Rules of Writing: History, Research and the Importance of Including More than the Basics

August 11, 2009 at 10:48 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Historical romance has long been one of my many favorite genres. The mixture of romance with history is, to me, just one of those brilliant combination’s that can’t be beat (like peanut butter and jelly or ketchup and french fries). It’s even better, of course, when more than just the historical setting is added.

Don’t get me wrong, reading a novel set in the Regency period is fine in and of itself. But, it always feels like something is missing when those little details about the period itself are lacking. Most authors include the basics (mannerisms, the societal norms, dress, modes of travel, etc) but those that include the events that were current of that time always seem to fall into my list of favorite authors.

Which rather brings me to the point of this entry. Setting a novel in a historical period is fine. Getting the basic details of that period correct is a must. But adding that entirely new depth to the story is absolutely fantastic and, if done well, can do so much more for the novel itself!

If your novel is set in 1814 England, for instance, altogether ignoring the fact that Napoleon was temporarily defeated that year is not necessarily a good thing. Consider a novel set in late September of 2001 in New York. Wouldn’t you find it exceedingly odd if not a single mention of what was occurring during that period of turmoil was included? What if said novel were set on December 7, 1941 in the United States? Wouldn’t it seem odd to you if the attack on Pearl Harbor was not even mentioned?

The same goes for things that occurred years and years ago in other countries. If your novel is set in that time period in which those important events were taking place, chances are your characters would talk about it, think about it, hear about it or even read about it at some point in time. Those events, such as the defeat of Napolean, were as big a deal to the people they affected as September 11th or Pearl Harbor have been to us. Failing to even mention those events, while not necessarily noticed by every reader, takes that element of realism away from the story for so many others.

You don’t have to write an entire plot around those events, but it is important to give them their proper place. These events were as life changing to historical folk as events today can be for us. If you choose to include more than just a mention of such an event, it’s important that you get the details right (or leave us believing that your version might just have been a possibility).

If you’re writing about the defeat of Napolean in 1814, to stay with the same theme here, you can’t have him killed off as that strains not only credibility but enjoyment of the story itself. Not everyone will realize that Napolean wasn’t killed in 1814 and others won’t care, but so many that enjoy historical romance also have an appreciation of history. More than a few will, undoubtedly, know that Napolean was exiled to Elba and escaped 9 short months later to resume his campaign.

Don’t risk alienating those readers just because it’s your story and you’re doing the writing. Stick as close to the actual event as you can while giving it that zest that makes reading it exciting. People will appreciate that you’ve not taken unnecessary liberties so much more than they will the taking of unnecessary liberties.

Finally, don’t be afraid to add lesser known events and issues to the story either. They can add as much, if not more, to a novel as can those larger events. You don’t want to pack your novel so full of these facts and tidbits that you’re writing a history tome instead of a novel, but one or two can be a very great thing.

That said, you’re probably wondering how to go about finding such information. As is usual in such a case, my advise would be to start with Google. Type in the year and the country and see what you can find. If that doesn’t find anything, change your search terms. “Historical events in COUNTRY”, “important events of YEAR” , “COUNTRY/YEAR history timeline”, “COUNTRY/YEAR history” and similar search terms may prove helpful.

Try the “This Day In History” tool at the History.com website to see what you can pull up. Check out the Timelines of History website, or review the archives at the History Facts website. Visit your local library and dust off the card catalog or visit the History sections of your local bookstore. There are quite literally thousands of places to go for information of this nature. And if absolutely none of those net anything… email me (seriously). I’m always up to a challenge, am a research loving fool, don’t charge and have access to more academic databases, by virtue of being a perpetual college student, than I care to count. I can, at the least, point you in the right direction or provide necessary linkage. :)

For many, research is a complete pain. For others, it’s an absolute blast. For the author, it’s a necessity. And practice makes perfect.. trust me on that one! In the next post, I’ll provide information on a few history specific events as well as resources on important events that I’ve found particularly useful during the course of writing or researching.

