Friday, October 7, 2011

That Witch Bears Repeating by Rob Walker

GREATEST SECRETS of Commercial Fiction Writers Revealed for Your Use

                                                       by Robert W. Walker

Using a brief excerpt from chapter 3 of Children of Salem, I intend to point out key decisions a writer makes as he works.  This article is intended to instruct new writers and remind veterans how we do what we do when we do it.

            First use time and setting like teletype to get right to the setting as in below…

            At the parsonage door in Salem Village, 1:20AM, March 7, 1692

            Second use establishing shots to nail the character down fast…

            A stocky, short man, nonetheless Reverend Samuel Parris felt the walls of the small parish home—his property by way of contractual agreement with his flock—closing in on him.

Notice the helpful use of dashes to set off and emphasize material in a complex sentence.

              The stairwell proved so tight that Parris could hardly make it up the narrow passage to his daughter’s room, where he looked in on little Betty, who’d been battling a fever—symptoms of an ague so often seen in little ones.  Betty slept fitfully, as if assailed by nightmares, but at least she slept.  Her cousin, the Reverend’s niece, slept too but in a separate bed in the corner.

            Notice that every sentence is an active one…even the ‘stairwell proved’ something…

He returned to the hearth and pulled a book from the bookcase.  He owned several books, an Old Testament, a New Testament, and a treatise written by Increase Mather on how the godly life must be led.  Parris was, in effect, a man of one book, the Holy Bible.  All else paled in his eyes.  He strove to live by a strict interpretation of Jehovah’s Ten Commandments and the Pentateuch now as never before.

Note the use of props – books in this case and how they help establish Parris.

Parris now took a deep breath and opened his bible to Leviticus, about to read himself into weariness, when he heard a sudden rapping at the parsonage door.

What damned oaf comes at such an hour? Parris mentally shouted.  He approached the door, shouted aloud,  “Who needs what of me now?”  They come to me for all their ills and every petty problem, but do they make my salary?

Note the use of thought and speech above and the interplay. Never create huge blocks of either speech or thought as to do so creates a ‘blowhard’ of your character – a no, no.

Each villager’s tithe to Parris had come slower and slower, until some had stopped altogether, while others paid in pumpkins, squash, oysters, and the occasional lobster.  Worse than ordinary thieves, he thought, one hand on the doorknob, his ear against the wood.

Note in that last sentence how even as he is thinking, he is still in action.

Who could it be at such an ungodly hour?  Another death in the parish?  A sick child who’d wandered from the faith?  These Salem people want courtesy and hard work from me, yet they fail me in miserable fashion.

Again three quick, strong raps on the door.  From the sound of it, a strong man stood on the other side of the stout door.

Note how monologue works to establish Parris above, and directly below in next lines how dialogue does the job. Dialogue is for establishing character and moving the story along or both at once.

“Who is it?” Parris shouted.

“Wakely, sir!  My name is Jeremiah…”

“What?”  The door still separating them.

“My name is Jermiah Wakely—”

“I know no Wakely!” came the muffled response.

Jeremiah wondered if the minister meant to come through the door with a blazing firearm or hot poker.

“I’ve come from Maine, sir.”


“By way of Boston, sir!”


“Have a letter of introduction, Mr. Parris, sir!”

“Letter?  A post this time of night?  Bah!”

“Can you hear me, sir?  Through the door?”

“What letter?”

“From Mather, sir, Reverend Increase Mather.”

This brought on a chill silence.  Finally, Parris replied, “Mather?  Did you say Increase Mather?”

Never above a little symbolism, note the door as symbol of impossible communication between these two, and note below the lantern light that divides Jeremiah’s face, half light, half dark and not lost on Parris. Note also how all such information is conveyed through the character’s senses and thoughts:

“I did, sir!”  Jeremiah cursed the impenetrable door.  He wondered if Parris meant for him to sleep on the porch tonight.  “I’d like to settle my horse, sir, in your barn.”

But Parris’ breath had caught in his lungs.  Can it be true, he wondered, that the greatest theological mind in the colonies has sent me a letter by midnight courier?  Has Mather finally answered my repeated requests for intervention on my behalf?  Ha, the delinquent parish members will be well fined now.

“Will you open the door, Reverend?” shouted Jeremiah.  “Or shall Mr. Mather’s protégé sleep in your barn?”

