Thursday, November 15, 2007

Guest Post, by Susan Wittig Albert

I’m happy to welcome national bestselling author Susan Wittig Albert as today’s Guest Blogger. Albert, author of more than 36 books, writes both fiction and nonfiction. In addition, she’s mentored many writers and is the founder of Story Circle Network. You can find out more about her at her website, Mystery Partners, and in her two blogs, Lifescapes and Pecan Springs Journal. Her current book, The Tale of Hawthorn House, is the latest in her Cottage Tales series.

Susan is stopping at Straight From Hel on her blog tour to talk with us about The Narrator in stories. I hope you’ll have lots of comments and questions for her. And make sure you sign up for a chance to receive a free copy of her book.

Susan Wittig Albert

The Narrator and the Reviewer

In the August/September 2007 issue of Mystery News, Diana Vickery wrote a review of The Tale of Hawthorn House that made me smile. “Much of the book’s appeal,” she wrote, “was its twinkly third-person narrator. I could imagine her speaking voice—sweet, breathy but firm—and her personality traits: finely honed sense of both propriety and humor. And when she speaks directly to readers, they sit up and take notice.”

Hey, I thought. This reviewer really got it. Because this is very close to the image I have in my own mind of the narrator of these family-friendly mysteries. (I might add “school-marmish” to the list of descriptives.) And I do hope that readers sit up and take notice.

The Narrator’s Voice

In most modern fiction—and especially in mysteries—the narrator is so far offstage that you’re almost never aware of him/her. The chief exception is the first-person narrator. Examples: China Bayles, in my other series; Kinsey Milhone; Sharon McCone. These narrators are in charge of the story, up close and personal. First-person narration aside, however, the narrator in most modern fiction is both invisible and neutral. The story seems to tell itself, without any intervention by a story-teller.

The Narrator in The Cottage Tales

But I wanted to tell the stories of The Cottage Tales in a style reminiscent of the period in which the Tales are set (1905-1913), when the narrator was an important part of the story-telling. Also, I wanted to involve the readers in the story—a good job for a narrator.

For an example from Hawthorn House, let’s take a look at the first page of the Prologue (you can read it here). The story opens when Emily, a servant girl, finds herself alone in Hawthorn House with a crying baby. In the first five paragraphs, the narrator describes Hawthorn House and Emily’s feelings about it. We might be somewhat conscious of the narrator’s voice, but that awareness begins to fade as we’re drawn further into the story, with hints about haunted houses and dead dreams and evicted tenants.

But not for long. In the sixth paragraph, the narrator interrupts the story. A baby is crying and something definitely needs to be done about it. And there you are, dear Reader, your attention redirected by the storyteller. She wants to pull you out of the Hawthorn House backstory and into the story of Emily, who has missed her train to London because of this crying baby. In fact, Emily is letting this poor baby wail while she paces around the kitchen, vexed, frustrated, self-pitying, and self-engrossed. Not a very nice picture, wouldn’t you say?

But just as you are about to make some stern judgments about Emily, the narrator interrupts again (bottom, page 1). She wants you to know some things that might offset this negative impression: “Now, before you think too ill of our Emily, I must tell you…” And in the next paragraph, “But I must also tell you…” and so on, turning over all the complexities of Emily’s situation, until—in a sadly sympathetic way—the narrator has to help us conclude (paragraph 4, page 2) that Emily felt betrayed, “as you would too, I daresay, if you had your heart set on going to London and learnt, at the very last minute, that you could not go.” (I like the “I/you” form of address. I think it’s more engaging. It draws the reader into the story.)

But the fact remains that Emily isn’t very clever at figuring things out and hasn’t a clue what to do with this baby. “No more brains than a ha’penny bun, and wretchedly conceited,” her former employer, Lady Longford, has complained. But while the narrator wants you to know Lady Longford’s opinion, she also wants to qualify it (bottom p. 2): “Of course, we can’t permit Lady Longford to have the last word on Emily…”

Can you see what I’m trying to do here? I want to present Emily from a variety of different points of view, giving her an increasing complexity, making her more real and multi-layered, and raising all kinds of questions. Is Flora her baby, the fruit of a forbidden liaison with that ne’er-do-well gypsy lad who went away to the hops fields and never even sent a postcard? If Emily is Flora’s mother, how could she leave her baby with the Grahams and go off to London, even if she is lured by the promise of a blue velvet dress and blue boots? What kind of mother would do a thing like that? Is she witless and conceited, as Lady Longford claims, or something else? The narrator is both critical and sympathetic, offering both moral judgments and exculpatory explanations. And I hope by the time you’ve finished the prologue, you’re at least a little curious about this conflicted Emily and her ambiguous role in this story.

Throughout Hawthorn House, I use the narrator to present characters and events and comment on them in a chatty, informal way, as if you and she are sitting together discussing the story over a cup of tea and a plate of crumpets. For example, when Miss Potter discovers a basket on her doorstep (p. 37 in the book, if you happen to have it), she thinks someone has left her an eggplant. (I’ll give you a clue: it’s the baby.) But the narrator and you, dear Reader, know more than Miss Potter knows: “Now, you have been reading this story,” the narrator says, “so you know what the basket contains (at least I hope you do!), and who put it there and why.”

