Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why I write Colonial American Fiction

Well, technically I don't write Colonial American fiction, but I do write fiction set in the late 18th century, which is pretty close. And if these nudgings and whisperings from characters in the wings mean what I think they mean, after my current work in progress is finished I'll be writing a story set during the Revolutionary War, which is even closer.

Over at Colonial Quills, historical writers are discussing why they write colonial fiction, among them Laura Frantz (author of The Frontiersman's Daughter, and Courting Morrow Little).

Come on over and visit.

I chimed in with this:

I'd love to claim an abiding interest in early American history as the catalyst for choosing this time period to write about. But the truth of it is, when I had a story idea back in 2004 that took place on a Piedmont plantation, had to do with slavery issues, and happened well before the Civil War, I chose the 1790s over an early 1800s time period for the sole reason that I wanted my male characters to wear knee breeches, not trousers. I'd seen the movie, The Patriot, and found that particular clothing item of the 18th century most fetching. :)

Now, all these years of writing and research later, I believe a more profound guidance was at work as well. I've fallen madly, obsessively in love with the 18th century (particularly the Revolutionary and early Federal eras) and the ideals, conflicts, failures, and triumphs of that generation of frontiersmen, warriors, farmers, slaves, and natives. I can't get through the research for one story without stumbling across an account of some happening so intriguing and adventuresome and daring that a new story idea explodes across my mind like popcorn over a fire. I don't think we've more than scratched the surface yet.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

When they die in the end

I thought about posting this question on Facebook, but realized it's a little more involved than that format allows.

Here's the thing; today I'm finishing up a novel (reading) in which the main character dies in the end. I didn't know this was how the book ended when I began reading it. It's a book by one of my favorite authors, about one of my favorite historical events of the early 19th century. The book is based on the life of a real individual and the storyline follows that life faithfully.

About halfway through reading the book, which I've thoroughly enjoyed, I became so interested in this individual that I googled him and learned the end of his story--and realized by the dates in the front of the book that the novel I was reading would cover his death.  

Ruh Roh, said Scooby-Doo.

By that time I was so invested, and the writing was so good, and I was so deeply attached to this character, I decided to finish it anyway.

Now, with a few pages to go, it's breaking my heart. I can read about a page at a time and then have to put the book down, my heart wrenched with what I know is about to happen to this character. How can this book have even a satisfying ending? Will this character achieve any of the inward goals he's had all along, the longings of his soul that have never been fulfilled? Or will it only be in death, somehow, that he finds fulfillment? I can see that as a possible outcome.

I'll come back later today, or whenever I can bring myself to finish this story and say good-bye to this wonderful character, and share my thoughts in the comment section.

Qs4U: Would you read a novel if you knew going in that the MC dies in the end? Have you ever felt cheated when a main character died at the end of a novel, and you didn't see it coming? 

In answer to that last one, I certainly have. In answer to the former, if the writing was good, if it sang for me, if the setting and story world were richly drawn and fascinating, then yes, I probably would.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Flightless Bird

Flightless, because they are no more.

Today I just wanted to give a shout out to a bird that used to grace our eastern forests, the Carolina Parakeet

These bright, beautiful birds were driven to extinction by the early 1900s, but in 1787 they would still have presented a startling, lovely sight in the old growth forests of western North Carolina.

I was pleased today to give a couple of Carolina parakeets new literary life in my current scene in progress.

So here's a longish (first drafts always are) descriptive passage from The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn, written today:

In the dogtrot between their cabins, Tamsen perched on a stool while Julia Holcomb rubbed a salve into her hands, cut and blistered after helping harvest corn in the fields.

“It’s rendered hog fat," Julia said of the salve. "With sweet-balm and mallow-root from my garden.” Though she’d spent hours at the same task, Julia’s hands, accustomed to such work, were barely reddened.

“And rose petals?” Tamsen asked, detecting the pleasing scent—obtained, no doubt, from the canes climbing trellises around the cabin, still producing a few pink blossoms in mid-October. Beyond the roses and abundant lavender beds, late root vegetables and herbs still clung on valiantly in neat, fenced plots.

Across the slopes of the hollow sparks of autumn’s flaming hues promised what would soon be a glorious blaze, yet Tamsen couldn’t help wishing she’d come there in springtime instead. The cleared acres of Nate Holcomb’s land, especially those around the cabin he’d built near a spring—which cooled the butter and cheeses Julia made—must be a veritable Garden of Eden in the warmer months.

