The Odd Duck: The Character of Jake Alderdice

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[Jake Teaser]

Photo Credit: Father and son (Thomas Hopewell and his son Timothy), Frank Buchser, 1861, oil on canvas, Galerie Koller: Botaurus/Wikimedia Commons/PD art (PD old 100)

In an earlier version of False Fathers, my second book in the Waxwood Series, Jake Alderdice tells his mother how people have always thought of him as an “odd duck.” To me, this summarized Jake’s character not only in the story but in the canon of my own writing.

I won’t lie. Writing about Jake was a struggle for me for many reasons. On the one hand, since the Waxwood Series is about the deterioration (physically, mentally, and emotionally) of the Alderdice family, Jake’s story had to be told since he’s Vivian Alderdice’s younger brother. But I was nervous about writing the story of a male main character, even though Jake’s psychological reality was familiar to me.

The story I conceived of Jake in the original 3-part novel about the Alderdice family (which I talk about here) included Jake’s story. In fact, his story is the only one that remains more or less true to my original conception of it from that novel, in the sense that Jake comes of age amidst psychological circumtances many young men usually don’t have to deal with. But I realized when I started rewriting the story that I didn’t really know Jake at all. My own uneasiness about writing male characters (especially central ones) kept me from really digging deep into his character. I knew some things about him — that he was an artist, taught by his grandmother, that his mother had a particular loathing for him she didn’t have for his sister, and that his identity as a man (and the only surviving male of the family) was instrumental to his evolution. I liked him, but he felt remote to me, much more so than his sister Vivian or Gena Payne, the main character in Book 3 of the series.

What gave shape to the character of Jake was the historical time frame. When I wrote the book as contemporary fiction, Jake didn’t seem all that much different from other young men. He didn’t go for “sowing his wild oats,” but so do a lot of young men these days. He was an artist, but so are many others. His mother treated him as if he were a mistake, but so do a lot of other mothers (unfortunately).

So why did the historical context change this? Simply, I started to see Jake’s character against the backdrop of the Gilded Age. The psychology of gender has always interested me, not only regarding women but men as well. When I started researching masculinity in the Gilded Age (some of which I talk about here and here), I realized how complex the idea of what it meant to be a man back then was, almost more complex than what it was to be a woman (since women had some support with the suffragist movement and the New Woman ideal). As I wrote the drafts for this book, I got to know Jake better and understood his struggle to figure out who he was, not only in the shadow of the family half-truths, lies, and myths, but with his own personality and quirks that did not suit the growing ideals of masculinity at the end of the 19th century. 

So he became a character I appreciated and thought I could make readers appreciate as someone looking for what he wanted to be in a chaotic world with contradicting messages and conventions (not unlike young people in our world today). I could see not only his struggles, but also what he learns about his family, those around him who profess to help him, and, most importantly, himself. 

To learn more about Jake, you can check out the series page here. To order your copy of False Fathers, which is now at a special preorder price, go here. Plus, you can read a bonus excerpt from the book if you join my readers group here.       

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The Gilded Age Masculine Identity Crisis

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Photo Credit: Men of Progress, Christian Schussele, 1862, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Washington D. C: ~riley/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

The second book of the Waxwood series, False Fathers, is a coming-of-age story about the male protagonist, Jake Alderdice, transitioning from boyhood into manhood in the late 19th century. In doing my research on masculine ideals of the era, I came across an article that takes an interesting view at the subject. You can find the article here.

According to the author, John Robert Van Slyke, the Gilded Age brought about a crisis in the definition of masculinity for men. I have mentioned in my blog post about the Gilded Age how the chaos and the excesses of the era changed the way in which Americans saw themselves, socially and psychologically. We know how this was true for women, as the Victorian idea of the “angel in the house” was breaking down in the face of suffragism and the new American ideal of womanhood represented by the New Woman.

But many changes were going on for men as well. For Van Slyke, this was represented by “a shift from the term ‘manliness’ to ‘masculinity’” (pg. 2). These may seem like the same or similar, in terms of meaning,and perhaps in our modern way of thinking about gender, they are. But for the 19th century, they were very different. Manliness was a Victorian ideal rooted in abstract realities, a “‘honorable, high-minded’” idea that required “sexual restraint, a powerful will, and a strong character” (Van Slyke, pg. 3). Masculinity, however, was a concept emerging into the new century that implied “‘aggressiveness, physical force, and male sexuality” (pg. 3). So while the qualities of what made a man in the Victorian era (looking back from the Gilded Age) were intangible, those qualities of the 20th century (looking ahead) would be required to be more tangible and measurable.

