Sunday, November 20, 2011

Some Book Giveaways!

I just wanted to give people a head's up that there are some giveaways of my books taking place. Small Review and Ruby's Reads are hosting a historical fantasy month ( I KNOW! Awesome idea, yes?)

There is a giveaway here of  your choice of any one Theodosia or Nathaniel Fludd book, so a good opportunity to round out the series.

And there is a chance to win a Grave Mercy ARC here.

(There is also a terrific deconstruction of the Grave Mercy cover here, in case you're interested.)

Good luck!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

More Maps

One of the things I love so much about these early maps is that they weren't just directions from Point A to Point B. The maps themselves were intricately illustrated and often reflected the worldview of the time. I love this Ebstorf map.

This kind of map is called a mappa mundi, which is a medieval map of the world. This one was made on a number of stitched together goatskins. I am especially fond of the detail at the top and bottom of the map, (warning: large image!) as well as the left and right sides. You can see the head and feet and hands of God as he holds up the world--a reflection of the science of the time.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

For Budding Cartographers!

One the things I thought would be fun here is to occasionally post pictures of the various elements that inspired me in the writing of my books. As I researched the Nathaniel Fludd books, I became fascinated with all the different maps that man has made over the years. Here is a picture of the world's oldest map:

It is Babylonian, and you can read more about it HERE on Wikipedia.

Friday, October 28, 2011


Hello! You’ve probably noticed all the remodeling going on here. That’s because my poor author website was so old and outdated that it was WAY past time to update it. Thus all the updating and remodeling. I actually love this new look quite a lot, with all the little literary sidekicks smiling at me from the fringes.

In related news, as it stands now, I will be publishing my YA, GRAVE MERCY, under Robin LaFevers rather than R. L. LaFevers, so I am building a second website and will post that link here when it is done. Because the YA is so much older and darker than my middle grade, it seemed easier to have two separate websites. This blog will now become attached to my R.L. LaFevers website and be a place mostly for updates, news, and appearances.

So that’s the plan! Until then I will be posting any non-middle grade book related stuff (like thoughts on writing, marketing, or human nature studies) over at Shrinking Violets, and I will be sure to post a link to the YA site when it is ready.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Best Friend Festival and Book Signing!

Carpinteria's First Ever Best Friend Festival & Book Signing!

Theodosia has Sticky Will.
Nathaniel Fludd has Greasle.
And Effie Malone has two best friends!
Not to mention that Mary and Robin have been BFFs for over a decade!

In honor of Best Friends everywhere,
you and your best bud are invited to
a special celebration and book signing on
Sunday, June 26th, 2011
2pm- 4pm at the Curious Cup Bookstore
929 Linden Avenue, Carpinteria.

Featuring Real-Life BFF
R.L. LaFevers & Mary Hershey
signing their new books,
each packed with BIG adventure
and BIG friendships.

Love and Pollywogs from Camp Calamity
Theodosia & The Last Pharaoh
Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: The Unicorn’s Tale

You don’t want to miss the F-U-N!

Take the BFF Compatibility Quiz
Share your best story about your best friend
Pose for a special photo together
Enter to Win the Best Friend Prize Package!
Refreshments and giveaways.

(A BFF is not required for admission,
and best friends of all ages, genders and species are welcome!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Looking for Themes In All The Wrong Places


I was going to come back here and tell you all how I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had two seconds to rub together, let alone time to blog, but you know what? You all are smart cookies. I bet you figured that out on your own. Plus? It is fairly boring to talk about.

So instead I thought I’d talk about something that’s been occupying quite a lot of my mental space lately, namely themes. As in the core themes of our work.

[Warning: Possible navel-gazing ahead.]

Part of this was brought about by the fact that I am having a teensy bit of an identity crisis, genre-wise. I was able to straddle a young middle grade and an older middle grade series fairly well. But I am now pulling a dark, older YA into the mix and it kind of tipped me over in terms of understanding who my audience is, what my relationship to my readers is, how I pull all of those various wildly different parts of the authorial me together. Do I talk about the book that’s out now or the one that I’m working on? Does it matter if they’re two separate age groups?

Friday, April 29, 2011

L.A. Times Festival of Books

Just a quick note to say I'll be signing at the L. A. Times Festival of Books on Saturday, April 30. I'll be in Mysterious Galaxy's booth, #372, at 1:00. Hope to see some of  you there!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

We Have A Winner!

And the winner is . . . #5, wldhrsjen3! 
(Chosen by Random Number Generator*)

Jen, email me with your address and I will get those in the mail to you! 

Also? Because my publisher is pure awesome, they have sent me a few extra ARCs so I can give them to any teachers or librarians who entered this drawing. From looking at the comments, I think that means Mrs. Katz and Kari. If you two will also email me, I can get those ARCs in the mail to you!

Thank you so much for participating everyone! And for your enthusiasm for the new books. :-)

*I numbered all the comments here and over on GoodReads one through forty-one, then hit generate

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Official Release Day x 2!