With the flora came fauna aplenty. Since her arrival Tamsen had counted four cats--including the hopeful gray that had visited them in the barn--two dogs, six goats, a cow, an oxen team, three hogs, two horses, a rooster with a harem of hens, and a large wicker cage beneath the dogtrot, hung on a cabin wall, where in all weather save the dead of winter, Bethany kept a pair of nesting parakeets. Tamsen had heard of such birds, with their brilliant green and yellow plumage and ruddy-feathered heads, but had never seen one east of the mountains. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Filling the Well

Lately I've been blessed with good fiction, novels I've either hunted down or had recommended or merely stumbled across in the comment thread of one of the many blogs I visit during the week. Good fiction is subjective, of course, but I know it when I read it.

I know it because it does more than entertain me for an hour before bedtime.

It fills my creative well--with beautifully crafted description of setting, or emotion, or physical appearance, using sentences and phrases that strike me as fresh and specific and just so perfectly right, that I stop and read them again and again, without ever breaking the story-dream the writer has woven.

Creativity-refreshing fiction is in the eye of the beholder, but here are some titles and authors that are doing it for me:

Love Amid the Ashes
by Mesu Andrews

Cottonwood Whispers
by Jennifer Erin Valent

by James Alexander Thom

Jane and the Man of the Cloth
by Stephanie Barron

And a brand new discovery (I can't wait to read more of their books)
John & Patricia Beatty
Who Comes to King's Mountain?

These books have a wonderful rare chemistry with me, and somehow peel back the veil between my plodding everyday mind to the part of my brain where stories swirl like mist, and show themselves in glimpses. They're the kind I want to lose myself in and savor, and simultaneously jump up and work on my own manuscripts for all the fresh inspiration they stir up.

So what books have filled your well, and made you want to jump into your own creative endeavors?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: Love Amid The Ashes

Love Amid The Ashes
Mesu Andrews
Baker/Revell 2011

An epic story of love and forgiveness, suffering and restoration

When her beloved grandfather Isaac dies, Dinah must follow his final command: travel to Job’s household to marry his son. After Job’s world comes crashing down, Dinah finds herself drawn to this great man brought low. What will she risk to fight for his survival?


I’ve read the Biblical account of Job many times, but after reading Mesu Andrews’s Love Amid the Ashes, I’ll never read it the same way again. Nor will I ever skim over Dinah’s name in the Genesis account without feeling deeply the pain and shame she must have suffered, whatever was the truth of her feelings toward Shechem, the prince who wanted to marry her, and whom her brothers murdered.

I first heard of Love Amid the Ashes through a review by Ruth at Booktalk & More, and was instantly intrigued by the premise--the entwining of Job’s and Dinah’s lives and stories. It had never occurred to me that these two people walked the earth at the same time, the time of the Jewish Patriarchs, or had any part in the others life. There’s a very good reason why Mesu Andrews conceived of this story, but more about that later in this review.

Even such an intriguing premise would not have held my attention if the execution of it was weak, but Love Amid The Ashes hooked me in the first chapter, seen from Dinah’s point of view, in the tent camp of her father, Jacob. We first meet Job from her point view as well, as a man who has come forward to offer his eldest son as a husband for the outcast and scorned Dinah. His compassion for Dinah, and his ability to see her through the eyes of a forgiving father, was immediately endearing to me as well as to Dinah, who comes to respect and love him as her future father-in-law.

Dinah’s journey from shame and living under the stigma of her past with Shechem, to an understanding of who she is in God’s sight, is a triumph of grace and faith and spirit. Dinah was a woman of strength and faithfulness who, though badly wounded by the scorn of those who saw her as tainted, had the heart of a servant, first for her ailing grandfather, Isaac, then for Job in his long months of suffering.

Job’s journey through the greatest loss and suffering imaginable is well known from scripture, and Mesu Andrews doesn’t shrink from holding true to the Biblical account. Experiencing these sufferings from Job’s point of view was wrenching at times, but ultimately builds great compassion and sympathy for the man that has lasted long after I finished reading the story. Love Amid the Ashes has knit my heart with this great man's down all these thousands of years. To Dinah as well, though the truth of her story is less well known.

