Thursday, August 30, 2012

Is the first day of class really important?

Yesterday was the first day of school.  Professors will all tell you that the first day of class is very important, but some students don't agree.  So why do we feel the first day is so important?

1.  First impressions.
     Both professors and students are making a first impression on the first day.  Are they on time?  Do they show interest and engagement.  Are they smiling?  I actually read an article debating whether professors should smile at their students - I do.

2.  It sets the tone
     For me, the first day is critical because it sets the tone; actually, I set the tone.  And the tone I want to set in my class is one of excitement, challenges and rewards, hard work, improvement, engagement.  If a student misses the first day he or she will have to figure out the tone through clues given in class, but that's harder than being in class the first day.

3.  Syllabus
      So the first day the syllabus is distributed and explained.  The syllabus is a contract between the student and teacher, and I attempt to make my expectations clear, to clarify anything unclear, to emphasize the critical elements, and to hear from my students if there is anything they don't understand, or even don't like!  Students who miss the first day will get only a synopsis of this longer explanation and will completely miss the dialogue we have on the first day.

4.  Getting to know you
     On the first day I give an icebreaker, allowing students to mingle and get to know each other a bit.  So they become comforable with each other and learn fascinating facts about each other, like who has more than two brothers, or who plays a musical instrument, or who has traveled to more than three countries, or even who has never played video games.  Students who join us the second week have missed this interaction and might get to know a few other students, but have missed the opportunity to get to know the class.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What should I include in my story?

When writing historical fiction, writers face a unique dilemma.  In my last post I wrote about a book I recently read and greatly enjoyed - The Physician.  It is historical fiction, and one of the aspects I liked best about the book is the setting, and learning about a time in the distant past - what people ate, what they wore, how they celebrated.  As in any work of historical fiction, the details are fictional.  But in any good historical novel, the details are based in research.

Historical novelists must often do extensive research before they write.  Several years ago, when I first began my own historical novel, I had just finished reading A Respectable Trade, by Philippa Gregory.  It did for me what great books do - it made me laugh, cry and care.  I was so moved that I wrote to Ms. Gregory, and told her how the book impacted me, and also asked her questions about how she did her research and what the writing process is like for a writer of historical fiction.  This wonderful writer, who has sold millions of copies of her books, actually wrote back to me!  She offered very helpful advice.  She spends anywhere from 6 months to a year or two conducting research.  Then she writes. 

I do my first draft in long hand.

In preparation for writing my own historical novel, I read dozens of books and researched the settings and the time periods, and the key figures, before I wrote a word.  Then I began to write, but I continued to do research as I wrote.  I also visited plantations in South Carolina and sites in England where Joanna Vassa lived, and her burial site.  This research was invaluable.  But here's the problem.  I learned so many fascinating facts, I wanted to include them all.  But then it would not be a novel, but a compilation of research.  So what should historical novelists include?  I believe we should include only those facts and details that are necessary to the storyline.  That's not always easy to decipher, so I think during the editing phase, if there are extraneous details that don't add to the story, or are actually necessary to the story, they should be expunged!  That's the painful work of writing, killing off some of our sentences, and even paragraphs and pages, that don't contribute to the story.  Ouch!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Physician

I've been absent from this blog for awhile, traveling, but I'm back now and I want to tell you about this book I read recently.  It made for great reading on the long train ride to Montreal - 11 hours each way.  Reading it on my Kindle, I had no page numbers and no idea how long it was, or when it was published, but I found out afterward it is 720 pages long and was published 26 years ago!   I guess I like to quantify things, and sometimes the Kindle makes that difficult.

This is a good book.  What makes it good?  The characters are real and I care about them.  They are multi-dimensional, with some identifying characteristics, but not too predictable.  But what I like most about the book is the setting.  As I teach my Literature students, there are many components to fiction but five of the prominent elements are plot, characters, setting, tone and theme.  To me, in this book the setting is almost the most important character.  It takes place in 1025 or so, when barbers were also surgeons.  The main character is orphaned at the age of 9, and is apprenticed to a barber-surgeon.  After his mentor dies, he decides to travel from England to Persia (current Iran) passing himself as a Jew, to enter the esteemed school for physicians there, run by Muslim physicians.  Religion plays an important role in the book, and the author incorporates many details about Judaism and Islam, and some details about Catholicism.

The author admits that while there is indeed some historical basis for story and setting in the book, much of the "historical" aspects are purely fictional, but he manages to evoke such a sense of time and place that it indeed feels real.  It is a bit raw in places, but overall a very enjoyable read.

As I read it, I was thinking about the role of history in historical fiction, and the dilemma authors face deciding what to include.  More on this in my next blog.