Ta da! It is the official release of BOTH Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh AND Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist, The Unicorn's Tale. 
Phew. And I have to tell you, it's true what they say about twins! It's twice the work. But worth it.

I'm also thinking we should have a giveaway. So...if you'd like to put your name in the hat to win a signed copy of both books, just say so in the comments to this post!

Also, if you'd like to read the first chapters of each, they can be found here and here.

*The contest will run for a week so I'll close comments at midnight on Tuesday, April 12.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Writing is a Harsh Mistress

I was cleaning up a pile of papers that has sat next to my computer forever, and stumbled upon this quote that I'd printed out. I had not made a note of where it came from, so spent half an hour googling and searching and found out that, of course! It was from the brilliant Barbara Samuel//Barbara O'Neal's speech that she gave at RWA Nationals in 2004. If you haven't read it, please do. If you have read it, go ahead and read it again. It always moves me--often in new and different ways.
"She wants your experiences. Your brain. Your heart. Your soul. She wants to know that you will give her everything you have, whatever you have, when she needs it. She wants that secret you’ve never told anyone, ever. She wants that wound that can still bleed if someone brushes it by accident. She wants your pain and your bone marrow and your joy and every desire you’ve ever known."

Yes. This. Every time I read this I am reminded that I truly must give everything to the page in order to produce my best work.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Guest Blogging Today

I was very excited to be asked to guest blog today over at the official Save the Cat blog! As you guys know, it's one of my favorite plotting tools ever.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Whopping Dose of Random...

I went to the chiropractor today as part of my Full Body Tune Up so that I can still be writing when I'm seventy. As we were chatting away, he asked me if I felt I'd 'made it', which had me stopping to think. With as much as I think about this stuff, you'd have assumed I'd have a firm marker in place for that, but I didn't. I started to say once a person hits the bestseller lists, but even that must seem tenuous, once you're there. But as we talked, I realized that I've started to feel like this whole wonderful gig isn't going to be snatched away come morning. Maybe that's as close to feeling one's made it as one gets in this business.


I also happened to notice my chiropractor's hands today. He's a big, burly guy--a record holding power lifter and it shows in his hands. They actually reminded me a lot of my husband's hands, who has worked as a heavy equipment mechanic for a number of years. I realized that made a strange sort of sense since a chiropractor is pretty much a mechanic of the human body.


An unanticipated consequence of having two new books out next month as well as two new paperback editions is that I have author's copies piling up here in my living room at an alarming rate. At last count I had a combined total of NINETY books! I feel a number of contests and giveaways coming soon....


I think I forgot to post my very cool news here! I mentioned it on Twitter and Facebook, but I don't think I talked about it here.

Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: The Unicorn's Tale is on the Spring 2011 Indie Next List! Hurray, Indies! And thank you!

And Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus has been nominated for an Agatha. Yep, that's my name next to John Grisham and Kathy Reichs! Huge thanks to Malice Domestic for this honor.


Oddly enough, literally everyone I met and talked to yesterday was in a horrible mood. I'm wondering if it was the impending earthquake we were all sensing.

Also? In spite of the three of us here in the house having had horrible, rotten, foul mood days, within about 5 minutes of sitting down at the dinner table, we were laughing. There is no miracle like that of a wonderful family.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Peeking Out of My Hermit Cave

It has been brought to my attention that I have been very quiet lately, and yes, I have. This book is being a bit of a bear to start—for many reasons. A primary one being that it is dark, dark, dark. And I shrink from all that darkness. But try hard as I might to pull it in other directions, that’s where it wants to go. So it has taken me the last two weeks to give myself permission to write the first draft as dark as I need to then, I assure myself, I can lighten it up in subsequent drafts. I mean, that IS the advantage to being a multiple drafter, right?

But I feel like I’m stumbling along in fits and starts, feeling awkward and cumbersome. To help me through this clumsy, graceless stage, I am rereading the classics: BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott and ON WRITING by Stephen King. They are hugely helpful and I am very much enjoying and soaking up these gentle encouraging voices full of bone deep wisdom. It is wisdom that I seem to need right now. Lamott, in particular, seems to be speaking right to me.

But also, as I struggle to hear the faint glimmerings of these new characters in my head, I need to tune out some of the voices on the outside because that noise and commotion draws too much of my attention. When I turn down the volume of the external world, it is much easier for me to hear my emerging characters. So I am alive and well, just…pensive. And quiet.

I’ve never needed quite this much psychic exclusion to start a book before, but I’ve also never written anything this tortured, so it makes sense. It is probably not surprising that these books did not demand to be written until my children were grown and self sufficient. To counteract all this sturm und drang, I am spending lots of time walking in this world, enjoying my family, reminding myself that old wounds do heal, lives that seem dark can find hope, essentially doing whatever I need to do to keep the nature of this book from overwhelming me, while still giving it the nurturing attention it needs to be born. A bit of a juggling act, actually.