Both Job and Dinah take on flesh and blood, passion and heart, in the pages of this novel, but the secondary characters, some historical, some not, pull their story weight admirably. There’s Dinah’s faithful Cushite handmaid, Nogahla, Job’s wife, Sitis. Her childhood friend turned merchant turned neighbor, Sayyid. Sayyid’s enigmatic captain, Aban. Elihu, Job’s prized student, who intended to marry his youngest daughter. There’s Jacob’s red mountain of a brother, Esau, and Job’s friends we know from scripture, who come to comfort him and fail miserably at the job. All play vibrant roles in the story, some for good, some for evil, some a little of both. Although it’s clear from scripture that Job’s suffering came straight from Satan’s hand, in Love Amid the Ashes, Satan has a “little helper” on earth in the form of a flesh and blood nemesis who eagerly twists the knife of Job’s suffering, and that of his wife’s, more deeply still, adding intrigue and suspense to an already wrenching story. It’s the secondary characters, and my lack of knowledge of Dinah’s (possible) outcome, that made me uncertain just how this story would end.

Forgiveness, faith, the whys of suffering, the sovereignty of God, and the goodness of God, are all themes explored in Love Amid the Ashes. Overall an impressive debut novel, powerful and heart-wrenching, ultimately heart-warming, especially with a twist at the end that was hinted at, and I’d hoped we would get to see—and Mesu Andrews didn’t disappoint. 

The only weakness: descriptions were sometimes more vague than I’d have wished for. A clearer picture of some of these almost fantastic settings, based on the rock city of Petra, which I’ve only seen in photos and through the eyes of an Israeli friend who guided tours there for many years (his photos accompany this review), would have been welcome. But the most important aspect of any fiction genre, compelling storytelling, is something Mesu Andrews has, in my opinion, already mastered. I’ll be waiting eagerly for her next offering. 

The Siq, entrance to Job's city of Uz

Job's city of Uz
A few more notes:

~ the generational flow chart at the start of the novel is much appreciated, though I had no trouble keeping all the secondary and minor characters straight.

~ the scripture passage at the head of each chapter lent gravitas and pathos to both the story and the scripture.

~ the author's note at the end of the book explains how she developed the story. I was surprised to find that elements I assumed were fictional have some basis in historical fact. Mesu Andrews's research is impressive. I learned quite a bit, while being entertained, and feel the richer for it.

~ Love Amid the Ashes has one of the most beautiful covers I've seen lately. Good work, Revell design team. Click on the cover for a full sized view. Just gorgeous!

~ I've reviewed this novel without any prompting or compensation by anyone or their publisher. :-)

~ Photos of Petra by Netanel Nickalls, used by permission.

Visit Mesu Andrews' website

Read the first chapter of Love Amid the Ashes

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Writing pace and plotting

This week I'm taking a break from writing Jesse (working title of my novel-in-progress) to do some brainstorming, scene-scaping, and plotting out in more detail of the last two-thirds of the story.

I've never taken a novel that was only one-third written and plotted it out, scene-by-scene, all the way to the end, but I feel the need to do so this time around. My usual method is to keep a sketchy outline, which I  expand into a more detailed scene-by-scene outline--but only a chapter or two ahead of where I'm writing.

That is, when I write a novel linearly (from Chapter 1 straight through to The End). I've been known to jump around and write a novel in out-of-order chunks. Doubtful if I'll ever write one that way again though.

During my recovery from chemo fog, when I was retraining myself to write, writing whatever scene I could see clearly, no matter where it might happen to fit in the overall story, was what I had to do to keep myself engaged in the process of coming to the computer every day, to beat down resistance and keep my spirits up. It worked very well. I did finish that novel, and called it Kindred. But the first draft came in at a whopping 325,000 words.

After a lot of sweat and tears, it's a much slimmer 126,000. Most of the excess that needed trimming came from the fact that writing it out of sequence, I never knew in any given scene what might prove important later, and what wouldn't, so I chocked those scenes full of anything and everything that seemed interesting or relevant. For me, writing in chunks without an outline equaled an extremely overwritten manuscript lacking in focus, until I began hacking back that excess, with a great deal of help.

While it enabled me to write again after a long frustrating dry season, that sort of editing is not a job I ever want to tackle again. Hence the plotting. My guess is that in the long run I'll have much less anxiety during the first draft writing process than I'm prone to have when I can't see as clearly where I'm headed with the story, and hanging over me like a sword is the knowledge that there's a word count cap publishers prefer an author heed, but that I'm liable to blow past and leave in the dust if I give myself too much freedom in the first draft.

Many authors will advise new writers not to edit themselves in the first draft, to give themselves freedom. I see the wisdom in that in most cases. But for me? It leads to excess, and more work and worry later. I think I'm going to have to be a plotter, unless I want to take five years to write each book, which is how long Kindred took me to write and then cut back into a publishable form. The book I wrote after that, which I plotted quite a bit more and wrote linearly, took eighteen months and came in at just under 130,000, which I then cut back closer to 120,000.

