Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lessons from Jackaroo

Recently, I read this fantastic book:

Jackaroo, by Cynthia Voigt

To quote Goodreads:
"There is much want in the kingdom and the tales of Jackaroo, the masked outlaw who helps the poor in times of trouble, are on everyone's lips. Gwyn, the innkeeper's lively daughter, pays little attention to the tales.

"But when she is stranded during a snowstorm in a cabin with the lordling Gaderian, and finds a strange garment that resembles the costume Jackaroo is said to wear, she begins to wonder..."

Good old-fashioned adventure and bravery, with commendable characters. No magic, but the texture and atmosphere of the book are pure fantasy.


Since I am a writer, this book was a learning experience. It is good to think about the books you enjoy and identify the things that made them good, and try to emulate them in your own writing.

So what did I learn?

First of all: Everyday life in an unfamiliar setting is fascinating. I'm glad that Voigt sprinkled in descriptions of the chores at the Inn. The hard work they do makes the world seem more real, as well.

Customs. The book starts with Doling Day, on which women go to get food from the Lord. As above, the quotidian things are what make for a tangible world.

War can be in the background, with character-driven action in the foreground. There was a war going on, but far enough away that only rumors reached the action of the story. It was great: tension, limited-third POV maintained, and the effects of the war could act on the story without need for battle scenes.

Rumors are useful: have some that seem important for one reason and then become important for another.

The past coming back.

Special costumes and props. Using items as motifs/symbols. Methinks motifs works better in that context: have certain objects mean something. If done subtly, from the beginning, the reader will feel very smart when they figure out the connection eventually.

Fairs and festivals. Good opportunity to bring characters together and for characters to show their personalities in a different situation from usual. Can also be a good vehicle for special happenings.

Sensible and diligent heroines who do not lack for fire and spine. Too often you get a fiery heroine who blunders into danger. Gwyn had a temper, but she was refreshingly practical.

Annoying characters who become more mature, with realistic setbacks. Character development need not be linear. Occasional dips back into childishness or selfishness make the characters seem more like real people, in their infuriating and wonderful inconsistencies.

Strong, stalwart characters who occasionally show the fissures in their stony exteriors. When Gwyn's dad, the Innkeeper, got angry at being compared to his older brother, he instantly became 10 times more empathetic. (Then again, being compared to older siblings is something in which I already have a big stake.)

Legends. What stories do people tell? It can communicate a lot about the world.

Seasons changing. Makes it more real.

Letting people save face. Gwyn has a couple of instances when she very skillfully avoids humiliating someone else. How do you reject someone? Tell him he deserves a good woman, and then tell him who you have in mind to be a good match for him.

Archaic, lyrical syntax. Gives the sense of Story - when characters say "Osh aye, child" and the narrative lilts slightly, it makes the reading into an adventure.

Let's talk romance, because the romance in this book was secondary to the main plot, Jackaroo produced one of my favorite book couples ever.

Romantic false leads should be told, not shown. That way, it's not serious enough for the reader to consider the false lead a viable candidate and perhaps prefer that person. Gwyn's initial love interest makes very brief appearances that show 1. why she likes him, and 2. hints as to why she shouldn't like him.

What about the real romance? Two worthy people who have known one another a long time, are proven to work together well, trust/understand/respect one another, and have similar depth. In truth the book was light on "romance" - giddy crush-behavior was not to be seen. Rather, there was all the good stuff I described above.

(Not to say that they didn't have romantic lines. "When I thought you were lost in the blizzard...it seemed a long time left that I must live. A long time, and the season would always be winter.")


I encourage you to read this book. The Goodreads synopsis barely scratches the surface.

I encourage you also to consider what your favorite books can teach you. You never know what you may discover in the considering.

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