Also? I am trying to be ergonomically savvy. The older I get the more aware I am of the wear and tear the act of writing and mousing and typing and sitting for hours on end has on my body. I had an ergonomics specialist come the other day and evaluate my process and stations and retweak everything. I want to be able to do this for another twenty or thirty years, so I need to make sure I’m not over stressing various joints, tendons, and muscles. Which is pretty much guaranteed if you spend nine hours a day on the computer, so I’ve just been cutting back in general.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Children: Natural Born Storytellers

Anyone who has ever watched children play knows they are not merely building with blocks, squishing clay, or coloring with crayons. They are telling themselves a story the whole time, building a world and creating characters as they “play”. Because of that natural born love of a good story, it often doesn't take much to nudge a kid into a full scale writing geek.

I am often invited to schools to do presentations or author visits, usually with the hope that meeting an author will help get kids fired up about their own writing. Whenever I do these visits, I always ask the students the same question: Who likes to write? Around 50% of the kids raise their hands. When I ask the question again, this time adding, Who likes to write if you get to ignore all the rules,” 98% of the kids raise their hands. Hugely different response!

The following tips are designed to help remind your child—and yourself—that writing can also be a form of play; to help turn them into a story geek rather than a writing robot suffocating under too many rules. The goal is to reinforce those parts of writing that equal play in your child’s eyes and ignore the rest.
  1. Let them give rein to their natural enthusiasm and sense of play by ignoring the writing rules that make it feel like work. You want them to get in touch with that intuitive part of themselves that recognizes that writing and creating can be play. Rules can always be taught later, but a sense of joy, once lost, is very hard to recapture.
  2. Invest in nice quality notebooks and pens. It’s easy to dismiss the very kinesthetic pleasures of writing—the feel of a silky pen flowing across thick, smooth paper. High quality pens and notebooks can bring that extra pleasure to the act of writing. Plus it signals to them that this is a valued activity, one that can feel good physically and one that the adults in their lives value enough to indulge them in.
  3. Give them permission to not show anyone their work if they so choose (even you!). Some people need absolute privacy in which to experiment and risk failure, especially children who are used to doing exceptionally well at things.
  4. Do not critique their writing, even if they beg you. If they are dying for feedback, let them know what they did really well. Or better yet, ask them which part they had the most fun doing.
  5. As hard as it is for us adults, do not weigh down your child's writing with your desires, dreams, and ambitions. If you child loves to write and spends hours writing, do not begin pushing them to become a writer or enter writing contests or in any way burden their writing with expectations of careers or publication. Let writing be one area of their lives that is process oriented rather than result oriented.

[Originally posted at

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bag of Tricks

I talked the other day about my handy dandy back of tricks that I use to coax my characters and stories to reveal themselves to me. As promised, I’m going to detail some of those in this post.

One of those is the brilliant old faithful by Debra Dixon, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

It’s a simple concept, one that is often overlooked due to its very simplicity. If you haven’t read Deb’s book, do try to find a copy to check it out because the depth with which she explains the concepts are very worth it.

Basically, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC) is making sure you know your characters EXTERNAL goal (what she wants) MOTIVATION (why she wants it) and CONFLICT (what’s standing in her way). IN ADDITION to knowing and understanding her INTERNAL goal, motivation, and conflict. The thing is, lots of us might want to be writers or senators or nurses, but chances are we all have very real, very unique, very private reasons we want those things. Doing this exercise ensures that you know what makes your character tick.

When thinking of an INTERNAL goal, it helps me to reframe that as the question, What is lacking in my character's life? What does she need to be fulfilled as a person? What Life Lesson does she need to learn?

I think of the internal motivation as the reason she needs to learn this lesson or the reason she has this great, gaping emotional hole in her life. What bad messages or poor choices she’s made in the past that have kept her from achieving fulfillment. And lastly, the internal conflict can be a couple of things: It can be what is compelling her to hang on to those old messages/lessons that keep her from moving forward, or what event/catalyst has to occur in order to move her forward emotionally.

Make a grid on a piece of paper and see if you can fill in those elements for your character. Even if you think you know them, oftentimes they change or solidify or evolve over the course of the story.

The second tool I use to suss out my characters is a cheat sheet I made from Donald Maass’s book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. He poses some great questions in that book, questions that really help me grow my plot from the seeds of my main character. One of the questions I work with in the beginning is: Define what truly matters to my character. Does she have a tortuous need, consuming fear, aching regret, passionate longing, burning desire, inner lack? (You can probably see that this ties directly into the INTERNAL goal from the above GMC.)

And next I begin character journaling. I begin writing about that character’s emotional scars and wounds. I poke around in her distant past to find out what might have caused them, how they developed, why they didn’t heal. The truth is, often two different people can experience a similar event--or the same event--and only one person is affected or traumatized by them. Because we all have different emotional baggage we're carrying around. I try to get at the heart of why THIS problem is so cataclysmic for THIS character that it tilts their world (either their inner world or their external world) on it's axis.

