Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book Launch: Before the Scarlet Dawn, by Rita Gerlach

From critically acclaimed novelist, Rita Gerlach, comes book 1 in 'The Daughters of the Potomac Series', a timeless tale of love and betrayal, loss and redemption against the backdrop of the American Revolution. 

Book 1 in the long awaited 'Daughters of the Potomac Series' by author Rita Gerlach.

Readers will grow attached to heroine Eliza Morgan, as she faces the hardships of colonial life when she leaves behind all she has in order to follow her heart and the man she loves into the Maryland wilderness.

* * *
On a windswept night in April of 1775, Eliza sat at her father’s bedside hoping he would recover. Forced to leave the home she grew up in, Eliza grows desperate. She could marry her former suitor, but cannot bear the thought of a loveless marriage.

Instead she falls in love with Hayward Morgan, the condescending son of a landed gentleman. When Eliza learns of his plans to leave England and build a life in the Maryland frontier, she decides to present a proposal of her own.

Visit author Rita Gerlach's new book launch page for more details on her new series, view the book trailer, and read the first chapter of Before The Scarlet Dawn for free!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom

"The past is where we get the raw material we use.... 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 Thom, The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction

James Alexander Thom is one of my favorite general market fiction writers, so when I learned last year that he'd written The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, I ordered a copy and read it at once. More than a nuts and bolts How To Write book, Thom's offering on the craft is in many ways more philosophical than I expected, but delightfully so. It's also peppered with humorous and thoughtful anecdotes that delve into his personal experiences of writing and researching historical fiction. The many examples taken from his novels are bound to interest any reader familiar with Thom and his work.

The book begins with a look at what Thom calls the River of Time. "The story of the world, of America.... flows like a river, and we are all in it--some of us dead, some old, some young, some as yet unborn." Making sure the characters we write come across believably as being in that River of Time farther upstream than the Now in which we write their stories, and offering techniques to help create this verisimilitude, is largely what the rest of the book is about. Unlike the historian, the historical novelist doesn't "[point] backward toward a past time, but [takes] the reader back to that time, back when that time was now, and [looks] forward to the uncertainty of the next hours and days." Thom spends chapters showing and telling how to make those long-ago moments "so vivid, so real, so sensuously complete and immediate that the reader is there, then, looking forward, not just here, now, looking back." Deeper into the book Thom writes, "Your characters are who they are because they enter that stream when and where they do. They are products of their time, and they do what they do because of the circumstances of history in which they find themselves."

Other topics covered are historical truth vs. fiction (the importance of accuracy and just how much fudging of the truth should a writer indulge in). Methods for researching, from book research to the internet to getting out and experiencing history physically. Genealogical research. Taming all that data once you've accumulated it. Starting your story. Writing to the senses. How NOT to write historical fiction. And when and how to orient the reader in another time and place, through setting and details: "As much as you can, you must be like someone who has lived there, because you're going to be not just the storyteller but also the tour guide taking your readers through the past."

The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction is written with an engaging voice that feels more like sitting in a classroom listening to a skilled lecturer telling story after story, and dropping nuggets of vital craft information along the way--or maybe more like a master storyteller sitting across the fire while behind you in the rustling dark owls hoot and coyotes yip. So listen and be entertained, but add another stick of wood to the fire and have your pen and journal ready, because you're about to learn a thing or two.

James Alexander Thom is the author of Follow the River, Long Knife, From Sea to Shining Sea, Panther in the Sky, Sign-Talker, and The Red Heart. He lives in the Indiana hill country with his wife, Dark Rain of the Shawnee Nation, United Remnant Band. You can find him on line at: www.jamesalexanderthom.com
This review was previously posted at Colonial Quills.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It's a Process

I've spent this month (which is flying by, can it already be the 18th??) doing the background research and developing ideas for two new stories. Now I've chosen one of them to push ahead with. Or one has chosen me. Its protagonists have grabbed hold of my heart, a plot has been spun, and already I'm on the verge of writing that first scene. Research is ongoing, and will be for months. But I thought it a good time here at the outset to jot down the nuts and bolts of my novel crafting process.