What if it’s the Devil at my doorstep? Parris asked himself.  This man calling himself Wakely could as well be some evil scratching to get in.  The Devil would know that a letter from Mather would tempt him to make an invitation to cross his threshold.  “Or has God sent this—what’d he call himself?  Protégé?” he muttered aloud.

The pounding continued.  So loud in the silent night that it sounded demonic.

Parris braced himself, lit a lantern, and pulled the door open just a crack, staring out at Jeremiah Wakely, who managed a smile.  Jeremy then extended a letter with a heavy red wax seal reading IM—for Increase Mather.

The lantern glow divided Wakely’s face down the middle; one side lit bright, the other side in total darkness.  The image had a strange, hypnotic hold on his reluctant host.  “You look like a highwayman, Mr. Wakely.”

Below now see the use of elipses and dashes to give the impression confusion on the one hand and the impression of men talking over one another on the other. I learned this from a CAREFUL reading of how it is done in the comic strips!

 “If you are truly from Mather . . . why do you come in at such an hour?  Under darkness?  It’ve been best to come in daylight.”

“A bridge was out,” lied Jeremy.

“I would’ve liked my parishioners to see your coming, to know you are here from Mather, and that Mather backs me against my enaaa . . . those who stand against me here.”

“I don’t know anything about that, sir.  I’m just an apprentice . . . to be apprenticed to you, Mr. Parris, until which time—”

“Apprentice?  I thought you simply a courier?”  He waved the sealed note in his hand.

“You haven’t read it, sir?”

“I assumed…I mean, seeing the seal and Mather’s signature…well…” Parris gritted his teeth and read by the lantern now held by Jeremy, his riding boots squeaking and wet on the porch boards.

There came another daunting silence between them.  Finally, Jeremiah cleared his parched throat and said, “Mr. Parris, I am aware of your worldliness, sir.”

“You are?”

“That you were a merchant in the West Indies—”

“Yes, Barbados, but what has that to do with—”

“—and a seaman before that.  All before becoming an ordained minister at Harvard College.”

“What is your point, man?

“Why that I am…will be honored to work under your tutelage, sir.”  Jeremy worked hard to affect the attitude of a novice scholar.

“Indeed…lucky for both of us,” Parris countered.

“Reverend Mather provided me with a modest outline, sir, of your history.”

“He did?”

“Filled me in, yes.  It’s one reason that Mr. Mather has linked us, you and I as minister and mentor.”


“Protégé, apprentice, sir.”

Parris’ features took on a menacing look.  He had assumed the letter from Mather a confirmation of his land holdings in Salem Village.  He now placed a pair of rickety old magnifying glasses on his nose so as to truly look at the note—as if searching for what he’d lost in translation.

Jeremy watched his lips move as he read:

After the letter is read look at how a new third character is introduced into the mix.

Parris heaved the heaviest sigh Jeremy had ever seen before muttering, “Where the deuce’ll you sleep?  We have extremely tight quarters here.”

“I can take the stable tonight . . . for now, that is until settled elsewhere.”

Parris hesitated then said, “Don’t be silly.”

“I mean ’till arrangements can be made, I—”

Parris considered this for only a moment before exploding into action, rushing inside, leaving his door swinging open.  “Tituba!” he shouted, rushing into the house, leaving the door wide, waking his servant.  “Wake up!  I want you to prepare a bed in the stable for—”

“For whooo, Massa Reverend?”  The dark woman stared hard at the man in black who stood now warming himself at the fire.  She looked wide-eyed, frightened of Jeremiah.

“For whom?” replied Parris, correcting her English.  “Why for you, for yourself, Tituba.”

It was the first time Jeremiah had heard the woman’s name pronounced, and it was, he thought, rather Shakespearean and melodic:  Ti’shuba.  The strange, dark woman in shadow repeatedly asked, “What?  What I do now?  What?”

“You’re to remove yourself tonight to the barn, to sleep out there.”  Parris pointed to the door.  “Now, out!”

“Out the house?  Now?”

“Hold on, sir,” started Jeremy.  “I don’t wish to displace anyone.”

“She’s a Barbados black, Mr. Ahhh . . . Wakely, or are you blind and deaf?”

“Even so—”

“My servant.  I’ve had her for years.”