I try to become that character and see what my subconscious sends up in the way of character memories—often very surprising things bubble up—things that I did not consciously plan or think of, but are perfect nonetheless. Some questions I use to get started are:

When did things begin to go wrong for her? In what way? What were things like just before they went wrong? How did she try to fix things--if she tried at all? 

Another big benefit to journaling is that it helps me get familiar with the character’s voice. It’s like warm up drills on the piano keys before busting out into Rachmaninoff.

But for the last few books, I’ve been using other resources besides writing and plotting tools; I’ve added psychology books into the process and boy, is this helpful when I’m flailing around, trying to define my characters and their problems and their ultimate arcs. As I mentioned a few months ago, THE HERO WITHIN was invaluable as I wrestled with Ismae’s story in medievalteenassassin#1. This time around, it is Clair Pinkola Estes WOMEN WHO RUN WITH WOLVES that is saving my bacon for this second assassin book. Having said that, I think WWRWW works especially well for me since I write fantasy. Not sure how much help it would be if I wrote contemporary, realistic fiction.

As I leafed through WWRWW, I found invaluable clues to my character and not only what is at the root of who she is and why she behaves how she does, but what she will need in order to heal and grow. One thing I stumbled on this time around that I don’t remember reading before was the author’s descansos exercise. The book—and the exercise—is intended for individuals but I’m going to do it for my character. And that is, to make a timeline of all the little deaths of spirit and psyche my character has suffered (and she’s had a LOT—her past is very, very dark). Note each huge heartbreak and betrayal—whether actual or emotional, pay attention to where she felt abandoned or ignored, where she was forced to do things that were totally against her nature. Because all of those things that happened in her past inform who she is in the NOW of the story. They will give me the knowledge I need in order to understand how she will behave and react during the events of the story.

So now I’ve got all the subconscious juices flowing—and in the direction I want them to be flowing—and words and pages are accumulating at a satisfying pace. However, lest I end up with too sprawling or shapeless first draft ( I need something to let them flow into. That’s where the SAVE THE CAT template that I talked about a couple of weeks ago comes in. And I’m going to talk about how I marry those two together next week. But while you’re waiting, go and try a couple of these exercises and see how they work for you. Especially if you’re stuck or having a hard time bringing a character to life. Or if any have a similar types of exercises you use to help bring your character to life, I’d love to hear about them! I am crazy for writing exercises and processes. ☺

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thinking, Stewing, Fermenting, and Percolating and the Joys Therein

For the past week I’vebeen cogitating on what an active part thinking plays in the writing process—or at least MY writing process. And then a few days ago I came across a blog post where someone was talking about how what people NEEDED to do to be a productive/professional writer was to sit down and write one page in an hour. They had done the math, you see. They figured out how long it takes to write an email and computed that into how long it would take to write a page, and if you did that three times during the day, voila! You would have a book—or three—by the end of a year. Mind you, this was a professional writer who made his/her living at writing. They firmly believed that all this thinking and researching and note-taking were simply procrastination measures and by and large useless and not-necessary.

It was all I could do not to pull my hair out by the roots and scream at the computer screen.

It would be one thing if this person had made it clear that it was THEIR process—but to extrapolate it out to the writing public at large was, at best irresponsible, at worst egotistical.

I have written over twenty books, and published thirteen of those. The longer I am involved in this writing gig the more convinced I become that the actual writing—putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard—is sometimes only 20-30% of the writing process. Not because I’m avoiding anything or letting myself be sidetracked, but because good pages don’t just happen. They are thought about and pondered over. They stew and ferment and percolate. This is especially true as my books become longer and more complex. Depth and nuance doesn’t (usually!) just fall from the sky in a burst of inspiration while I happen to be pounding out my 250 words per hour. It can, but it doesn’t always. Most often, you have to go out and hunt depth and layers and subtext and club it over the head, drag it home, and then finesse it into your WIP.

Their point was that fast writers were much better and more likely to be true professionals that slow writers. Gah. Of course, that doesn’t even address the issue of those of us who write some books slowly and others quickly…

The funny thing is, I was wrestling with this very issue before I even stumbled upon this blog post. I had set my Start Date for the medievalteenassassin#2 as Feb. 1. As I said, I’d been gathering research materials and making notes and blocking out the big picture plot things. But try as hard as I might, the story egg was NOT ready to crack yet. Was. Not. Now sure, I wrote a couple of pages. And I could very easily have forced myself to stay there and write X number of pages until I have five pages each day. But what sort of pages would they be? The wrong ones, ones leading into a story I didn’t want to tell. Now sure, you can always fix a bad page—but sometimes committing too early to the wrong story is not helpful. Besides, I could have blindly put words on paper that had no depth, no nuance, no layered meaning, and no subtext, but whatever is the point?

