My family and I spent Christmas Day as Jews ought: at the movies. My 22-year-old son was off visiting his dad, but my 15-year-old daughter actually deigned to be seen in public with her parents, on the condition that we go to a theater in a different town to minimize the risk of bumping into any of her peers. We saw "War Horse." I willingly suspended disbelief of all the utterly improbable plot twists, and sobbed pretty much from start to finish. I'm such a sucker for a horse story.
But that's not why this event belongs in my blog. Here is why: I learned something from that film. If you're writing a story that takes place during a time of war and upheaval, the plot can essentially write itself. All you need to do is know your protagonist deeply enough to be able to understand how s/he would react in any given situation, and then hold them up against symbolic historical events and let them go.
My Novel #4 is set in Ireland in the middle of the 17th century, when Cromwell's army was methodically marching through the country and uprooting both the majority of the populace and their traditional way of life. Acts of brutality abounded on both sides of the conflict. I'd written the first few chapters, establishing who my protagonist is and setting him off on his journey, and that's where I came to a halt. It wasn't just that I was so focused on my revisions to Book #3. I think I was also waiting for a sign, waiting for my boy to tell me what would happen to him next. But seeing "War Horse" made me realize that I'm asking too much of him. My boy left home, such as it was, because he had no other choice, not because he had a plan. How can he possibly know where to go or what he'll find when he gets there? He needs me to guide him along the way to where I know, but he doesn't, that he'll end up. So, with that revelation, yesterday I sat down and started to plot my story. Not much actual writing got done, but a bridge has been crossed, and my boy and I are on our way. Thank you, Steven Speilberg.
And this leads me to a tiny snippet of writing advice, just in case any would-be author actually ever reads this, and happens to be even less published than me. Everyone tells you to write what you know. Well, in my opinion, it's much more important to write WHOM you know. Once your characters have become so real to you that they show up in your dreams, then you can put them anywhere, in any situation, and they will remain themselves, even as they change. Know them better than you know your siblings, no matter how long it takes you to get there. And then let them go.