"We pick bygone time up by the handfuls and, like clay, see if it feels right and then form it into stories about the past." ~ James Alexander Thom, The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Cabin In The Wood

In lieu of blog silence in the latter half of the week, thanks to one too many migraines, I'm going to share some photos of settler cabins I took several years ago during a trip to Cades Cove, TN, never knowing how near that area I'd one day set a novel. How I'd love to be able to transport myself there right now, especially since I spent a large part of my work day today describing such a scene. I'll add snippets from the scene between the photos (character names removed to prevent spoilers. I'll call her X, and him Y).




They emerged from the woods as the sun was setting, into a high, secluded clearing nestled between two shoulders of the mountain. Trees ringed the clearing on three sides. A cornfield edged the fourth. Opposite the corn, where the ground sloped up, stood a cabin built of peeled logs, trimmed and neatly squared.

It was small. Smaller even than the Teagues’ home. Nearly twice as long as wide, it had a door in the center, south-facing, with a stone for a threshold, a papered window to the side. Because the land lay lower to the west it caught the setting sunlight, making it look as if it hadn’t lost the luster of new-cut wood.


 

They came first to a shed, just up from the creek bottom. Y stopped, untied the quilt and homespun bundle, and handed it to her.

“Go on in, take a look at the place while I see to the horse. I think we left it tidy, but don’t hold me to it.” He smiled down at her. “We took our leave thinking to come back bachelors still.”

His eyes told her he wasn’t truly worried, but she was beginning to be. She followed the beaten track from the stable-shed to the cabin’s batten door. She pulled the latch string, felt the bar lift within, and pushed her way inside.


Her first reaction was relief. The place didn’t smell bad, and the floor wasn’t dirt. Puncheon logs, fitted and sanded smooth, spanned the floor wall to wall. She left the door standing open for light and stepped to the side to look around.


There were two rooms. The one she stood in had a creekstone hearth that held a crane for cooking. Pots, a skillet, a bake kettle, and gridiron lined the hearthstones. The furnishings were sparse, and none resembled a bed. Beyond the doorway beside the hearth must be the room they used for sleeping.

A long table of homemade construction occupied the center of the room, with caned chairs drawn up to it. Several more chairs lined the walls next to smaller tables holding possessions her eyes skated over, until they landed on the books. Books! Lined up atop of a set of shelves. There must have been a dozen. Maybe more. Clothes hung on wall pegs—breeches, leggings, shirts—as well as traps and what she thought were snowshoes. Heavy winter moccasins stood in pairs below.


All was tidy and well kept. Even more surprising, the cabin bore touches evidencing a woman’s hand and eye: checked curtains hung at the window, and a matching linen runner spanned the table, with a pewter bowl of apples in the center.

Fresh apples, she realized, stepping up to the table with the quilt in her arms and touching one of the fruit.

“Who are on earth are you?”

X snatched her hand back, muffling a small outcry. 

A girl in faded blue homespun stood framed in the doorway between the cabin’s rooms. She was small-boned and pretty, with pale hair streaming loose to her waist and eyes of such sparking blue X could see their color from across the room in the fading light. 


~
~photos and text copyright by Lori Benton 2011, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ever struggle with self-doubt?

Boy howdy, have I struggled with it this week. It sort of hit out of nowhere, when my novel in progress was going quite well, I thought.

But when the self-doubt hit, it hit hard. Is there really some purpose God has for me in writing? Will it be of any eternal benefit to me or anyone else? Am I good enough? I'm I fooling myself? Are my stories predictable and boring? On and on it went, as I unburdened my heart to a friend, yet she promptly understood and prayed with me.

Then this morning, in the wee hours, I came across this blog post from agent-turned-writer Nathan Bransford on separating confidence from self-doubt.

I'm so thankful for praying friends. I'm also thankful for other writers who take the time to blog about the challenges of the writing life. If you're struggling with self-doubt when it comes to writing, go read Nathan's post. Even if you aren't, you likely will at some point, to some degree, so go read Nathan's post.