One reason for this was that America was moving into a more “doer” century, where one’s deeds rather than one’s values would be the measure of one’s character. For men, success in the public sphere was imperative in the Gilded Age, and their worth was judged by their achievements. America was becoming bigger, richer, and more powerful on the world stage. Competition was becoming fiercer. Therefore, a more forceful, physical presence was necessary to succeed.

Van Slyke brings in a nice example of this from the business world. Many men in the 19th century began their business success by getting loans and gaining credit from the bank with which to build their companies (much as entrepreneurs do today). In the mid-19th century, a man could get a loan or credit based on his character. If he proved himself to be a reliable, upstanding, dependable citizen, a hard worker and moral man, those were enough. However, by the Gilded Age, this was no longer possible. It was a man’s prospects and his assets that determined whether he would be given a loan or credit.

This crisis of looking back to manly virtue and looking forward to masculine physicality presented problems for young men in the Gilded Age. Success in the public sphere was still the name of the game, but the means with which they achieved it were no longer based on their fathers’ and grandfathers’ manly virtues. They were based more on how aggressive they could be in business, how wily and cunning they were, and how much interest they had in commercial success.

This crisis is one Jake faces in the book. His artistic nature makes him more contemplative and dreamy, the opposite type needed to become a business titan like his grandfather, and this is contrasted by other male characters his age in the novel. One reason why he accepts Harland Stevens, a middle-aged man who befriends him during his summer in Waxwood, as a surrogate father is because Stevens seems to present the balance between Victorian manliness and Gilded Age masculinity. 

To read more about the book, coming out in December, go here. To read more about Jake and Stevens, take a look here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can do so by joining my readers group here.      

Works Cited

Van Slyke, John Robert. “Changing ideal of manhood in late-nineteenth century America” (2001). Graduate Student Thesis, Dissertation, & Professional Papers. Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana. 

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What’s in a Name: Title Change Reveal for Book 2 of my Waxwood Series

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Photo Credit: The Last Day in the Old Home, Robert Braithwaite Martineau, 1862, oil on canvas, cropped, Tate Britain: Enciclopedia1993/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

It’s an old cliche: “What’s in a name?” The same might be asked of a book title (or the title of a song, a film, a painting, etc). Are titles really all that important to readers and authors? For readers, it might be just a way of identifying the next book on their to-be-read list. For many authors, titles are more than just identifiers. They are a way to situate the book (for themselves and the reader) and reveal a little something about it, even before the reader opens the book.

I try to put as much thought and creativity into my titles as I do in the rest of the book. Throughout the writing process, from first to last draft, the title becomes a part of the way I think about the book and its characters. Since my writing revolves around stories that come out of characters and their psychological reality, I often times explore several titles that relate to some important aspect of the book or main character that I find relevant and revealing. As I write and revise the book, it reveals itself to me, and I often end up changing the title.

This happened with the first book of the Waxwood Series, The Specter. The idea for the book emerged when I wrote a short story about the funeral of Penelope Alderdice, Vivian’s grandmother, and its effects on the family and others. I felt that story needed to become a full novel to set the stage for the deterioration of the Alderdice family that takes place over the course of the series. That short story was titled “After the Funeral,” and I originally planned on keeping that title for the novel. But as I wrote the book, the idea of the specter became front and center in Vivian journey to discover who her grandmother was (and, by consequence, how the past affects her and her family). Thus, the title of the book changed to The Specter.

With Book 2, the title change came was a little more complex. For Book 1, the idea of what happens after Penelope’s funeral was less significant than the idea of the specter that haunts Vivian’s psyche, so it was an easy decision for me to change the title. With Book 2, there were more conflicts.

The original title for Book 2 was The Order of Actaeon. This title was the name of a secret society that plays a role in the novel. Secret societies and fraternities were a big deal in the 19th century, something I go into in this blog post. I also conceived of the myth of Actaeon as a metaphor for Jake Alderdice, the main character of the novel, and his fate in the book (something I’ll talk about in a future blog post). That title stayed with the book for a very long time. When I started revising that draft, it occurred to me the idea of Actaeon as a metaphor could be expanded into some subplot ideas I had. At that time, I planned on creating two parts to the book that reflected different aspects of the Actaeon myth, and so I changed the title to Tales of Actaeon

But, as I mentioned above, my process in writing my books is an act of discovery, and the novel often times tells me what it’s about rather than me dictating to it. And the novel was telling me that, while the Actaeon metaphor is indeed a part of the story, it’s not what’s in Jake’s psychological reality. His entire psychological make-up has to do with the fact that he grew up without his biological father. Jake is a young man coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, where, as I mention in the blog post about secret societies, the definition of masculinity was in flux and fraught with confusion, as America was being hurled into the new century. So personal and collective history plays a role in Jake’s destiny. In the story, Jake is guided by several father figures. Though their intentions are honorable, their motives and ideas about modern masculinity may not be the best suited for the sort of character Jake is.

