Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Writing Clean When Your Setting is Dirty


Erica Vetsch is back today - yay! 


One of the things I was intrigued by in A Bride's Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas was that it was set in such a wild town, and it felt like it was, yet the book was still clean. I wanted Erica to weigh in on that. Even if you don't write for a Christian publishing house the way Erica does, you will still want to evaluate how much illicit behavior your reader will want to read.



Again, Erica has offered to give away a copy of her latest, A Bride's Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas to one lucky commenter. To get entered, leave a comment on today's post (and yesterday's, to get entered twice!) either asking Erica a question or commenting on something you found interesting. Or about how awesome that camera is on the cover of her book. US Residents only. Closes at whatever date I specified yesterday. 


Here are Erica's thoughts to my question, how do you set a clean book in a less-than-reputable town?


It’s no secret that Dodge City was the “Wickedest City in the West” and a wide open cow town with plenty of vices available around the clock. Gambling, drinking, prostitution, cock fights, dog races, dance halls, and more. Pretty unsavory stuff, especially for Christian fiction. So what is a writer to do if she wants to be authentic, but she also doesn’t want to offend the reader?


Don’t ignore the truth. Your reader will be insulted if you pretend that Dodge City was Mayberry. A historical novel set in Dodge that didn’t at least mention a saloon or dance hall will ring as true as a cracked bell. (Stephanie speaking - I just have to say this sentence is so Erica. She has the most creative similes in her books.)


Don’t glorify the vice or go into gory details. Assume your reader gets it. Make sure to show the consequences of living amorally, but don’t go into great detail about individual actions. The reader will fill in the blanks based upon their own experiences and understanding. An example is profanity. Christian fiction typically refrains from the use of cuss words, but how can a writer be authentic when cowboy language was quite strong and often offensive? Be creative. Instead of writing out the cuss word, describe the character as ‘turning the air blue with his cussing’ or ‘she gasped at the ribald word he uttered.’ This allows the reader to fill in the blank however they feel is appropriate and you’ve avoided offending them by the use of a specific word. 


Do show your character in conflict over the temptations and vices around him. The reader will relate to this, since we all live in a fallen world and we know what it is like to face temptations and have to choose one way or another. Have your characters live with the results of their choice.


I hope this post (and yesterday's) have given you a few new tools for your writing toolbox. I’d love to hear other questions you might have. There’s nothing better than talking writing with other writers!

40 comments:

  1. Erica, your explanation here is very pertinent to a question I've had recently about my WIP. It involves a profession that is harmless, but people who work in that profession can often be seen as rough and shady. I was going to ask you, too, how you handle researching an unsavory topic, but I read about your iceberg approach in yesterday's post. Thanks, both Erica and Stephanie. I'd love a chance to win the book.

    jprivette1(at)roadrunner(dot)com

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  2. I loved the way you described how to avoid offending someone, but still getting your point across. This is something that I'm trying to learn to do too. Thanks for your help! Again, I would love to read this book. :)

    cbk994(at)yahoo(dot)com

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  3. I like the last point the best - if your main character is shocked, your reader will be shocked as well!

    - Ellyn (ellyn (at) gibbscorner (dot) com)

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  4. I am writing a short story and I am trying to make it real, but still believable. I have noticed (by talking with people)that if people don't have a connection with the foster system, they create a false idea about what goes on. Living as a foster sister, I have been privileged to know more about the subject. So when I write it as it is it becomes less believable to some people. How do you find a balance?

    Alyson

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  5. Hi, Mary, research can be tricky, since you don't want to fill your head with lots of icky stuff. That's why I like most of my research to be via book rather than the internet for sticky subjects. You can imagine what kind of site you get sent to if you google "Prostitution in the West." EEK! But if you try your local library, you can narrow your search better, examine the cover of the book to see if it is something you want to open, and peruse the table of contents before you dive in too deeply.

