Wednesday 17 July 2019

Writers’ Questions: What is Point of View (POV)?

I’ve been blogging about novels for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own historical novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process so, over the next year, I’m using this series, Writers’ Questions, to share some thoughts and advice about the writing and publication process.

This week we’re getting technical. We’re talking about point of view (often shortened to POV), which is something that often trips up newbie creative writers.

So many ways to tell a story... (my bookshelf)

So what is point of view?

Simply put, point of view is the perspective through which readers will experience your story. Whose eyes will they see through? Whose thoughts will they have access to? If this were a film where would the camera be?

The movie analogy is a good one, but it raises the spectre of one of the most common issues I see with beginners’ use of POV. Video is so pervasive in our culture that we are very familiar with a cinematic point of view. This moves between characters and zooms in and out, to first paint broad settings, before suggesting emotions through close and personal shots.

A novel can achieve the same effect but this is not the norm. Fiction (and especially character-driven fiction) is more about interiority than film or TV. And this will affect how you approach point of view. So let’s look in turn at each of the most common approaches to point of view in fiction.

First Person

What is it?
A character narrates the story directly using the pronoun ‘I’. Readers see/hear/experience only what the character does and are ‘present’ for scenes this character is in. Usually the reader has total access to the character’s thoughts and feelings (unless of course the character is lying or unreliable…).

In most cases this character is the protagonist (main character), but this is not always the case. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the quintessential example of a novel in which the narrator (Nick) isn’t the protagonist (Gatsby is).

What are some other examples?
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

What are pitfalls/things to consider?
Readers often want a compelling reason why this person is telling their story—e.g. Is it confessional or persuasive? Are they writing from their deathbed or passing on the tale to their grandchildren?

Readers enjoy a distinctive and interesting character voice if they’re reading in first person (think Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye).

Readers can’t know anything your first person character does not. This means that first person narrators often end up in passive situations (e.g. eavesdropping on a conversation) as writers struggle to convey information their protagonists aren’t privy to.

It can be tricky to vary sentence structure enough (don’t start every sentence with ‘I’!).

If your character dies, writing a death scene in the first person can be a challenge. While, if your character lives, the very fact that they’re telling the story could give away your ending and reduce tension.

Filtering language (also known as ‘thought verbs’) can creep into your prose, distancing readers from your character. E.g. There’s no need to say “I felt cold”. Instead say “It was cold.” Try replacing, “I thought he was an awful man” with simply, “What an awful man”.

First person is more common in specific genres and target ages (e.g. Young Adult fiction is often written in the first person).

Second Person

What is it?
A rarely used form, addressing the reader as ‘You’ and putting them at the centre of your story.

What’s an example?
The opening of The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (review here)

What are some pitfalls/things to consider?
It’s rare and some readers HATE it.

It can give your novel a video game feel (for good and bad).

It’s immediately striking and immersive, so is good for pulling readers into an unfamiliar environment.

Third Person (Close)

What is it?
Also known as third person limited, close third person is the most common form of modern storytelling, but it’s one that beginners often struggle to execute.

The writer uses ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’, as well as characters’ names to tell the story—not ‘I’. However, as with first person, readers still experience the novel through only the main character’s perspective.

In practice, this means that we only go ‘inside the head’ of one character. The other characters’ motives, thoughts and feelings are as opaque to us as they are to the protagonist.

What are some examples?
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Most of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

What are pitfalls/things to consider?
Close third person has many of the same problems as first person: an inability to share information your MC (main character) doesn’t know, protagonists acting as an observer in some scenes vs. having an active role, and the creeping in of filtering/thought verbs when drafting.

You may find repetition of your protagonist’s name and pronouns gets irritating.

It’s easier to ‘forget’ your limitations when writing than it is in first person: remember, if you describe a setting, the narration should share only the details the protagonist notices, if the villain does something suspicious when the hero’s back is turned, readers can’t see it either etc.

Third Person (Omniscient)

What is it?
An all-seeing, God-like narrator knows everything each character does and more, and can dive into the brains of different characters at will.

The pronouns are still ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ but no one perspective acts as our filter on the world. This approach can work well in sweeping epics and multi-character novels and is also great for creating irony and suspense.

