Oh, F*ck! It’s a Period Piece…

You might remember from an earlier post, that I’m using a couple of guidebooks to aid in the process of writing my first novel. Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was reading The Everything Guide To Writing Your First Novel and breezing through the novel elements checklist on Chapter 3. That is, until I reached the Setting subsection. I had (and still have) a pretty good idea of where my story is set, but the problem wasn’t the where; it was the when. The more I thought about the story that I’m trying to tell and all the elements at play in the world I’ve created, the more obvious it became. There’s no way around it: Carrot Cake is a period piece. 

I use the term “period piece” somewhat fearfully, since it likely conjures images of medieval dungeons and petticoats and chainmail, and my story has none of these things. And yet it is a period piece because it takes place in the past, in a time before smartphones and WiFi. My story takes place, I now realize, at some point between the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

You’re probably wondering if such a “small” change is even worth it. Dear Reader, I promise you I tried to avoid it. For a while, I tried to convince myself that the changes would be minuscule, and that twenty-some years would scarcely make a difference. But none of that is true. Our world has changed considerably over the last two decades, and Anne Marie’s story simply doesn’t fit in this modern world.

I toyed around briefly with the idea of adopting a timeless setting and never actually specifying the time period—something I have done in the past with some success (by “success” I mean that it went over well with the other students in my writing workshop). But I believe the reason it worked in the past is because the piece in question was a screenplay.

It’s easier to get away with an ambiguous time setting in film because film is a medium of omission. As we start to learn the rules of the world on-screen, we rather readily accept that what we don’t see on-screen does not exist in this world. For example, I was happy to hear among the workshop responses for the screenplay I mentioned above, that it “reads like a timeless story-of-our-childhood movie.” Besides being an awesome thing to hear about your writing, this validated my choice not to include any modern technology. I never specified a time, and I was careful about what to include, and, perhaps more importantly, about what to exclude.

Onscreen, it’s relatively easy to get away with ambiguity in the setting. Who knows when “Moonrise Kingdom” takes place? Or the popular show “Twin Peaks?” The idea is that they could be set at any time in recent history. This technique, however, doesn’t translate as well into prose. I know because I’ve tried to use it. Every time I take a story to workshop, at least a handful of the readers want to know how the story fits into current events. Last year, I wrote a story set in Puerto Rico, and my professor said I needed to reference Hurricane Maria, even though I hadn’t specified the time when the story took place.

In literature, if we are not explicitly told otherwise, we assume the story is set in the present. Therefore, if I were to write Carrot Cake in a way that is true to my vision, I expect it would prompt a lot of questions about the time. So, in summary, I’m screwed.

Because writing a period piece means doing a boatload of research.

Back in college, I read Syd Field’s book “Screenplay” for a screenwriting class. (I majored in Media Studies, in case you hadn’t yet caught the obnoxious film student vibe). Field says that “every creative decision must be made by choice, not necessity,” and that “the more you know, the more you can communicate.” Both quotes are meant to illustrate the importance of research, and both have stuck with me through the years.

In the past, I’ve always tried to steer clear of stories that might require a lot of research. It’s not that I’m bad at it; in fact, my attention to detail and my perfectionist spirit mean that I’m actually quite good at research. And, unlike those writers who would much rather zoom through the researching stage and get to the “real” writing, I do not dread research. I love it. That, I think, is the problem. 

I’m such a fan of rules and of doing things “right,” that I’m easily sucked down the research rabbit hole. I can already see myself determined to read every article and every book about the time period. In fact, I’m even wondering if I should start by researching how to research for a novel. Not that I don’t have research experience—let’s face it 70% of college is research—but, in the past, it’s been relatively easy to know when to stop researching and start writing. In college, I’d stop researching when I was nearing a deadline. At work, I’d stop when I got a new assignment. Yet I was always left with the feeling that there was more to uncover.

And that is where I’m at right now: not quite sure where to start researching and scared that, once I start, I won’t know when to stop. Which brings me back to my original sentiment—fuck, it’s a period piece!

Yours,

Miss Breathing

Note: Carrot Cake is the name of my current WIP, and Anne Marie is my protagonist’s name. If you want to know more about my novel progress, you can start with my previous post What If It’s A Novel?

Loving-Kindness and Writing Teenage Characters

Back in 2014, I had the chance to attend Leaky Con in Orlando. It was an all-around great time, but the absolute highlight was a panel called “I Was A Teenage Writer.”

One of my Leaky Con 2014 treasures.

