I hope you had a lovely summer and are enjoying the first weeks of autumn. (If you’re in the southern hemisphere, I hope you’re having a wonderful spring!)
A few months ago, I published a blog post called “Five Favorite Things I Found in June”. It seemed that many of you enjoyed it, and I planned to continue with similar posts for July and August.
However, I soon became busy with summer things: enjoying the outdoors, exploring new places, reading many books, working on various writing projects, and spending time with family who hadn’t been able to visit since before 2020.
Well, before I realized it, it was autumn. But better late than never! Without further ado, here are five favorite writerly and creativity-minded things I found this summer.
Let me know if you continue to like this format, and I’ll try my best to write up an autumn installment at the end of November. Enjoy!
(Please note that links to books are Amazon affiliate links which means I’ll earn a small commission if you buy through the link with no extra cost to you. Thank you!)
1. How Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe Influenced Each Other
Charles Dickens is one of my favorite authors. Over the past several years, I’ve been trying to make my way through all of his novels. Usually, I pick one to read each summer so this July I chose Barnaby Rudge published in 1841. This is the first of Dickens’ two historical novels (the other being A Tale of Two Cities set during the French Revolution). This one’s climax takes place during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 in London.
I love reading historical fiction, especially when it’s about a lesser known historical period. I’d never heard of the Gordon Riots before. Parts of London were being burned to the ground while the American War for Independence was at its height.
Dickens’ scenes set during the riots are gripping as he explores how religious and nationalistic fervor can be manipulated for purely political ends. He interweaves many thought-provoking themes into the plot.
After I finish a Dickens novel, I love reading critical essays about the work. I particularly enjoy G. K. Chesterton’s essays on Dickens’ books. But this time I discovered something very cool – a review by Edgar Allan Poe! And it wasn’t a very laudatory one (a great reminder to all of us writers that even the most talented authors face negative reviews of their work).
I have to agree with Poe that this book wasn’t one of Dickens’ best novels, though it was entertaining. Poe held Dickens to a high standard and was quite harsh, writing,
There lives no man feeling a deeper reverence for genius than ourself…Dickens has done this thing [Barnaby Rudge] well, to be sure — he would do anything well in comparison with the herd of his contemporaries — but he has not done it so thoroughly well as his high and just reputation would demand. We think that the whole book has been an effort to him — solely through the nature of its design. He has been smitten with an untimely desire for a novel path. The idiosyncrasy of his intellect would lead him, naturally, into the most fluent and simple style of narration. In tales of ordinary sequence he may and will long reign triumphant. He has a talent for all things, but no positive genius for adaptation, and still less for that metaphysical art in which the souls of all mysteries lie.
You have to love Poe’s eloquence in praising Dickens’ genius while simultaneously trashing his book.
But he did give Dickens useful advice. Poe pointed out that one of the problems with the book was that Dickens had written it as a serial. This meant that he didn’t have a finished draft of the whole book that he could go back to and edit to make sure problems with the plot were resolved.
It is, perhaps, but one of a thousand instances of the disadvantages, both to the author and the public, of the present absurd fashion of periodical novel-writing, that our author had not sufficiently considered or determined upon any particular plot when he began the story now under review. In fact, we see, or fancy that we see, numerous traces of indecision — traces which a dexterous supervision of the complete work might have enabled him to erase.
I have often seen this problem with TV shows and streaming shows. Characters’ personalities will dramatically change over the course of two seasons. Subplots will never be resolved. Just something to keep in mind if you ever write a serial!
Poe also wrote out a list of various errors in the plot, including Dickens inventing things that would never happen in real life:
At page 17, the road between London and the Maypole is described as a horribly rough and dangerous, and at page 97, as an uncommonly smooth and convenient one.
…The stain upon Barnaby’s wrist, caused by fright in the mother at so late a period of gestation as one day before mature parturition, is shockingly at war with all medical experience.
I always find it confidence boosting for my own work when I read about how even the greatest writers made mistakes like these, haha. You can read Poe’s full review of Barnaby Rudge here (be warned: he does reveal spoilers.)
