and living life to the fullest.

If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I recommend it not necessarily for the plot line but for everything surrounding it. I know that for film buffs, this is a major mark of where melodramas started in addition to several film techniques, but true to form my heart lies with the symbolism and metaphors in All That Heaven Allows. Tell me what you find in the film too! I’d love to hear your conclusions.

Symbol Sample: Harriet Craig

I am a HUGE fan of symbolism in every artistic medium. I always look for it in literature and movies specifically, and I always include it in my writing, no matter how short the piece is.  Symbolism is an essential part of my work, and the great thing about it is that a reader can choose to look for it and find it, or they can ignore it and still enjoy the piece.

I’ve had lots of people ask me how to layer stories with symbolism, some obvious symbols while others may not be so obvious. It might be best to answer this question through examples in both literature and film that I can show you through a series of blog posts. I’m going to start with an easy one: Harriet Craig.

The movie Harriet Craig (1950) with Joan Crawford and Wendell Corey is a prime example of good symbolism that doesn’t have to be noticed but adds to the enjoyment of the film. Quick synopsis: Harriet Craig is a cold, manipulative control freak wife who will lie to her husband, Walter, about anything in order to keep him all to herself and following her rules. She has no boundaries as to how far she’ll go to make sure her marriage stays in tact – and she covers her tracks well. Her husband is a trusting, loving man who doesn’t catch on to her scheming ways, though his friends and others see her for what she is.

That being said, Harriet has a lot of rules about her house and how it should be kept: make sure the blinds are closed by 11 a.m. every day so the sun doesn’t fade the furniture, keep the expensive vase away from the edge of the mantle, don’t sit on the arm of the chair, never throw anything (like a newspaper) down but instead place it neatly. She treats her husband more like a son and constantly chastises him. A couple of people mention that the house is cold and lifeless “like a thing that died and has been laid out”.

There’s a particular chair in the house that looks ornamental although it’s meant for sitting, but even more importantly it’s stiff and hard. If you watch
harrietcraigchaircarefully, you’ll see that Walter can’t get comfortable on that chair, even with a pillow. Harriet, however, feels perfectly comfortable on it. This is representative of their differences in personality. Walter is a warm person and can’t stand sitting in the stiff chair, but Harriet is a cold person and feels right at home on it. The only time Walter is able to sit on the chair is towards the end of the movie when he rearranges the pillows and lies down on it once he has decided to take back control of his house. He takes control of his comfort in the chair just as he is about to take control of Harriet.

Little things like this are easy to put into your story as light but still important symbolism. Think about what your characters have in common or their differences. Now think about their environments, even their work. How can you implement this same tactic to insert a layer of depth in your story? The good thing about this type of symbolism is that it can be stated relatively outright and still not seem out of place. You don’t have to worry too much about presenting it artistically if you don’t want to; the point of it is to be more towards the surface of the story instead of buried deep inside.

Literature in Action: In the Mood for Love

My latest post to the Literature in Action part of my blog is up! https://christiestratos.com/literature-in-action/in-the-mood-for-love/. Check out my analysis of the beautiful foreign film In the Mood for Love. I’ve watched it at least four times since I first discovered it and can always watch it again. It’s a fascinating study of psychology with a backwards romance plot which keeps you wondering until the end.

Watch it and see if you agree with my analysis – and leave your comments!