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Saturday, May 28, 2016

BREAKING the RULES by Linda Swift

There is an old adage that "Rules are made to be broken" and I would only add "sometimes." This truth is never more evident to me than in my writing. I understand that rules are made for a reason and breaking them can result in dire consequences. However, writing is a creative process and sticking to the "rules" can place constraints on creativity that can kill a story.
Each genre has its own set of rules and woe be unto the author who breaks them. This is often seen as ignorance on the part of the person writing. It is also used to differentiate a beginner from a professional. I think it is very important to know the rules in order to break them when it serves our needs best.
Short stories are a good example. Because of their brevity, every word counts and every act must serve a purpose. More than one character is generally needed to move the story forward. One of my first stories, Winner Take All, had only one character and a creeping vine. It   was awarded the Fiction Skills Scholarship at Indiana U. Writers' Conference, competing with stories from all over the US. At the opposite extreme, another early short story, The Good News, had thirteen characters with no clear-cut protagonist. It won the Ball State U. Workshop's Short Story award. I still remember the judge's words when she presented the award.  "Linda Swift has broken all the rules for a short story and it worked." (Both books are now available as ebooks and are part of a collection in print or ebook titled Take Five.) http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Books+by+Linda+Swift

We are admonished to give real historical figures only walk-on parts in our books and never to put words in their mouths. But when I wrote Maid of the Midlands, Mary Queen of Scots insisted on talking! I had "absorbed" an authentic non-fiction book of her entire life, written by an impeccable source, and her thoughts and words came to me as easily as if I were inside her head. We are also told to use dialect very sparingly--speaking a few words or phrases and then letting the reader's imagination fill in from that point. I used the dialect, as I understood it to be spoken, throughout the book. Then I became concerned that it might be too much so I asked the editor how she felt about it. She said it hadn't bothered her at all. Later, due to this publisher's sale, it went to another publisher and editor. This one was very discriminating and spoke English and French, as well as "American." When questioned about the dialect, she asked, "What dialect? I didn't notice it." Another rule broken with good results.

It is written in stone that all romances must have the proverbial "happy ever after" ending. I had a story that did not fit the HEA mold. So I wrote it the way it had to be and a publisher bought it the first time submitted. This story has been given great reviews by all who have read it. To Those Who Wait is currently out of print but I plan to revive it again.

Then there is the rule about the hero and heroine meeting in Chapter One, (some rules even require in the first three pages). The two main characters in my Civil War novel, This Time Forever, did not meet until Chapter Eight (Page 90 of  256 total pages). My agent had difficulty placing the book, partly because in 2000 the Civil War was not a popular subject for romance books. He felt the H&H not being together sooner in the story might be part of the problem and asked me to begin the story where they met in Chapter Eight. I complied  and added a Prologue to briefly summarize the first seven chapters. Submissions continued to meet rejections. Then, just before the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration, I put the book back together again (having left my agent) and submitted it to a Canadian publisher who accepted it without question. There is irony in the fact that this very "American" story found its first home in another country. And now in its home with Publishing by Rebecca J. Vickery, it has found the most success of all my books. It has also been adapted into a film titled Clarissa's War, soon to be available as a DVD and VIMEO.

So the moral to this post is: Know the rules. Break the rules if it seems the right thing to do. Listen to your characters. Listen to your heart. You will learn the truth and the truth will make you free--free to write the story that was meant to be.

An excerpt from This Time Forever, Chapter 8, when Clarissa and Philip finally meet:

Clarissa was the last to join the group at the foot of the curved stairway where Josiah was completing the introductions of the other women. "And this is my daughter-in-law, Mrs. Clarissa Wakefield. Ladies, may I present Lieutenant Johnson and Captain Burke?"
Clarissa made a slight curtsto the lieutenant as he took her proffered hand and bowed politely. "My pleasure, madam."
Then she extended her hand part way toward the captain before she saw that he wore a faded Federal uniform. She stopped and glanced uncertainly at Lieutenant Johnson.
"Captain Burke is a Confederate prisoner, ma'am," he told her, "but you have nothing to fear. He is also a surgeon and will be in charge of the hospital here."
"Oh, I see." Unsure what protocol dictated, again she tentatively extended her hand. It was taken with a touch so gentle she would not have felt it except for the tremor which passed between them at the contact, causing her to look up into the most penetrating eyes she had ever seen.
For a long moment they stood, warm brown eyes lost in the depths of cool deep blue, then the captain made a visible effort to break the spell and spoke softly, "Charmed."
Clarissa gave a slight nod of acknowledgement and carefully withdrew her hand. The captain was tall and lean; his dark beard didn't quite conceal the hollows of his cheeks and some force she had never felt before made her want to reach out and smooth the weary lines from his handsome face.