Which leads me to a final point. When you’re researching, always make a note of where you’ve gotten your research from even if you aren’t sure if you will use it.  Save the links to your computer, to your blog, in a notebook, take notes and attach links. Whatever works for you. There will come a time when you find you need to pass that link on, when you need to review it again or a thousand other similar scenarios and you will drive yourself insane trying to find the link or book title, etc. again if you haven’t saved it for quick retrieval.  Get in the practice now and you’ll save countless hours of redoing the same research at some point later. Believe me. I’ve been there, done that and lost count of how many times I had to do it all over again because I couldn’t seem to remember to SAVE MY WORK! :)

Happy day,
Ayden

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The Things Research Papers Can Teach the Author (And an Organized Crime Primer)

August 8, 2009 at 1:26 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

I know how much we all hate textbooks, research papers and the like, but having been buried in them daily for the last four and a half years as I’ve pursued my educational goals; I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes the best information you can find to aid you as you explore topics to enrich your novels come from those very things we dread to think of.

For that very reason, I’ll be posting some of those research papers on various criminal justice topics (written by me during the course of my studies) here. I promise not to bore you to tears by posting them frequently; but every so often I remember one hidden in the endless list that I need to review for some non academic related writing purpose and will post it here if I feel the information might be beneficial to others. Trust me, there are probably three on some subject an author would never want/need to know to every one that might be helpful. I do solemnly promise to only post those that fall into the “might be helpful” category!

Sadly, even if they might be helpful, they are often quite dry reading if you have no interest whatsoever in the topic… but as I’ve learned time and time again; they can also spark those creative moments, as well as help you flesh out the details that you’re looking for. Or, at the very least, give you the information you need to locate the sources that will help you. Organized crime and criminal cartels, as I learned during my 10 weeks devouring the textbook and hammering out paper after paper to meet course requirements, are fascinating… and so very often do not work at all as Hollywood and popular novels would lead us to believe.

This paper (while long and probably quite boring to most) discusses some of those basics of organized crime that we’re so often unaware of; from the definition to the attributes of such a group to the organizational modules they tend to follow. If you never use a bit of the information contained here; I do hope you’ll read it, at the least, for the sake of learning something you didn’t know before. Unused knowledge is still knowledge, after all. :)

Organized Crime: A Review of the Basics (April 3, 2009)

While there is nearly overwhelming agreement that organized crime has been and currently is evidenced in the United States and abroad, agreement on the definition of organized crime has been less forthcoming. As Howard Abadinsky points out in Organized Crime (2007), “attempts to define OC have met with only limited success and no generally accepted definition has emerged” (p. 2). Over the years, individuals have settled upon their own definitions which have been used by various law enforcement agencies, but those definitions are often only applied so far as the agency using the definition extends.

In 1976, Michael Maltz suggested that this lack of a generally accepted definition might, in part, be a problem of semantics with both the crimes committed and the groups committing the crimes being considered organized crime, resulting in confusion over what exactly one refers to when one employs the term (Abadinsky, 2007). Despite this lack of agreement or clarity on definition, however, law enforcement organizations and agencies have been successful in identifying similar attributes of organized crime that have allowed individuals to come closer to pinpointing what constitutes organized crime and what does not (Abadinsky, 2007).

Those generally accepted attributes include that organized crime:

1. Has no political goals

2. is hierarchical

3. Has a limited or exclusive membership

4. Constitutes a unique subculture

5. Perpetuates itself

6. Exhibits a willingness to use illegal violence and bribery

7. Demonstrates specialization/division of labor

8. is monopolistic

9. And is governed by explicit rules and regulations (Abadinsky, 2007, pp. 2-3).

We have also been able to agree that organized crime groups tend to fall within two distinct organizational models; the bureaucratic/corporate model and the patrimonial/patron-client model (Abadinsky, 2007).

Under the bureaucratic model of organization, organized crime groups display attributes similar to those found in organizations such as the military; there is a complex hierarchy, there is extensive division of labor within the organization, positions or jobs are assigned on the basis of skill, responsibilities are carried out in an impersonal manner, extensive written rules and regulations exist, and communication occurs from the top levels to the bottom levels often in written form (Abadinsky, 2007, p. 6). Organizations that fall within the bureaucratic model of organization often do so out of necessity as, the bigger the organization, the more difficult it becomes to organize in any manner other than a bureaucratic manner.