So instead, I pulled out my bag of tricks that I fall back on time and time again to help dig around until I find my character and story. (My next post will detail those tricks—I pinkie swear!) Some, like the above referenced blog poster, would call that procrastination. I call it assembling the material from which I plan to craft my story. Sure, one can build something using any old materials one has on hand. Or. One can look long and carefully for the right materials, the ones that compliment and contrast, provide shadows as well as illumination, and are the best quality—the strongest and most aesthetically pleasing materials one can find.

All this ruminating and mulling bore rich fruit. I quickly realized I had started in the wrong place. Once I made the adjustment and backed up, the pages came much, much more easily. Where I had been eking out two painful pages a day, when I backed up and did the necessary story and character work, I was able to write 20 pages in three days. Not a record, by any means, but much more free flowing when they came from the right place. They are still first draft pages, but they have the bones and sinew of the story I am trying to tell, rather than no relation to anything I’m trying to convey.

So the point I am trying to make is that, no, there is no one formula or approach one has to take in order to be a professional working writer who can support themselves with their writing. Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Speech Heard Round The Kid Lit World

Last week at SCBWI’s New York conference, Sara Zarr gave a speech that resounded powerfully with writers everywhere. The crux of the speech was about reclaiming our creative life from the demands of the market and the business side of publishing. There is a great recap of the speech here and here. It was a hugely important speech, and one that I think many, many writers needed—and wanted—to hear. To be given permission to put creativity front and center in their careers again.

I actually feel that I have done a fairly good job of arranging a creative life that sustains me. However, a couple things she said really resonated.

Most of us need to stop doing half of what we’re doing and start doing the other half well.

Yeah, I’m doing too much. I know it. I had hoped by giving myself a month off before starting a new book, I could get caught up and maybe even get ahead. And I did in a couple of areas, but not others. Some days, I am pulled in so many different directions, I hardly know where to start. I don’t think I can quite give up half of what I’m doing, but I can pare way down.

I’m going to cut way back on Twitter and, I think, give up Tweet Chats. Not that I’ve participated in all that many, but it is a bit of a mental pull, and that part I can eliminate. I’ll still pop on there occasionally, but I won’t try to catch up with everyone all the time.

I’m reducing my blog reading by 2/3. Out with all the industry and publishing news, the declarations of the death of the printed book, and the age of the E-Reader. I will keep up with one particular online series, because I think as an author I need to be informed, but not assaulted, which is how I feel sometimes with so much news. And is, now that I think about it, one of the downsides to Twitter—we are absolutely assaulted with news and links.

And yeah, thinking about doing a year long writing workshop here on the blog was a tad overambitious, especially with my Shrinking Violet and GeekMom commitments. Even more difficult though, was I can’t use samples from my work in progress, but the time required to figure out new examples was too much, and even worse, created a second story running through my head, crowding out the work. So I am going to give that up. I will still post craft stuff as I deal with it, but it won’t be quite as structured as I had hoped. Also? I will quit beating myself up when I don’t manage to get a new blog entry posted every week.

A creative life must be sustainable.

And frankly, as I get older my wrists and shoulders are barking at me to spend way less time on the computer. Not just on the computer, but writing in general. I get thumb sprain and index finger strain from writing so much with a pen. My wrists begin flirting with carpel tunnel when I spend too much time on the keyboard, and my shoulders are sick of mousing. So even though I don’t battle the M&M bowl, my current set up is not sustainable, at least not as far as my body is concerned.

It is hard, because I do so much research on the computer. Not just for the books, but for everything—colleges, health issues, politics, current events. Every little fact that crosses my path I usually feel compelled to research. Clearly I need to give some of that up and step away from the computer. So I’ll be doing a lot of that in the next few weeks as well as hiring an ergonomics person to come in and help me set up the most ideal environment for my aging joints.

A creative life should be engaging, expanding, not reduce you to word count and computer.

I have written three books a year for three years, and while I knew that was a sort of hyper-accelerated push, it is also important to realize it was not, nor was ever meant to be sustainable. I am feeling a huge need to step back into real life. It is so, so easy to default to the relationships I have online. I’m an introverted hermit, after all. But I want to do more walking and hiking and have weekly artists dates outside the house, spend more time with my parents and friends. Maybe do some volunteer work. Being so deeply in my writing cave for so long was exactly what I—and my career—needed. But now the need has passed and it’s time to expand my world once again.

So those are the thing that Sara Zarr’s speech gave me permission to do. What about you? Did her speech inspire you to shift things in any way for yourself?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Announcing the Nathaniel Fludd Website

I'm so thrilled to finally be able to announce this news I've been sitting on for a couple of weeks. We have a brand, spanking new Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist website!

Thanks to the brilliance of illustrator Kelly Murphy and her equally brilliant and talented husband, Antoine Revoy, Nate now has a home on the web! Please check it out when you get a chance. There is a bunch of cool extra content such as Nate's 'sketchbook' and a copy of the actual Book of Beasts, as well as the Fludd Family Tree, which shares some of the unique Fludd history.

It is meant to be explored by kids, and we will be adding new content regularly for their reading pleasure. Plus! There is a gallery of kid's fan art, so if your child is an artist, we'd be happy to feature their art.