* See all of my books in many genres here:


  1. I like historical figures walking through a story. I've seen it done well, and I've seen it done poorly. Your portrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots was very well done. These historical characters give the story a genuine dose of historical truth that makes them more believable and exciting.
    As far as accents go, it's marvelous when it's just one or two characters, but I would have a hard time of it if every character had an accent. Diana Gabaldon brought Jamie Frazier up close and real with his Scottish accent and it was fun to read it and figure out how it would sound.
    I've read most of your work (haven't read TAKE FIVE)and all I can say if, feel free to break as many rules as you like because it certainly works for you, Linda.
    All good things to your corner of Mother Earth.

  2. Sarah, thank you so much for all of your kind words. It was in Maid of the Midlands and its sequel, Mistress of Huntleigh Hall, that I used the Yorkshire dialect (I had heard it spoken for nearly two years so that gave me courage!)So I think it didn't spoil "Mary's story" for you. And thank you for making me feel less guilty about breaking rules. You are so faithful to support your fellow authors and please know that it is appreciated.

  3. Well. I always want to break the rules, and most likely do it too much. But I can't say I've ever been rewarded or recognized for it. You have a true gift for fiction, but it's upheld by your education and your background in writing. I have always been impressed that you first wrote for Kensington...one of the Big NY publishers.
    I love your writing, all of it. It's wonderful you found Rebecca...or she found you...and all your work is now in print. Of course, you still lack Letters from Hull, and hopefully your piece de résistance--Other Times, Other Places. And one day I will get back to you on the two ways you've written this one and try to explain what I see..and what I think. Best of luck, Linda. You are one of a kind.

  4. Wow. That is high praise from someone whose words mean so much to me. Thank you for all of your thoughtful comments, Celia. I respect your opinions and your advice is very important to me. You are my "go-to" person in this business as you know. I'm just finishing up with proofing the edits of Letters from Hull. I've read those "Letters" until I am cross-eyed and always see something else to tweak. You know that feeling. Even tho I'm numb with words tonight, I am still excited about getting this non-fiction work in print (and ebook). I'm wanting to break another rule with a short novel soon but I want to ask your opinion on this before I do. So stand by.

  5. I've been following your updates on Clarissa's War and I love that you were allowed to stay involved in the production. I also like that you're aware of the rules even as you break them when you feel the story requires it. That takes skill as well as talent, not the same thing at all in my opinion.

  6. Thank you for your comments, Gerald. I appreciate it that you always support the other authors in our publishing group. So many just don't take the time or effort and we need their support. I hope to have more news to share about Clarissa's War soon. The DVD and VIMEO are still in the planning stage and it seems a long wait, almost as long as the time from making the film to its first showing. Thank you for keeping up with its progress. And thank you for your kind comments.

  7. Does this mean that you love to read? If so, all authors like me love people like you. I'm reminded by your comments of so many people who "talk" about writing but never really get around to writing anything. Can't say that shoe fits me. And I'm offering a bunch of books on Amazon right now to prove it. Many of the full length books are 99cents. I hope you will check them out, while I write some new ones!

  8. Linda,

    You give sensible advice to which I agree completely. I do love to read as well as write. Before I started writing my own unique romances and mysteries, I knew what rules I wanted to break and why.

  9. I think the best point you made was knowing the rules and not just haphazardly breaking them. You also are concerned with your readers and take them into account.

  10. Jacqueline, I replied to your comments earlier and apparently Blogger lost them. And I agree that we need to be aware of the rules and be sure of what we are doing when we break them. It is good that you had read and studied the mechanics of writing before you began writing. Some of us (myself included) have had to learn to follow our convictions by trial and error! Thanks for visiting and leaving your comments. And keep marching to the sound of the drummer you hear.

  11. helen, I think we sometimes forget that we are writing for unseen readers and try to please other authors. Several years ago, I knew of a critique group who wrote books so much alike they could have been written by one person. The "collective voice" spoke in every book. I've always wondered what happened to the authors in that group. I never see any of their names.
    Thanks for your comments today.

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