Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Learning from the Fiction Masters, Part 1: C.S. Forester

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Folks, I’m often asked, “Barb, who have you learned from, as a writer?”

The answer usually goes like this: “My husband, Rosemary Edghill, Katherine Eliska Kimbriel, Stephanie Osborn, Jason Cordova . . .

And I get an exasperated shake of the head. “No, Barb. Who have you read that has helped you?”

In addition to all of the above — do check out their work, please, as soon as you can! — there are writers anyone can find in the public library that will help them write rip-roaring yarns of action-adventure, or perhaps some gentler, humorous stories of far-off places, or maybe just evoke England between the World Wars in such a humorous way that you can’t stop laughing.

Who are these writers? Why, C.S. Forester — he who wrote the Horatio Hornblower series of military, ship-going fiction, L. Frank Baum — famous for the his stories of the fabled (and fabulous) land of Oz, and P.G. Wodehouse, of course.

In the next three blogs of this series (to come out every week on Friday), I intend to discuss one of these seminal writers at a time — and today, Forester is up.

Forester is the most obvious choice for anyone to read who’s writing military science fiction, if you haven’t already. (BTW, here’s a handy link to blog of the C.S. Forester Society, a going concern 115 years after his birth. All authors should do so well!)

Why should you read Forester? Well, he logically lays out exactly how an English ship of the line from the late 1700s/early 1800s actually ran. How the officers interrelated, how the ship worked, what sort of jobs people had on the ship, and does all that by showing how his main character, Horatio Hornblower, ascends the ladder in rank and has to deal with more and more challenges.

Granted, Forester wrote his books out-of-order, somewhat in the same fashion as contemporary military SF master Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s a good strategy, too, because it allows you to fill in the background of your hero or heroine as you see fit.

Why do you want to read Forester, though, if you aren’t planning to write any military SF at all? Well, he knew how to spin an action-adventure yarn, that’s for sure, so that’s one reason. Another is to observe how he authentically evokes the English Navy of Hornblower’s era, and does so in a way that is relatively unobtrusive — it’s there, it’s sensible, and Hornblower relies on it implicitly (as a real-life seaman of that time would’ve done).

This last is something that many contemporary writers do not seem to do nearly as well (with the exception of Bujold and the writers listed above). Many other writers, some quite celebrated (and with much greater sales figures than mine), use a technique called “infodumping” in such a way that it’s not just obvious, it’s so obvious that any reasonably assuming reader who already knows the writer and the universe in question is likely to skip it entirely.

Remember — you want to seduce the reader, if at all possible. You do not want to hit the reader over the head (unless you are writing humorous fantasy; that’s different). And you want the reader to enjoy what you’ve written, every single word, rather than skip hundreds or thousands because you’ve been too heavy with your infodumping.

Besides, Forester wrote more than just Hornblower. He wrote movies, plays, children’s stories, horror, mysteries . . . all sorts of stuff. So if one thing doesn’t work for you — even if it’s the genius of the Hornblower stuff — try another.

Anyway, if you haven’t read any of C.S. Forester’s work yet, here’s a few books to get you started — and best of all, they should be available in any good public library. (A good, free book is a win-win for all concerned in this down economy.)

  • BEAT TO QUARTERS — the first, and possibly the best, Hornblower novel.
  • THE AFRICAN QUEEN — an interesting sea-faring novel made into a movie. (You’ve probably seen the movie, so why not read the book?)
  • POO-POO AND THE DRAGONS — a children’s story, complete with illustrations by Robert Lawson.
  • PAYMENT DEFERRED — a horror/murder mystery, where the guy about to be executed for a crime is truly innocent, but cannot exonerate himself. If he does, he’ll prove he’s a murderer — but of someone else.

Enjoy!

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