Monday, January 31, 2011

How Writing Careers Are Like Snowflakes

I am feeling a big need to have one hub for all my online activity--probably because I am getting older and finding it harder to keep track of everything. With that in mind, I'm going to start cross-posting from my other blogs/websites here...

How Writing Careers Are Like Snowflakes
(cross-posted from Shrinking Violets)

And no, it’s not because they melt away into nothingness two seconds after hitting the ground. Don’t even let such a negative thought taint your mind!

It’s because no two are ever exactly alike. Pretty simple, huh? But one of the hardest concepts for us authors to grasp. Hell, even publishing professionals have a hard time accepting it, although they are aware of it more than the individual author since they have access to data for all their books.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Historical Accuracy

I have been thinking a lot about historical accuracy as I work on these medieval French assassin books. Lucy had asked (quite a while ago—sorry Lucy!) if I would talk about historical accuracy on the blog, and since I was discussing historical research in general, I thought it would be a good time to address it.

But first, a warning: I am not a purist. If you are looking for someone who holds up pristine historical accuracy as the One True Shining Purpose, I am not your girl.

For one thing, I think historical accuracy is an elusive beast, especially the farther back in time you travel. But that very elusiveness is exactly why so many historians tackle time periods that have been written about before: because things change. Sometimes it is the actual information and facts that change—new discoveries are made, new methods of dating or interpreting old facts emerge. But other times it is merely US who have changed, our perspective on history. A great example of this was the influx of histories in the seventies that were told/viewed through the eyes of women or minorities who’d been involved in the historical events, but whose side hadn’t yet been told.

There is also great disagreement on a lot of historical concepts and facts. Just trying to define the middle ages or medieval time period for example, can lead you on a long and twisting goose chase. Some declare it ended in the middle of the 14th century, while others claim it ended in 1450, where still others claim it ended in 1492. You can find solid historical arguments for each of those dates. The truth is, you can often find a variety of sources that will support an even wider variety of interpretations.

So which does a writer choose?

The one that serves the story they are trying to tell.

Some writers are writing in order to convey absolute historical detail and accuracy and take great pride in that, as well they should because it is so tricky. But others (like me) are mostly interested in evoking the sensibilities and flavor of a time period. I don’t mean that we slap historical costumes on 21st century characters and calling it historical, but rather we try to explore the mindset and worldview of earlier times, but in a way that is accessible to readers.

This is especially true for me since I write historical fantasy. I am already drawn to the murky, under explored parts of historical periods—their folk beliefs, superstitions, relationship to Other, and their spiritual anomalies—things that most real historians have traditionally steered clear of.

Then there is the added layer of conveying the history in the story as the people of that time understood it, or so that it is accurate when viewed through our 21st century lens. A great example of this is that I’ve been dinged in a view Theodosia reviews for being inaccurate about mummies, and I so want to ask this person to please point me to their research. Not because I want to argue, but because the four sources I consulted all supported my dealing with mummies and the researcher in me would love to examine this source that disputes that. Or is her source a more 21st century source rather than the information Theodosia and other Egyptologists would have access to in 1907?

Another example is that even now, they is still disagreement and dispute as to who really reached mountain peaks first or who the first man to discover the north pole truly was.

You begin to see the complexity.

My medieval France book is proving the most difficult, not only because the time period was recorded in such a subjective manner, but because most of the earliest sources are in French! Middle French at that, and I simply am not dedicated enough or willing to wait long enough to learn that language before I write this story.

What I am doing for this book is dipping my hand in the cauldron of what we know of the events at that time and pulling out those that are most relevant to the story I want to tell. There are vast amounts of historical facts and details I am not even touching—to do so would turn an already huge book into an encyclopedia! But even more important, they aren’t relevant to the story itself.

My own guidepost, touchstone, call it what you will is that the history serves the story. (Again, I want to reiterate that this would never fly if I were writing historical fiction rather than historical fantasy!)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pre-Writing: Research

Ah, research. One of my own personal versions of crack. Whether writing historical, fantasy, or contemporary, solid, judicious research can make a book come alive.

It can also be one of the easiest areas in which to become bogged down due to 1) becoming overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of information and a desire to get everything perfect and 2) it’s a lovely way to procrastinate and avoid doing any actual writing.

The way I keep from getting overwhelmed or lost in a never ending maze of historical research is that I break it down into stages. In the prewriting stage, the point of my research is to get a broad overview of the major events, players, and temperament of the historical time period in question. If I’ll be using or referring to real people or events, I make sure I know enough about them so that I can adapt accordingly. In fact, early on, I will often make up a timeline incorporating those historical events that will be happening during the course of the story.

But perhaps more important than the major events and players, is the thing I called temperament. This incorporates not only the mood and tone of the historical period, but also the worldview of the people who lived in those times. I thinking trying to capture the worldview and convey it somewhat accurately is one of the keys to making historical fiction feel like more than a costume drama.

