Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Writing with Authority: Ashley Shelby


I really appreciate depth and layers in a book. ANY book. I don't really miss it if the book has quirky characters or an original plot, or suspense or humor or great dialogue. But when I find a book with depth -- I realize then just how much I thirst for it.

No, I don't mean plodding, information-packed tombs with an attitude of "look at me, I really RESEARCHED' this book and I'm going to use every tidbit even if it kills both of us!"

I mean the books that speak with authority that I thoroughly trust and embrace and sink into with a resounding sigh. An author in whose hands I feel safe.

A couple of nights ago I finished reading Diana Gabaldon's latest book "Echo in the Bone." She's a research professor so research is her life and sadly she likes to make sure she uses every tidbit. I adore her series, her characters, and her writing style. But I don't quite trust her. She tends to sneaks unusual finding into her books -- a worm that crawls into a man's eye and swims from one to the other? True about the worm -- loa loa worms I believe. She worked them into the plot of one of her books. But it doesn't really move the story forward.

This most recent book is a bit ladened with her research. I found myself skimming through parts as if it were a text book. By the way this book seems like a tool to prepare readers for the NEXT book. So many unanswered questions here. And a real cliff hanger at the end. But I digress. I feel like Gabaldon's writing carries me along the edge of a precipice and she can't gurantee that she won't fall off and take me with her. Does that make sense? She's all over the place and although her writing is strong and steady for the most part, she isn't always consistent or trustworthy. OK, she beats up on the characters alot and that makes me nervous, too. But from one section to the next, I don't know if she'll give me what I want.

It wasn't until I picked up a new copy (to me at least) of Ashley Shelby's "Red River Rising" that I realized how much I've missed -- depth.

Here's just one example of what I am enjoying and mean by depth and authority. After a delightful paragraph about North Dakota Plains Weather, Shelby writes:

"The only thing more impressive than the weather is the good fight the people of North Dakota put up against it each year. In Grand Forks, when the Red River swells during spring thaw, people worry little and sandbag a lot. This is the way winter ends. Nature is not romantic here -- it is stark and present. Although North Dakota raises churches and monasteries in much the same way it raises Scotch Fife and Velvet Chaff wheat, even the monks know better than to ascribe the whims of nature to God. Nature is an independent force."

The author gives me details that move the story forward. I learn that nature is heartless and the people of this region stoically stand firm against it, they are farmers and they are god fearing and understand that nature is not a sign that God hates them.  It is what it is. And this paragraph leads the reader toward the reason for the book -- the catastrophic flood of Grand Forks, ND, in the spring of 1997.

Now the author could have just rattled off what I wrote in the previous chapter, but she didn't. And for those who are purists about 'is' and 'was' not belonging in tightly written, quality prose -- I think Shelby shows there's a place for it. I also think that there is not one unnecessary word in that quote. Tight, informative, authoritative, beautifully crafted writing. Can you tell that it is nonfiction? She's using such great fiction techniques, but its true and she's done the research. But I don't get the feeling of 'research' but rather the assurance that she KNOWS. The author knows of what she writes.

That's what I want to do.

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