Dickens was not angry by the review. Perhaps he appreciated the honest in-depth critique of his work. In fact, the next year Dickens traveled to the United States and met with Poe and promised to help him get his work published in England.
But that wasn’t the only help that Dickens gave Poe. He might have also inspired Poe’s most famous poem, “The Raven”.
In Barnaby Rudge, one of the characters has a talking raven named Grip (based off of Dickens’ own pet raven). Poe wrote in his review,
The raven, too, intensely amusing as it is, might have been made, more than we now see it, a portion of the conception of the fantastic Barnaby. Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.
Interestingly, Poe wrote this review in 1841, and he didn’t publish his poem “The Raven” until 1845. In Poe’s 1846 essay on how he composed the poem, Poe merely writes,
‘Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.’
Was Poe’s raven a subconscious reference to Dickens’ work? Or maybe he didn’t want anyone to draw a connection between his poem and Barnaby Rudge? Whatever the case, it’s fascinating how these two writers were influencing each other.
Here’s a bonus writing tip. In a letter Dickens wrote to the author Wilkie Collins, he shared three ingredients for writing success:
It is delightful … that you have taken great pains with [the book] … with a perfect knowledge of the jolter-headedness of the conceited idiots who suppose that volumes are to be tossed off like pancakes, and that any writing can be done without the utmost application, the greatest patience, and the steadiest energy of which the writer is capable.
2. A Glimpse of a Dickens Manuscript
Here’s one last Dickens item! Check out this page from the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. Dickens’ penmanship was a nightmare for printers. An 1874 article written about the manuscript states: “The fineness and closeness of the writing are enough to render the most amiable of experienced printers temporarily insane.” More info in the caption.
3. How Wendell Berry’s Wife, Tanya, Edits His Work
Berry’s novels are set in Kentucky in a fictional rural town called Port William. Each novel is about a different person who lives in the town or on one of the surrounding farms. That means the books don’t need to be read in order but characters in one book will show up in another.
The two I read were written in first person and spanned the characters’ lives from childhood to old age, from the early 1900s to the 1980s. The books are so realistic that the town felt like a real place, and the books read like memoirs. It was fascinating to see how American farms and small towns changed over the course of those years. Berry himself lives on a 117-acre farm in Kentucky, so I assume many of the events in the books are inspired by his personal experiences.
This summer I went to research more about Berry and stumbled across this article from 2017 which described his writing process and how his wife, Tanya, edits his work.
Wendell writes in longhand, with a pencil. With his short stories and novels, he reads aloud a first draft to Tanya for immediate feedback, and then goes back to work. From the handwritten pages, she types a draft on her Royal Standard, adding another round of editing. That’s followed by revised drafts until a manuscript is ready for the publisher. (These days, Wendell pays a local friend to put the final text into a computer, a concession to digitized production.)
Wendell asks others for critique of work in progress, but Tanya has been first hearer on all his fiction and first reader on all of his fiction, poems, and essays…
In 1988, her contribution became a topic of public discussion after an essay by Wendell, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” appeared in Harper’s Magazine. He writes:
“My wife types my work on a Royal [Standard] typewriter bought new in 1956 and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said. We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with it.”
…Tanya’s role in his writing starts long before he reads that first draft to her, because as he writes he is thinking about her reaction. Knowing he will read it aloud to her—“to somebody I care about and am trying to impress and cause her to love me”—is especially intimidating, he says.
Berry also commented on how Tanya has helped keep him grounded as a writer:
He recounts a story that sounds often-told but authentic: “I brought in a review, somebody praising my work, and I said, ‘Look at that.’ Tanya said, ‘It’s not going to change a thing around here.’” Because she’s not particularly concerned with reviews, he finds it easier not to take literary fame too seriously. “She’s not going to be impressed by it. Why should I be?” he says, “I’m trying to win the affection, all the time, of an intelligent woman. I don’t want to be married to someone who would be impressed by my reputation.”
