Raw Literature: Exploring a New Structure

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

April 3, 2018

By Faith Colburn

I’m trying something unusual structurally right now, and the jury is out. I hope to send my novel to beta readers sometime later this month, but I’m still tweaking.

Here’s the nutshell: I have a male character, Connor, whose sister, Nora, is in the American Embassy in Paris as the Luftwaffe is about to start bombing. Connor’s trying to figure out a way to get his sister out of there at the same time he’s trying to decide whether to join the Army.

Connor and Nora never see each other after the first act, so they keep in touch by censored letter. Here’s a sample:

Dear Sis,

Everything has changed. It’s like the entire isthmus vibrates with boots—U.S. troops getting ready for whatever’s about to happen. Pearl Harbor seems to be sinking into the soil here, sprouting warriors like sown dragon’s teeth. We’re not preparing for war anymore. We’re at war.

I can’t wait to get into combat, Sis, so I can kick some Jap ass. I heard there were a lot of guys on the ships at Pearl Harbor who just burned up or drowned—maybe thousands. I wonder if anyone’s heard from Jack O’Neill.

Anyway, I want to give the Japs a taste of their own medicine. It’s hard to sleep wondering where we’ll end up and what kind of new country I’ll see. I think of all the thousands of miles of ocean out there. It’s just empty water, waiting to swallow us. It’s kind of intimidating, looking out at the Pacific and knowing how far away everything is. And then I think about Uncle Harry and wonder how I’ll take it. I don’t want to turn into a living wreck.

Meanwhile, if I’m not standing in the rain with a rifle, I have a choice. I can drink all by myself or I can sit around camp and play cards or shoot craps and drink and smoke cigarettes (I don’t do that yet, although I might as well, since there’s enough smoke around those games to kill a man.) or I can go to the Kuna workers and maybe get some hemp to smoke. That stuff’ll knock your socks off. I got the idea I was Jesus one night and tried to walk across the canal (on the water) to prove it. Darn near drowned myself.


To complicate matters, I’m telling about the six years Connor spent wandering around the West as a hobo in flashbacks throughout the decision-making, training, combat, and beginning recovery on a hospital ship. I love beta readers. They’ve helped me get where I need to go when I get off track. I’m hoping they can help me decide if I’ve got too many interruptions in my story.

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  1. Charli Mills

    Faith, you have an interesting structure. You have a good tone set for the time period of your letter. As a writer of historical fiction, I often find it challenging to write negative cultural or racist expressions, and yet not to do so is to say it never existed. How do handle those issues in your own research and writing? I’m also curious about your use of beta readers. Thank you for sharing your process!

  2. Ritu

    It’s always good to try new things!

    • Charli Mills

      Experimentation is part of the process, I think.

      • Ritu

        I’d never had tried flash fiction if I hadn’t experimented! I wouldn’t know how to Haiku, Tanka, Senryu or Cinquain! And I am hoping to experiment a whole lot more!!!!

      • Charli Mills

        Your creativity blossoms with such energy, Ritu!

  3. Norah

    I’ve read some great books that use letters to tell the story: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer, and A Castle in the Pyrenees by Jostein Gaarder. I greatly enjoyed them, so there are precedents that are encouraging. Flashbacks are also a common strategy for telling a story. It is good to have quality feedback from beta readers to keep you on track. I wish you success with your writing.

    • Michael B. Fishman

      “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” = I LOVED that book!

    • Charli Mills

      I’m missing out! Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is such a great title.

      • Norah

        It’s a fabulous title. It’s an even better book! 🙂

  4. Michael B. Fishman

    I’m a pretty linear guy so I like stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. But I’ve read lots of stuff where writers have bounced back and forth in time while telling the story and it’s been enjoyable for me and I think the key is that the character’s past has to have meaning and influence to his present actions so my question would be if Connor’s past roaming the American west in the 1930’s links to his efforts to get Nora out of the American Embassy. The censored letters they exchange also made me wonder how they got past both American military and Vichy censors.

    • Charli Mills

      I’m intrigued by how a story can appear to be linear and yet have moments out of sequence that fit. It’s a pursuit! I like your line of thinking, too.

  5. robbiesinspiration

    A book about sailors/soldiers in Pearl Harbour is quite exciting, Norah.

    • Charli Mills

      I like that it includes a woman, too as many women were dispatched, too.

  6. floatinggold

    There will probably always be someone who likes and does not like your stuff. I hope you get your confusions settled and your book is a success.

    • Charli Mills

      That’s realistic. Faith has a good strategy to work with beta readers to see if her structure holds up. I think it could be engaging.

  7. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Good idea to have the Beta readers and your structure sounds interesting. Wishing you all the best with it Faith.

    • Charli Mills

      It helps to give beta-readers something specific to focus on when they read.

  8. Jules

    Faith –

    wishing you continued success. I’ve only written stories that are a couple of pages long or short stories in series – that eventually might evolve in something longer. Keeping all the time and characters straight might need some background intro when lapsing or jumping forward to help the reader know who is talking as well as where and when. I’ve seen books do that with a line under the chapter title.

    Trying something new is one way of learning and growing. 😉

    Cheers, Jules

    • Charli Mills

      Even pantsers need to plan, Jules! It’s good to master short stories first. Even long novels are built by stringing together scenes. It’s kind of like creating squares to make an afgan or quilt. You have to get the squares finished first. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  9. Charli Mills

    Thanks for sharing!


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