And as my friend prayed for me, I pray for you, fellow writer, or mom, wife, minister, father, husband, friend, that our work would never be in vain, but guided by Him to be part of His work, whether in word (written or spoken) or deed. Amen

Friday, April 22, 2011

Love Delivered Me


Love delivered me, and love created me
to be your companion, mankind
Love sustained me, and love guided me
and love abandoned me here.
Love killed me, and love dragged me
and love laid me on the bier.
Love is my peace, and for love I chose
to redeem mankind at great cost.
So you should fear nothing, 
for I have looked for you
both day and night, 
in order to be your haven;
I have done well, 
for I have won you in battle.

~ from the commonplace book of John Grimstone, 1372 (translation)
~celtic cross photo by cubanjunky

To listen to Love Me Broughte, by Mediaeval Baebes (the lyrics are the same as those in the above translation, but sung in Middle English) click the link below.

http://youtu.be/fh0wyEEjPbc

A blessed Easter to you...

Because He is Risen! 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Did You See This?

Recently I read this post from author Mary DeMuth, over at Novel Journey, and it won't let go of my heart. So just in case you missed it....

Why You Shouldn't Give Up As A Novelist. Really.

I hope it will encourage your heart, if you are in a place of working and waiting... like me.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: The Dawn of a Dream

The Dawn of a Dream
Ann Shorey
Revell, 2011

From the back cover: Luellen O'Connell is stunned when her husband of just one month tells her he is leaving--and his reason devastates her. Deeply wounded by his betrayal, Luellen decides to follow her dream to become a teacher, a desire she had set aside when she married. But can she truly hide her past? Or will it destroy her ambitions forever?  

Beldon Grove, Illinois, 1857

From the first chapter of The Dawn of a Dream I was swept up in Luellen’s plight after her husband turned out to be a no-good scoundrel, and my empathy was with her as she had to face her kin and community at a particularly testing time in her extended family’s life. Enter the hero, Ward Calder, an Army officer and friend of Luellen's brother, Franklin, who strikes just the right note of support, chivalry, and respect to earn the reader’s (and Luellen’s) gratitude.

Luellen’s dream of earning a teaching certificate, put on hold during her brief marriage, comes to the fore again, despite several daunting obstacles she must overcome or learn to live with in order to see this happen--including the haunting shameful secret of her failed marriage. 

Secondary characters encountered along the way included Belle, Luellen’s friend at the teaching college she attends. Another secondary character, introduced later in the book, is Leah. I found her story particularly compelling and woven skillfully into the major storyline, but will forbear any spoilers about this character. She’s best served up fresh. 

Luellen's story is set against a college experience, and training to become a teacher,  a refreshing change from the usual new-to-the-school-house experience most often found in books about young women of the mid-1800s who want to be teachers. College for women was an aspect of the 1800s I knew nothing about, but a reader learns a lot almost without realizing it, while being absorbed in the challenges and new experiences Luellen and Belle face. Luellen's determination is tested on every side, even by loved ones who misunderstand her, yet her true calling and gifting as a teacher shines through. The classroom scenes where Luellen learns to interact with young students were some of my favorites.

Though Ward and Luellen are often separated for long stretches of time, Ann Shorey keeps up the tension in their slow-burning relationship by bringing them together at key points. Ward, a man of honor and self-contained strength, is following his own dreams and career path in the Army, but he can’t forget Luellen, as she can’t forget him. But can the “once burned, twice shy” Luellen ever trust a man again?

Ann's vivid descriptions made the story come alive for me. Often as I read a historical I long for more description, or to better see (and smell and hear and taste) the scenes than what is offered on the page, as if the settings are skimming over, instead of delved into. I didn’t have that problem once with The Dawn of a Dream. And there are plenty of unexpected story twists from beginning to end. Just when I thought things were finally settling down and I could predict what was coming next, Ann threw another curve ball.

If you haven’t read the previous two books in the Beldon Grove series, it won’t hurt to start with this one. The Dawn of a Dream focuses on the daughter of the main character of the first book, The Edge of Light, but the story stands on its own.