The patrimonial/patron-client network is quite dissimilar from the bureaucratic model in many identifiable ways. First, the patrimonial model of organization “Centers around families, patrons and their clients and other personalistic networks” much as society tends to center around those same personalized relationships, allowing the emphasis to remain on emotional connection rather than abstract rules and regulations (Abadinsky, 2007, p. 7). Second, the patrimonial/patron-client network elites “are more ceremonious” than are the bureaucratic elites, further allowing the ritual and emotional connections found within society to take precedence over rule and regulation (Abadinsky, 2007). Finally, the patrimonial/patron-client network operates in a manner very different from that found within the bureaucratic model.

With the patrimonial structure, the “network consists of a collection of connected points or junctures” with each individual in the network acting as a point in that network (Abadinsky, 2007, p. 7). The boss, in an organized crime group, is set at the heart of the network, with his clients surrounding him, their clients surrounding them and on and on (Abadinsky, 2007). Individuals who do not know each other or may not even interact with one another are connected through the relationships that can be traced through the network back to the heart of that network or, in this case, the boss. This set-up, while complex in its own way, can ensure that the network is able to survive should something happen to those situated at the center.

In a bureaucratic organization, that continuity may not exist, as the individuals with the information are at the top of the organizational chain. If they are taken out, the entire chain suffers. In the patrimonial structure, however, the network can survive the loss of members so long as there are others in place able to serve the clients that would otherwise be affected. If, for instance, the boss is taken out, one of his clients may take over his position so long as he has the resources necessary to fill that role.

Another area of discussion and theory where organized crime is concerned is the beginnings of organized crime in the United States. During the Great Depression, Robert Merton “set forth a social and cultural explanation for deviant behavior in the United States” (Abadinsky, 2007, p. 14). According to his explanation, organized crime was “a normal response to pressures exerted on certain persons by the social structure” (Abadinsky, 2007, p. 14). In this case, the American fascination with wealth and social standing created strain on individuals without the legitimate means of achieving economic success as defined by society. The individuals were forced to work with what they had in order to gain economic success, leading to the advent of organized crime as an avenue of pursuing the success that was otherwise unavailable to them (Abadinsky, 2007).

Immigrants and those who were unable to pursue legitimate opportunities for success would turn to illegitimate opportunities in an effort to achieve the success that had been closed off to them (Abadinsky, 2007). When those illegitimate means afforded them with the success they sought, some were able to move into legitimate opportunities leaving behind their prior illegitimate opportunities while others had learned that they were able to play by a different set of rules and still gain the success they had sought, thus cementing organized crime as a way of life in the United States.

As organized crime became a way of life in the United States, those that had turned to organized crime realized that the government could work in their favor (Abadinsky, 2007). Unlike terrorist organizations, organized crime groups are generally content to allow the government that exists to remain in place, believing that the government can work in their favor without the added burden of trying to operate said government (Abadinsky, 2007). That said, they also realize that the more influence they have with the government, the more they are able to do. That being the case; organized crime groups often seek political influence as part of their operations.

As Abadinsky points out in Organized Crime (2007), “control of government, in particular the police, enabled the machine to protect vice entrepreneurs and gang leaders, who reciprocated with financial and voting support” (p. 50). Having influence in the government, on other hand, allowed organized crime groups to continue carrying out their mission and goals more or less unimpeded by the very individuals who could do the most harm to the organized crime world. When those in government owed their appointments to organized crime groups, they were more likely to work with those organized crime groups, realizing that they were the individuals who had put them in office and could, if dissatisfied, remove them from office.

In the post-Prohibition world, this corruption of government officials did not abate but the face of organized crime changed in several ways, thanks in part to the changes in social structure that came about because of Prohibition. Prior to Prohibition, “gangsters were merely the errand boys for the politicians and the gamblers; they were at the bottom of a highly stratified social milieu” (Abadinsky, 2007, p. 54). During Prohibition, however, the gangsters, or organized crime groups, were able to redefine that social structure and move to the top of the social ladder. This happened partly because they were able to provide the materials that had been outlawed, had the resources to ensure they were able to provide those materials on a larger scale and because they were able to work together in order to ensure that they were able to benefit from those materials (Abadinsky, 2007).

