Thursday, April 29, 2010

Research Reminiscing

Several years ago, while researching my 1790s historical, Kindred, I took a road trip with my friend, Doree. We made quite a production of it, driving from Wisconsin to Cade's Cove, Tennessee, then to Asheboro, North Carolina, the Piedmont area I'd chosen for the setting of Kindred. Actually, just a little west of Asheboro, in what is today the Uwharrie National Forest.

Contained in this small national forest and recreation area are the Uwharries, what are thought to be the oldest mountains in North America. I wanted a setting that gave the feel of mountains and rural isolation without actually being as far west as the Blue Ridge, and having visited this area several times in my childhood, knew it was the perfect spot to set my 18th century mid-sized tobacco plantation, Mountain Laurel. On my 1775 map of North Carolina this range of worn, heavily wooded ridges and hills is called the Carraways, and that's what I've chosen to call them in my novel.

Scattered through these hills are the crumbling remnants of homesteads, gold mines and graveyards (it's been a national forest just since 1961), so I knew this landscape had once been settled. While exploring the area gave me a good sense of the land's physical contours and characteristics, I needed a model for the two-story farmhouse in which many of Kindred's scenes unfold.

I hunted on line for historic homes in the North Carolina Piedmont that Doree and I might be able to visit within the confines of our trip, and quickly zeroed in on The Alston House (aka The House in the Horseshoe), as the likeliest candidate. This two-story white farmhouse, built around 1772, sits in a bend of the Deep River, and was the scene of a brief skirmish during the American Revolution. The walls of the house still sport the bullet holes.

While the layout of the Alston House isn't exactly that of the farmhouse at Mountain Laurel, walking the grounds and rooms of an actual 18th century home as near to my fictional plantation as this one is helped cement my sense of setting for Kindred like nothing else could have done.

A few photos of the house's interior (red was considered a sign of wealth at the time):

 
 Whoa! How'd he get here? Well, since he's here I suppose he can stay. :)

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Book Stork's Gift

On Saturday the Book Stork left a wonderful surprise on my doorstep. Since I'm the one who ordered the book it wasn't a complete surprise (any more than a newborn baby arrives without any warning), but this time I got much more than I bargained for.
TAILOR MADE, TRAIL WORN, Army Life, Clothing & Weapons of the Corps of Discovery, by Robert J. Moore, Jr. and Michael Haynes. Farcountry Press.

This is a book I've wanted to read and own for years now, but for some reason I was expecting a smallish paperback. What arrived was a coffee table sized hardback chock full of sketches, paintings, photographs and charts depicting life along the trail during Lewis & Clark's epic expidition of 1804-1806.

This book is, of course, for research, and though the time period is just outside the 18th century, I do have hope of turning one of my WIPs, Kindred, into a family saga series, which would span the present time frame of 1793-4 on up to the War of 1812. And who can say, maybe some adventuring soul in the Cameron clan will tag along with L & C and Co. At the very least, this book promises a wealth of information about the most practical, functional and necessary aspects of frontier and army life during the era of 1800-1810. Whatever did they wear??

The book sits on my living room chair, tempting as a siren, but I've determined not to delve into its pages until I finish the three research books I have going now: The Bloody Mohawk, The Adirondacks, and Forgotten Allies. 

Or maybe finish one of them....

Thursday, April 22, 2010

First Chapters

On writing a first chapter:

"Readers don’t need to know how our characters got to the point they’re at. Throw our characters into the story and for the first chapter pretend the reader already knows as much as we do."

~ Jody Hedlund in her blog post Potential First Chapter Problems

I knew this is something we should aim for in a first chapter, and I've striven not to weigh down my first chapters with too much set up, but I've never heard the idea phrased quite this way before, pretend the reader already knows as much as we do. That clicked it into focus for me in a far more conscious way, so I can be more deliberate about it in future.

Check out Jody's post for the rest of her tips on first chapters.

Monday, April 19, 2010

In the spirit of Revolutionary America.....

A couple of lighter, fun 18th century related items I found over the weekend, both dealing with our country's founding fathers.

