A Trail of Breadcrumbs…Otherwise Known as Foreshadowing

gilcrease orchard

I managed to take some time to see Gilcrease Orchard, a real-live farm right here in the desert in Las Vegas.

I’m very nearly finished with my first semester as a doc student. While I seem to have survived relatively unscathed, I wonder if I’ll have as much luck next term when I’ll be taking a research statistics class. Let me put this in proper perspective–I haven’t taken a math class (that’s maths for my British friends) in 25 years. That’s not an exaggeration. I counted. You Doctor Who fans out there will know what I mean when I refer to the Ood–some space alien thingamajigs that carry their (what is it they carry? I can’t remember…was it their hearts? Their voices?) around in their hands. Well, I’ll be carrying my brain around in my hands next term while I look around, perplexed, saying, “I don’t know what happened. It just fell out…”

On a lighter note, I’ve come across some interesting studies about how our identities as writers are formed and how teachers play a big role in shaping those identities. For those of you out there who are writers (and you know who you are), how much of your self-identity as a writer was shaped by your teachers? Have an answer? Good. Remember it because I may need you for research purposes.

For now, here’s an oldie but goodie with some thoughts about one of my favorite aspects of writing fiction–the breadcrumbs, also known as foreshadowing. I wrote this while I was writing Her Loving Husband’s Curse, Book Two of the Loving Husband Trilogy.

Foreshadowing

HLHC_300x450What is foreshadowing? Foreshadowing plants clues for the reader. It drops hints about events to come. It creates suspense. It tells the reader to stay tuned. I like to describe foreshadowing as the writer leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow. Readers aren’t sure where the trail leads, but the crumbs sure are tasty so they’re willing to follow along. Then, when they get to their final destination, there’s an “Aha!” moment where they realize that the journey, every step of it, makes sense. They can see how the turns and detours were connected all along.

Foreshadowing shouldn’t be obvious. Sometimes the detail the author is pointing out may seem unimportant in the moment and it’s not until later that we realize that that empty bottle of whiskey on the kitchen floor or those keys left in the ignition in a car in a garage were clues. Sometimes authors like to drop false hints, known as as red herrings, to deliberately mislead readers. This is especially true in mystery and suspense novels.

They way I incorporate foreshadowing into my fiction is fairly simple. Whenever I begin a novel I create a blueprint, a rough outline of what I think will happen in the story. And, as I said before, I must know the ending so I know where I’m heading. Once I begin the first draft I try to work in a few scenes that I know will act as hints about what’s to come. But I don’t worry too much about foreshadowing in the first draft since I’m still feeling out the story and a lot of what I write will change as I understand more about the characters and the plot.

The revising stage is where I go heavy on the foreshadowing. Now I understand the story, the plot is set, so I go back into earlier chapters and find places where I can drop those tasty breadcrumbs I want readers to follow. For example, in Her Dear & Loving Husband there’s the opening scene with Sarah and her landlady where the landlady warns Sarah about the ghosts from the Salem Witch Trials that still haunt Salem. Ghosts in Salem? Sarah dismisses the irrational concern, saying she doesn’t believe in ghosts. What at first seems like an odd conversation between Sarah and her elderly landlady becomes important because this is Sarah’s first hint of the supernatural world she has unknowingly entered in Salem. Sarah has more to do with ghosts than she knows.

And there’s the scene in The Witches Lair where Sarah receives the psychic reading from Olivia, the motherly Wiccan who is also a powerful seer. I wanted the reader to sense that something big is coming for Sarah, and since Salem, Massachusetts really is a center for Wiccans and psychics, I thought Olivia’s prophecy was the way to do it.

In this scene I used dialogue to create the foreshadowing. Here are Olivia’s cryptic words to Sarah: “I can see that he will find you. He is here and he will find you.” When Sarah asks who, Olivia responds, “He will. The one who has been waiting for you. He has been waiting for you for oh so very long.” The phrase “oh so very long” isn’t remarkable in itself until another character says something similar later on. Is there a connection between Olivia’s “oh so very long” and this other character? You’ll need to keep reading to find out.

Keep in mind that if you promise something through foreshadowing, deliver it. If you hint at a connection between characters, then develop that connection. If you bring that empty bottle of whiskey to the reader’s attention, then show why that bottle was important—someone is hiding alcoholism, for example. Otherwise the breadcrumbs become a wasted opportunity on a dead end trail. It’s true that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but if you’re going to make a point of showing that cigar to your readers it should have some purpose. Some writers refer to this plot device as “Chekhov’s Gun.” The playwright Chekhov said that if you put a gun on stage in the first act, then it should be fired in the second act. If you’re not going to fire the gun, then don’t bother with it. Leave it for your next story where one of your characters will have a reason to shoot someone. If you show the gun, the cigar, the bottle of whiskey, whatever it is, and you don’t do anything with it then you’re setting your readers up to be disappointed.

If you’re writing a series then you can carry your foreshadowing through your next books. Does the fact that Olivia is a powerful seer play an important role in books two and three of the Loving Husband Trilogy? You betcha. Will Sarah continue learning about the supernatural world? You know it. Then there’s that nosy reporter determined to reveal James’s secret. Will he cause more problems for our favorite preternatural professor? That’s the beginning of a new trail of breadcrumbs I hope readers will follow through the journey of Her Loving Husband’s Curse and Her Loving Husband’s Return.

I love foreshadowing. I love the connectedness it brings to a story. It’s an important part of fiction writing, and it’s a great tool to bind a stand-alone story or the books in a series together.

Which Authors Have Influenced You the Most? Here’s My List.

