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Ten Things Writers Can Learn from a Quick Trip on the Titanic

Authors, Book Lists, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Teachers, Writing MG Books

 

Why is it 100 years later, the Titanic still captures our attention? Could it be because it was one of the worst maritime disasters in history? Or maybe it’s because the Titanic, which was considered “unsinkable”, did the un-thinkable — it sank on its maiden voyage.  Whatever the reason, the story of  Titanic has enthralled authors, screenwriters, and readers of all ages. Hundreds of books – both fiction and nonfiction — have been written on the Titanic. Of course, the most famous version of its “story” is the block-buster movie directed by James Cameron that was released in 1997.  It is the second highest-grossing movies of all time. Just this year, Mr. Cameron re- released the movie in 3-D and people still flocked to the theatres.

                         

What is it about this story? For me, it’s been an up close and personal view of it. In July of this year I was able to attend a travelling exhibition of original artifacts from the Titanic and in September, I visited the actual drydock in Belfast, N. Ireland where the Titanic was built. Both exhibitions were amazing — and very humbling. As I walked among the tattered clothes, broken dishware and even a few waterlogged journals, I could feel the history and emotions of the people around me. And even though I don’t really have any plans to write about the Titanic, the writer in me promptly took out my notebook and began writing down my impressions. It was fascinating to see all of the objects recovered from the wreck of the Titanic almost 2 miles deep in the ocean.

The tale of the Titanic has everything: the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. There are lessons to be learned from this great tragedy – even for us writers. So, I invite you to take your ticket and join me on a short “trip” on the Titanic. I hope you will enjoy the ride. (This one promises to be dry and warm).

 

 

 

Imagine yourself as a passenger on the Titanic. It is a bright sunny day as you prepare to board an unforgettable trip on the world’s largest ship.  As a passenger you might do these things– and as a writer approaching your novel, these are some tips you should consider:

1.  Pack all of the essentials  in your trunk

As a writer, when you begin a new manuscript, you should arm yourself with the essentials of your craft.  That might be a pen and paper or just a laptop and keyboard. Whatever you use, make sure you have everything you need. Some extra things to consider would be additional help in the form of books for reference.

.

Award-winning author Donna Gephart recently posted a list of the reference books she has on hand when she sits down to write a new novel

 

 

They include:
                       

To see the full list, check out Donna’s website at:  http://www.donnagephart.blogspot.com/

*** Titanic notes – Not only did passengers bring their luggage aboard with them, they also brought 9 dogs, 2 French roosters and 2 hens.   ***

 

2.  Walk firmly up the gangplank

When you are ready to write, confidently sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Don’t hesistate. Don’t second guess. And don’t revise as you write. That can get you frustrated and confused. Just get the first draft down on paper. If it’s bad, no problem. You can always erase it later. (That is why your pencil has an eraser and your keyboard has a delete function).  Starting your novel with confidence helps you to see that it has direction and will help you to keep focus.

*** Titanic notes – Each class of passengers boarded via their own gangplanks, so they didn’t have to mingle with each other.  ***

 

3.  Get settled into your stateroom

Once you start writing, keep at it. Try to get a rhythm for writing. If you can, set aside the same amount of time every day to work. Minimize distractions. Don’t text or email while writing. Even turn off the phone if possible.  You want to feel comfortable when you write, not hurried or rushed.

*** Titanic notes –  First and second class passengers had to share bathrooms with only a few people. But the third class passengers shared with 10 or more.  The worst part? All 710 third-class passengers had to share only 2 bathtubs.    ***

 

4.  Take a walk around the deck

Be sure to offer your readers a look around your story. Introduce different characters – some will be important (like the first class passengers) and others may be more minor, like the 2nd or 3rd class passengers of Titanic. Offer all your characters their due and any attention that you have . Give your reader a well-rounded view of them all.

*** Titanic Notes – The first class  and second class passengers had their own decks with many activities, but the third class passengers were kept to the “poop” deck.  Which, thankfully, does not mean what the name implies, merely that it’s the highest outdoor deck on the stern (back end) of the ship. ***

 

5.  Enjoy a nice dinner in the formal dining room

Okay, so maybe this isn’t a writing tip, but when you are in the middle of a novel, be sure to stop to eat.  For me, my family is not always happy when I’m knee-deep in a novel because that means they are on their own for dinner. It’s not so bad, they are teenagers and they will eat pretty much everything. But when I know I’m going to be writing, I stock up on frozen pizza, tacos, and anything that can be made in a snap.  For extra nutrition, I use bags of salad and fresh veggies. Whatever I have to do to get back to the computer. The characters talking in my head are not to be ignored!