Jesse, I'm hoping, will take me less than a year. I began writing it on February 8th with a more detailed outline than I'd ever started with before, and by May 8th had written a third of the story. If I can keep up the same pace, I'll have the first draft written in nine months. That would be very very cool. But a year is my goal.

I wonder if anyone else has experienced a morphing of their writing process over time. I've had twenty years and a shot of chemotherapy in the middle of things to change how my brain works out this complex process of novel writing. Anyone else find themselves changing from a plotter to a non-plotter (a seat-of-the-pantser), or vice versa?

Monday, May 09, 2011

Colonial Quills

I've been eagerly waiting to share with you about a new website devoted to promoting Colonial American fiction...

... where you'll find:

Fiction Sampler 
(spotlighting a novel and author)

In Ye Olden Days 
(historical facts and trivia about life in Colonial America)

Tools of the Trade 
(writing and research tips, particularly for 18th century fiction)

Colonial Recipes

Colonial Quills will feature fiction and historical topics relevant through 1800 and perhaps a little beyond, including the Revolutionary War and the early Federal Period, which is very good since I'm a contributor and so far I've written novels set in the mid 1780s to the 1790s, just a wee bit after the Colonial period.

Come visit us at Colonial Quills, and say hello to my fellow contributors:

Carrie Fancett Pagels
Laura Frantz (The Frontiersman's Daughter, Courting Morrow Little)
Carla Gade
Laurie Alice Eakes (Lady in the Mist)
Rita Gerlach (Surrender the Wind)
Louise M. Gouge (The Captain's Lady)
J. M. Hochstetler (Daughter of Liberty, Native Son)
Pat Iacuzzi
Lynn Squire
Jennifer Hudson Taylor
Gina Welborn
Roseanna White (Love Finds You in Annapolis, Maryland)

Friday, May 06, 2011

Come Monday....

Watch this spot for some news, come Monday.

No, not that news. Other news. Good news. Or maybe I should call it an announcement. Or... an invitation. Yes, I'll call it all of those.

You'll just have to wait and see....

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A Walk in the Woods

Having plotted stories on trails from the east coast to the west coast, over a span of twenty years, I've learned to never underestimate the power of a good walk in the woods to get the plot ideas flowing.

It probably helps that most of the stories I write have at least one scene set on a trail over mountains or between neighboring frontier cabins, so there's always a research element involved in hiking for me. But I think it's more than that. There's something in the purely physical activity of hiking--breathing clean air, getting the blood pumping--and the inspiring scenery and wildlife encountered, that gets those creative juices flowing. By now I've trained my brain to go exploring down a maze of story paths as soon as my hiking boots hit the trail.

Brian and our old dog, Hiero, on a trail in the Cascades, one snowy spring

Sunday after church my husband, dog, and I drove out to one of our favorite mountain lakes on the Rogue River. We hiked to Blue Grotto. It's a five mile round trip, or near about, and it was the warmest day we've had so far for hiking this spring. I'm a hot weather wimp. Let the temps get much above 70 and I find steep hiking a slog. Sunday's afternoon temperature was right on the border of what I can handle, which meant I wasn't talking much as we hiked, which meant my mind was wandering down its own paths. And a few knotty plot issues for the upcoming chapters in my WIP got themselves untangled.

I now know:

~ who kidnaps a certain character, and how that character gets away.
~ how two characters are introduced earlier, when I need them to be
~ how to correct the present problem of my antagonist having fallen out of the story for too long
~ who the third POV character is going to be, and why
~ that ring that popped up out of nowhere in a recent scene, complete with a history that caught me totally by surprise, has an inscription on the inside of the band. I wonder what it will say?

This ring is like a character that pops on stage unexpectedly and insists they have an important part to play in the story. Generally I let them stay, though they can be hard to manage. But when they (in this case it) fit so perfectly, it's reassuring to a writer. To this writer. It gives me the feeling that this story exists already, somewhere in my soul. Like a vein of ore hidden beneath common old rock, that I sit here each day and chip away at. When story elements like this ring coming spilling onto the screen, unplanned, but right, it feels like striking gold.

All that, and I got great exercise too. And spent time with my husband and our dog in a beautiful setting, and incidentally was reminded that whenever I have my character trekking over mountains or along rivers or through woods, I need to have them dive-bombed by pesky droning flies and bees on a fairly regular basis!

So what's your favorite non-writing activity in which you actually are writing, just not obviously to the untrained eye?