Richard Fisher (16 June 2021) posted a terrific article giving insight as to how a postal-free delivery system in the 1200-1850s kept correspondence from prying eyes. This task required ingenuity and adept eye-hand coordination.
In my newest book (working title: The Spinster, the Rebel, and the Governor) about pre-colonial Maryland (1638-1648), the Brent family receives packets of correspondence from home, but the father keeps his correspondence from snoopy eyes by sealing his folded letters with wax and stamped with his seal.
Facial expression, misdirection, avoidance, double meaning, body language, and quips, are some of the ways to use subtext. How fun for your readers when you let them take part in writing your story. Think about it. If you haven’t spelled everything out for them in black and white dialogue, then they get to guess, and that has its own reward. If your readers predict what really going on, they pat themselves on the back. “Good job!” If they’re wrong, then they get the excitement of surprise.
“Where are you going?” asked her husband.
“To the bar to get drunk.” Lila slammed the door.
“Where are you going?” asked her husband.
Lila gave him a smirk as she slammed the door.
Now which conversation engages you more? Which one brings you in close and makes you imagine? See how subtext works?
Here’s another example from my current historical biography set in England in 1638. Not only do the readers experience the subtext of this unspoken conversation, but the protagonist, Margaret, also wonders what’s going on behind her brothers’ unspoken words. She’s not about to ask, but will just leave instead.
The brothers glanced at each other, telling Margaret she must have been a topic of some unpleasant discussion.
“May I have my book? I shall leave now.”
We’ve all experienced unspoken conversations. How many times do parents engaged in coded conversations to keep something private from their children?
Don’t overlook the use of humor. In my last book, The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut the protagonist and her husband, on vacation, had just left the hotel and were about to board a ferry to go to stay on another island. Her husband, a worrisome guy, asks if she had checked the bathroom.
She could had said, “Yes.” or “I thought you did.” or “Dammit, quit worrying.” This is what’s called on-the-nose dialogue. Instead, she says, “I left all our toiletries along with my nightie for the maid.”
Subtext in writing brings your readers up close and into the minds of your characters, giving readers an opportunity to stretch the imagination. Finding ways to not put everything in your readers’ face helps them become more engaged and adds power to your writing.
What ways do you find to incorporate subtext into your writing?
Judith Van Gieson passed away unexpectedly in Albuquerque, NM in January. I took these photos of her at what I expect was her last public appearance. Here she is holding the manuscript of her book that had been adopted for the screen.
Judith Van Gieson, Keynote Speaker, at the Albuquerque Press Women’s Conference, 2019, entranced the audience by describing how several of her books were discovered and optioned for adaptation to the screen. Judith’s books have been published by Harper Collins, UNM Press, and Signet. Several of her thirteen books have earned the Kirkus Starred Review. She often assisted authors and created her own publishing business, ABQ PRESS.
As the president of the NM Sisters in Crime Chapter, Croak and Dagger, it tickled me to see some of our members up front and center at the NM Press Women 2019 Conference. Judith Van Gieson, a Croak and Dagger member, and I often had lunch together. She would entertain me with “How publishing used to be.” Sigh! I wonder if anyone in the future will dream about the good old publishing days of 2019.
The world will miss this talented and intelligent woman. I certainly will.
Left-overs from my historical-biography novel research.
The year, 1637: Poor John Briant, lies there crumpled in the dirt, bleeding with cuts and scratches. His body has become a broken bulk. Poor, poor John is now quite dead.
Who killed John?
Who shall pay?
The place, Mattanient, Maryland: A jury of twelve men upon their oath swore a falling tree had killed John. Therefore the tree must pay.
Deodand is a thing that has caused a death and must be offered to God.
The sacrificing of inanimate killers of humans, probably steeped in superstition, dates back to at least the 1200s. English Common Law continued on in pre-colonial Maryland, including this ancient statute of deodand. Inanimate killers of humans, or their worth, must be handed over to the authorities.
Sir William Blackstone, an English Jurist in the eighteenth century who was noted for his commentaries on English Law, questioned how much of the object must be sacrificed.
For example: If a person is crushed by a wagon wheel, is only the wheel given up or does the law of deodand require the whole wagon? If it is the whole wagon, what about the horse? What about the objects within the wagon?
The courts finally abolished the ancient English statute of deodand in 1846. I had never heard of this most unusual practice, but I love obscure or ancient words. What do you think about this little piece of trivia? Have you heard of deodand before this? Please, leave me a comment below.
Babies died. Children died. Young men and women died. Life in 1630s early-colonial America called for hard work, endurance, and brought much heartache. Here in our high-tech automated world of designer medicines, we think of our ancestral grandfathers and sons from sunup to sundown hunting or toiling in fields while their wives and daughters churned butter, sewed clothes, and plucked chickens.
Did you ever imagine the whole family involved in making thread?
Do you know how this one activity helped the colonies win the Revolutionary War?
Long before the Revolutionary War, in 1640, the Court of Massachusetts order the growing of flax and also every boy and girl from age 6 or 7 years and older learn how to spin it into fine thread to be woven into homespun material for clothing.
The Court commissioned each family to spin a set amount of flax by the pound per year or be fined. Every member of the family had a role to play. The flax had to be grown, harvested, prepared (which is complicated process) combed, and carded before it is spun. Other colonies soon required the same of its people as Massachusetts. Homespun cloth held high value.
The art of spinning dates back to ancient times. Viewed to be an honorable work, young unmarried women who spun were called spinsters. After a time it became a legal title for any unmarried woman. Years later the spinning of wool helped the colonies win the Revolutionary War.
Independence from the hand of the English King during colonial times required self sufficiency. Instead of shipments from England, the colonists needed to rely on their own handmade items: shelter, food, drink, clothing, tools, and medicines. In preparation for the Revolutionary War in 1775, colonial homes with spinning wheels spun wool and made coats for the thousands of colonial soldiers preparing for winter battle.
Descriptions of how ancient Egyptians grew, prepared, and spun flax can be found in the Book of Proverbs, and it is precisely the method our colonial ancestors used to create homespun materials. This type of national self-resilience required every able member of the colonial family to do their part. Their homemade initiatives equaled their independence.
If you sailed from England to the New World in the 1630s, before the age of coffee or tea, your beverage of choice would be cider or ale. No one trusted the purity of onboard water. On the ship your drink would not be served in a fancy cut-glass tankard or an ornate-leaded vessel. It probably wouldn’t be made of clay, bronze, or a ram’s horn.
However you most likely would enjoy your drink from a handsomely made leather tankard. The quality of leather would match what we use for saddles, and it would be finely stitched. Inside, waterproofing would have been applied using pitch.
In the above photo (inside a reconstructed 1630s ship) wooden bowls and food plates sit next to more leather tankards. Most Europeans during these times ate with their fingers, spoons, and knives. Forks appeared in the 4th century but were largely unknown until hundreds of years later in Europe around the 18th century. Colonial America did not use forks until after the American Revolution. Starting with the 5th century and moving forward in time, people drank from clay goblets, Saxon decorated ram’s horns, bronze, brass, and pewter vessels. We all know about the lead goblets with the craziness that ensued in Rome. Perhaps Rome would not have burned if they had drank not from lead, but from leather.