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?