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.

Q & A: That You Are Here Tour

That You Are Here on TourI’ve been doing quite a few interviews while That You Are Here is on tour. I’ve been having a lot of fun answering the questions, so I thought I’d post some of my responses here.

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Quick round:

Coffee, tea or…what’s your vice?

I love both, but I’ll normally go for coffee.

Favorite Movie?

Dead Poet’s Society

Favorite Color?

Purple

Favorite book/author?

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

How do you feel about bacon?

I’m a vegetarian, so bacon is a no-go for me.

 

The REAL questions:

Tell us a little about yourself.

In addition to writing novels, I’m also the executive editor of The Copperfield Review, a journal for readers and writers of historical fiction. I’ve been teaching writing for more than ten years now, as well. When I’m not writing or teaching, I like to find great vegetarian and vegan recipes since I love to cook. I also love movies, Broadway musicals, and I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey. Pinterest is my new love since it’s the one place where I can indulge in all my interests at the same time.

What’s under your bed?

My cat. (That’s not a joke, by the way. I can hear him snoring from here.)

What comes first, plot or characters?

For me, it’s usually characters. Then my job is to figure out what happens to them and what they learn along the way.

Pantser, plotter, or hybrid? Tell us about your writing process.

I begin by plotting out the story from beginning to end so at least I have a blueprint to work with when I start. But I know that as I continue writing often the characters will take over the story and bring it in directions I hadn’t originally thought of. That’s all part of the fun of writing fiction for me—I can start with the greatest plan, but I know it’s probably going to change along the way and I like that.

Oddest thing on your desk?

My cat (I have three). She’s looking out the window at the moment.

What’s your most interesting writing quirk?

Probably that I have the ability to procrastinate like nobody’s business when it’s time to write. Procrastination is my super power. I’ll cook, clean, do the dishes, feed the cats, check my e-mail—it takes me a while to settle down, but once I’m writing I could keep at it for hours.

What’s your favorite thing about the genre you write in?

I write in several genres, and I like that. That You Are Here is the first time I’ve written an m/m love story. My Loving Husband Trilogy is in the vampire/paranormal genre, though it could also be classified as historical fiction. Victory Garden is set during World War I and the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. Woman of Stones and My Brother’s Battle are also historical fiction, set in Biblical Jerusalem and the American Civil War, respectively. I like jumping around from topic to topic. It keeps things interesting for me and hopefully for my readers. I’d be bored writing the same type of story over and over again.

What is the hardest thing about being an author?

Finding time to write when I have a day job. Luckily, I have summers off so I can feel like a full time writer then. I also have a thing against writing first drafts, but since there’s no final draft without a first draft, I have to get that first draft done.

What’s the easiest thing about being an author?

Coming up with story ideas. I have an active imagination, as most authors do, and I have a lot of ideas floating through my head at any and all times of the day and night. I love kicking around an idea until I can start to see the story come into shape. I love that I can take these crazy scenes that I see so clearly in my head and share them with others. Writing fiction is an outlet for my imagination. I started as a screenwriter, but screenwriting was too much like a blueprint for me and I didn’t like the terseness of it. I love describing the room where the action takes place. I love describing the characters’ clothing, and what they’re thinking and feeling. I love the entire world building process and making that world come alive for the reader.

What’s your favorite published work of yours and why?

That’s a great question, and my answer varies from day to day. I’m very proud of That You Are Here because it’s such a different type of story for me. I’m most known for historical fiction, but That You Are Here is completely contemporary. I love writing about love—how two people fall in love. That You Are Here is about falling in love and staying in love in a complicated world.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Sometimes I’m inspired by books I read or television shows or movies I see. Sometimes I’m inspired by events in the news. Sometimes I’m inspired by events in history. Sometimes it’s a crazy story from my imagination. I’ve learned that inspiration can come from anywhere so I try to keep my eyes open for ideas.

Who is your favorite character from one of your stories and why?

This answer also can change day to day, but I do have a particular fondness for Mark from That You Are Here. Mark is an inherently kind person with a big heart and in a lot of ways he represents the person I’d like to be.

If you get writer’s block, how do you get around it?

In Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, she says to allow yourself the freedom to write the worst junk in the world. That’s a great way around writer’s block because I know it’s okay for me to write something that isn’t all that great at first. I keep writing and I know I’ll figure it out eventually.

What are you working on at the moment?

My current project is back to historical fiction in a love story inspired by Downton Abbey. My recent trip to London was great research.

What’s the biggest writing challenge you’ve ever taken on? Did you succeed?

Writing That You Are Here was a big challenge for me because it’s so different from anything else I’ve ever written. I wasn’t sure I should write it at first, but that’s the story that was in my heart so that’s the story I wrote. The book has received great reviews, so yes, I think I succeeded. Readers love the love story between Mark and Andrew, and that’s so important to me.

Janet Fitch and Avoiding Clichés “Like the Plague”

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“April showers bring May flowers.” “Busy as a bee.” What other Spring inspired cliches can you think of? Good! Once you think of them, never use them! Or, at least use them sparingly.

I love that old saying by Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Has it become a cliché? Probably. But I love it anyway because as a writer myself I know it’s all too true.

My “I hate writing” moments happen when I’m drudging through a first draft. You can see my posts with tips for writing a first draft here. After I finish my first draft, that’s when I’m on the journey toward my “love having written” stage. That’s when I sit down at the computer no longer wanting to pop my eyes out with spoons or pluck my hairs one by one. Finally, in the second draft stage, I’m able to find the poetry in the prose. When I find the flow, that’s when the fun of writing begins for me. How do I find the flow? It’s a challenge, one that started 15 years ago.

In 1999, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, for the Oprah Book Club. Fitch talked about how a writing instructor told her that a “cliché is anything you’ve ever heard before—so never use a description anyone has heard.” As I remember it (it was 1999), Fitch spoke about a time she challenged herself to describe a tree with her own unique phrases. I was already well into fiction writing at that time, and her words struck me as truth. I learned that writers should reach to find their own descriptions, and they should never be lazy and allow others to do the work for them.

In a 2006 interview for O Magazine, Fitch explained that when she began writing fiction she had to work on word choices and the music of language. That was what I wanted too. I wanted to work on word choices and the music of language. I wanted to avoid clichés “like the plague” and create images “as sweet as pie.”

It’s a lesson I still hold close to my heart. When I’m molding sentences, I stretch, hands out, fingers pointing there, there where that inchoate image waits, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, for me to probe my vocabulary for the exactly right string of words to illuminate what I see the way I see it. If I’m describing a storm, a small town, a person, an emotion, I need to do it my own way. In their 2006 interview, Oprah mentions to Fitch that such a stretch “seems as if it would be quite difficult.” Fitch responds, “It is. But it means that everything you give the reader is absolutely fresh. We read so that we can be moved by a new way of looking at things.”

I learned a lot from Fitch in 1999, again in 2006, and I continue to learn from her whenever I read one of her novels. Reaching for phrases I’ve never heard before becomes harder with everything I write, but that’s the part of writing I thrive on—creating poetry in prose. And when I do finally find the right words, that is when I love having written.

If you’d like to lose yourself in the poetry of Janet Fitch’s prose, check out her novels or the short pieces on her blog. The 2006 interview for O Magazine can be found here.