Ann's website: http://www.annshorey.com/index.html
_________

I finished reading The Dawn of a Dream late last Friday night, and on Saturday Ann Shorey had a book signing at our local bookstore. Before the signing Ann and I met for lunch nearby, in company with several other writer friends. It was great to connect with Ann again, talk about her book, her upcoming series with Revell, and of course about the writing life. While the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference was happening down near Santa Cruz, we had our own mini writers conference at the local mall, and I left feeling buoyed in spirit and richer for having had that time to share with kindred souls. It happens far too infrequently for this stay-at-home hermit of a writer.

I'll leave you with a few pics from the day, and encourage you to check out Ann's At Home in Beldon Grove series, The Edge of Light (Kindle addition presently available free from Amazon) The Promise of Morning, and The Dawn of a Dream.


This photo of the group who met for lunch (minus Linda, who had to leave early) courtesy of Ann Shorey.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lauri on: Character Motivation

Here's my last post in which I'm sharing some of the writing craft wisdom my friend, Lauri Klobas, shared with me during a few intense months in which she taught me how to edit my badly over-written prose.

Not all of the advice she gave me had to do with trimming back needless description, though. She helped me define a few secondary characters that weren't coming across well, either because their motivation or role in the story was unfocused, or they were (no writer likes to hear this) coming across as a type, as cliche, not as individuals. She had one great tip for me that I've used since whenever any character, whether a viewpoint character or a secondary character who has an important role to play, has been less than forthcoming about their motives and goals (secondary characters do have goals too).

Lauri on: Getting a Handle on Secondary Characters & their Motivations

~ What I like to do in cases like this, is write something that will never be in the book—like the scene between [two secondary characters, up to no good] when they plan this. Sometimes, once you set them to talking, you can find out all sorts of interesting things about them that you didn’t know… and you get a better handle on what they know, and when, and it’s easier to show it to the other characters in the course of the story.

Max, one of the rescued kitties Lauri took into her home and heart, enjoying the LA sun. 

Thanks for remembering Lauri with me this week!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Lauri on: Trimming the Fat

This week on the blog I'm sharing the writing advice I received from Lauri Klobas, a friend I will always consider my first editor.

Lauri had a lot to teach me about trimming and tightening unfocused story elements and overwritten prose. I still over-write my first drafts, but through her editing of my historical, Kindred, bleeding bright red all over the screen, I'm able now to go back, after a cooling off period, and the excess wordage screams at me, instead of hiding itself.

Lauri on Tightening/Trimming/Hacking-Burning-Slashing

~ I truly think when you chart out the story on index cards* and see where one thing does not carry to another or closely resembles another chapter, you'll be chopping merrily through. Beta 4 (the version of Kindred she read) felt "loose" to me, not as focused as it could be.
*Using index cards to map out a novel, one card per scene or chapter, was something Lauri recommended to me to be sure all the scenes I'd written were really needed, or to spot places in the story where the pace was lagging, or I had neglected a subplot/character.
~ Don't get dramatic on me here (I must have whined, or threatened to wimp out and give up!). Look, a tree is nice but when it gets all overgrown, it overtakes everything else. Can't see around it, above it, through it... but a good trim and you have a lovely asset to the garden, that's all. And good heavens, don't I know how easy it is to get lost in a story, loving parts and wanting to keep parts... even though those branches are hanging in front of the window and impeding the view. We are too close to our work and it's hard to see it clearly.

~ After reading your blog post, I had a thought. When you go through and do the index card thing, it might be cool to note if the chapter is a Macro or a Micro. Meaning, if it is a big, all-encompassing chapter, you'll know it's a chapter that doesn't require details as deep as does a micro. For example, when Ian and Seona are [spoiler deleted], that's a micro, a small and private place and time. The details percolate through the scene. When Ian is on he road encountering the coffel of slaves, that's a Macro, a bigger scene. It's a place where the big details are described but you don't need the same depth as you would in a Micro.