The mindset of those who lived in the Victorian Era was different from those who lived in the Edwardian Era. Medeival men and women had wildly different ways in which they viewed the world when compared to those that lived during the Renaissance. As writers, I think one of the most important research tasks we have is to be able to capture the essence of those views.

However, that worldview must be tweaked in such a way as to make sure the characters are relatable for today’s reader. I think the exception to this is if the main focus of the story is to capture a particular historical milieu and have it be the point of the story, but my own personal feeling is that character and story take precedence over historical accuracy. (Which I will talk about in my next post.)

Another really important point about historical fiction (including fantasy) is this: the story should be so integral to the events and constraints of the time period that it could not take place any other time. It could not be plunked down in another historical time period and work. So if you have a character and plot idea and you’re trying to choose between a Colornial, Renaissance, or Victorian setting, the chances are your plot and character are not fully grounded enough in their time or place. If you’re just at the idea stage and still fleshing out the plot and character, then that’s different.

For example, I get asked a lot about why I set Theodosa in Edwardian times, and the answer is, very simply, that particular story couldn’t have happened at any other time. A hundred years earlier and travel was much slower and women traveled to Egypt much less frequently and a woman archaeologist—while scandalous enough in 1907—would have been nigh impossible in 1807. Plus the Rosetta Stone hadn’t yet been cracked and no one knew how to properly read hieroglyphs, so Theo couldn’t have translated the various texts. Plus, the general view at the time was that it was perfectly fine to acquire artifacts from lands not one’s own and take them to a museum and archaelogical digs were minimally supervised.

If I were to have set it in modern times—well, the story couldn’t have happened in today’s world. Egypt is very much in control of its own excavations and discoveries, travel and access is now nearly instantaneous, and modern politics would have provided a huge barrier. Plus, we know so much more now that we did then and nearly all the really big archaelogical finds have been made.

Thus 1907.

So that’s what I look for in the first round of research, learning enough to anchor both the story and the character’s worldview in the time period. And then it’s a stop and go sort of thing. I’ll begin writing until I run into something I don’t know. If it totally stops the story from going forward, then I’ll stop and research it. If I can keep going without it, I put a note in brackets. [what were some games Edwardian kids played and what toys did they have?] and keep going. That way I avoid the procrastination game.

Oh, one other thing I do in these early, pre-writing stages is that I do the research necessary to assemble the setting of the book. Determine what cities or towns I’ll be using, or make some up based on real towns. I pour over old maps and photos of old towns and castles, trying to get a vivid picture of the setting in my mind and then create enough of a map or blueprint that I’m not constantly having to stop once the writing begins to figure out where in the heck I am.

(And the reason I’m talking about research now is because I do it before I create the template that I referred to in last week’s post. I’m pretty much doing these posts in the exact order that I do them for a book.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Writing A Novel

Okay, that title should probably really be, On Writing THIS Novel, since each one of them ends up needing something a little different.

But basically, since it is the beginning of a new year and I am starting a new novel, I thought it might be fun/interesting/entertaining to kind of do a loosey-goosey year long workshop and show what tools I use when writing a novel and when I apply them and what I do when I get stuck. Some of this stuff is elsewhere on the blog, but this will present everything in (relative) chronological order.

Or is that too writerly oriented for the readers who stop by here? Maybe I’ll put up a poll to see…

Right now I’m kind of puttering in the pre-writing stage. I’m giving myself a couple of weeks off of the actual producing pages part, but I’m getting ready in other ways, mostly seeding the ground of my subconscious.

First, of course, is to clear the decks of all the detritus of the last book, file away all my loose papers and notebooks and mss printouts. Not only is this good feng shui and organizational practice, it’s like erasing the chalkboard in my writing brain.

Next, I gather all the research materials I know I’ll need. I will always need more, but I won’t know which ones until I get farther in. I begin reading the research books and taking notes. I also go around the house looking for and collecting any and all random notes I may have made about this particular book and read through them once.

I also usually have a vague kernel of a sense of my main characters which I will be able to dig around in and coax into some sort of personage. Although with this particular book, I do have a decent loose sense of who they are as people since they were secondary characters in the last book. This is also the stage wherein I pull out two fresh, shiny unused notebooks. Not sure why I always start with two; sometimes one is for my official ideas and the second one is for playing around with ideas, or sometimes one is for the stuff I know is absolute, not-changeable, and the other is more of an evolving canvas.

Even though I still consider myself to be in the pre-writing phase, the next thing I need to do is to get a sense of the shape and heft of the book. Some people determine that as they go along but I find it really helps to get it firm in my mind now. Part of this may be because I write books of such different lengths and complexities, from 20,000 words to 135,000 words, long, complex books with five acts and lots of twists versus short, early books with linear plots, only a few layers, and a handful of twists. It’s like knowing whether you’re going to make a single, layer 8” x 8” cake or a triple layer wedding cake. Knowing that up front helps my brain gather the materials it will need to create something of that magnitude, or conversely, ignore things that are less central to the smaller sized story.