What are some examples?
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Middlemarch, George Eliot

What are pitfalls/things to consider?

It can read as old-fashioned.

The narrator’s voice can seem intrusive.

Many modern readers have a preference for close third and first.

Readers can get confused about whose head they’re in at any given point, especially if you are often ‘jumping around’.

Readers don’t develop as deep an emotional relationship with your main character.

Third Person (Fly on the Wall/Cinematic)

What is it?
A third person perspective where readers have no access to anyone’s thoughts/interior life. They see only what a fly on the wall would see. While rarely deployed, this is the closest perspective to the one we’re used to in Hollywood blockbusters.

What are pitfalls/things to consider?
This can be effective for a scene but can get dull and make readers feel distanced from the story and characters.

If you’re leaning towards writing this viewpoint ask yourself whether you're sure you wouldn’t prefer to write a screenplay.

Can you move between different points of view?

I’ve written about each of these points of view in isolation, but often they are combined, with alternating chapters or different sections of a novel being written in different ways.

For example…
Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White utilises multiple first person narrators.
Hazel Gaynor’s The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter (which I recently reviewed) moves between different first and third person sections.

You can mix and match between different voices and perspectives, but it’s important that, as the writer, you know why you’re making the choices you are.

What POV is Brontë’s Mistress written in?

My novel, Brontë’s Mistress, is written mostly in the first person from protagonist Lydia Robinson’s perspective. However, it also contains letters (also in first person) from other key characters.

I’d love to hear what perspective(s) you love to write in and why? If you want to let me know, or suggest future topics for the Writers’ Questions series, contact me—you can comment below or on Facebook or tweet @SVictorianist. You can also now follow me on Instagram @finola_austin.

Monday 8 July 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, Hazel Gaynor (2018)

There’s a lot to love about Hazel Gaynor’s The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, a multigenerational saga interweaving dual historical narratives—one set in 1838, the other in 1938.

The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter
The story of Grace Darling, a real Victorian lighthouse keeper’s daughter (1815-1842), who took part in a daring sea rescue off the Northumberland coast, is wonderful material for fiction. And Gaynor augments her tale deftly with additional plots inspired by women lighthouse keepers in Ireland and Rhode Island.

The characters at the novel’s heart—the pregnant, unmarried Matilda, the widowed Sarah, the bereft Harriet and Grace herself—share a capacity for courage, a deep relationship with the sea, and a penchant for attracting tragedy. It’s fun to guess from the novel’s early pages what it is that binds them together, to puzzle out their family trees and look for connections in an inherited book, locket or portrait.

Gaynor writes action particularly well and bookends her novel with it, capturing the sea’s ferocity as well as its beauty in the novel’s opening and later scenes. She also writes believable dialogue, which suggests place and period with the lightest of touches, rather than, for example, overdoing Irish dialect or ’30s slang.

Hazel Gaynor
As with many dual narrative historical novels, the cyclical nature of time is a theme here, with words, ideas and actions echoing through the generations. While the variations in plot kept me guessing, the repetition on a language level sometimes grated—characters are forever soothing each other, for instance, and everyone seems to collect seashells. At times I also wondered if Grace and Matilda felt distinct enough for having been born one hundred years apart. They have the costumes of different periods and speak with appropriate metaphors, but I didn’t feel the difference between their mid-nineteenth- and mid-twentieth-century world views.

Overall, I’d recommend The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter as a great summer read, especially if you’re going to be by the water. As with Amy Brill's The Movement of Stars, the last novel I reviewed as part of this Neo-Victorian Voices series, this read offers an insight into the women who worked during the nineteenth century and pursued passions we might think of as only being explored by men.

Do you have any recommendations of novels the Secret Victorianist should read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Tuesday 2 July 2019

Highlights from the Historical Novel Society North American Conference (HNSNA) 2019, Oxon Hill, Maryland

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, and, in 2020, my own debut historical novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). So this June I was delighted to attend the biannual North American conference run by the Historical Novel Society (HNS) and to connect with other lovers and writers of historical fiction there.