Every writer has a unique process by which he or she gets words on the page, then shapes them into a story. I'm always interested in other writers' processes, especially when they're different from my own.

Getting to know many writers over the years, I've noticed two extremes. On the one hand is the writer who pens her first drafts as fast as possible, then goes back and performs one or more substantial edits to bang it into shape. At the other extreme are those writers who write slowly and with such thorough editing as they go that what they end up with at the end of that first draft is pretty much the finished product.

Over the last three novels (since I began writing again after the chemo fog began to lift in 2004), four counting this new one, my process has evolved until I now find I'm somewhere in the middle of those extremes.

My process goes like this: before I start writing a first draft I do a few weeks of brainstorming (or several months if this is happening on the back burner while I'm still writing another novel) about the story as a whole, ending up with what I call a story salad. A story salad is bits and pieces of possible twists and turns, motives, settings, characters, names, connections, mysteries, secrets, hopes, and dreams all tossed together, maybe or maybe not hinting at a novel-worthy plot at this point.

Jesse goes to the Cherokee. 
Willa is struggling with some internal conflict. 
The overseer is making life tough for Seona. 
Daniel or Nathaniel... Danny or Nate.... or should I just go with William?

I create a master file that I fill full of this stuff, laying it down in what I think is chronological order (though it often proves otherwise).

My next step looks like this: When enough of this story salad gets tossed together that I start to sense a shape and a plot to the novel, I create an outline. I used to skip this step, but I found with the last book I wrote that arranging my story salad in a Three Act plot outline helped me keep the pacing in balance as I wrote. And I never lost sight of the main focus of the story. I won't adhere so rigidly to this outline that if a better twist occurs to me along the way I won't take it, but having the outline, reminding me what my original intentions for the story and the characters were, gives me a good base line for judging whether a sudden inspiration (or a character taking the reins) will make for a more exciting, nuanced, or intriguing story, or only prove a sidetrack.

Once I feel I'm ready to start writing, I find a scene to begin with. It may or may not end up being the actual first scene of the book. All it needs to be at this point is a scene early on in the story with something in it that's hooked me, captured my attention. One in which I see the character, feel his conflict, hear his dialogue. That scene I've been daydreaming about and running through my mind over and over more than any other. That'll do to begin, because I want to capture that character's voice as soon as possible. If I do, it will make pushing ahead with the writing work much smoother.

So to begin, I take whatever is there--that first chunk of story salad that looks like it would hang together as a scene (the phrases, maybe a snippet of dialogue, the what ifs, the historical timeline of an event where applicable, all the possibilities I threw out while brainstorming this story)--and create a rough draft of the scene. I do this in a screenplay format: present tense, bare bones setting, basic stage business, main story/conflict beats I plan to build this scene around, most of the dialogue (but rarely any tags beyond a name or even initial). Sometimes long strings of bare dialogue if I hear my characters talking, getting it down as quickly as possible without the distraction of setting or stage business.

By now I see the shape of the scene, that it has a beginning, middle, and end. I know what the main character is trying to accomplish, what his motive is, what the conflict will be, who or what forces are working against him. I put it away for a few hours, or overnight if I'm at the end of a work day. I probably jot down notes to myself about it as I work on dinner or do whatever I do of an evening.

Next writing session I go back to the beginning and begin what I consider my first draft. I listen for an opening sentence if I didn't write one yesterday, wait for it, and when I have something that resonates, off I go. I convert the story salad bits to past tense (in 1.5 spacing, which is the format I'm comfortable working in). I craft whole sentences, add dialogue tags, description, more stage business, really try to get into the skin of my point of view character and hear, see, smell, feel his world, his thoughts, his motivations. Internals spill out, I try to up the conflict, anything and everything that comes to mind at this point gets spilled out onto the page. I want it to look like a finished scene in a book. Of course it doesn't. It's got rambling parts, and parts that are too spare, and parts that don't need to be there at all. I've probably written 1000-1500 words and I'm exhausted. I put it away for the day and will come back to it tomorrow.