Does that make any sense? It could be one way that will help you pare down the words because you don't need the ocean of description in every scene. It can be a bit suffocating to the reader-- so many details, sort of like a bell clanging in your head and it's too much, too close. That's the way I felt at the start with all of Ian's wounds. Not to mention, I didn't know him that well... those details worked just fine after [spoiler deleted]. By then, I knew him, I cared about him and what he was doing. He's still too new in the beginning so I would suggest going a bit easier there-- work on story to draw in the reader, rather than detail. It'll help the top of the book be more "taut and muscular," stuff that will capture the attention of an agent.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lauri on: Back Story

This week I've spent time reading over the emails exchanged with my friend Lauri, during the months I began the huge task of editing Kindred down to a manageable length. An element I'd struggled with was back story: where to put it, and how much needed to be included at all. Lauri's answer: later and less than one might think. Her suggestions seemed radical to me at first, but I eventually came around to realizing she was right. Much of what we discussed was specific to my story, but there were some general tips I could pull from the emails to share.

Lauri on Back Story:

~ "It's also pacing. As the story warms up, a dip into back story deadens momentum, stops the story arc and in this reader's mind, feels like the brakes are being put on. "Well, this happens-- but wait, let me tell you what happened LAST year so you can appreciate what is going on now.""

~ "Right NOW, after 50 pages, you are in a good position to start including backstory. Why? Because now you have a "sticky wicket" of problems for your protag who isn't crazy about slavery, but here he is, about to take charge of a hugh Carolina estate-- with slaves."

~ "I've used this backstory analogy before on the Forum... if one attends a cocktail party and says hello to someone who looks like someone you might like to know and you say, "How are you?" and they come back with, "Well, to tell you the truth, I'm not feeling all that good today. I went to the doctor and he said... blahblahblah... and then, my wife, she just started out with the same-old, salme-old... the kids were on my back. Then my car started making this screeching noise...." Well, we wonder what we have stumbled into and quickly try to get away from the barrage of Too Much Information."

~ "Do you ever listen to Dr. Laura on the radio? I worked on her short-lived TV show and even though I am pretty politically opposite of her, when it comes to people and their behaviors, I'm right with her. And I listen to her. I get a kick out of how she cuts to the quick on calls. People are just driven to give her back story. "Well, my mother and her sister never got along. When they were kids...." and Laura will say, "Tell what is bothering you about your mother." They'll say,"Well, like I said, my mother just didn't get along with her sister...." Often, after hearing just the pared-down version, Laura will ask for back story because she needs it to illuminate the problem. But people just feel they have to give a lot of background. And in the space of a radio show, there is no time for that. And it really isn't needed but callers feel obligated to give it."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Remembering Lauri Klobas

This week marks a year since my friend, Lauri Klobas, author and gifted critter, passed away after her third battle with breast cancer.

Lauri and I had known each other only on the Compuserve Books & Writers Forum when she graciously and unexpectedly volunteered to have a look at my historical novel, Kindred (which at the time was just under 300,000 words long), to see if she could help me edit it down, the challenge of which I'd posted about among the writers on the forum, probably many times. 

I've been reading through some of our saved correspondence from back in late 2007-08, the months that my writing life was totally consumed with editing Kindred to a length that an agent or editor would consider looking at. I've gleaned a few snippets of writing wisdom from Lauri that I'll be posting on the blog this week. For today, I'd like to share again my memorial for Lauri, originally posted April 16, 2010:
__________________________________
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.

Friday, April 08, 2011

What to blog?

There I was sitting at my computer at 5-something AM this morning, wondering what to blog about today, when I took a quick gander at my blog rolls over in the sidebar, and there's Jody Hedlund, one of the most consistent, prolific bloggers I know, blogging about what to say when you are out of ideas. If you've never read Jody's blog... it's full of informative posts about a novel-writer's debut experience, and the writing life in general.

But that doesn't let me off the hook for today. I've been blogging here since 2007, according to the dates in my archives. That's a long time for an unpubbed author to have kept up a running blog, posting 2-3 times a week, with no unscheduled gaps in posting (that I can recall, anyway). Blogging can be time consuming, brain-draining, and there's this thing called blogger burn out that happens to some. I've experienced it. It's part of the reason I usually only blog twice a week now.