By the time the 19th Amendment was repealed, the actions of early organized crime groups during Prohibition had not only put them in position to move to the top of that social ladder but had also taught them what they needed to know to survive the end of the Prohibition era. As Abadinsky points out (2007), “the financial base of OC narrowed considerably” with the end of the Prohibition era, thus requiring that those who had profited during Prohibition find other means of staying afloat in the post-Prohibition era (p. 55). This necessity, of course, led to the advent of organized crime as it is now known. Organized crime groups not only hold illegitimate interests, but also legitimate interests that allow them to operate beneath the radar of police intervention and continue with those illegitimate interests.

While there is no generally accepted definition of organized crime, there are several attributes of organized crime that law enforcement agencies tend to agree upon. Those attributes and the organizational models of organized crime groups have allowed officials to differentiate between organized crime groups and other criminal outfits, such as terrorist organizations and better prepare to combat those organized crime groups. In addition to these attributes, officials have been able to explore the history of organized crime, including the establishment of organized crime in the United States and the effects of Prohibition on organized crime. What has been learned as a result is, by no means, a complete picture, but has allowed great insight into the implications and affects of organized crime groups in the United States and has better prepared law enforcement organizations to fight organized crime throughout the United States.

*The text referenced in this paper is Organized Crime (2007), written by Howard Abadinsky and published by Thomson Wadsworth.

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Technology and the Author: What’s What and How Can It Help?

August 6, 2009 at 12:29 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

Last post, I promised to talk a little about how an author can take advantage of the various bits and pieces of technology to connect and even widen his or her reader base.

One of the first things I would recommend would be to start a blog. And I can already hear the groans over that, but it’s truly not as terrifying an endeavor as it might seem. Places like WordPress and Blogger make it relatively easy to create a basic blog. The more comfortable you become with the entire concept, the easier you’ll find it to expand upon that basic blog and personalize it.

One of the big questions here is what one should blog about. And truthfully, there is no easy answer. I’ve seen authors blog about everything from what they’re currently reading to what they’re currently writing, to obscure details and facts that they’ve uncovered and have incorporated into their writing. I’ve seen authors include interviews with their favorite authors as well as up and coming authors, favorite recipes, the importance of the perfect playlist, rules of grammar that they find particularly difficult or irritating and so on and so forth. What is included on said blog is really completely up to your own personal tastes. A good rule of thumb, however, is to write about what you know and what interests you. Chances are, if you’re bored to tears writing a particular entry, your readers will be bored to tears reading it.

You don’t have to follow any particular format. You can be funny or sarcastic. You can be serious or lighthearted. Be yourself and let your personality and style shine and you’ll do fine. Don’t try to force yourself into a mold that just isn’t you. People will notice and it will do you more harm than good in the long run.

Something else to consider would be to create your own website. I can’t count the number of discussions between writers and even readers about the entire website idea and generally, everyone tends to agree that even if you don’t want to publish or have no plans to publish for years to come; having a website will allow you to display those works you are willing to share as well as provide more information on yourself to fans. Readers like to be able to keep up to date with what’s going on in your world; and a website helps them accomplish that and thus, makes it easier for even the unpublished writer to be kept in mind. It’s also a great tool for networking with fellow writers and providing resources that you’ve come across and found particularly helpful.

Social networking is next on our list. Regardless of what you may have heard about Facebook and the like; it’s not just for kids or for wasting time and it can be beneficial. It’s a great way to hook up with fellow authors and fellow readers. It’s also a rather easy way to keep in touch with your fans. You might not always have time to write out a long email, but it takes all of two minutes to write a note on someone’s wall or MySpace page to say that you got the email and appreciate their support, etc. It’s also a great way to keep up to date on what is occurring in the lives of your fans and fellow authors and to offer your support or encouragement.

