“Repeating History”

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

“It’s all been done before” is a common complaint of writers.

I say seeds of the plots have been done, but the fruit produced depends on the writer, and each one of us is a unique creation of genetics and background that can never be copied.

I was born and grew up in Rochester, New York, so during my formative years I heard a lot about Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist.

According to some historians, Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland between Hillsboro and Cordova.  He escaped at the age of twenty by impersonating a sailor.  Having taught himself to read while a slave, he began to make a name for himself as an accomplished orator against slavery.

Impressed with the abolitionists in New York State, he went to live in Rochester and began his anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star.

Hearing about him and other well-known abolitionists who lived in New York in the 19th century, I began to think about what it would be like to be a slave.  To have no rights over your own person, no say in where you go or what you do.  To be denied even the privilege of learning to read.  These imaginings sparked my first manuscript, a Sci-Fi Romance about a slave on a distant planet who intends to assassinate her captor.

Then I began to wonder what I would have done if I had lived in the 19th century.  As an inveterate rule follower, I have the sinking feeling I would have relied on the rule of law rather than moral principle, but I hope I would’ve stood against slavery.  Maybe even put my life and liberty on the line and become a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad.

Many of these courageous people lived double lives, hiding their heroic actions in order to rescue hundreds of men, women, and children from one of the most degrading institutions in history.

That idea generated my second book.

Tia, the heroine in Starjacked, is a space pirate with a strict (if twisted) moral code.  She accepts slavery as a reality in her world, but works underground to free children who have been enslaved.  Rork, the hero, is an undercover operative for the Union of Planets.  All he sees is the hardened pirate she shows to the world, and he plans to bring her to justice.

Though the story I’ve written finds its basis in history, the setting and characters make it different; just as every writer is different.

Characters I’ve written about in various manuscripts range from a crippled Valayan Wanderer (modeled on gypsies) to imprisoned shape shifters who don’t know they’re shifters, but no matter how diverse the settings and plots, they all derive from history.

I have a non-writer/non-reader friend who says, “How do you come up with this stuff?”  I take it as a compliment, but deep inside I know exactly where I come up with this stuff—history.

It’s all been done before.  Hallelujah!

Let me know what influences you, or visit the Samhellion for more research related articles!

Taking your scenes to the extreme

This isn't the worst thing that's happened to me, but it's not the best...
This isn't the worst thing that's happened to me, but it's not the best...

I received a couple of requests from pitch sessions at the RWA National Conference, so I hurried home and did a read through of my material, a paranormal romance manuscript that I was very happy with.  I expected to clear up any typos or missing words and submit.  What I found were three scenes which were only doing half of what they should.

At the most basic level, a scene should move the plot along.  As I’m a pantser, I use the second draft to ensure each scene is accomplishing that task.  But there’s a deeper question to ask when reviewing your scenes.  Did I take this scene as far as I could?

Whether a scene advances the internal plot or the external plot, a genre writer needs to take her scenes to the extreme.  If there’s a physical fight, and the hero loses, the consequences have to be the highest possible within the context of your plot and its place in the manuscript .  If it’s a contemporary romance, and near the beginning, he might have his eye swell shut.  At the end, he might wind up in the hospital.  If we’re talking vampires,  a fight in the beginning might make him desperate to feed, at the end he might be taken to the very edge of existence.

As I was reading my manuscript, I realized that I had let my main characters off far too easily.  I had trapped them in an area being flooded with poison gas, but the hero immediately saw a way out and took it.  I went back and had them try several other things and had him find the solution only after the gas had begun to affect them.

Now how about you?  How have you revved up your scenes?