 *** Titanic Notes: The best part for everyone on the ship was the dining. The Titanic carried over 75,000 pound of meat, 11,000 pounds of fresh fish, 40,000 eggs and 1,750 quarts of ice cream. Plus, they had enough cooks to prepare all this food. Wish they could come to your house? I do! ***

 

6.  Avoid  the iceberg

(Come on, you knew this one was coming)  For writers, this means to make sure your plot is complete. Sometimes when I write, I really don’t have any idea where the story is going. Because of this,  I have occasionally written myself into an iceberg, so to speak.  The plot needs to go from A to B to C, but somehow I ended up at point C before I got to B. Or maybe I’ve gotten completely off-track and ended up at point F. It happens.  While it is important to listen to what your characters say, it also helps to write up a story arc or some plotting points.

For some really good information on plotting, try these websites:

Write 4 Kids Magazine    http://www.write4kids.com/blog/tag/plot/

Author Darcy Pattinson    http://www.darcypattison.com/plot/outline-level-of-plot/

Our very own Mixed Up Files ‘For Writers’ Page

 *** Titanic Notes:  The Titanic actually ignored more than five warnings that icebergs were in the area they were sailing. That includes one that came at 1:42pm on April 12th from another ship that said an iceberg was on the path 250 miles in front of the Titanic. Not a good decision!  ***

 

7.  Run — don’t walk — for the lifeboats

So if you can’t avoid the iceberg because you don’t see it coming, then you need to do some quick changes. Go back to the books you started out with if you get stuck. Or try brainstorming.  Here are some suggestions for your writing “lifeboat”. Can’t find the right word, take a look a this book:



 

Take a look at this book if you need ideas or are not sure where your story is heading.

 


I just got this book to the right to  help with dialogue.  It’s so my characters do something besides “sigh” and “roll their eyes” all the time. 

 

These books are your lifeboats. Thankfully for you, they don’t have to be able to float.

*** Titanic Note:  Orginally, the plan was to have 64 lifeboats on the Titanic – enough to carry the 2500 passengers and crew. But head of the White Star Line didn’t want the decks cluttered with the big boats, so the number was reduced to 32 and then 16 plus 4 collapsible boats. A very bad decision indeed. ***

 

8.  Plunge into the icy waters

For the times when you are really stuck on a scene and the books aren’t any help, my suggestion is to plunge right in. Don’t think, just write it how you see it. If it doesn’t work, try re-writing the scene from a different point of view. Or maybe with more action – or less.  Turn the idea upside-down.  Instead of a typical scene where the geeky boy is really smart and loves science, have him be really good at art instead. Or maybe the jock is really smart and loves to tutor kids in math. Mix things up! You might be surprised where this leads you.

*** Titanic Notes: The water temperature that night was 28 degrees Farenheit. Most people would have succumbed to hypothermia in twenty minutes or less.  ***

 

9.  Cut dead weight to avoid being pulled down

This is primarily for when you are revising.  Sometimes a scene just doesn’t work. It slows down the action or is an unnecessary side-track to the main plot. Ask yourself some questions:

Does this scene make the story flow?

Does it increase the action?

Does it help me get to the next scene or tell me something important about the charcter or story?

If the answers are no, then cut it. I know it’s hard. Some of my favorite scenes end up in my trash bin. I’ve had it happen before and I’m sure it will happen again. But if you want your manuscript to stay afloat and be viable, you need to cut the dead weight.

Check out this link for some great ideas on revising from Cheryl Klein, executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books

http://www.cherylklein.com/id21.html

*** Titanic Notes:  The Titanic itself actually cracked in half because the water entered the bow of the ship. The weight of the water in the front half of the ship caused the stern to rise out of the water until the ship broke. The two halves descended to the bottom separately. ***

 

10.  Be the captain of your ship

This is probably the most important one.  Take ownership of your manuscript. Yes, you need to have other people critique your work – people  you trust. But if you believe that a part of it should stay when they say it should be cut, don’t do it. Stand up for yourself.  Be willing to take a stand for your manuscript. I let one agent I submitted my manuscript to convince me that my beginning was horrible. So, I changed it. I spent the next year trying to figure out just the right beginning. Finally, I went back to the original. I took the manuscript to a conference and to my stunned surprise an editor loved it. See, you never know…

 *** Titanic Notes:  Captain Smith was due to retire at the end of this maiden voyage, instead he went down with the ship. ***

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little history lesson on the Titanic and have found the tips useful.  The Titanic notes came from this very cool book I found:

(And finally, HUGE thank yous to author Donna Gephart for letting me showcase some of her resources.)

One final tip, if you ever get the chance to visit Belfast, I highly recommend stopping at the Titanic Museum. If nothing else, they have the best chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted. And who isn’t inspired by chocolate?

If there are any fellow history buffs out there,  please comment below on a museum or event you’ve visited that inspired you or touched you deeply.

 

 

Jennifer Swanson is a closet history freak and makes her family visit tons of museums on vacation. To the dismay of her teenagers, she believes every trip is an opportunity to learn.  You can find Jennifer at www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com

27 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Laura Pauling  •  Oct 19, 2012 @8:20 am

    Loved this! Now I want to watch the movie.

  2. Jen Swanson  •  Oct 19, 2012 @8:47 am

    Thanks Laura. :) Yes, I was so hooked after walking through the Titanic museum, that I watched the movie on the return trip to the U.S. It was so cool to see the movie after looking through all the artifacts.