Social networking, of course, shouldn’t be used in place of that one on one contact, but can aid you in strengthening those contacts. And that’s an important concept to remember. If the only way your fans ever get a response from you is when they catch you on Facebook or MySpace or a similar social network; chances are it’s going to irritate them. But when used wisely, it can be a powerful tool indeed. Did a reader just post that she’s having a child or that she’s turning 30? Great! Send a little note along saying congratulations or reminding her of the perks of being 30! At the least, she’ll appreciate that you took the time to respond to her and may make a point of grabbing your book when it hits shelves, or reading the latest excerpt you posted to return that little act of kindness. Don’t expect that she will or that she has too simply because you responded to her; simply recognize the potential and make an effort for the sake of making the effort.

I purposely did not include Twitter in the social networking category for a couple of different reasons. First, I’ve yet to hear a consensus on whether or not Twitter is particularly helpful for the author. Personally speaking, I believe it can be. But there are just as many that disagree as that agree with me on this one. Twitter is a social networking site in which you post updates about what you are doing in 140 characters or less. For some, constructing the perfect Tweet is a riot. For others, it’s willful destruction of the English language and not worth the time or energy because the results are less than stellar.

Second, it’s a near every day occurrence to find someone posing as someone else on Twitter. There are so many false celebrity and author accounts that trying to figure out who is real and who is posing almost takes more energy than it’s really worth. With that being the case, it makes people skeptical and, in some cases, less likely to believe what one posts to Twitter. So, a reader may or may not follow you on Twitter and they may or may not pay attention to your Tweets.

The reason I personally think it’s beneficial is that it can allow you to connect with people that would otherwise never come across your works. Most of those that follow me on Twitter, for instance, spend quite a lot of time on Twitter but don’t use other social networking outlets (such as Facebook). It’s easier in that case to connect with those people by going to where they are than by hoping they eventually come to where I am. I’ve become quite friendly with some of them so, to me, it’s been worth the hassle that Twitter can often be.

Another aspect of social networking that I want to touch upon briefly are the writing related social networking outlets. There are an entire host of those and they can be helpful in networking with fellow writers as well as in locating resources and information that can be equally as helpful. Instead of posting a list of those, I’m going to link you to this article that lists a bit about those outlets as well as their links so that you can browse them yourself and decide if they’re what you’re looking for or not.

Next on the list are sites that allow you to post your writing. Authonomy and AllPoetry are two such sites that, though very different, lean toward the same purpose. On Authonomy, you can post your longer stories and novel attempts (at least 10,000 words) for fellow Authonomy users to read and rate. At the end of the month, the top 5 rated works are sent to a group of editors who provide feedback on the writing. In some cases, those authors have been invited to sign with HarperCollins or a subsidiary, thus earning a contract from their efforts. With AllPoetry, you sign up for an account and post your poetry. Fellow users can then read and offer feedback on your works, allowing you to see what readers think as well as to revise accordingly.

Both sites allow you to get your works out there without the hassle of creating your very own website and doing all of the work yourself. There is a built in network of fellow users, thus giving you a starting point that you might not otherwise have. Of course, if you plan to seek publication through other avenues, you’ll have to be aware of whether your work will be accepted if it’s previously published on one of these sites. In some instances it won’t so it’s important to be aware of that beforehand.

The final bit of technological goodness I want to touch upon here is the advent of groups. Yahoo, Multiply and Windows Live, amongst others, have granted the ability for individuals to create groups that allow you to connect with like minded individuals. Posts can be delivered straight to your email and you can respond the same way. They also have tools in the group itself that can be helpful in keeping up with one another, sharing resources with one another, etc. These groups can be particularly helpful if you’re looking to connect with fellow writers or even with readers. There are more than a few writing circles that run almost solely through these groups as well as groups that help you connect with beta readers, with critique partners, writing buddies and the like. Because not all groups are a perfect fit and because not all groups are honest; my suggestion if you plan to utilize the group tool would be to talk to others and find out what groups they’ve found particularly helpful or unhelpful before you start. That way, you don’t find yourself stuck in a group where all anyone does is argue or where you have to worry that someone else might be stealing your writing.

