Monday, April 05, 2010

Writing tips from 'Roots'

One of my goals for early 2010 was to read Alex Haley's Roots. Since I am writing a multigenerational saga, based on my real ancestors, I may use "like Roots" in my pitch. So I figured I'd better read it. I was also looking for ideas to help me write my book. Here's what I discovered.

- Haley's first generation takes up half the book. I'm going to try to make mine more balanced between my three-plus generations/main characters.

- Over the course of 100 years, main characters are going to die. I was tempted to gloss over that, simply moving to the next MC's story. Haley tells about their deaths (except for the cases where family is separated and doesn't know about it), but doesn't linger. He spends about a page on Chicken George's old age and death.

- I have to use "thee" and "thou" because they're important words in Quaker history. Haley is a master at vernacular. He keeps up the old slang for an entire book. He must have edited over and over! I've been using some other old words, like gaol and plough. But frankly, I don't think I can be consistent with that language through an entire book. Martha Grimes' attempt to write English in one of her mysteries, frequently falling back into American, was an annoying distraction. Now I'm reading The Peaceable Kingdom, which intersperses "thou" into modern American. That may be the best course for me, too.

- Historical families tend to have lots of children, and too many characters can confuse the reader. They also tend to have a lot of the same names! Haley uses summary paragraphs to give the background/genealogical information without confusing the reader. On page 568, he writes, "The eight children grew up, took mates, and had their own children. The fourth son, Tom..." and goes into more detail for the MC. He separates people with the same name with "Little Kizzy" and "Aunt Matilda." I use "Annie" to separate a cousin from my MC, Ann. I keep the names for different generations of MCs, when the older person has died and is not in the picture.

- Haley uses dialogue to tell about historical events; "I heard that - ." If I weren't doing the same thing, I probably wouldn't have noticed. But after a while that method seemed too obvious. I will probably intersperse dialogue history with summary history. Hmm...

Alex Haley is such an inspiration - he changed the world, not only for people of African descent, but for genealogy for everybody.


A rootdigger said...

You have been awarded the Ancestor Approved award for your great work on your genealogy blog...please stop by my blog and pick up the award (by right clicking on it and saving it to a .jpg) and then post the below information with the picture, using the format I used when receiving it.
Hi,I enjoy following your blog.

The Ancestor Approved Award asks that the recipient list ten things you have learned about any of your ancestors that has surprised, humbled, or enlightened you and pass the award along to ten other bloggers who you feel are doing their ancestors proud. Here are the 10 things I have learned from my ancestors.

A rootdigger said...

Do you also get to use begat or beget. I remember reading in the bible when I picked it up to read very young that so and so begat so and so. It did intrigue me.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for the Ancestor Approved award - yay!

No, I haven't run into "begat" in all my research. My story is about 50 to 100 years after the King James Bible and the language was changing a lot.

They didn't use "Junior" until later. I like that they say "Benjamin the younger" and "Anthony the older."

dirtywhitecandy said...

What interesting points - I'm sure other writers of multigenerational sagas will find them useful too.