Tag Archives: Education

Novel Girls: Time Period, Education, and Coincidences

10 Feb

We had yet another lovely night with the Novel Girls! This might be one of our last times for the four of us to get together before Sonia moves away for her job. We hope she’s able to come back soon! In the mean time, we’ll have to brave our way forward while sending her the sections we’re going over.

Speaking of Sonia, two of the points I want to cover up while we were talking about her piece. The piece takes place in the mid-20th Century, she said around the 50s or so. I recognized instantly that it was a historical piece and Sonia did this really well with time-period specific vocabulary. I think our favorite was ‘doll dizzy.’ However, it was hard to narrow when in the early/mid-century the setting was. She’ introduced Frank Sinatra to establish that it was later than 1940, but where in the 1940-1950s era, we didn’t know. Did it really matter? No, the story was strong. But it could have helped. I’ve thought of a few ways to help establish a historical setting.

  1. Use period-appropriate words.
  2. Describe the dress, cars, music, etc. that define the era.
  3. Reference a great historical event that has recently happened. If it’s famous enough (moon landing for example), this will give readers a solid guess at the year.
  4. Birth/death year of a character and their age so readers can do simple math to figure out the year.
  5. An idea my friend John suggested: Refer to social customs and mores from the period. For example, a woman being alone, a shoulder or ankle being considered a scandal. We associate these customs with a specific part of history. (Thanks, John!)
  6. If all else fails, but a date stamp in the work or in the summary of the piece.

Can you think of some other ways to establish a time period in historical fiction writing?

The other thing that came up while reading Sonia’s piece was the education level of a character. When plotting characters, this is usually something a writer thinks about. If someone has dropped out of high school versus having a PhD, there will be aspects of their life and personality that are hugely different. Usually vocabulary, lifestyle, and occupation do well to describe this, but Sonia’s piece being historical fiction, this was made more complicated. The vocabulary seemed off because of the period, not because of education. The occupation of her character was a huge help to understanding this, but it came into the piece later. Lifestyle was a bit confusing because the exchange rate and cost of things isn’t immediately re callable to the reader. Here are just a few ideas I have to help establish education level.

  1. Use contrast between those of high and low education level. Compare their clothing, spending habits, family situations, and speech patterns.
  2. The way other characters talk to your character can make a difference. I find that people with more education are quickly given more respect by their peers, no matter what job they’re in. If you have two people in the same job and one is a high school grad and the other is a college grad, the way someone would speak to the college grad might be.
  3. Reference the time a character spent in school. If your character has a masters, you can say that he is still paying off loans from working on his masters.more respectful than to the high school grad.

How else can you show a character’s education level?

While we were reading Katherine’s piece, she asked us if her fantasy seemed to far-fetched or if it was grounded enough in reality. We agreed it was very well grounded but talked about when we feel fantasy is overdone. The biggest thing we all agreed on is when things are too convenient. A door is locked? Good think your character knows just the spell to open it. Is there a large rock in the road? No matter for character who suddenly has super strength. On the flip side, when a character doesn’t use a power/skill/resource that they have in a situation where it would be very advantageous to use it, fantasy becomes equally frustrating for a reader. The classic superheroes are a good standard to look at when trying to find the right balance. They all have a weakness. Superman has Krypton and his love for Lois Lane. Wolverine has his own anger to deal with that can impede his decisions. If your fantasy characters have a good mix of abilities and weaknesses, I think there’s a solid chance of the fantasy seeming well grounded.

What do you find frustrating in fantasy writing?

We didn’t discuss this specifically, but I wanted to talk about the word ‘just.’ Most writers know that the word ‘just’ is a filler and doesn’t add anything to your writing except word count. Taking the word out of sentences makes them stronger 99% of the time. However, what about in dialogue? Do we use the filler word to make dialogue more lifelike? My husband was doing a transcription of his students the other day and we were laughing at how silly everyone sounded, using filler words like ‘just, like, kinda,’ etc. So, is using ‘just’ in dialogue more realistic, or still a filler? I’m personally an advocate for making dialogue as realistic as possible, and if the character is the type who would use filler words a lot, I think it should be used in the writing. What do you think? Does using the word ‘just’ in dialogue hurt the writing or make it more realistic?

If you have any suggestions for things we could discuss at our next Novel Girls meeting, drop me a comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Until next time, write on.


