Take Off Your Pants – Libbie Hawker’s advice

One of our special guests at the HNS North America 2021 conference was Libbie Hawker. Libbie is a prolific and excellent writer with many novels to her credit. A recent favourite for me is The Ragged Edge of Night under the pen name Olivia Hawker. But I digress. Libbie put on two master classes, one called Take Off Your Pants and the other called Making It In Historical Fiction. Both were very well attended and received.

Libbie’s master class, Take Off Your Pants, was based on the advice packed into her book by the same name. The subtitle is “Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing”. After writing my first novel by the seat of my pants – what folks call a pantser – I adopted an outlining technique cobbled together from a few sources such as Elizabeth George’s Write Away. But Libbie’s advice has added another important layer that I plan to incorporate in the next novel (whatever that is!)

During the three-hour class, Libbie spent most of her time taking us through the outlining technique using a simple document which she develops for each main POV character.

What stood out for me?

  • the notion of specifically identifying the main character’s flaw, something that is a deep, personal flaw and a source of tension for the MC; something that makes interactions with others difficult
  • the need for the main character to recognize and acknowledge his/her external goal
  • finding a way early to to display the MC’s flaw
  • defining an ally for your main character who is someone that helps the MC at their most difficult moment and forces them back onto their path; someone who has power to move the MC’s heart; someone they always say yes to
  • the external goal is something a main character will obsess about, a goal that will compel them throughout the story; a goal that will push the story forward
  • identifying a theme that will help determine scenes that should be in the story; a unifying concept for the book that isn’t too broad and sweeping and that applies to all main characters in the novel

Libbie uses the outline to help build pacing into the novel and to create the sense of urgency that keeps readers wanting to find out what happens. With more than one main character, Libbie encourages writers to use different colours for each character so that when you weave the beats together, you can see which character is carrying the story at which points of time.

This is a very cursory look at Take Off Your Pants. Based on the master class, I feel there is something in Libbie’s book for every writer no matter what stage you’re at in your career. I’ve already purchased my copy!

Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker ~~ When it comes to writing books, are you a “plotter” or a “pantser?” Is one method really better than the other?

In this instructional ebook, author Libbie Hawker explains the benefits and technique of planning a story before you begin to write. She’ll show you how to develop a foolproof character arc and plot, how to pace any book for a can’t-put-down reading experience, and how to ensure that your stories are complete and satisfying without wasting time or words.

Hawker’s outlining technique works no matter what genre you write, and no matter the age of your audience. If you want to improve your writing speed, increase your backlist, and ensure a quality book before you even write the first word, this is the how-to book for you.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

World Building with author David Ebsworth

David Ebsworth, author of A Betrayal of Heroes, explores the role of world building in historical fiction and takes us on a journey from wartime Casablanca to Brazzaville, from the cauldron of Normandy to the Liberation of Paris. World building is an essential element of historical fiction and David’s examples and experiences help illuminate the challenge.

****

As Wendy Holden tells us: ‘For historical fiction, the world that our characters populate must believably be one that actually existed in the past, and yet one into which the modern reader enthusiastically enters.’ 

There’s some useful guidance for historical fiction world builders and Wendy’s Unlocking the Secrets of Historical Fiction is just one.

My own approach broadly follows the pattern set down by Gabriela Pereira, tutor of online Creative Writing courses and herself an accomplished writer. Start with the key ingredient, world building around the main protagonist. Then add the world of any major supporting characters. Third, the physical surroundings. Next, the society and culture within which the characters live. Finally, season with the historical setting. 

World Building for the Main Protagonist

Jack Telford has been the principal character in two of my earlier novels. He’s been with me a long while. So, mentions of his favourite cigarette brands, his passion for good coffee, and the five things he always carries in his pockets – those flow easily enough. But now he must survive in wartime North Africa and Equatorial Africa. Cigarettes available in 1940 at Rabat, or Libreville, or Faya-Largeau? Brands of beer? Thank goodness for search engines.

Map of Casablanca

Next, Telford must abandon his old life as a Sunday newspaper journalist and take up a new role as a war correspondent. I studied the Second World War’s frontline journalists, men and women, so I could “teach” Jack this new craft. From some of their writing collections I was able to draft what, I hope, are credible snatches of “Jack Telford” journalism. More than this, I realised that Jack’s journalistic pieces could help to show a different side to his character, his inner conflicts – but in the words of the period.

Jack’s big challenge, however, is adapting to life with the military, a section of Leclerc’s Free French army, to which he’s formally accredited as a correspondent. He has to live and breathe among the men and women of Leclerc’s army for four years. Naturally, there were endless non-fiction histories and autobiographies. But I learned so much more from another lucky find, a personal contact with Bob Coale, Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Rouen, who helped to steer me through the learning curve.

The World of the Supporting Players

The secondary characters in A Betrayal of Heroes are a mix of real-life historical personalities and fictional players. The real-life examples include Josephine Baker and heart-throb Leslie Howard. But those are cameos and simply needed plenty of biography studies – though both of them, through their music and their movies, helped to build my 1940s world. 