This year (the first year I’ve attended) the conference was held in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, just outside Washington DC. We enjoyed keynotes from Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Jeff Shaara, period-specific panels and talks on everything from the roaring 20s to the Romanovs to French revolutionaries, and insights from agents and editors with a focus on #HistFic. In true historical fashion, attendees also donned their best period costumes for drinks, a banquet and a ball, while some tested their skills in swordsmanship.

In this post I wanted to share some of my personal highlights from the conference (if I can decipher the handwriting in my notebook!).

“Extraordinary women in extraordinary times"
This is how Rachel Kahan, Executive Editor at William Morrow, summed up the current landscape in historical fiction in the opening State of the State of the HF Industry roundtable. This phrase struck me and set the stage for many of the talks I enjoyed over the weekend. As a writer who focuses on real women who have been overlooked in the historical record, I love this descriptor!

“People are interested in how art is made”
Carrie Callaghan and Laura Morelli led a coffee discussion about historical fiction based on the lives of artists and the challenges of ekphrastic writing (i.e. describing a piece of visual art through words). Two ideas stayed with me from this session. First, writers and artists both experience an absorption in their work while creating. Writing about this feeling and process can be fascinating. Second, it can be difficult for a writer to balance featuring their artist character doing menial work with the tensions that come from interpersonal conflict. Any time you can combine the two will serve you well.

“Where the archive is silent"
Writer and keynote speaker Dolen Perkins-Valdez was the most eloquent speaker of the conference. Almost everything she said was tweetable/quotable. I loved how she described the work of the historical novelist as speaking “where the archive is silent”, as it mirrors my own writing experience, where I strive to be true to the historical record but get most excited where there’s a mystery I can speculate on. I also thought the writing exercise she suggested was genius. She urged us to write the same scene set in 1750, 1850 and 1950 without conducting any new research to demonstrate how much we already know and feel about different periods without being weighed down by the burden of history.

“The paranormal circumvents societal propriety”
Gaslamps, Ghosts & Tropes, a discussion between Nicole Evelina, Clarissa Harwood, Leanna Renee Hieber and Kris Waldherr, on Gothic novels, was my favourite panel of the conference. Hieber’s argument that paranormal activity (whether ‘real’ or imagined) allows characters in historical periods with stricter social etiquettes to step outside their normal boundaries was particularly resonant.

“You need to feel that anyone could win”
The second keynote speaker, Jeff Shaara, specialises, like his late father, the Pulitzer Prize winning Michael Shaara, in depicting famous conflicts, from the Revolutionary War to the American Civil War to the World Wars, from multiple character perspectives. I loved his advice that for a novel like this to be successful the reader has to feel that the outcome of the battle is anything but certain, even if they know the winner in reality.

“There are practical reasons to write dual time periods”
Another great panel was led by Kate Quinn and Beatriz Williams on the topic of historical novels that alternate between at least two periods (one of which may be contemporary). I’ve reviewed novels in the past (e.g. Meredith Jaeger’s The Dressmaker’s Dowry) which have struggled to pull off this structure but I’m fascinated by its current popularity. Quinn and Williams mentioned some practical reasons why writers might want to consider this structure: novels like this can be shelved in several areas of the bookstore and/or appear in multiple sections of Amazon, a dual narrative can help you sell a novel featuring a ‘less popular’ period of history and the inclusion of a modern perspective can make historical fiction less intimidating for infrequent readers of the genre. Fascinating stuff!

Meeting all the people
The biggest highlight of the conference was meeting fellow writers with a passion for depicting the past. I spoke to so many people! It was most exciting to spend time with Elizabeth Blackwell, as we share the same literary agent, and ‘Twitter friends’ who I was finally able to meet in person.

Buying all the books
Warning: there’s a side effect of going to a conference like this. I now have SO MANY new novels on my #TBR (to be read) list. Here’s a peek into what titles have made it onto my bedside table already:

On a Cold Dark Sea, Elizabeth Blackwell
A Light of Her Own, Carrie Callaghan
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, Hazel Gaynor
A Lady of Good Family, Jeanne Mackin
Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez
The Lost History of Dreams, Kris Waldherr

Were you at the HNS conference? What did you think? Or do you have any questions about attending a writing conference in the future? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

P.S. Want an inside peek at my writing and non-writing life? You can now follow finola_austin on Instagram!