The second pass over a scene means drawing even more on the senses if I've skimped in spots, making sure description is in the character's voice and is appropriate for the scene and the pacing. Tweaking dialogue. More detail. Going deeper into character. Probably a few surprises pop up, things that hint a what's to come, making me jot down ideas and begin to formulate future scenes. 

Third pass, in which I realize this is all terribly overwritten and start analyzing what should stay, what should go. I strip out phrases and sentences and extraneous dialogue tags, while adding in bits here and there too.

Fourth pass, in which I've had a revelation that Something Else needs to be in that scene and so I work it in and finally (perhaps) understand what that scene is really about. More trimming to focus, not necessarily to make it shorter (that will come later).

At this point I might give the scene one more quick polish before moving on and repeating the process with the next scene. I'll do this over and over again until the book is finished. Then it's set aside for as long as possible to let the whole thing cool before I read through the entire story for the first time, as fast as I can, trying not to fiddle with it, but making notes for edits. 

Then, I start to edit. If there are any big changes in the story structure, they come first. Then my very favorite thing of all, editing line by line, polishing the prose, choosing better, stronger, more vivid language wherever possible. Getting lyrical where appropriate, reining in my tendency to overwrite and using restraint in other places. There always seems to be more trimming needed. I'll double check my sources for any historical facts that have begun to slip my memory to be triple sure I've been accurate. Lastly I'll do a search for words and phrases I tend to overuse and replace some of them and....

That's how I make a novel. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Rose Garden

Do you enjoy reading historical fiction? Time-travel? Books set in England/Cornwall? Mysteries? Danger? Adventure? The 18th century? Romance? Lyrical prose that will sweep you away to another time and place and create characters so vivid they live on after the last page? Have I got a book for you!

Back when I was trying to choose my favorite reads from 2011, Susanna Kearsley's latest, The Rose Garden, was near the top of the list. So I want to give special mention to this book, tell you a little about it, and why I liked it so (other than the above list of reasons!).

One of those reasons is explained well by Susanna herself, at The Heroine Addicts blog (Getting To Know You). It's about courtship (vs. sex scenes) and the fact that this is vanishing in the market in which Susanna writes (not so much in the Christian fiction market, since that's what we focus on when writing romance), and why she feels it's important not to lose this "getting to know you" aspect of relationships in fiction.

Go read her post and get this in her own words. 

Susanna has described the romantic scenes in her books as G-rated, and that's one of the qualities I appreciate about her novels. That doesn't mean the chemistry doesn't sizzle on the page at times, or the reader isn't hoping for and pulling for the characters every small step of the way as they do get to know one another.

Here's a blurb for The Rose Garden.

"Whatever time we have," he said, "it will be time enough."

Eva Ward returns to the only place she truly belongs, the old house on the Cornish coast, seeking happiness in memories of childhood summers. There she finds mysterious voices and hidden pathways that sweep her not only into the past, but also into the arms of a man who is not of her time.

But Eva must confront her own ghosts, as well as those of long ago. As she begins to question her place in the present, she comes to realize that she too must decide where she really belongs.

From Susanna Kearsley, author of the New York Times bestseller The Winter Sea and a voice acclaimed by fans of Gabaldon, du Maurier, and Niffenegger alike, The Rose Garden is a haunting exploration of love, family, the true meaning of home, and the ties that bind us together.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Writing multiple-character scenes

While sorting through my prodigious accumulation of research books in an effort to thin the herd, I was leafing through a book on 18th century gardens (which I decided I could not part with), and ran across a bookmark. It was a halfsheet of paper on which I'd written the goals for every character involved in a particularly complex and layered scene in my first 18th century historical.

The scene was likely written in 2004, perhaps 2005. There are four characters involved, all men, all with a certain agenda they want to see forwarded. The scene consists of a single conversation in which each character, a plantation/mill owner, a young journeyman joiner, his uncle, and a man all but one of the other three believe to be a slave, has to reach his goal, or keep another character from reaching his.