And with that, I leave you to it. :) It’s a lot of information and by no means must you use any or all of the tools I discussed here. They can help you, but ultimately, your needs and comfort level should be taken into consideration before starting. That said, don’t let fear that you can’t do it stop you from exploring these tools. If my grandmother and great aunt can navigate MySpace and Facebook… chances are you can as well! :)

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Technological Gains and Writing

August 5, 2009 at 11:50 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Jordan Scott, author of The Nocturne, has filed a plagiarism claim against Stephenie Meyer; stating that her bestselling novel, Breaking Dawn, contains text, characters and story line that are substantially similar to that found in The Nocturne. The Nocturne, though published after Breaking Dawn, was begun in 2003 with Scott posting excerpts and ideas surrounding the novel to her website as the writing progressed. Stephenie Meyer, of course, denies that any part of Breaking Dawn was plagiarized and that Scott’s claim is completely without merit.

As any author, college student, professor or journalist can tell you; plagiarism is a very big deal. Taking the work of another and claiming it as your own, either knowingly or in ignorance, can have serious repercussions. But, that’s not quite what this post is about today.

While reading the article I naturally checked out the discussions said article has spawned. I would love to say I was surprised but what I saw, but unfortunately, that’s just not true. As with anything that people really like or really dislike, passions tended to run high and those weighing in had a tendency to come across as if their opinion was the only opinion worth bothering to hold.

We see this so often in the writing world that it becomes rather disheartening to see it yet again. You almost cringe when a media outlet or entertainment news outlet publishes a story on a book or author because the mud will start flying soon thereafter. At the same time, however, you can’t help but appreciate that people are speaking up, regardless of your own opinion.

We’ve heard for years that people just aren’t reading anymore. My own husband hasn’t cracked a book since I convinced him to read Angels and Demons (Dan Brown) several years ago. In fact, in the years leading up to that amazing reading feat, he hadn’t read a single book either. My mother’s boyfriend is the same way. He actually watched a book trailer on television earlier this year and decided he wanted to read the book. After purchasing the novel, however, he read the first chapter and then handed it over to my older sister, having decided that he really didn’t want to read it after all.

I tend to believe, however, that those individuals are still in the minority. Sure, we’re a busy nation. But I can’t count the number of people I come across on a daily basis that have their noses stuck in a book. For every one person I come across that confesses to not reading; I come across two or three others that include reading as one of their all time favorite things to do.

In fact, I’ve seen book clubs form on both Facebook and Twitter after individuals have discovered that they hold similar reading interests. I’ve even seen similar groups form for the purpose of reading fan fiction and reporting their favorite finds for other fan fiction readers.

So, we’re not necessarily reading any less, but we are reading a bit differently. With so many options available to readers these days (including blogs, ebooks, fan fiction web-rings and traditional print, just to name a few), reading has become as easy as they wish it to be. And while that decrease in print sales may have the publishing world screaming, there is good news.

Ebook sales increased in 2008 and it’s become easier than ever for authors to connect with readers and potential readers. I’ve heard, quite often, how important it is for authors to find ways to connect with their fan base and I can attest to how well that has worked for me, as a reader.

I’ve come across author blogs, author Facebook pages and even author Twitter accounts and, having known nothing about the author previously, have picked up their works based on what I’ve experienced in those realms with that specific individual. When it’s not those personal interactions that have sparked my interest; excerpts, bloggings about their personal writing process or even unrelated short stories that they’ve posted have captured my attention and made me want to see more.

I’ve heard and seen similar reactions from others as well. When Alice Hoffman took to Twitter in June to rant about a less than stellar review and encouraged fans to tell said reviewer off, her reputation certainly took a hit. Readers were not amused by her antics and several simply refuse to read her works as a result of that temper tantrum.

When it was announced that Brandon Sanderson would be completing the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s passing in 2006, several friends decided they would no longer read the series. When they came across him on Twitter, however, they decided that their decision might have been made in haste and are now eagerly anticipating the November release of The Gathering Storm.

Technology might make it easier for those less than respectful interactions to take place when publishing world news breaks, but I can’t help but feel that no matter how irritating that downside may be, the gains that technology have offered more than make up for it. It’s up to authors, of course, to take advantage of what technology can offer.  We’ll discuss how to go about doing so in the next installment.