“Still, I’m the newcomer here and—”

“Are you questioning my judgment already, young man?”

Aside from dialogue moving the story along and making it immediate, we rely on the five senses, constantly trying to embed at least three appeals to the senses on every page as apparent below:

Samuel Parris had eyes as black as grapes, but no seeds showed in them, not even so much as a twinkle in the lantern light; light which otherwise filled the small rooms here, creating giants of their shadows along with the pinching odor of whale oil.

Tituba did not question her master.  After a furtive glance at Jeremiah, and a look of anger flaring up behind the minister’s back, she trundled out, clutching a single woolen blanket and a straw-tick pillow.  Parris watched her go down the steps into the drifting snow and icy rain.

Take note that what a character says and does is who she is; but characters are also illuminated by what others say and do about them. Note below how Parris sums her up but can we and Jeremiah believe the minister?  All a plan of the author who wishes you to like and dislike and to make judgments of your own about these people made of words.

“There, Mr. Wakefield, now you have a place below the stairwell.”

Jeremy thought to correct him but decided not now.  Instead, he stared at the space below the stairs vacated for him.  It looked large enough for a big dog.  “Still, I need to stable my horse before retiring, sir.”

“Yes, yes, of course, but steer clear of the servant.  She has a dislike for strangers, us ahhh . . . white men who wear the cloth in particular.”

“Is she not civilized?  Christian?”

“Trust me, I’ve done my level best to make her so, however, you can never be sure of the pagan mind.  Most inscrutable.”

“I know nothing is harder than to convert a heathen, sir.”

“Clings to her Barbados superstitions.”

“I see.  I’ll do then as you suggest.” 

“I’ll have the door unlatched for your return.  Again, avoid the woman.”

“As you wish.”

“She is a . . . mischief-maker, Mr. Wakely.  You are forewarned.  Make no small talk with Tituba.”

Note how clearly each character his his/her own voice, and how the exotic name of Tituba is brought out as mysterious just in how Jeremiah wonders at how it is pronounced.

Hearing Parris behind him at the door, Jeremiah repeated the name as it sounded to him, “Ti’shu-ba, yes, to be sure, I’ll not speak with the black woman.”

Note how the end of a scene or chapter should be a drum roll or at least a beat, ending on a note that keeps the reader curious and in anticipation of what is to come next.

So these are the simple and easy to master Secrets of Commercial Fiction Writing, and hopefully, you see there is nothing to it.  But it presupposes rewrites atop rewrites, and getting to know one’s characters inside and out from having lived with them for a long, long time.

So these are my working SECRETS.  All the examples are from Children of Salem and the entire book at an easy price to you can be found at  Or you can read FREE the first 8 chapters at or just chapter one free at my Myspace blog.  Children of Salem is my best selling work at the moment except for Dead On Writing from and


Morgan Mandel said...

Great lessons learned from your excerpts, Rob.

Morgan Mandel

June Shaw said...

You shared terrific advice with us again, Rob. Thanks so much.

J.C. Martin said...

Useful insights and great excerpt, thanks for sharing!


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Lutz Barz said...

You're scarring the potential writers. It's about feeling one's way into-through a story. The details can come later. If there is nothing within the story then all the grammatical technical add-ons mean nothing. Unless one writes for airport and train station readers.
First the idea, the guts of the story and then the rest falls into place. As for precise time: I am sceptical. Especially in the 17th century!

Rob Walker said...

Yeah, I get your point Lutz but none of these "lessons" were learned easily but over time with many years of writing; it gets easier and the author is in more control with each novel he/she writes. Realize too that I do much of this subconsciously while working the pages, and going back in to do the rewrites I discover even more what works, what does not for me. As to the sex in the 17th Century, well these two had not seen each other for ten years since their first kiss, so damn it, they were hot for one another. Some people seem to believe no one in Puritan New England had sex but it was CHILDREN to got back at the adult world who started the uproar and where do you think they came from? LOL.

I was not writing it as a sex scene anyhow but as a love scene. These are two people passionately in love.

Hope these remarks suffice. For any who are looking for more indepth advice on writing, check out my DEAD on WRITING, a how-to to die for - a kindle book but in POD from as well.

After 50 completed novels, I am far more apt to write an airport potboiler than a literary novel by the way.


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