I was asked by Prism Book Alliance to name the top ten authors I admire. Sounds simple, right? Yet I found it wasn’t that easy for me to narrow down the list since I’ve been influenced and inspired by so many authors over my lifetime. Dickens is listed at number one–no great surprise there–though the others aren’t in any particular order. I’m not sure there are any surprises here except for perhaps the poets–Whitman and cummings–though anyone who has read any of my fiction can see the Whitman influence in my prose (and in my choice of titles). Here are the top ten authors who have influenced my writing. Of course, the list could change tomorrow…David Copperfield

  1. Charles Dickens. I do what I do (write novels) because of the influence Dickens has had on me. I get my sense of the absurd and my social consciousness from him. I try to create stories that are worlds unto themselves because of him.
  2. Walt Whitman. The title for That You Are Here is from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I’ve written three or four books where I’ve paid tribute to Whitman in one form or another. I love his message about being honest about who you are and being true to yourself. I think I learned more about how to put words together to create an image from Whitman than from anyone else.
  1. Toni Morrison. I love her writing because of the poetry in her language. I try (and fail) to replicate that in my own writing. I think of myself as a frustrated poet who writes fiction. Bird by Bird
  1. Anne Lamott. She’s brutally honest in her writing and I admire that so much. I love her book about writing, Bird by Bird. I especially love her for introducing me to the phrase “shitty first drafts,” which I clutch close to my heart whenever I’m writing a shitty first draft.
  1. David Sedaris. No writer can make me laugh out loud like Sedaris. He’s wry and observant and I love his personal essays. I’ve read all of his books. He’s going to be here in Vegas and I already have my tickets.
  1. e.e. cummings. He taught me that it’s okay to break the rules, even the grammar rules, as long as you maintain control of the language.
  1. Natalie Goldberg. Her book Writing Down the Bones was life changing for me. I discovered that it’s okay to write for the love of writing, and that becoming a writer is a process that occurs over many years.
  1. Jane Austen. She’s a great example that the ladies are just as observant, insightful, and funny as the men. Pride and Prejudice is one of my all time favorite novels.
  1. Hilary Mantel. I love writing historical fiction, and she’s a master. She does a great job of weaving the research into the story so that fact and fiction flow together. I love her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and I can’t wait for the third book to come out.
  2. Brokeback MountainAnnie Proulx. I read Brokeback Mountain before I started writing That You Are Here, and I’m so glad I did. I love the literary quality to the story, and I love how it focuses on the love between the two men over the years, even if they weren’t able to acknowledge that it was love. That’s what I wanted to do with That You Are Here—I wanted to write a love story.

So here’s my list. I’d love to hear which authors have influenced you the most. I’m always fascinated by which authors have inspired others to become writers.

Thank you, Robin Williams: A Lesson in Gratitude

dead-poets-society-quotes-1I’m writing and posting this quickly before I change my mind, so, as Anne Lamott said in her own post on the same subject, this isn’t going to be proofread to perfection. I don’t usually comment on the passing of famous people since I’m not sure what I can add that someone more articulate than I am hasn’t already said, yet I find I can’t let the passing of Robin Williams go without saying at least a few words.

I’m going to date myself here—in fact, I’ll give you a precise date: I’ll be 45 in 17 days on August 30. I was a kid in the 1970s when Robin Williams first appeared on TV screens as Mork, first on Happy Days and then on Mork and Mindy. I was infatuated with Robin from the very beginning. I had my Mork and Mindy lunchbox, and I even had my own Mork from Ork rainbow colored suspenders. (Yes, I still have a photo where I’m wearing them. No, I won’t show it to you.) I listened to his comedy album Reality, What a Concept too many times to count. I could probably still do some of his skits from that show if I set my mind to it. As I grew, Robin Williams did too.

I was two years into my university studies in 1989 when Dead Poet’s Society was released. Two years into college I still didn’t have a major. I was one of those people who wanted to study everything, and in that time I had been a psychology major, a liberal studies major, and a history major. I’ve always loved books, and by college I knew I had some skill as a writer, but Dead Poet’s Society gave me a direction. A matter of days after I saw the movie I changed my major to English and never looked back. I became an English teacher, and though the John Keating moments become fewer as the years pass and society changes, I never stop trying to achieve them. I have my “Seize the Day” rock and a picture of “Uncle” Walt on my classroom wall. The title for my latest novel, That You Are Here, comes from a segment of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that Williams quotes in Dead Poet’s Society: “That you are here, that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” Over the years, I loved watching Williams continue to grow as an actor and a comedian.

As a writer with dreams for my career, I find I keep learning the same lesson over again—to be grateful for what I have right now, in this moment. We always think that when we get to some certain place or when we have some particular success we’ll be happy. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. When I sell x many books, or when I make y amount of money, or when I have this amount of recognition, or when I win that award, or when my books become films then I’ll be happy. But how many examples have we seen over the years of those who had all the success in the world and still struggled? Because you know what? It doesn’t matter. If you’re not content within yourself no amount of success matters. Success in itself can’t make you happy.

Normally, when I’m writing I have some point I’m trying to make, and to be honest I’m not exactly sure what I’m saying here except that I know I should be thankful for what I have. I know I have a lot to be grateful for. Waiting for a certain event to be happy, thinking that everything will fall into place when I have this one thing—whatever that thing is—isn’t good enough because nothing in itself can bring happiness. In an odd way, I think that’s what I’ve been trying to say in my posts all summer about being an indie author on my own terms. Success isn’t about numbers or rankings or awards. It’s about being true to yourself and doing your thing and living your life in a way so you feel good about yourself along the journey.  

So, yes, I have a lot to be thankful for. Mainly, right now I’m thankful because I was around at the same time as Robin Williams and I had so many belly laughs because of him.

Thank you for everything, Robin Williams. I know you’re making God laugh right now.