Because of this, fathers, and not always sincere father figures, became an important element in the story. I felt the idea of Actaeon was no longer appropriate for the title and hence, I came up with a new title: False Fathers.

I was intrigued by the idea of falsity, because it implies not only something that isn’t true, but something that presents itself as true but really isn’t. Coupling this with the idea of father, or, paternal figures, as they appear in the book, I felt readers would appreciate the significance of the new title when they read about Jake’s plight.

To learn more about False Fathers, please go here. I also have an excerpt from the book in my readers group. To find out about Book 1 of the series, you can check out this link. And if you want to know more about the series in general, you can go here.      

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Knowing Characters: Inside and Out

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Photo Credit: Procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s Plays, Unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard), 1840, oil on board, Yale Center for British Art: DcoetzeeBot/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired  

In any kind of fiction, for authors to know their characters is essential because stories are (duh!) about characters. Plot, setting, themes, and narrative are all important, but they come out of who the characters are. The process authors take to know their characters really varies from author to author.

New authors are often told to create or find online a character dossier or character questionnaire like this one which forces them to create a character down to the last detail. There is sometimes, I think, an expectation that authors know these things about their characters even if they never make it into the actual book. An awesome writer’s group I belong to on Facebook recently had a series of posts related to these sort of character details, posing questions like “What’s your character’s favorite color?” and “What’s your character’s favorite drink?” These questions can certainly be helpful for an author to know a character, specially if that character is running through a series where he/she will appear many times in many books. But I often think they don’t tell the whole story.

My fiction is about characters who face their past so they can find their future. They face their personal past and their collective past, the historical era in which they live. I talked about this in my blog post for this year’s OWS CyCon blog tour. Because there are deeper issues that my characters have to face on their journey to finding their future through their past, I have to be selective about the sort of details that make up their character and discover who they are through the process of writing and rewriting.

Therefore, I rarely do character dossiers or questionnaires. When the posts went up in the Facebook group, I honestly couldn’t comment on them because I don’t know what drink or color Vivian Alderdice (the unofficial protagonist of the Waxwood Series) prefers. These details were simply not important in my construction of Vivian as a character for the series. They may become important for the series later on and if they do, they will come up on their own. Vivian herself will tell me, in the writing and rewriting process, the answers to these questions if they become vital to the story and to her character. But until then, I feel like trying to impose this sort of detail onto Vivian  as a character would feel artificial and contrived.

Author Anais Nin wrote about this sort of selectivity in details in her book on writing, The Novel of the Future. For Nin, such details as what the character drinks or what he or she has in her closet do not add to the reader’s knowledge of the character and, in fact, take away from it. She describes here an example from one of her books:

“A reviewer said when I wrote Stella (novelette included in the collection Winter of Artifice): ‘Stella is not real because she does not go to the icebox for a snack.’ This kind of reality I take for granted and would distract me, the author or the reader, away from some other more important observation.” (Nin, location 846)

For Nin, authors need to use the sort of selectivity with character details that I spoke of earlier. It’s not about quantity, but quality:

“A concentrated lighting thrown on a few critical or intense moments will illumine and reveal more than a hundred details which dull our keenness, weary our vision.” (Nin, location 496-502)

So discovering who the character, whether over the span of one book or several, is, for authors and readers, a process of selectivity and focus.

From a more psychological perspective, it took me quite a few drafts to get to know Jake Alderdice, the protagonist of Book 2 of the Waxwood Series, Tales of Actaeon. I did several rewrites (not just editing and tinkering with scenes, but actual “throw most of it out and do it again” kind of rewrites) of the novel, all based on the kind of character Jake was evolving into. The details of his plight in coming of age during the last years of the 19th century come not only from his position as a twenty-one year old young man in 1898 but from who he is, what his psychological reality is, how he was raised, what he’s discovering about his beliefs and values, and what his relationships are. Small, concrete details do matter, like the fact that he’s an artist who favors wooded landscapes as his subjects. But, like Nin, I include less of the details that would prove to be irrelevant to who he is in the story, like what drink he prefers or what his favorite color is.