Wendell credits both their relationship and homesteading for making it difficult to indulge the conceit that writers are special people to be shielded from everyday labor. “I’ve heard writers say, ‘Nothing should interfere with your work, nothing should come between you and your work.’ Well, the way we’ve lived, everything that has wanted to has come between me and my work—lambing ewes, work to do, Tanya’s got something she needs from me, babies when the time came. [Literary] work came second, and I think it’s been very good for the work.”
Wendell and Tanya’s collaboration reminds me of other literary relationships: J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and, of course, the many editor and author friendships.
I wrote a post here about the importance of having creative friends and here about how to start a mastermind group. Currently, my brother and I schedule several times a month to write together and to critique each other’s stories.
4. On Fantasy Novels, Extraordinary Costumes, and the Iceberg Theory
This summer I also dipped into the fantasy genre and read the novel Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. It was published in 1926, eleven years before J. R. R. Tolkien published The Hobbit. Mirrlees was friends with many famous writers, including Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot.
Like Tolkien, Mirrlees was fascinated by languages. She studied Greek at Cambridge, and earned a Diploma in Russian from the École des Langues Orientales of Paris.
However, there weren’t any invented languages in her novel (neither were there dwarves nor elves, just the bordering land of Faerie). Yet I wonder if Tolkien knew about this book at all. It’s set in a secondary-world called Dorimare, and Mirrlees’ lush descriptions of the towns and farms evoke Tolkien’s descriptions of the Shire (although, of course, this might just be because both were inspired by the English countryside). It was interesting to read such an early work of high fantasy. There was an intriguing murder mystery subplot and political machinations, although the ending felt a bit rushed and unsatisfactory.
All that to say, the book made me want to write my own fantasy novel as well as read more fantasy books, especially The Lord of the Rings trilogy again. And then YouTube recommended that I watch this video about the making of costumes in The Lord of the Rings movies.
There is also this second video that is equally fascinating:
I was blown away by the detail that went into these costumes, especially for many that ended up not even being shown on camera. For example, Ian Mckellen wore an “immaculately embroidered” garment under his cloak that no one ever saw. He said the only point of it was to help him believe that he was Gandalf.
Of course, moviemaking and writing are two different art forms, but they have many similarities. These costumes that were never shown on camera reminded me of Hemingway’s iceberg theory from his book Death in the Afternoon:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
This iceberg theory is usually referenced in regards to “show, don’t tell.” For example, an author should write dialogue showing a character is angry rather than explicitly telling the reader that.
But this concept can also extend to all of the details you write down in character profiles and other types of documents that never make it into the final story. The Silmarillion contained all of the world building that Tolkien created before he wrote The Lord of the Rings. And I think it is probable that Mirrlees’ novel also contained only a fraction of the worldbuilding that she prepared before writing. All of those careful details that never made it into the stories made the fantasy worlds come alive.
Spending time compiling notes for worldbuilding and writing character profiles is helpful for any genre, not just fantasy. I imagine Wendell Berry has many notes on places and events that happened in Port William that have never appeared in any of his books.
Do you follow the iceberg theory in your writing? How much time do you put into little details that never make it into the final work?
5. A Helpful Free App for Plotting Your Book
In August, I also decided I wanted to begin writing a new book, and so I was gathering ideas and then began plotting in September. I was looking for an app that I could use to create a plot board. I used to have Scrivener but never really used it, and then I got a new laptop, and my license doesn’t seem to work anymore.
Anyhow, the team at Milanote recently reached out to me to test out their online app, and it was just what I was looking for. You can create character profiles, mind maps, and story outlines. Here’s a screenshot:
It’s free to get started. You can check it out here. Milanote isn’t paying me to write this. I’ve just genuinely been enjoying the app, and if you sign up through my link, we’ll both get extra storage on our profiles.
And that’s it! I hope you enjoyed reading and found something that inspired you.
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Thank you! Wishing you much success with your writing projects this autumn! Let me know what you’ve been writing and reading. God bless.