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Book Review: Burning Alive by Shannon K. Butcher

August 4, 2009 at 11:15 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

Shannon K. Butcher's Burning Alive (The Sentinel Wars Book 1)

Shannon K. Butcher's Burning Alive (The Sentinel Wars Book 1)

Burning Alive, the first novel in Butcher’s Sentinel Wars series, is the story of Helen Day, a damsel in full fledged panic mode, and Drake Asher, the non-human warrior intent on winning her bond for life. But, of course, it’s never as easy as that.

The start of the story finds Helen in a diner in Kansas, enjoying (or at least attempting to enjoy) a weekly night out with one of the elderly shut-in’s that she cares for. Her enjoyment is virtually impossible, however, because Drake Asher, the man that has haunted her fiery dreams of impending doom, for as long as she can remember, sits across the diner, seemingly oblivious to her presence and the horrible fate that he will soon witness; if not cause.

Within pages, Drake notices Helen attempting to hide behind her menu and decides to find out just what the deal is. Things explode into action rather quickly from there. Upon his approach, Drake quickly realizes that Helen is capable of taking away the torturous pain that has long been his lot in life, with nothing but a mere touch of her skin to his. Helen, of course, wants nothing to do with this man who spells her doom. Being the warrior that he is, he leaves her no choice in the matter, all but kidnapping her and her elderly companion just in the nick of time.

We soon learn that Drake & Co are in the midst of a full fledged war that wages all around the oblivious human race. And unless Drake can convince Helen that he needs her; he might well lose the current battle, allowing the Sentinels’ enemies to undo the work of centuries. Helen, in a desperate ploy to save her elderly friend, reluctantly agrees to help, unaware that by doing so, the bond Drake needs from her has been tentatively set.

As the story progresses, Helen continues to battle the panic that thoughts of her eminent and painful demise bring while Drake tries to convince her that what she see’s could never be truth. The question, of course, is whether he can convince her and whether she can work through that terror and doubt in time to play the role Drake most desperately needs her to play; that of his personal savior and the hope of the Theronai race.

While the story was interesting; I couldn’t quite help but feeling a little bite at times. It was as if something vital were missing and perhaps it was. I could not relate to Helen.

I sympathized with her. I was often amused by her. And I most definitely pitied her. But I didn’t particularly like her. She has a nervous breakdown inducing terror of fire and seems particularly fragile. But, she a little too easily accepts Drake and his magic and demon infested world. It’s as if one minute she’s oblivious to the fact that said world exists and the next she’s not only accepting that world, but doing so with an inner strength that is quite at odds with the jittery, terrified woman she otherwise portrays. I believe Butcher was aiming to make the reader feel as if, despite that terror, she was a strong woman who could put that fear aside when the lives of others, particularly those she cares about, was at stake; but it didn’t come across that way. It felt rather disjointed and, as a result, was disconcerting and made the story difficult to delve into at times.

Drake, on the other hand, fascinated me. He’s dedicated his life to protecting the human race without the human race being any the wiser, but has done so at great cost to himself and the Theronai people. He’s endured great loss and still has never truly considered doing a thing differently; until Helen enters his life. For the first time, he finds himself wanting something different and despite the fact that he’s not human, he experiences very real human emotions and struggles and that makes him quite an endearing character.

That is really what kept me reading Burning Alive. I found myself charmed by the inner conflict Drake experiences, his struggle to behave honorably and fulfill his duty while still holding onto the one thing that has made him consider keeping something (or someone) for himself for once as well as the way he handles the turmoil. He recognizes the costs of such a decision and struggles to find a way to reconcile what he wants with the crushing weight of his duty to the Theronai and human races. That is, I think, a struggle many people can identify with on some level. At some point, we all find ourselves trying to juggle our responsibilities to others with what we want for ourselves. While our struggles aren’t necessarily as monumental as Drake’s; Butcher writes the story in a way that leaves you identifying with him and empathizing with his hopes and desires.

