Thank you, Readers, for your comments and questions for our guest poets. Jame Richards has offered her responses here below.
From Andromeda Jazmon
What would happen if we mixed up the ethnicities of the actors so that it wasn't so monochromatic? What would that do to the story? Would it make a difference? Better, richer, more universal or somehow not?
Thanks for your question Andromeda—it is a thought-provoking one. I’ll start by saying that all art is enriched by diversity, however, my job specifically as a writer of historical fiction (as opposed to that of a movie producer) is to be as accurate as possible, starting with research and reflecting it in my storytelling. The facts tell us that the Johnstown area was settled by German and Welsh immigrants and descendants. Though I didn’t choose last names for most of my characters, I imagined that Peter was Welsh and Kate was from a Penn Dutch background in another part of Pennsylvania. By the time the flood occurs, there are quite a number of Irish and Scotch-Irish in the Conemaugh Valley, and I mention briefly that Joseph came over to the U.S. from Ireland as a baby. A newly expanding population in Johnstown was Hungarian and the fear was that they would take the all the jobs for less money, a familiar tune in the 1880s. So, Johnstown was considered ethnically diverse, though not by our standards today and certainly not as far as casting a movie. The movie producer would have to decide between historical accuracy and something along the lines of color-blind casting used in musical theater, which can be very exciting, challenging your preconceived notions about the story.
In short, it was my dream to tell the stories of these unique people in this time and place in history—perhaps it will be someone else’s dream to write about freed slaves in Johnstown during the flood, for example, and I hope that writer follows their dream because I for one would love to read it! And see the movie version!
From Jeannine Atkins
I’d love to hear an example of perhaps a minor historical incident found in research that pulled together a poem for you.
Thanks for the question, Jeannine. One line in my research mentioned in passing that the 1888 season at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was cut short due to a scarlet fever scare. So many families were affected by epidemics in those days, often losing several children at once— it isn’t hard to imagine that any hint of disease would send people scurrying. This was one of those details that had an awful lot of potential, so I filed it away in the old gray matter. When Celestia needs to create a distraction from rumors about her sister in 1888, she fakes scarlet fever so club members evacuate before they have a chance to gossip. So, there’s a little detail from history unearthed to become a plot point.
When writing in verse, how do you handle dialog?
How did you go about the researching of the Johnstown Flood (which was an amazing and tragic disaster).
How did you decide your line breaks?
Thanks for your questions Maclibrary! I’ll just take them one at a time.
Dialog: Verse is a distilled form of storytelling, so dialog, like everything else, must be brief and to the point. At the same time, it must characterize the speaker and move the plot along. You can see how a verse novelist must really make every word count. But I would tell any writer to combine a balanced blend of Dialog, Action and Description (DAD), letting dialog and action do the work for you, with description evenly sprinkled throughout.
Also, dialog must sound natural and the best way to check is to read it aloud. Many poetry lovers already consume poetry with their ears, but it’s a great way for any writer to identify the clunky spots.
Research: My earliest research began with internalizing the story of the flood after watching a documentary in high school. I also read so much Jane Austen and Edith Wharton over the years that I became reasonably fluent in their language, so to speak, and the culture and customs of their time. By the time I was ready to start writing 3RR, I surrounded myself with all the books and movies I could find for reference, but I pretty much knew by then what I wanted to include in the story. In 3RR’s back matter, we included a list of recommended reading for anyone who wants more information about the flood, or other fiction to enjoy.
Line breaks: Although in prose, we have paragraphing, section breaks, and chapter breaks, I’m very fond of the extra nuance of line breaks and line spacing that we have in verse. The simplest answer is that a line break is a pause and a line space is an even bigger pause. Sometimes I use a line break to slow the reader down, to make you think. Those I sometimes divide by phrases or clauses, often making a long sentence easier to understand by nature of visually breaking it up into units of meaning (great for comprehension/reluctant readers).
My favorite use is to have the reader consider a line in isolation for a second before adding the meaning of the following line to it: that way you get two relevant meanings at once.
Oh, and let’s not forget the impact of a one-word line!
Revisiting dialog as it relates to line spacing: I do try to begin a stanza for a new speaker or new exchange. Otherwise, line spacing often corresponds to a new thought direction much like starting a new paragraph.
On to Orlando
Thanks again to my two guest poets, Pat Mora and Jame Richards, and to you, Readers, for reading and responding. I'll announce the two winners of the free autographed copies of Pat's and Jame's recent books soon. Now, we make our way to Orlando for the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English. Jame and Pat will be part of my panel that also includes fellow bloggers, Elaine Magliaro at Wild Rose Reader who has been featuring Lee Bennett Hopkins and Tricia Stohr-Hunt at the Miss Rumphius Effect who has been featuring Marilyn Singer. We'll all be speaking Friday morning at 9:30 at our session A.9 POETS AND BLOGGERS UNITE: USING TECHNOLOGY TO CONNECT KIDS, TEACHERS, AND POETRY in the Baja Room at the Coronado Springs Resort. If you can come, please say hi, and if not, keep an eye on our blogs for follow up information on our session next week.