To find out more about Tales of Actaeon, due out in December, go here. And you can find out more about the series itself here.   

Works Cited

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.

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The Writer’s Art of Killing Your Darlings

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Photo Credit: The Murder of Rizzio, John Opie, 1787, painting, Gildhall Art Gallery, London: DuncanHill/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Many writers have heard William Faulkner’s advice to “kill your darlings” in the revision and editing process of their work. The phrase succulently describes the kind of tender, attached feeling many authors have for a turn of phrase, a scene that seems to work out perfectly, a beloved character, a grand location — that just doesn’t belong in the book we’re writing. There is no doubt that killing your darlings is a little about writer’s ego — we wrote this stuff and we hate to admit that it doesn’t belong or that it’s overdone and not as great as we thought it was when we wrote it — but it also involves thinking about the reader. Writers must do what’s right for the story to take the book where they think readers will get as much as possible out of the reading experience. That might include learning something, experiencing another place at another time, making emotional connection with characters and just having a good read and forgetting about the troubles of everyday life. Hopefully, a combination of most or all of these.

I’ve had ample opportunity to contemplate what it means to kill your darlings this past month while working intensely on revising and rewriting the first draft of Tales of Actaeon, the second book to my Waxwood Series. I’ve been digging deep into the story and its themes and characters, and it’s made me realize that killing your darlings can come at every level of the complex tapestry that makes up a novel, especially a novel in a series.

On it’s most basic level, killing your darlings might mean taking out some of the most lyrical passages in the story. When I began writing and publishing in 2017, I was heavily influenced by the work of Anais Nin. Nin was a strong advocate for poetic prose, a style of writing that involves the use of poetic language and tropes to present imagery that creates multiple layers to the story being told. Her book Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories, which I read when I was sixteen, completely changed my perception of what fiction is and what it can really do, how it can touch readers and evoke emotions in the subtlest ways. So much of my writing developed in this direction and my first published work, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories is a book of contemporary short stories in this vein. The Waxwood Series, as I explain here, was originally a novel in three parts and in its evolution, the storyline in Tales of Actaeon was the only one that survived more or less unchanged. At the time, I was very much engrossed in the poetic prose style, so much of the first draft taken from that novel is in that style.

However, like all writers, my style has strengthened and evolved. I am now more careful with my choice of language and imagery and I try to use splashes of poetic prose where the story really benefits from it. Subsequently, I found myself killing a lot of those darlings in this book. For example, here’s a passage of poetic prose I took out of the first draft of Tales during this rewriting process:

“A circle of shanties appeared through the dim, looking as if they had been constructed by hand in a hurry. Bare mud led up to narrow doorways except for one shanty where someone had tried to plant roses. But the flowers were charred as if a fire had rolled right through them. The only color among the shades of black, mud and gray were sprigs of wild spearmint. Their pointy leaves and pungent scent made his [the protagonist, Jake’s]  eyes water.”

While I won’t deny I’m proud of this passage, the story has changed so that it no longer needs this lavish description of what is a minor element in the story. Had I left it in, it would have slowed down the pace.

Killing your darlings isn’t just about removing pretty words that don’t fit, though. It’s also sometimes about the bigger stuff in stories, like subplots that distract from the main storyline. For example, I’ve mentioned here that Vivian is the unofficial protagonist of the Waxwood Series and her character appears in every book of the series. To this end, I wrote the first draft of Tales (which focuses on Jake, Vivian’s brother) with a subplot involving Vivian told from her point of view. But when I began to dig deeper into the story and uncover more of its themes, I realized Vivian’s voice didn’t need to be there. The book is about Jake and his emotional and psychological maturity as a Gilded Age young man. So I took out Vivian’s voice and the subplot, though Vivian herself still appears in the book.

Killing your darlings can also mean killing off a character. When I wrote the short story “The Rose Debutante”, a sort of prequel to the first book of the Waxwood Series, I found myself including a character whom I thought would fit into Tales. But I found the more the character inserted himself into the plot, including the climax of the story, the more he detracted Jake from the emotional and psychological journey he takes in the book. The character didn’t have a logical place in Jake’s journey, though his absence did have an effect on Jake’s psychological reality. But to convey that in the story, I didn’t need to have him appear as a character. So I removed him. He may or may not make an appearance in the later books, but for now, he is one of the darlings that needed to be killed off to make the story strong and complete.

To find out more about Tales of Actaeon, go to this page. And if you want to learn more about the Waxwood Series, I have a page for that here.  

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