Category Archives: writing resources

Lessons from the Classics: Harte’s Outcasts

Note: This is part of an ongoing series of posts that take what I’m teaching in my 11th-grade American Lit classes and then shows how that could translate into creative writing, using examples of what I’m doing. I welcome feedback, because I’m no expert on American literature–just somebody who’s been teaching it for a couple of years. I would also love to hear how other writers are using these tools!   

This week in American lit, students are working in small groups to read Bret Harte’s* short story “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1892).  This is our first example of literary naturalism, or a story that presents as its theme a bleak worldview in which individuals are crushed and destroyed by an unfeeling world/social order (or, as I tell the students, “if everybody’s dead at the end and nobody cares and nothing changes about the world, it’s probably naturalism”).

The plot of “Outcasts” finds four ne’er-do-wells from the town of Poker Flat escorted out of town: John Oakhurst, gambler; Mother Shipton, who runs a brothel; The Duchess, an employee of Mother Shipton’s; and Uncle Billy, a drunk and a suspected thief. This being naturalism, they all end up dead in the wilderness, but Harte’s focus on their actions between their expulsion from civilized society reveals that “in the end…these seeming derelicts really had hearts of gold” (VanSpanckeren 5). Well… most of them, anyway–Uncle Billy definitely takes the mule and horse and leaves the rest of them to die.

But Oakhurst offers his horse to the Duchess, whose mule isn’t capable of carrying her; Mother Shipton starves herself to give extra food to the innocent Piney, who was running to Poker Flat to marry her sweetheart, Tom; and Piney and the Duchess die huddled together for warmth, equal in death:

And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them, which was she that had sinned. Even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away, leaving them still locked in each other’s arms. (Harte 33)

The story ends with Oakhurst writing his own epitaph on a playing card (“who struck a streak of bad luck…and handed in his checks”) and nailing it to a tree–“And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat” (Harte 35). As I made several students explain to me, Oakhurst is physically strong, and stays calm, and cares for others–the strongest–but gives up and kills himself–the weakest.

That juxtaposition–the innocent and the sinner, the strongest and the weakest–is, to my mind, what gives this story its punch; and let’s not pretend we don’t all love a noble thief or a charming rogue, right?

HAN SHOT FIRST
The “rebels taking down an empire” thing may also have some promise.

One of my WIPs features a romantic-hero-mafioso, and the other a band of rebels desperate to bring down an empire. These things have, like everything, been done before, but I think I can get some good hints from Harte about how to use juxtaposition to create interesting characters, and to do it using indirect characterization.

Continue reading Lessons from the Classics: Harte’s Outcasts

Lessons from the Classics: Twain’s Dialect

 Note: This is the first in an ongoing series (I hope?) of posts that take what I’m teaching in my 11th-grade American Lit classes and then shows how that could translate into creative writing, using examples of what I’m doing. I welcome feedback, because I’m no expert on American literature–just somebody who’s been teaching it for a couple of years. I would also love to hear how other writers are using these tools! 

This week in American Lit, we’ve been talking about dialect (writing that imitates the way people actually speak, including accents, slang, and idiom) and how writers use that to provide indirect characterization.

The story we read is Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a short, humorous exploration of the type of characters populating a rural mining camp in the 1860s. It’s also a frame story,  with an unnamed narrator introducing and closing out the tale in deliberately prolix style, the better to heighten the contrast with the main tale, told by “good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler” (Twain 1). The version at the link has a different ending than the version in our textbook, but the same general ideas are at play in both.

Obviously, Twain’s intent is to satirize both the stuffy narrator, who can’t see the humor in Smiley’s adventures, and Wheeler himself, who’s a bore and a boor and won’t let the narrator escape. We spend time while we’re reading picking out the words that really help characterize the two of them in order to analyze Twain’s use of diction as character. Some of the students’ favorites:

  • The Narrator: compliance, garrulous, hereunto append, personage, infernal, tedious
  • Simon Wheeler: feller, flume, curiousest, so’s, solit’ry, dangdest, thish-yer–and I was very unsuccessful in convincing them that “Well, blame my cats!” should make a comeback in teen vernacular.

There’s clearly a vast gulf here in terms of diction (syntactically, they both tend to run on, but only one of them does it grammatically). It would be very, very easy to label any sentence from this story as spoken by the Narrator or by Simon Wheeler, based on diction alone, because their dialects are so distinct.

So, how do I use this in my own writing?  Continue reading Lessons from the Classics: Twain’s Dialect

GO TEAM!

go-team
Go, team! (Not to be confused with The GO! Team, but they’re also excellent)

I’m really loving the posts that Jenny Crusie’s doing about “Story Teams” over on her blog. She’s analyzing why they work (or don’t). She analyzed the teams from Leverage (LOVE it), Person of Interest (tried to like it because she loves it and writes such interesting analysis of it, but…), and Legends of Tomorrow (uhhhhhhh) in preparation for troubleshooting the team she’s building in her WIP.

Reading her posts made me think about some of my favorite TV teams (Burn NoticeChuck, and Buffy being standouts, and White Collar too, although that’s a duo with support more than a team most of the time, and, of course, the Quest Team/Venture Brothers–Oh, and I guess Archer?).

So I want to analyze these teams the way she’s doing it, mostly for fun but also for comparison to the team I’m trying to build in my Lilly grant novel (YA cli-fi starring Anika, as-yet-untitled).  I listed too many, so I might just pick a few from the list.

Of course, that requires me to a)do that analysis and b)figure out what the heck is going on with my team.

And tonight’s not the night for that; I’m going to go to bed and sleep on it, and see what thoughts manage to crawl across my mind in the tryptophan-haze that is post-Thanksgiving relaxation time.

But teams make a pretty satisfying story unit. I’m excited to dig into this more!

Romance (and Prejudice)

One of the tips that Bob Mayer gave at Write on the River when I attended was to join your local chapter of the Romance Writers of America, no matter what your genre.

Well.

Well.

Can I just tell you a little bit about how English Majors like myself are taught to think about romance novels???

darcy
No, see, Austen doesn’t count. Because she’s different. Because we SAID SO, okay?!?!?!

Continue reading Romance (and Prejudice)

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Well, despite knowing perfectly well that the #1 task I need to accomplish as a writer is to WRITE, I keep finding ways to distract myself. Sometimes I distract myself “productively” (laundry, dishes, blog entries…) and sometimes I just read all of tumblr or get distracted by a really excellent blog. Or decide that I really need to spend a long time posting pictures of my kid on Facebook. Or tweaking things that are immaterial.


forgive the language, but this is a very accurate depiction of what I’m talking about.

Anyway, lately I’ve been reading through the entire archives at QueryShark. (This is facilitated by how easy it is to read things on a smartphone while you feed a baby.) This counts as goofy procrastination because you absolutely do not ever query an agent about a novel that you haven’t finished yet, and despite having several projects in various stages, I definitely do not yet have any finished novels to be querying.

HOWEVER… Continue reading Putting the Cart Before the Horse