From what I understand, “I Was A Teenage Writer” is a recurring event in these conventions. With good reason, too—it’s an amazing panel! It consists of some of the biggest names in YA literature—back in 2014, this included Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Holly Black, and many others—reading excerpts from their early works. And when I say early works, I mean early. The featured authors read from stories, poems, and essays they wrote as tweens and teens. The goal is to show aspiring writers that everyone was a “bad writer” at first.

The 2014 panel was, for the most part, hilarious— at one point, Holly Black burst into tears from laughing so hard at one of her old poems. While most of the authors present took jabs at their old writing, there was one notable exception. Writer and artist Kazu Kibuishi took a slightly different approach to his old writing. Before he started to read, Kibuishi made a disclaimer that he wanted to “show his younger self some respect and compassion” (I’m paraphrasing here. 2014 was a little while ago.).

At the time, I didn’t think much of Kibuishi’s statement, except maybe that his seriousness had briefly shifted the mood in the conference room to a careful silence. But all of this came back to me last week when I was writing Wednesday’s post.

The title of this post was almost “What The Jonas Brothers Taught Me About Loving My Teenage Characters & Younger Self,” but

  1. That’s a fucking mouthful.
  2. Two back-to-back posts about the Jonas Brothers might be a bit much for this audience, no?

Writing about something you loved so passionately as a teenager is tricky because there’s a tendency to talk down on our younger selves. Being in my early twenties, I think about my teenage self quite a bit. But it’s usually something along the lines of “thank God I’m not sixteen anymore.”

All of this reminds me of a meditation term called “loving-kindness.” Essentially, loving-kindness is about killing judgemental thoughts and replacing them with gentleness and understanding. Recently I realized that, when I think about my younger self, I’m often missing loving-kindness.

I’m not exactly alone in this, either. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only twenty-something who cringes at the thought of all those Team Edward posters. (And T-shirts. And the New Moon themed birthday party.) I can’t be the only person who went to the trouble of deleting old social media accounts in an attempt to erase boyband-related posts made at suspicious hours of the night back in 2012.

I can laugh about it now (because 48 posters of Robert Pattinson is a laughable amount), but sometimes I wonder whether I should. Hating on our teenage selves is an almost unavoidable bandwagon behavior; we all do it. And the closer in age we are to our teens, the more vocal we are about how “dumb” and “childish” we used to be as if by doing so we’re putting some sort of metaphorical distance between our present selves and the people we were six years ago. Well, recently, I started thinking about whether that’s fair to past me. 

Speaking of merch…

The flip side of being so close to my teens is that I still remember what it felt like to be a teen. A lot of the embarrassing things I did as a teenager came from a place of strong emotions. When I liked a book or a show, I hung posters and live-tweeted and bought all the merch my Christmas money could buy. When I loved someone, I was loud about it. When I hated someone, it consumed me. And just because I don’t feel the same way anymore doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t valid. 

This is 11 year-old me at her first Jonas Brothers concert.

For me, showing my teenage self some loving-kindness means admiring the strength of her emotions. Sometimes, when I catch myself being overly critical of my younger self, I try to flip the script on myself. It usually sounds something like “I love the way you love things. I love the way your eyes go wide when you’re talking about a story you love. I love the way your heart flutters when you see your favorite actor on screen. I love that you feel so strongly.”

I can’t say I’m perfect about this. I still talk down on my younger self sometimes. But, after a few months of loving-kindness, I have a newly found respect for my teenage self.

Strong. Fucking. Emotions.

The reason I’m writing about this now, Dear Reader, is because the protagonist of my WIP is a teenage girl. Her name, I might as well tell you now, is Anne Marie. I absolutely love Anne Marie, but, as I was looking through some old drafts of the story that inspired this novel, I realized I could have shown her a little more loving-kindness.

It was interesting going back to my workshop notes and finding that readers really liked the narrative voice poking fun at Anne Marie’s flair for drama. Anne Marie, much like my younger self, is all about strong emotions and wearing them on her sleeve. Going back to those early drafts made me realize that when we’re writing about all the awkwardness and urgency and the theatrics of being a teenager, we can choose to talk down on our characters. Or we can choose to show them some loving-kindness. 

Writing teenage characters in a way that truly honors their experiences is all about compassion and understanding. It’s about toning down judgments. It’s a practice I’m finding especially challenging as I attempt to write a novel with a teen protagonist but for an adult audience. 

I am not an expert writer, and I’m not trying to tell anyone how to write. But I find that practicing loving-kindness with my characters really helps me understand and sympathize with them. If you’re writing a character that you aren’t quite sure how to feel about—especially if this character is a teenager—I urge you to try some loving-kindness with her. You might be surprised at what you learn about her. And about yourself. 

Yours,

Miss Breathing