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  6. Clarebear, everybody has a different approach to researching/writing, and I love talking it over with other writers because I always gain something when I do.

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  7. Ellyn, you're spot on. You want your reader to see your story world through the character's eyes, not yours, and not even theirs. I think this is the way to not only avoid info dumps, but also being preachy.

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  8. Hi, Alyson, whenever you're writing on a tough subject like an inside look at foster care, remember that story trumps all. Don't make the story about foster care. Make the story about the characters, giving them emotions and motivations that the reader can care about and identify with. Anything you reveal about the foster care system needs to be part of the story, rather than an expose on what is or isn't working with foster kids.

    I hope that helps.

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  9. One reason I like Christian books is that the authors don't fill their books with the F-word and other profanity. So what if some people say it. I don't and lots of other people don't either. I think "turning the air blue with his cussing" is perfectly acceptable. We don't need to hear what he is saying.

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  10. That was an amazing help. Thank you.
    Alyson

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  11. Hi, Sue, I read Christian fiction for the same reason. And as an author, I know that when a reader picks up one of my books expecting a good, clean read, it's like I'm making a promise to them. Putting in a lot of things that would offend a Christian reader would break that promise.

    Besides, it gives me a chance to be creative about how to portray things realistically while staying within the boundaries of that promise.

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  12. Great post, Erica! Love the cover too!

    Great advice!

    Can't wait to meet you at conference!

    Susie

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  13. I loved your advice, Ms. Vetsch. And I liked the sample line about turning the air blue with cussing! Great post :) I can totally see how it give you more leeway to be even more creative in your descriptions! And I really liked how you mentioned the characters being tempted into falling into the vices. That's great.


    crazi.swans at gmail dot com

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  14. What an enormously helpful post, Erica. And especially for me as I brainstorm for my next story: one set in the South during the slavery years. How would you deal with blatant immorality, though? For example, the fact that there are many mulattos on my main character's plantation.

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  15. Yay, Susie! I'm glad you're coming to the conference. I'll see you there!

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  16. Hi, Faye, Thank you for commenting here and over at Seekerville today.

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  17. Rainbowjoy, thanks so much for your question. Dealing with immorality, whether in the brothels of Dodge City or a slave plantation in the South, is tricky. You can't ignore the fact, but you don't have to put it all on the page either. I'd advise showing your main character's distaste for the practice, perhaps one of the characters being punished for speaking out about the abuse...show the story through the eyes of someone who abhors the problem, how they fight it, how they are treated as a result...story trumps all, so make sure the reader sees the issue through the eyes of your main character.

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  18. Great post Ms. Vetsch. I like how you explained to make a book dirty but also clean. A lot of books that I read don't do this. (By the way I LOVE the camera on the cover:)

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  19. Thank you so much! I definitely prefer to keep my novels and stories clean, so thanks for some tips on how to keep it real.

    ktlemonhead(at)comcast(dot)net

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  20. Hi, Bookworm...I was so pleased when I first saw the cover for A Bride's Portrait. I thought the designers did a great job. It's encouraging to hear that the cover art is catching readers' eyes too.

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  21. ktlemonhead (love the name!) If folks want to tell you that clean isn't real, you can tell them differently. :)

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  22. So many Christian fiction books sugarcoat everything and don't stay true to the facts of life. That's why I love Colleen Coble so much, she's true to facts but isn't to detailish with things like what a married couple shares together in the bedroom.
    Your book looks cool Erica by the way! :D Love the camera.
    Anyway, what I was saying was that I really love it when I find Christian fiction books that only have two differences from secular books.
    They're cleaner.
    And they mention God a little throughout it. :D LOVE IT!

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  23. Hi, Jazmine! Colleen Coble is a really good writer. Have you read her Lightkeeper's Daughter series?