And that is something distinctly unique to this novel. In most romance novels, the author makes it easier to identify with the heroine and not so much with the hero. Whether that’s because most romance writers are women and it is simply easier to relate to the female (or heroine) perspective or for some completely different reason is a topic for another day. The point here is simply that it is refreshing to see a switch to that typical pattern. I found myself flying through the sections in which Drake’s point of view took center stage and crawling through those in which Helen was the character of inner focus and I value that.

There was much to the story that didn’t feel resolved or particularly well thought out; but I find myself feeling as if I have something to look forward to in future installments in the Sentinel Wars series. That, in and of itself, will be interesting as a new hero and heroine will take center stage in the next novel, so what more we learn about those issues unresolved in this novel will undoubtedly add newer dimensions to Burning Alive and the series as a whole simply from that switch in main character alone.

You can catch up with Shannon K. Butcher, read about the Sentinel Wars series or purchase your own copy of the novel by visiting her at: http://www.shannonkbutcher.com/

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Rules of Writing Series: Breaking the Big Rules

August 4, 2009 at 5:56 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

If you talk to most authors for any length of time about the craft, you’ll quickly learn that most believe there are very few rules in writing that cannot be broken. That is not to say that the rules should be blatantly disregarded. They shouldn’t. But, there is a time and a place in which the rules can be bent, ignored or simply rewritten. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be posting about some of those rules and when/why they should be broken in addition to the typical book reviews and general postings.

That said, let’s start this series off with the big one, shall we?

The dreaded spelling and grammar. You might well hear that one should never disregard proper spelling and grammar in writing. I most respectfully disagree.

Let’s face it; there might just be more rules regarding the proper use of the English language than there are people in the United States. Generally speaking, knowing how to use the English language correctly in writing is a good thing. But, knowing when to ignore those rules can be an even better thing.

When you read a historical, say from the Regency period, and your hero or heroine is speaking with a street urchin who has had nothing resembling a formal education; would you really believe it if every word that came from said urchin’s mouth was perfectly spoken? What about if you’re reading a contemporary novel, romance or otherwise, and your character is speaking to a teenager. Would you believe it if every word that teenager spoke was perfectly correct? Would you believe it if every internal thought a character had came in complete, perfectly constructed sentences? Likely not.

Understanding when to break the rules and when to follow those rules can add depth to a story that would never be attained were the entire story written in perfect, precise English. At the same time, a great author can add levels and depth to each individual character simply by changing the patterns of speech when writing from the perspective of that character.

Another important point that should be made here deals with slang. There is a time and a place to use slang and a time and place in which slang should be left alone. You wouldn’t have your medieval characters using today’s slang and, in most situations, your contemporary characters wouldn’t use medieval speech patterns. Your 90 year old characters probably wouldn’t make a regular habit of using the same slang as your 16 year old characters and your 16 year old characters probably aren’t going to have a “knee’s up” like your 90 year old characters might.

Obviously, that’s not always the case either and that’s where knowing when to break the rules comes into play. Your eccentric 90 year old character might well attempt to “get jiggy with it,” your old soul in a 16 year old’s body might well go “out yonder,” your contemporary character might well say “tis and shan’t.” But chances are, your medieval character (unless he or she is a time traveling fool) probably isn’t going to break out with a “lamespice” or a “make it snappy.” Know when to use it and when to leave it alone; and don’t make a habit of overusing slang. Allow it to mingle with proper English or you might well find that your readers find said character annoying.

Which brings me to the spelling point. It’s important. And most of the time, it’s darn important. And failing to use it properly to no real purpose is incredibly annoying. One shouldn’t misspell words unless those misspellings have a point. For instance, spelling definitely as “definitaly” or “higher” as “hire” is typically not a good thing. If your character, however, is looking at a note in which those words are misspelled, it might be acceptable. If you’re dealing with a time period in which words were spelled differently than they are today or a world in which the language is similar but has those distinct variations, it would be acceptable to stick to the spelling of that time period or world. You, obviously, don’t want to do it so often that readers can’t keep up; but it can add to the story to do so occasionally.

In short, break the rules when breaking the rules adds to the story, but don’t do it so often that you wind up taking away from the story instead of adding to it and don’t do it without reason. Breaking to rules just to break the rules can be irritating for the reader.

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