I also use the narrator as a stage manager, to move the action from one scene to another. Here’s an example. Jemima Puddle-duck (the star of Beatrix Potter’s children’s book by that name) is a character in Hawthorn House. Jemima is hiding in the barn, sitting on a secret nest of very odd eggs, which are taking an oddly long time to hatch. The narrator finds it necessary to tell us Miss Potter’s tale of Jemima’s near-fatal seduction by the fox, (you do remember The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, don’t you?) remarking at the end: “Now that you have heard the full story, perhaps you can appreciate Jemima’s desire to redeem her reputation. Perhaps you can understand why she was determined to have another go at motherhood…” But it is well past the 28th day, when duck eggs hatch, and Jemima is still sitting. Why? What’s happening here? Whose eggs are these? Where did Jemima get them? What’s going on?

But the narrator refuses to let us ponder. She wants to direct our attention back to Miss Potter and that mysterious basket on the doorstep. “But even though you are quite right to raise these questions,” (she says) “and I very much hope they are answered at some point in the future, we must not anticipate. So let us leave our duck sitting patiently on her nest . . . and open another chapter of our story.”

This is a very long post, and if you’ve managed to read it all the way to the end, I’m delighted. I hope you’re intrigued enough to read the book and discover some of the other ways I’ve used this narrator. I love it, for example, when she remarks (p. 75), “Our Jemima may be a very foolish duck, even (by some standards) a criminal duck. But at bottom, I think we must agree that she is a duck with a very good heart.” Like Emily, Jemima is an ambiguous figure, and the question of what she has done is at the center of the mystery.

But you doubtless have other things to do and you want to get on with them. So I’ll just remind you that we’re having a drawing and that you need to click on this link and enter your name. We’ll be giving away three copies of The Tale of Hawthorn House. You may also be eligible for the grand prize drawing, which will be held at the end of the Cottage Tales Blog Tour.

But you’d better hurry. The drawing for the Straight From Hel Blog closes at noon on November 18!


  1. I'm posting this comment on behalf of Rhonda Hedderich:

    I Have two questions for Susan. One is probably asked a lot. "How do you come up with plots for your books?" The next question has to do with construction of the novel. How do you do that? Do you make and outline. I have heard some authors say they have no idea how it will end til they write it and others say they actually plan the ending at the very beginning than all they have to do is fill in the middle. What works best for you? Thanks Rhonda Hedderich

  2. Oh, gosh, Rhonda---plots are everywhere. Plots fill the airwaves, the newspapers, the Internet. I just keep my eyes and ears open and let the ideas filter in and simmer for a while. Re: outlines. When Bill and I wrote the Robin Paige series (now concluded) we usually storyboarded it, which involved little white cards on a corkboard, with one column per plot. There were always 7-8 plots in each book, and with 2 writers, it's necessary to keep things straight. But with China and the Cottage Tales, I think of an ending (several endings, actually, since these books are multi-plotted, as well), then write toward it. Good questions. Thanks!--Susan

  3. I loved the compare/contrast story lines about good/bad mothering using Jemima and Emily for the pivot points. It was fascinating watching the two plots barrel to resolution! And I got more than a chuckle or two out of the book, too. That narrator, methinks, had the wry sense of humor of Beatrix herself. Was that intentional?

    A thoroughly satisfying read! ~ Dani

  4. What you and Rhonda were saying about plot and structure led me to thoughts of your books, I've read and thoroughly enjoyed all the China Bayles series, two of the Cottage Tales, and three of the Robin Paige.

    An avid mystery reader, I've read and enjoyed many authors, but for some, after a 3-4 books I have found there to be a kind of formula to the stories. Once I become aware of the formula, the books cease to hold their appeal for me, at least my interest in them lessens.

    I realize that an outline is helpful to the author and it makes sense to have one, but in my thinking, it is best to vary it or at least complicate it to the extent that it is not easily sensed by the reader. Thus far, you, Susan, continue to intrigue and entertain me with you stories. I eagerly anticipate each new China Bayles story long before its arrival and have equally enjoyed your other offerings.

  5. Hi Susan and Helen!

    Interesting post about the narrative voice. Funny, I just started a story using that voice, but didn't know what to call it. I'm writing it as a letter to a young friend and in doing that, it's easier to keep in the proper voice.

    Looking forward to reading the new book and sharing it with my friend, as it is "family friendly."

    bobbi c.

  6. Dani, yes, the double-mother plotting was deliberate, although Emily wasn't really bad, just self-engrossed (as was, of course, Jemima!). I had fun playing with that.

    RE: formulaic structures. That is a serious problem with series, in my experience. As a veteran of the Nancy Drew series (and the Hardy Boys) I've seen the dangers. So I made a conscious effort to make each book different, not just in structure but in tone. In the China series, some are funny (Chile Death, A Dilly of a Death), while some (Love Lies Bleeding) are tragic. I get bored easily--I know readers do, too!

    And Bobbi (hi!), the letter tone is exactly it. That's how Beatrix began, you know, with picture letters to children. It's a person-to-person tone that assumes a certain familiarity and affection for the reader.


  7. Susan, thanks for the great description of the narrative voice you used, and more importantly, why you picked that particular approach! Not all authors are as aware of why we make the choices we do in constructing a story - whether real or imaginary. Your post is a wonderful teaching example. And a great way to introduce The Hawthorn House to new readers. You are a pleasure to read in any format!

    Susan T

  8. Susan Thomas11/18/2007 4:38 AM

    Susan, Thank you for the very thought-provoking blog. I have read, I believe, all the China Bayles, Robin Paige, and Beatrix Potter books to date. This really gives me insight into intelligently reading all fiction of my choice.


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