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  24. Wow,this is great advice! The title of this post really got me because that is what I'm striving for in the historical/sci-fi piece I'm working on- keeping an even calm tone, even though it's set in a war torn, utopian society in outer space. It's a tough challenge, but your advice is very helpful to me- I've already printed out this page to save it for some writing inspiration/help! The cover looks fabulous! I absolutely ADORE that camera on the front- I collect old vintage cameras, I would love to get my hands on one of those :)
    Cheers!
    --Anna

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  25. Hi, Anna, historical/sci-fi sounds like Firefly. :)

    I was so excited to see the camera on the cover. The art design department actually sent me a couple of photos of cameras and I got to choose which one I thought worked best. A rare treat for an author. :)

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  26. Hello, thanks for the information. I have a question. Would this information head towards what happens in the bedroom. Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook was really steamy and I don't want to go that far but how would I go through with it without being too steamy? Thank you.

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  27. Hi, Alana, You have to decide for yourself how much you want to show on the page, but I urge you to err on the side of conservative. I'm always in favor of closing the bedroom door, fading to black, or leaving the details up to the imagination. It's hard enough to write a romantic scene without adding too many particulars. I would urge you to read widely of the type of scene you want to depict and see how other authors do it.

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  28. Erica, Thanks so much for the advice! I would love to read your book, and I absolutely need to visit an western themed town; I need to visit one in Kansas sometime, but I live in extremely east Missouri (think St. Louis suburb) and the train ride to Kansas city is six hours by itself.

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  29. I haven't actually read all of the books in that particular trilogy, I would like to. But the only one I read was "The Lightkeeper's Ball" it's her newest addition to that series.
    And currently I'm finishing up the third and final installment of The Lonestar series by her. Super good book series. :)
    Though me and my friend have an inside joke about those three books...
    There has to be something in the water in Bluebird Texas. Because they're all marrying for a safety of some kind, or for convenience. lol.

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  30. p.s.

    I just realized that the girl on the front cover looks a little like the actress Emma Watson.

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  31. I'm not in the US, but that IS an insanely cool camera. Sometimes I wish we could live in the old days where they had those cameras and those dresses and everything... but then again, we wouldn't have trackies and uggies and hoodie's, would we?;)

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  32. Hi, Caroline, Wichita has a terrific CowTown museum if you're ever in that neighborhood. It's more 'museum' and less 'tourist trap'-ish than say Abilene or Dodge City. And if you ever get a chance to tour Ft. Larned, don't miss the opportunity. It's fabulous!

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  33. Jazmine, I've not read the Lonestar books. I'll have to look into it.

    I hadn't thought of Emma Watson...my first reaction to the cover model was that she looked a lot like Alyssa Milano. :)

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  34. Emii, I'm convinced I would love living in Pioneer days for about 8 hrs, then I'd want my air conditioning, indoor plumbing, t-shirts, and remote control HDTV. :D

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  35. Hi Ms. Vetsch! I loved reading your post - what you said about the reader filling in the blanks makes great sense and clarified that Christian writers really can get away with writing clean books in dirty settings... :) Thank you!

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  36. Hi, Rachelle, I'm so glad you found the post helpful. I remember the first time someone told me about readers 'filling in the blanks' and a little light bulb went off in my head. :)

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  37. Thank you so much for explaining everything so clearly! I especially liked the last two points. I do have a question, although it doesn't really have anything to do with your post. :) What was the hardest thing about getting published?

    Book blogger♥

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  38. Hi, Book Blogger! If I'm completely transparent and honest here, I'll say the hardest thing about getting published was taming, cauterizing, and otherwise killing my pride. I was certain my first attempt at fiction was going to stagger the literary world.

    Then I got my first real critique, my first contest scores, my first rejections. Boy howdy, was that painful!

    After I picked myself and my splintered pride up off the linoleum, I buckled down and began the lifelong process of learning how to write...which often involves learning how to listen.

    My pride still raises it's nasty old head from time to time, but I've come a long way in knowing how to throttle it and get on with the learning. :)

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  39. Congratulations, Ellyn, you're the winner!

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