As author Catherine West commented in Jody's post today, "I started to get stressed over my blog at one point, thinking about how it was a waste of time if nobody was reading it - well, I enjoy it, so it's not a waste of time."

That's the attitude I work on maintaining. I started blogging to see if I enjoyed it, if it was something I could maintain long term. For the most part I do, and can. Sometimes posts don't generate discussion. Sometimes they do. It's always fun when that happens.

It's also nice to have a place to mention good news in my writing journey. I have a small bit today. Just got the call from my ACFW Genesis Contest coordinator that my entry made it into the Semi-Final Round of judging. This is something new for the Genesis this year, an extra round of judging before the Final Round, and as I understand it, only three entries in each category will make it to that last round.

The best thing about the Genesis Contest is the detailed score sheets that come back after each round of judging. There's three of them each time. That's three judges' feedback on the first 15 pages and a one page synopsis, twice (in previous years)--for the first round and for the final round (in which editors and agents are the judges). This for a $35 entry fee. It's a very good deal. And since this is the first year I've been a first round judge (in a category other than the one I entered; dem's da rules), I know the amount of work (and prayer) that goes into judging these entries now. Far more than one might imagine.

I'm wondering if this year there will be three sets of three judges' score sheets, since they've initiated the extra Semi-Final judging round. In which my entry just slipped in (and this is starting to sink in)!

I'm excited for the feedback to come, and for making it this far.

Monday, April 04, 2011

What stays in the heart

I identify with that feeling of despair in seeing some scenes hit the cutting room floor. There’s one, out of all the scenes and parts of scenes I’ve cut from several novels, that haunts me still and I’m determined to slip back in between the pages one day, if given a chance.  

The above is part of a comment I left last week on Writer Unboxed, a writing blog that's fast becoming one of my most frequently visited. It was in response to a post by Stephanie Cowell, on the subject of creating a rising plot line, and the struggle she faces in that creation.

By her own admission, Stephanie isn't a plotter. She puts her characters on the page and follows them, and creates a plot in the process. I'm more of a plotter than that. In fact, my current novel in progress was more thoroughly plotted before I wrote the first word than any novel I've ever begun.

But when it comes to each chapter, each scene, I like to give my characters some wiggle room. I know the main plot points or character beats and conflict I want to hit, but I like to remain open to the characters saying something unexpected, or taking an action I hadn't foreseen weeks or months ago when I conceived their story line and what their goals and conflicts would be. When they do, I let them run with it for a bit to see what might come of it. There have been times when giving them rein led me to a revelation about their character that I mightn't have reached any other way.

But this writing method has its down side. It gives rise to some lengthy scenes and chapters, and the need to go back when I'm further along in the story, or perhaps not until the first draft is written, and trim, trim, trim back everything that I began to develop, or allowed the characters to indulge in, but proved unneeded later on.

This is needful for two reasons: tighter storytelling makes for a better paced and more compelling read, and my first drafts always run ridiculously far over the acceptable word count for CBA historical fiction. There's no choice but to cut.

Sometimes the cuts are just a line here and there, or a paragraph. Sometimes it's whole scenes that need to go, because they aren't pulling their story weight.There is always worth in the the scenes or partial scenes I end up having to cut, or I never would have written them. They deepen character, or give complexity to a conflict, or lend the overall story atmosphere and mood. But if they don't move the story forward as well, they have to go.

"I am always in despair of all the stuff I have to cut. It stays in my heart," Stephanie Cowell wrote at Writer Unboxed last week. It's true. There's a low level grieving process that goes on in my soul when this happens. Stephanie's post felt like an arm around the shoulder, a voice saying, "Yeah, I know. It hurts."

I'm sure Stephanie and I aren't the only writers who write long and then cut back. If you do this as well, have you developed any tricks for enduring the pain? Or does it get easier with time and practice? Are there more writers who write spare prose and find themselves having to go back and add material? I admit, that's something so foreign to my process that it's hard to imagine. Oh, the luxury to be able to add to a story!

~photo courtesy Carol Walker, Creative Commons, Wiki