More important, the novel heavily features the women ambulance drivers (some real, some fictional) serving with Leclerc’s Division. These were the famous Rochambelles, and their remarkable world was presented to me in two fabulous booksWomen of Valor, The Rochambelles on the WWII Front by Ellen Hampton (highly recommended) and Quand J’Étais Rochambelle, the first-hand account written by Suzanne Massu. 

Other first-hand accounts helped me to more accurately depict the wartime difficulties of travelling from one location to another, or the price of tickets, hotel rooms, food and the rest – or simply the way the senses of combatants are assaulted in various war zones. 

Creating the Scenery

I’m always cautious about this one. Scenery here isn’t simply a bunch of theatrical backdrops, it’s the stuff with which the characters must interact, making the world come to life.

It’s fairly easy to build accurate scenes of Europe during the Second World War. But Oran? Rabat? Brazzaville? The towns of Chad? It was getting to be a struggle, until I stumbled across the archive of maps in the University of Texas Libraries. These are detailed street maps produced in 1942 by the US Army Map Service. And from those maps, and from contemporary travellers’ journals, I was able to construct the realistic settings for Jack Telford and his associates to populate – the weather, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the architecture, the flora and fauna.

A Sense of Contemporary and Geographical Culture

Harry Sidebottom, author of the Warrior of Rome series said: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.”

Those inhabitants of the past have different language, food, lifestyle, religion, mythology, politics, trade, medicine, sexual attitudes and class structure – among a host of other things. In A Betrayal of Heroes there were three distinct collections of cultural issues with which I had to wrestle. First, Jack’s life within the 1940s Muslim world of North Africa. Second, to Equatorial Africa.  Third, the cultural experiences of Spanish communities in North Africa, or the Spanish Republican refugees who survived the horrors of French internment camps and still later went on to fight for Free France. 

I determined that, once again, I’d only use local writers as sources – like Oumama Aouad Lahrech in Morocco, Patrice Nganang from Cameroon, and the Spaniard Eduardo Pons Prades.

The Historical Setting

Last, but not least.

I needed a historical timeline. Basically, A Betrayal of Heroes covers the entire span of the Second World War – but I needed to make this fresh, to tell the tale from a new angle. In this case, telling it from the perspective of the Free French, of the Spaniards and Equatorial Africans fighting for Leclerc, gave me that angle.

Again, I was lucky that journalist and historian Evelyn Mesquida collected interviews with many of the Spanish Republicans who had fought for Leclerc. A rich source. And Patrice Nganang’s novels are also based on real-life experiences. Hindsight knowledge of World War Two is a wonderful thing, but for those who lived through the period, how and what and when they learned about events was often very different to the way we see them eighty years later.

Many thanks, David, for providing such an insightful look at world building.

A Betrayal of Heroes by David Ebsworth

Headstrong newspaperman Jack Telford’s weapon is his pen, but the oath he’s taken at Kufra will still bind his fate to the passions and perils of the men and women who shape his life – his personal heroes, like the exiled Spanish Republicans now fighting for Free France. But from Oran and Casablanca to the heart of Africa, then into the cauldron of Normandy and the Liberation of Paris, Jack’s fate is also bound to those who will betray them, and to the enemies who want Telford dead. 

Readers should pack their bags for an epic adventure back in time through the pages of the latest Jack Telford novel, A Betrayal of Heroes, and some less frequented settings of this Second World War thriller.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Story Behind the Story

Dana Mack, author of All Things That Deserve To Perish, is an historian, journalist, and musician. She is also the author of two non-fiction books: The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family and The Book of Marriage: The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions. No doubt we could all learn something from a book on marriage! However, today, Dana is here to talk about the story behind her new novel …

The idea of writing a novel about a  late nineteenth century German-Jewish woman who finds herself drawn into a fragile mixed marriage came to me nearly forty years ago, when I was a graduate student in History at Columbia University.  My German History professor, Fritz Stern, had just completed a biography of Bismarck’s banker, Gerson Bleichroeder. Reading it, I landed on a story that struck me. Apparently, Bleichroeder’s daughter, Elsa, was  a wallflower at her first court ball, not because she was unattractive, but because she was Jewish. The Prussian noblemen present cut her – this was an anti-semitic political demonstration!  

Forty years later, I incorporated that historical incident into my novel, All Things That Deserve To Perish, The reader of this article might wonder how it was that this small incident made such a profound impression upon me. After all,  I am an American Jew, and a fourth generation Californian on three sides.  Why should I care about a late nineteenth century rich girl who doesn’t get a dance? 

My family’s historical roots were in Germany, and many of my grandparents’ friends were German emigres. From my earliest childhood I understood something of the admiration German Jews had for the culture of their adopted country.  And I sensed  their profound resentment of the German people, who so cruelly rejected their sincere efforts to prove themselves loyal German citizens.  As a lifelong student of German and Jewish history, I have run across many historical incidents suggesting that long before Hitler’s rise to power,  German Jews fell victim to vicious anti-semitism;  and this, not  withstanding their significant contributions to Germany’s economic, scientific and cultural achievements. 