Sound complicated? I must have thought so. The following is what I wrote to help guide me through this scene, and create as much tension as possible (stuff in parentheses added for clarification):

1. Ian (new guy in town and POV character) wants to get through this unwanted social visit with grace. Once he sees it, he wants to obtain the mahogany. Once it becomes apparent what Pryce (Character 2) wants in trade for it, he wants to control Thomas (Character 3) and prevent him from staying at Chesterfield.

2. Pryce (Chesterfield plantation and mill owner) wants to make a good business deal. Sell some wood to this new blood and if possible trade it for the services of his "slave". He would like to see Ian as financially tied to him as is his uncle.

3. Thomas (who everyone but Ian thinks is a slave) wants to get himself situated at Chesterfield to view the treatment of the slaves there.

4. Hugh (Ian's uncle) wants to see Ian established and respected in the community and so encourages the intercourse with Chesterfield.

It's telling to me that back then, as now, I found it difficult to write a scene like this, with many characters working at cross purposes in a social situation in which they cannot resort to open conflict, without making a list of what each character's goal is in the conversation. By working out ahead of time what each character who participates in the conversation wants, I saved myself a lot of wheel-spinning while writing the first draft. It also lends itself better to subtext, because knowing what each character truly wants, what they actually say can be layered with meaning that body language can then convey.

Of course, that doesn't mean that if halfway through the scene inspiration strikes in the form of a character doing or saying something unplanned that it isn't duly considered as a possible better route to take, or a better motivation for said character to have. But starting with a guideline, or resorting to one if the first draft turns out to be a muddle, always helps clear things up so I can write (or rewrite) the scene with confidence and a firm grasp on the goal and agenda of each character involved.

Does this disqualify me from the Seat-of-the-Pantsters Writing Club?

Just kidding. I withdrew my membership years ago when I realized I was (despite one noticeable lapse) a confirmed Plotter. 

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Books I read in 2011

New Year!

I'm kicking off 2012 on the blog by posting the books I read, fiction and nonfiction, over the past year. This is the second year I've kept a record of my reading, and while I didn't read as many books in 2011 as I did in 2010, still it's a pretty respectable list.

I could have created about a dozen categories in order to include all my "favorites" from the year. Instead, I'm only going to pick one novel and one book of nonfiction, and explain why that book had an impact on me, why I'm still thinking about it weeks, maybe months, later. But first the whole list:

1. The Land Breakers, by John Ehle
2. The Shape of Mercy, by Susan Meissner (audio)
3. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (audio)
4. The Preacher's Bride, by Jody Hedlund
5. To Say Nothing of the Dog, or How We Found The Bishop's Bird Stump At Last, by Connie Willis (audio, narrated by Steven Crossley)
6. Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, by Stephanie Barron
7. Christmas with Tucker, by Greg Kincaid (audio)
8. Maid to Match, by Deeanne Gist
9. Beastly, by Alex Flinn (audio)
10. The Capricorn Bracelet, by Rosemary Sutcliff
11. The Dawn of a Dream, by Ann Shorey
12. Mine is the Night, by Liz Curtis Higgs
13. Lady in Waiting, by Susan Meissner
14. Love Amid the Ashes, by Mesu Andrews
15. Cottonwood Whispers, by Jennifer Erin Valent
16. Sign-Talker, by James Alexander Thom
17. Catching Moondrops, by Jennifer Erin Valent
18. Jane and the Man of the Cloth, by Stephanie Barron
19. Warrior Woman, by James Alexander Thom
20. Who Comes to King's Mountain? by John Louis Beatty & Patricia Beatty
21. The Warrior's Path, by Louis L'Amour 
22. The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom 
23. Waterfall, by Lisa T. Bergren
24. Cascade, by Lisa T. Bergren 
25. The Man with the Silver Eyes, by William O. Steele 
26. Wayah of the Real People, by William O. Steele 
27. Cherokee Dragon by Robert Conley
28. Long Knife, by James Alexander Thom 
29. Torrent, by Lisa T. Bergren 
30. Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks (audio) 
31. Ransome's Quest, by Kaye Dacus 
32. Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks (audio) 
33. Flaming Arrows, by William O. Steele 
34. Love Remains, by Kaye Dacus
35. Tomahawk Border, by William O. Steele 
36. The Buffalo Knife, by William O. Steele
37. The Year The Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice (audio) 
38. The Year of the Bloody Sevens, by William O. Steele 
39. The Rose Garden, by Susanna Kearsley 
40. The Children of First Man, by James Alexander Thom 
41. The Colonel's Lady, by Laura Frantz 