Did you know that a New York library is missing two of its books that were due in 1789? Guess who checked them out and never returned them?

And I was thrilled to find this posted by a forumite on the Books and Writers Community. It's a parody of Apologize, by One Republic. I've watched that video and am of the opinion that the parody is of higher quality in every way, but then any song with a fiddle solo is going to rank higher with me than one without.

 

One might surmise that President Washington is probably sorry he did not return those books... but it's too late to apologize.

Friday, April 16, 2010

My first editor: Lauri Klobas

A very special friend passed away early yesterday morning after her third battle with cancer.

I met Lauri Klobas several years ago on the Books & Writers Forum, a place I've mentioned in previous posts. Lauri and I shared a love of animals (kitties for her, dogs for me), and we often crossed paths on the many pet-related forum threads, not to mention all the writing craft threads that were generated over the years. Lauri also wrote wonderful Letters From Home detailing her work as a teleprompter for NFL, and her past work behind the scenes on many television shows, and her interaction with the "stars" of Hollywood, many of them hilarious, some of them eye-opening, some truly head-shaking.

Over time we began to be aware of the book projects each other was working on, and about two years ago I received an email from Lauri offering to help me edit my extremely long historical novel, Kindred. I hadn't yet encountered Lauri's editing skills for myself, but I knew she was an encouraging soul--she'd headed the monthly Goals thread, where writers state their goals at the start of the month, give a mid-month check in, and an end-of-the-month report. Lauri, during her stint, was always there with the virtual confetti ready to throw for successes and encouraging words for those who hadn't met their goals.

But that would prove no comparison to the effort she made in editing my novel. I wanted her to be ruthless. I know it's hard to be so with another writer's work, especially if that writer is a friend. But Lauri did it. She made that manuscript bleed red, and she did it with gentle humor and encouragement. I'm not sure she ever quite believed how ecstatic I was to get a few chapters back from her and see how much she felt could be excised without diminishing the story I wanted to tell, or the characters I wanted to breathe life into. I learned to trust her instincts, and often cut more than she suggested, because, in spite of my ingrained wordy ways, I was learning to edit.

More than as my first editor, I will miss her as the tenderhearted rescuer of "problem" kitties, as the proud owner of her first home, as a lively, optimistic presence on the forum even while she struggled with her own failing health, as a person who was truly engaged with the world around her and genuinely interested in how the rest of us were getting along with things. As a true cheerleader. As my friend.

These are Lauri's last words to me, in response to the news that I had signed with an agent with Kindred. They were written at the end of March after she left her home and moved to be near family and friends for her final weeks. They so perfectly epitomizes who she was to me:

I have been waiting for this letter!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Yippee. I would type longly and effusively, but I am having trouble with my typing!
Boy, l am I proud of you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
XOXO
LEK

I will miss you, Lauri. I am not the same because of you. Thank you so very much.
****

Lauri's kind heart and generosity of spirit touched many lives. I'll be adding other links to tributes to her as I come across them.

~ From my fellow forumites, Claire, Rachel, Jen and Kristen: http://alltheworldsourpage.blogspot.com/2010/04/vale-lauri-klobas.html

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Selah

You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you. Isaiah 26:3.

I stumbled across this verse on Facebook, shared recently by one of my favorite authors, Liz Curtis Higgs. I needed to read it so much on that particular day that I printed it out and put it up by my computer where I can't miss it.

Selah.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lest We Drift Away

"Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away." Hebrews 2:1 (NKJ)

That passage was discussed at one of our church services this past Sunday, and I learned something about the verse I'd never known before. The writer of Hebrews was using a nautical analogy, though that isn't exactly obvious from most of our English translation. The phrase "give the more earnest heed" could be translated "stay moored to," like a boat to a dock. "Stay moored to the dock or your boat will drift away." The dock being, in this case, Jesus.

Now, I haven't done a study on the Greek language in the two days since I heard this, but in any case the point of remaining moored to Christ is sound. And of course within about thirty seconds of hearing these words, the concept had me thinking about the writing life as well, and the need I've discovered to stay moored to the writing community.