The tool I use for this is a template I’ve adapted from Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT book, which I highly, highly recommend. At this early stage of the process, this is the perfect template for me as it is vague enough that I don’t feel forced to ink in actual scenes and turning points yet, it mostly just reminds me what each section of the book should feel like and encompass. A brainstorming template, if you will. And while it might seem a bit left-brained to bring in at this stage, I have learned that by seeding some soft, left-brained stuff in early, it actually becomes incorporated by my right brain's more creative process.

The template looks something like this:

Setup 1-40

Catalyst 48

Debate 48-100

Break into Two 100

Fun and Games 100-200

Midpoint 200

BadGuys Closing In 200-300

All is Lost 300

Dark Night of Soul 300-340

Break into Three 340

Finale/Climax /Resolution 340-400

Those are the target page numbers I’m using for a 400 page mss, but if you were working on a 50,000 word novel, you’d just cut those numbers in half. Next time I’ll show you how I fill that in and begin massaging it into the material for the book.

And what about you guys? Do you have a pre-writing phase to your process or do you just jump in? If so, what does it include? Do you have a new book you’re starting this year? An old one you’ve vowed to tackle? Care to tell us about it…

Monday, January 17, 2011

New Beginnings...

So in the next couple of weeks I’ll be starting a new book, pretty much from scratch. Even better, I have an entire year to write it.

One of the things that strikes me as I peer into the near future is the utter, nerve-jittering uncertainty of it all. I have started enough books by now that I know I can start—and finish—them, but I also know that no completed manuscript is ever quite as wonderful as the shiny new idea floating around in my head. Once you take a hold of that idea and begin stretching it and shaping it and contouring it into a story—it shifts. It is no longer an idea full of infinite possibilities but begins to become concrete, with finite edges and form. For every story action or character element we choose, we have to release a hundred other possibilities.

Story ideas sometimes remind me of butterfly’s wings in that once you touch them, some of the magic dust comes off and prevents them from flying quite as perfectly as before. That sounds sad, and I don’t mean it to be, but just as in fairy tales, there is a cost for becoming real, for stepping out of the ephemeral into the finite.

With new stories we stand at the edge of an abyss. If we’re lucky, we can look across the gaping chasm and actually see the other side. And we know we have to get to there somehow. Usually by leaping out into the abyss while trying to build the glider we need to make it to the other side while in mid air.

Exhausting. Exhilarating. And oh-so-exciting.

Monday, January 10, 2011

It is quiet here today because I am posting elsewhere this morning. Over at GeekMoms, I'm talking about Disney's decision to stop producing princess movies and the implications of that decision, and over on Shrinking Violets we're talking about picking a guiding word for 2011. Hope to see some of you at one of those places or another!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

New Research Books

I am seriously, SERIOUSLY excited about all the research books I got today for #medievalfrenchteenassassin2 (otherwise known as DARK JUSTICE.)

Just sayin'...

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

NOW I'm Ready For The New Year

I finally made my annual organizational trek to Staples and Office Max, so now I’m ready to start the New Year. Never underestimate the importance of the right organizational tools to make your life smoother and help you get a handle on all the paper and stuff one must keep track of.

I am now the proud owner of:

  • A pretty, brightly colored notebook with matching dividers in which to organize all my royalty statements since 2003. (And I will be doing a post on royalties here in a little bit, so stay tuned.)
  • Five (Yes! Five!) calendars. (I may have a bit of a calendar addiction, truth be told.) Two small size pocket monthly calendars, one wall type calendar, but without a hanger, and my indispensable, holds my life together, At A Glance Weekly Calendar (with Quick Notes!) which is my main, keep track of everything organizer. I use one of the pocket calendars to schedule and organize my posting schedule over on Shrinking Violets, and the second one to do the same for my posting schedule over on GeekMom now that I’m a core contributor. The third one is to track my personal health stuff—list what days I exercised, for how long, make a note of when I have a migraine or insomnia, try to track (and therefore give myself the illusion of control!) my physical life.
  • Three packages of colored post it notes.
  • Another three packages of the tiny post it note flags.
  • A totally old school type budget ledger that I use for household budgeting. (And no, I’m not a Luddite, but I like the act of laying it out each month by hand—it makes me feel very present and in control of my finances.)
  • A big, brightly colored envelope to hold all my business receipts.
  • Four ‘hard-backed’ spiralbound notebooks for journaling and drafting.

My next step is to organize my writing nest. I am trying to decide if I’m brave enough to take a picture of the massive notebook spread I’ve got going in my workspace. It is seriously scary, but I don’t have anywhere else to put it all. This year I want to buy a big credenza thing, one with at least three and possibly four doors, one for each series I’m working on. That way I can just stack up all my research books, series bibles, old journals and notebooks behind each door and voila! Everything I need at my fingertips.

I mean, if I’m juggling three different series, it seems as if one little ol’ credenza isn’t too much to ask...

What about you? What are your Must Have Organizational supplies?