1. The Art of Subtext, Beyond Plot, by Charles Baxter
2. Boston 1689-1776, by G. B. Warden
3. America's First Western Frontier: East Tennessee, by Brenda C. Calloway
4. Nancy Ward, Cherokee Chieftainess, Dragging Canoe, Cherokee-Chickamauga War Chief, by Pat Alderman
5. The Wataugans, by Max Dixon
6. Trail of Tears, by John Ehle
7. Blue Ridge Range, The Gentle Mountains, by Ron Fisher
8. The Cherokee, by Barbara A. McCall
9. Cherokee, by D. L. Birchfield
10. The Cherokees, by Eileen Lucas
11. The Cherokee Nation: Life Before the Tears, by Madeleine Meyers
12. Cherokee History, Myths and Sacred Formulas, by James Mooney
13. The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People, by N. Brent Kennedy
14. Melungeons Yesterday and Today, by Jean Patterson Bible
15. The Sisters of the Sinai, by Janet Soskice
16. American Colonies, by Alan Taylor
17. Boone, A Biography, by Robert Morgan
18. The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, by James Alexander Thom (forgot to add this one when I actually read it a few months ago... thanks Caroline for jogging my memory!)

Sign-Talker by James Alexander Thom was the sixteenth novel I read this year, so it was likely sometime back in the spring when I finished it. I haven't stopped thinking about it, or about George Drouillard, the French/Shawnee hunter and interpreter Lewis and Clark hired (Dec 1803) to accompany them on the journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1804. This is the story of the entire journey of the Corps of Discovery told from Drouillard's point of view. The story continues past the Corps' return, to the years Drouillard spent as a fur trader in the beautiful untamed Yellowstone country he fell in love with on his travels with the captains. Of him Lewis wrote: A man of much merit; he has been peculiarly usefull from his knowledge of the common language of gesticulation, and his uncommon skill as a hunter and woodsman; those several duties he performed in good faith, and with an ardor which deserves the highest commendation. It was his fate also to have encountered, on various occasions, with either Captain Clark or myself, all the most dangerous and trying scenes of the voyage, in which he uniformly acquited himself with honor.

By the time I'd finished this novel I agreed with Lewis's assessment, and it was terribly hard to turn that last page of the book. I'm now reading a biography of the man, George Drouillard: Hunter and Interpreter for Lewis and Clark and Fur Trader, 1807-1810, by M. O. Skarsten. I've read many books and watched many documentaries about the Corps of Discovery, but now when I think of that journey it's Drouillard who comes to mind first, not the men who led the expedition.*

* Sign-Talker is a mainstream historical novel. Life on the American frontier was often brutal, and this book doesn't shy away from portraying it as such.

Unlike Sign-Talker, I finished Boone, A Biography, by Robert Morgan yesterday, just under the wire for it to be included in my 2011 list. This book was read for writing research, and I devoured it as I would have a page-turning novel. Perhaps it's because Morgan writes fiction too that his biography of the frontiersman Daniel Boone reads like a novel. Although Daniel Boone himself may never wander into any of my stories (I'm not saying he won't), I've learned more about the mid to late 18th century frontier settlement from this one book than many others put together, and it's given me many possibilities for one of the new stories that have been simmering on a back burner in my head, and which I plan to plot out in the coming weeks.

I've decided I could happily spend the rest of my days reading such works of history as Boone, A Biography, gleaning little nuggets to work into my own fiction, and live a contented life.

I hope you read some good books in 2011 too. Did you have a favorite novel, or work of nonfiction? Feel free to share about them in the comments. It's from such comments that I find many of the books I end up loving too.
So here's to 2012, and all the books yet to be written, read, and savored!