The writing life is largely a solitary one, often a lonely one. It comes with plenty of challenge, discouragement, and stubbornly closed doors. There are times our inner fire, that passion that caused us to start writing in the first place, can flicker, even gutter, through years of learning the writing craft, rejection, and disappointment that is a part of nearly all writers' journeys. We need the fellowship of other writers who are on the same path, those who are ahead of us and can encourage us with their experience and wisdom; those next to us so that we are assured we aren't alone; those coming behind us, who need us as much as we need those on the path ahead. Learning the craft of fiction and navigating the road to publication isn't easy, and it's a very long road for most, but we don't have to go it alone.

There is Facebook, and I like to hang out there and see what my writer friends are up to--can't count the times another writer has posted something I'm experiencing at that very moment too. Ah, fellowship, understanding. I'm not alone.

There are writer's blogs; I visit several regularly and have formed some close friendships through so doing.

There are conferences. I've attended those (and will continue to).

But the two main ways I've stayed moored to the writing community on a larger scale are through American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), which provides several email loops to interact with other Christian writers. On the Main Loop you can ask and answer research questions, discuss aspects of the craft and the writing business and generally encourage and be encouraged. They have a Course Loop and a Prayer Loop too. If you are writing Christian fiction, check them out.

And then there's the Books & Writers Community. This is a secular writers' group. It's international. It's also the oldest writers forum in existence on the net. I believe it began before there even was an internet, back when you had to be a member of Compuserve to participate. I learned most of what I know about writing by hanging out daily on this forum since the mid-1990s and interacting with published and unpublished writers (many of the latter having since become published). It's also the best place I know of to learn about the world views of people from many different countries and walks of life, who are either writers or avid readers, and are an especially eloquent and articulate folk.

Tips for Books & Writers: The Books & Writers Community board is broken down into folders. You will find them on the far left side of the screen under Board Folders. I primarily visit Research & Craft, as well as Diana Gabalon's folder (this is where Gabaldon got her start as a novelist, posting bits of her first novel, Outlander. Neil Gaiman also hung out here, once upon a time.). But there is also a Kidlit folder, two folders for book discussion, one for film and stage, a journalism folder, and a folder for monthly writing exercises. It's a welcoming place.

Whether writer blogs, Facebook, a critique group, an email list group like ACFW, or a secular writer's forum works for you, stay plugged in to the community of writers for encouragement, fellowship, growth and learning, and the lifting of weary hands.

"Lest we drift away."

Friday, April 09, 2010

First of the firsts: photo shoot

I expect there are going to be many more "firsts" in my near future than I've experienced in a long while. Some of them honestly I'm trying not to think too much about yet, but yesterday I took care of a fun first: the need to have a few head shots taken for... well, I'm not quite sure what they are for at this early date but they were requested and I aim to please!

Enter my good pal (and fellow writer) Karen Staunton, who volunteered to take a few shots of me. Her whole family are great photographers, so I knew I was in good hands. We had a fun--if a bit chilly--hour of prowling around the woods surrounding her beautiful hilltop home, looking for the perfect trees as backdrops. Pines, towering Doug firs, and a madrone. The madrone was the favorite, hands down.

I came home with a disk full of photos and I think Karen must have used some filters on me (like the anti-blemish filter) because her photos do me more credit than I deserve. Here are a few favorites:










All photos by Karen Staunton

Two more... for Carla. :)

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Weather or not

Happy Tuesday. Hope everyone had a great Easter. Our church meets in an outdoor amphitheater in summer, once the spring rains have stopped (usually from Mother's Day on), but on Easter Sunday we all pile out there together, sometimes in the craziest of weather.

The forecast for last Sunday was for rain/wind/snow and highs in the 40s. Bonfires were lit beside the baptismal pool and most folks arrived bundled up in layers. What we ended up getting was a chilly, breezy, partly sunny few hours, just enough time for our service and the baptisms that followed. A lovely day to celebrate our Risen Savior.