Book Review: The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti

29 Oct

My second First Reads book is completed! I was really luck to have a lot of free time to read over the past few days so this is going up quickly. I’m working on one other post that my friend recommended I write, so look for a post on research coming soon. But for now, I leave you with this, a review of Cohen Corsanti’s first novel.

Image from Goodreads.com

Image from Goodreads.com

The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti

Cohen Corasanti’s first book is based strongly on her experiences living in Israel during high school and university. If the adage that everyone has a book in them, this was hers. Though I received a free copy of this book through the Goodreads First Reads program, that has had no affect on my review of the book.

The Almond Tree follows the character of Ichmad Hamid throughout his life. The book starts with his family living on the orange farm in Palestine where his family has owned for decades. Quickly, we see him pushed off the land by Israeli soldiers and into a one-room house for his family. But even that can’t last and the home is soon destroyed and his father sent to jail. Ichmad and younger brother Abass go work in construction and must abandon their education to the chagrin of their former teacher. Teacher Mohammad teaches Ichmad at night to neuter his talent for math and physics and convinces him to enter a math competition in Jerusalem where he wins a scholarship to the Hebrew University. His mother is unwilling to let him go but his father insists and Ichmad goes to live amongst the enemies of his people, the Jews.

This story is one of loss and perseverance. Ichmad must learn to forgive those who have destroyed his family and work along with the Jews he has been raised to despise. I’ll stop my plot summary here, but know that almost nothing goes right for Ichmad throught the book. It’s almost safe to predict that anything that seems to be going right will fail. From this respect, the book is very lifelike.

I greatly enjoyed the pace at which this book went. The plot went hurtling forward and I finished it much quicker than I thought I would. For that reason, I’ll say this book was a great fictional showing of the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It was educational and entertaining.

Cohen Corasanti is obviously preaching peace and understanding through education. With Ichmad’s schooling, he learns to interact with and make friends with Jews. He sees understanding and acceptance on both sides while studying at school. His nephew has the chance to study at MIT, but cannot get out of Gaza to seize the opportunity. The nephew loses hope with no chance of education and no way of ever leaving Gaza because his father (Ichmad’s brother) is a member of Hamas.

I’m very inclined to agree with these opinions. I feel with education comes the ability to understand without agreement and the ability to find alternative solutions. When someone does not have a proper education, they gather their information from any source they can find and this has the potential to be the opinions of someone with a strong opinion. Not having been taught how to form opinions and seek sources, someone without education could latch on to these ideas. Cohen Corasanti has characters that exist on both sides of this spectrum.

Without sounding political, I’ll say that The Almond Tree goes into the roots of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and how both sides have manipulated and been unfair to the others. Because the main character is Palestinian, the characters opinions are mainly anti-Israeli and focus on the suffering of the Palestinians.

This book was compared to The Kite Runner and I understand the connection but disagree with the comparison. While Hosseini’s book is also set in the Middle East and chronicles a character who moves to America and looks for redemption from what he’s left behind, I was a much bigger fan of Hosseini’s book. That’s not to say that The Almond Tree is at all a bad book (I’m giving it four out of five), but that Hosseini’s is, in my opinion, much better written. He skips lulls in the action and gives great scenes. Cohen Corasanti is so concentrated on giving the history that she is forced to shorten scenes that are very central to the plot. Her narrator didn’t give much emotion in his story, which makes it harder to sympathize with Ichmad.

I’m very glad I read this book because it was able to humanize the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for me. As a student, I learned about the history of the conflict on a national level. We studied the Camp David Accords and the wars for the Sinai Peninsula. We never talked about Palestinians jailed for over a decade for something they didn’t do or the hoops someone would have to jump through to visit family in Gaza. Cohen Corasanti’s book helped me see this problem through the eyes of a citizen caught in the conflict and I’m very glad I read it.

Writer’s Takeaways: As I mentioned, the lack of emotion in Ichmad made him harder to relate to and I think the story suffered from that. I would have liked to see fewer scenes and instead more emotional description and reaction from the characters which would have helped me sympathize with them more. The author’s ability to keep her plot interesting and moving forward is more than commendable. She’s written quite the page-turner which I think all writers hope to produce.

Four out of five stars.

Until next time, write on.