Hitting the right note in historical setting – An interview with author Sonia Gensler

If you have ever wanted to be standing in the room when Elizabeth Bennett verbally spars with Mr. Darcy, or you wished Captain Nemo had offered you a ride on the Nautilus, you’ll understand the power of a story set in a different time than our own. And perhaps, if you’re a writer, you’ve dreamed of plotting your own story in a time long past. Then again, getting a historical setting just right can be intimidating. Well, WWAT had the exciting opportunity to talk to Sonia Gensler, young adult novelist and author of The Revenant (Oklahoma Book Award, Parent’s Choice Silver Award, Sequoyah Intermediate Master list), The Dark Between (Oklahoma Book Award finalist), and the forthcoming Ghostlight, (available August 4, 2015), all from Random House/Alfred A. Knopf. Because her first two novels take place in historic settings, we figured she’d be the perfect subject for questions about how a writer can initiate a journey through time to establish a story in a setting that has come and gone. How much influence does historic setting have on your first two published novels, The Revenant and The Dark Between? Setting was a major inspiration for my first two novels. In my initial thinking about The Revenant, I knew I wanted to write a story set at a 19th century Southern girls’ boarding school, because female education outside of the home was still a fairly recent phenomenon and school settings are inherently rife with drama. When my Tahlequah friends pointed out Seminary Hall at Northeastern State University, I was intrigued. When they told me it used to be Cherokee girls’ boarding school, I knew I had my setting! It was during my research about the school that I learned about the building’s history of hauntings, and the plot really began to come together. With The Dark Between, I was inspired by the 19th century paranormal researchers who formed the Society for Psychical Research (which is still going strong today). When I learned that many of the founders had met each other at Trinity College in Cambridge, I knew I had to exploit that setting! And then it got even more interesting when I discovered that one of these founding members, Henry Sidgwick, was a co-founder of Newnham College, one of the first female colleges in Cambridge. He inspired the character of Oliver Thompson in my book, and the setting, Summerfield College, was based on Newnham. In general, I start with place, and... read more

Graveyards, Hotels, and Asylums! Oh, my!

One of my favorite genres is horror. Give me zombies, monsters, and ghosts galore. The one element that can make or break a great horror novel is the setting. There is nothing scarier than a haunted hotel, or an abandoned mental hospital. Two of my favorite books, The Shining by Stephen King and Asylum by Madeleine Roux, are perfect examples. Most everyone knows that the real life Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado was Stephen King’s inspiration for The Shining. Having recently visited the Stanley, I can see how it stimulated King’s imagination. The picturesque landscape, the history, and the tragedies of the Stanley are an inevitable muse for authors. Stephen King captured the creep factor and created an ingenious setting for a truly eerie ghost story. The hotel itself is one of the most important character in the novel. Asylum by Madeleine Roux is another, more recent, example of a setting that makes the plot. When a university buys an old abandoned asylum and converts it into dorms for a summer session, ghosts of past residents mingle with the living. Not only did the asylum host the mentally ill and criminally insane, a mad doctor who experimented on his patients was in charge. If that’s not scary enough, high school students live there for a summer and the dead take over. Once again, the setting is as much of a character as the people are. No matter what genre you’re writing, the setting needs to come alive. With a great setting, you can create an atmosphere and emotionally charge the... read more

The Anti-hero: The worst hero is loved the most?

The antihero is a character that lacks perfection, internally conflicted… a big flaw? Perhaps. This antihero character is usually interesting and refreshing to introduce, develops over the course of the story, becomes influenced by other characters, and advances the plot or develops a theme. Is the antihero the best choice for your main character? Well… Is it important to have a likeable main character? Someone the audience can relate to? Write something you know? Can you dance with the dark side? The audience needs to love to hate… a passion for hating an antihero seems key… at least for most of a story. To really be a hero, the redemption must occur. Some savory bits of… audience relating to and liking the antihero character, thus replacing the hatred with affection. Charlie Brown is the Peanuts’ antihero. He’s a blockhead. He’s easily disappointed. He’s the scapegoat. He brings flaws, neuroses and issues to the story. Lara Croft could be considered a hero or a villain… thus earning the title antihero. She is a thief and tomb raider, she pursues selfish agenda (the opposite of Indian Jones for example), and she claims to only murder people in self defense. She admits to killing endangered species, and should be incarcerated for all of her many crimes. Tony Stark could be easily considered a villain… he creates and distributes weapons of mass destruction. He’s a cocky, ego driven jerk and a pompous upper class twit. But, he saves the day and endears his audience to his vulnerabilities and turns out to be a normal guy (without a heart) with a false caricature exterior. Every single bad event/conflict that happens in Iron Man 2 is a direct result of Tony Stark being a jackass. He is this movie’s villain. All the other villains in this movie were inspired and created by Stark’s showing off and egomania, thus making him the super-villain. Not sharing his “super suit” invention with the “good guys” and being selfish about his “Iron Man” technology directly causes lots of civilian deaths. If you google “antihero” you will find a character treading the thin line between good and evil. There must be a flaw and there must be redemption. It’s an archetype. It’s a trope. It’s an idiom. If you try to explain it to someone, it’s like a broken record. My advice to writers: The antihero is a tricky character to master. This could go either way, depending on who... read more

Great Supporting Characters Can Make Your Main Character Shine

When I get asked about my favorite characters, I often think about those in the supporting roles. But when I looked back at the books I read as a child, my eyes were open to the storytelling craft of the authors who used secondary characters to heighten our connection with the main characters. Many children still read Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and it will probably remain a classic for years to come. The main character, Wilber the pig,would have died early if it wasn’t for Charlotte the spider. We see Wilber’s growth and development as he interacts with Charlotte throughout the story. Charlotte teaches him about life, love, and friendship, becoming a sort of mother figure for him. Without Charlotte, Wilber wouldn’t have grown and changed into the pig so many people love and adore. Charlotte left her impact on me, too—even today, I never kill a spider unless it poses a threat. Another supporting character that makes a good foil for the main character is Gurgi in The Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. Gurgi can be described as a nicer, more timid and hairier version of Gollem, from The Lord of the Rings. Gurgi’s obsession with food and other annoying tendencies frustrate Taran, the main character. In these situations we see some of Taran’s flaws and also connect with him more as we think about the Gurgis in our own lives. At the time I was reading this, my little brother resembled Gurgi in every way, even the hair. My favorite supporting character by far is Heart’s Blood in The Pit Dragon Chronicles by Jane Yolen. Heart’s Blood is a combination of the loyalest of pets and the best of friends. Reared by Jakkin, a slave boy living on an outer planet, Heart’s Blood is a dragon who would give everything for the boy she loves. It was from their relationship that I had my first understanding of sacrifice and salvation. A word of caution for those of us who want to write great supporting characters: Don’t let a secondary character outshine your main character. Even though I fondly remember these secondary characters, I related more to the main characters—the awkward and scared Wilber, the annoyed Taran who struggled to be a hero, the struggling Jakkin who wanted to escape from bondage. So as you’re writing your stories and developing your main character’s personalities, remember to spend time forming your secondary characters, too. One of them might just be the spark that makes your book shine... read more