Then we took our dog up a few thousand feet to walk along a reservoir dam, right about the time the weather finally arrived. Snow on Easter! Pretty typical for southern Oregon.

Video of the Easter service at Applegate Christian Fellowship. Link is in the lefthand column.

And Kindred is down to 137,000 words!

Thursday, April 01, 2010

CUT

Over the past months... okay, years... I've made frequent reference to editing my terribly overwritten historical, Kindred, but I'm not sure I've ever noted exactly what it is I'm trimming away. At this point, it's getting harder. Harder to find material to trim, harder to do the trimming once I've found it, be it a word, a phrase, a sentence, or a chunk of a scene. But given enough time I'm usually able to see that those words, sentences, paragraphs or scenes that I suspect don't absolutely have to be there... don't. So here are the main "weedy" areas I've noted in my pruning this past week:

Back story. I like back story. I rather like it in the novels I read too. But not everyone agrees with me. So I'm trimming as much back story as I can, saving what I do include to fall in the spot in the story where it's essential for understanding the present. Hopefully not a moment too soon.

Excess description, especially static description. I once read a bestselling author say she never allows more than two lines of static description together. I've never checked her 400,000 word historicals to see if that's actually true (I'm usually too engrossed in the story), but it sounds like a pretty good rule. But in my effort to trim down my (already skinny by comparison) 142,000 novel, I'm distilling the description down, and down, and down, attempting to create the same setting and atmosphere with one sentence instead of three. One phrase instead of a whole sentence. One word instead of a phrase. It means going deeper, spending extra time searching for the right word, not five or six just-okay ones.

Too much stage business. My characters turn around, and look, and gaze, and reach, and lift their hands, and walk across rooms, and... well you get it. They're antsy creatures and because I'm fascinated with their every twitch, much like a proud parent, I want to tell you each move they make. But that makes for dense and distracting prose. Finding the balance is tough--including enough stage business so that Ian doesn't start out in the parlor then suddenly seems to have "disapparated" into the cornfield. But I've also learned I don't need to show every step and turn and gaze between parlor and field either.

Unnecessary dialogue. Dialogue is another thing I'm learning to distill. Sometimes it takes paring down the stage business or description around it for me to see I really only needed two lines of dialogue for the character to make her point, instead of three. And I can even rewrite those remaining two to be a bit tighter, punchier, more on the mark. No dancing around the point, Kindred cast. Say what you mean! Unless of course dancing around the point is what you mean to do.

Interior monologue. Character ruminations. Internals. Whatever you want to call it when a character worries over conflict like a dog with a bone, all inside their head. Quite often, still, these internals run on too long and so I'm taking an equally long look at each such instance. Is all of it needed? Is there one core issue the character needs to ponder now, and can the rest be cut away? Have I tackled this same issue as an internal elsewhere, or very nearly so? Snip, snip. And that leads me to the last area I want to mention, the one that's the cause for most of the material that ends up on my cutting room floor.

Repetition, on every level, be it single words or entire scenes or anything in between that come at the same plot point or point of character from just a slightly different angle than I already have. Am I bludgeoning the reader to make a point, when one solid whack on the head would do it? I'm learning to do something in my writing that I as a reader love to do, make those sudden leaps in understanding of character or plot when the author hasn't spelled every little step of it out for me, or connected each dot, but supplied enough of them that my reasoning brain has filled in the rest. I love that experience. It makes me feel clever and deep! If at all possible, I want to give that back to readers.

The best tip I have for helping authors to see these spots in their manuscripts is... take a break from the work. Put it aside for a week or two or a month, if you possibly can. That distance will make those bits that are only serving to clutter the "essential story," as author Bonnie Grove aptly phrased it, much easier to spot. It also infuses you with the objective ruthlessness needed to delete them. Or at least toss them into a "save for later" file.

On Wednesday, Sharon Souza posted some excellent editing tips at Novel Matters blog. Don't miss those. I especially benefited from William Brohaugh's "Sixteen Types of Wordiness and How to Trim Them."