For these reasons, I have taken on a sort of mini-mission to try to disabuse the reading public of the widespread idea that the Holocaust was the responsibility of one man — namely, Hitler.  The Holocaust had its roots not only in the criminal dispositions of the Fuehrer and his coterie,  but in toxic attitudes of racial prejudice and distrust that were widespread not only in the lesser educated population, but even among the German elites. It’s not easy to reach people with this news.  But I determined early on that one day when I had time,  I would pen a novel that would explore this phenomenon through the prism of the most intimate of human relationships —  courtship and marital ties . 

 All Things That Deserve To Perish, in fact,  is a love story.  It is the story of a wealthy and intellectually gifted Jewish woman who falls for an impoverished Prussian nobleman despite her suspicion of his romantic motives.  The plot premise is not at all unlikely, considering the historical background.  Intermarriages between Prussian aristocrats and rich Jewesses, while not everyday occurrences, were common enough, by the end of the nineteenth century, that they were commented upon by contemporaries. And not all of these marriages were simply exchanges of a dowry for a title. Many aristocrats considered Jewish women of the “better”  classes interesting and alluring enough to be considered attractive as potential wives.  Jewish women tended to be much better educated than their Christian counterparts —  intellectually engaged, and  outspoken.  In fact, intermarried or not, German “salon Jewesses”  — Jewish hostesses who brought artists, intellectuals and aristocrats into their homes for chamber music and and discussion —  served a very special function in elite society in that they brought together thinking people from different fields of endeavor and different socio-economic backgrounds – people who would normally not have had the opportunity for social contact. 

The unhappy fact of many German intermarriages, however, was that wives of Jewish origin, despite religious conversion to Christianity,  faced social prejudices and open slights in the new circles they inhabited. And not only they suffered:  their children were looked down upon as half-breeds, sullied by what was often termed  the “black stain” of Jewish heritage.  More than this, Jewish women who intermarried very often had to deal with the knee jerk racial prejudices of their own husbands, who more often than not discouraged them from maintaining ties with their families and community of origin.   

My background as a student of German and Jewish history was not the only inspiration for All Things That Deserve To PerishI am a partner in a mixed marriage. I married my non-Jewish husband in 1983. We met while I was researching my dissertation in Vienna, Austria. Soon after we married, we moved from Austria to Luxembourg, where my husband  worked for the European Community. As a new wife and mother living in Europe, I found that I was drifting farther and farther from my Jewish identity. I even became shy about disclosing it at all.  The reason for this was that in my interactions with Europeans I witnessed a kind of reflexive anti-semitism – a general discomfort with Jews, and a distrust of Jews and the Jewish religion.

Indeed, It was while living in Luxembourg that I originally worked up the plot of All Things That Deserve To Perish as a movie treatment.  Being involved also in other writing projects, the treatment soon fell by the wayside, to be picked up and turned into a novel only decades later.  But I am convinced that my experience as an American Jew living abroad among people who had very primitive ideas about the Jewish people laid the foundations for a lot of the situational tone of my novel. 

I have tried to fashion All Things That Deserve To Perish  as a story that engages the reader in thinking about a host of  matters that remain challenging to young couples today —  issues of  preserving ethnic identity and fighting racial prejudice being only two of these.  I hope that my novel  — as a story of a potent, if contentious love between two people from very different ideological and socio-economic backgrounds — will be relatable to the reader, whether or not he or she is interested in German-Jewish history.  In fact,  I think any one of us will recognize, in the romance of my main characters, some familiar gender power struggles, as well as what I hope is a compassionate portrait of  family formation.  

All Things That Deserve To Perish by Dana Mack ~~ The year is 1896, and Elisabeth (‘Lisi’) von Schwabacher, the gifted daughter of a Jewish banker, returns home to Berlin from three years of piano study in Vienna. Though her thoughts are far from matrimony, she is pursued by two noblemen impressed as much by her stunning wealth as by her prodigious intellect and musical talent. Awakened to sudden improvements in the opportunities open to women, Lisi balks at her mother’s expectation that she will contract a brilliant marriage and settle down to a life as a wife and mother. In a bid to emancipate herself once and for all from that unwelcome fate, she resolves to have an affair with one of her aristocratic suitors — an escapade that, given her rigid social milieu, has tragic consequences. All Things That Deserve To Perish is a novel that penetrates the constrained condition of women in Wilhelmine Germany, as well as the particular social challenges faced by German Jews, who suffered invidious discrimination long before Hitler’s seizure of power. It is also a compassionate rumination on the distractions of sexual love, and the unbearable strains of a life devoted to art.

Thank you for sharing the background to your novel, Dana. It’s an important topic and one that deserves our attention. I wish you great success with All Things That Deserve To Perish.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.