  3. Donna Gephart  •  Oct 19, 2012 @9:00 am

    Jen, that was the best post! You should package it up and send it to Writer’s Digest Magazine. What a great comparison you made; and I learned so much about the Titanic. I’m honored to be included in such an imaginative post. Thank you!

  4. Jen Swanson  •  Oct 19, 2012 @9:07 am

    Thanks Donna. Hmmm, I never considered sending it anywhere. I’ll have to think about it. Glad you enjoyed it. :)

    Augusta Scattergood Reply:

    @Jen Swanson,
    I totally agree with Donna!
    Great post and fun to read, which we can’t always say about posts on how to write.
    Plus, it’s only 11 AM and already I’m thinking about chocolate cake.

    Jen Swanson Reply:

    @Augusta Scattergood, Thanks Augusta. Yes, the cake was AMAZING! I would go back just to have another piece. (which when you consider the transatlantic trip, makes it a very expensive piece of cake!) :)

  5. angelaackerman  •  Oct 19, 2012 @9:39 am

    Jen, what a great post!! I love it when someone creates an analogy that is totally in sync, and you did it! Perfect timing for so many as they plan for NANO.

    And thanks to for including the ET! And so many links! This is awesome!!

    Angela

  6. Jen Swanson  •  Oct 19, 2012 @9:49 am

    Angela, thanks for your wonderful comments. I just got your book in the mail and I can’t WAIT to use it with my WIP. My characters need to have more reactions than sighing and rolling their eyes – the poor things, they sound like they have respiratory problems and eye spasms all the time.

  7. becca puglisi  •  Oct 19, 2012 @10:07 am

    What an awesome analogy! I agree; there’s something about the Titanic story. And I really enjoyed the Titanic notes. I didn’t know that Captain Smith was supposed to retire at the end of the voyage. That makes it even more tragic, if that’s possible.

    Thanks for the awesome post. I hope The Emotion Thesaurus helps you bunches!

    Jen Swanson Reply:

    @becca puglisi, Thanks Becca. Yes, unfortunately, that was true about Captain Smith. Apparently his wife and daughters had planned to meet him at the pier on New York. The individual stories attached to the Titanic are really sad and touching.

  8. Sue Heavenrich  •  Oct 19, 2012 @11:10 am

    not seeing chocolate as one of the important ten…. maybe it’s in the lifeboat (along with my copy of “Spilling Ink” by Mazer & Potter and my cup of colored pencils)?

    Jen Swanson Reply:

    @Sue Heavenrich, Great idea, Sue! I will add that book to my lifeboat list at home. (Chocolate is already a mainstay of any lifeboat I have) :)

  9. Annette Pimentel  •  Oct 19, 2012 @11:12 am

    Great round-up of writing books. Thanks!

    Jen Swanson Reply:

    @Annette Pimentel, Thanks Annette! Glad you liked it.

  10. Dana E  •  Oct 19, 2012 @11:20 am

    Great post! At the Hershey Museum in Hershey, PA, they have titanic tickets that Mr. and Mrs. Hershey bought but didn’t use. It’s a great museum with lots of chocolate!

    Jen Swanson Reply:

    @Dana E, VERY cool! Will have to visit there some day.

  11. Michele Ivy Davis  •  Oct 19, 2012 @12:18 pm

    Wonderful post full of great suggestions. And I agree with Donna — submit it to Writer’s Digest!

    Jen Swanson Reply:

    @Michele Ivy Davis, Thanks Michele. I guess I’ll have to look into how to submit to Writer’s Digest now. :)

  12. Brenda  •  Oct 19, 2012 @2:16 pm

    Wonderful post with lots of creative ideas and I’m off to hunt for the books you listed!

    Jen Swanson Reply:

    @Brenda, Thanks Brenda and Happy Hunting!

  13. Karen B. Schwartz  •  Oct 19, 2012 @2:39 pm

    Wonderful post, Jen! I told everyone on FB, Twitter, and Verla Kay’s about it too!

    Jen Swanson Reply:

    @Karen B. Schwartz, Wow! That’s great. Thanks, Karen

  14. Robyn  •  Oct 19, 2012 @4:59 pm

    Good article. I especially liked the reference books that really add to a writer’s knowledge base.

  15. Loved this! I found it helpful, particularly #10 hit home for me today. Thanks and how creative to use the Titanic to help writers.

  16. D.Lee Sebree  •  Oct 19, 2012 @10:53 pm

    I will line up behind the previous posts; a wonderfully creative and informative piece of writing. You should pursue its publication.

  17. Linda Andersen  •  Oct 20, 2012 @6:05 am

    Thanks! Now, the Titanic has an even more special significance for writers. Enjoyed this.

  18. PragmaticMom  •  Oct 20, 2012 @8:35 pm

    I know a reluctant reader who will be excited about this list! He’s interested in the Titanic. Thank you for sharing!