Monday, December 28, 2009

What to do while you're waiting

Anna Elliott, author of Twilight of Avalon, graciously asked me to guest post on her blog about what I do while waiting to hear back from editors on submissions. I gave her a shout out when I noticed her on a historical fiction forum and realized we shared the same agent. Thanks so much, Anna!

You can find the post here. Please note that I left out 1) Don't bug your agent too much and 2) Hide under the blankets, moaning to self... not that I do either of those things (ahem).

Until later,

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Very Merry Christmas!

Here's wishing you all many joyous memories this Christmas. And for 2010, may you all find wisdom, know love and make a difference, whether large or small.

Best wishes,

Monday, December 21, 2009

Why read at all?

If we read non-fiction in order to learn something, be it a how-to manual on building kitchen cabinets or a Laura Schlessinger self-help book to figure out how we muck up our relationships, then why do we read fiction? To escape? To be entertained? Or maybe, just maybe, to learn something about ourselves and what it is to be human?

For my birthday, I received four novels - three from two of my favorite authors (Mitch Albom and Philippa Gregory) and one new one (Carolly Erickson). Over the weekend my 'office' (read: corner of the bedroom where I peck out tomes on an ancient computer which sits on a desk made out of an old door and plywood) was... not there. New carpet necessitated moving everything to other parts of the house and since I'm still painting the trim, I've been without a workspace for two days now. So with some downtime on my hands, I began reading one of those books. And for awhile, I lost myself in a story about a queen who lived nearly 500 years ago in a country on another continent. Hours slipped by without notice, until my eyelids began to droop and the yawning kicked in. It was nearly midnight.

Last month I blogged about 'Why read historical fiction'? Since then, I've been thinking about why we read novels at all. What do we get out of it? The answer, I think, isn't all that complicated. They make us feel connected to other human beings. They validate our feelings and experiences. You know, all those uncomfortable things like grief, unrequited love, betrayal, failure... And the highs as well, like triumph through perseverance, unconditional love and hope.

I recommend that every now and then, we all shut off our computers, turn off our cell phones, and forget paying the bills. Sink into a book. Find some peace there. Find yourself.

Until later,

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What's in a name?

Does it really matter what an author's name is? If you were to read the most lyrical, touching poem ever written, the kind that clenches your heart and lingers in your mind, and then discover it was penned by someone named Heironimus Finkleschmidt, does that change your perception of the work itself?

If you've already found value and meaning in the words, perhaps not. But let's say you're at the bookstore looking for something new to read. Let's further assume that you're a woman scanning the spines of the romance section. Which book would you pull out to skim: Blazing Hearts by Warburton Nischwitz... or Hearts on Fire by Constance de Clare? What if you're a physicist perusing scholarly texts - which would you likely read: a thesis on string theory by Bambi Snowflower, or one by Steven A. Rogers? Now be honest.

The picture above is of George Eliot, author of the novels Silar Marner and Middlemarch. Her real name was Mary Ann Evans. What's wrong with the name 'Mary Ann Evans' you say? Nothing really. A bit plain, perhaps, but easy to pronounce and short. Evans, er... Eliot wrote under a pen name (or nom de plume) for both professional and personal reasons. For one, she felt she would be taken more seriously in the publishing world as a male author. For another, she was openly living with a married man, George Henry Lewes.

Authors use pen names for a myriad of reasons:

1) They like their anonymity - What if you've written from personal experience about drug abuse, marital infidelity or mental illness and you happen to be functioning just fine and want to keep the job and friends you have? Also, writers, by nature, are often reclusive souls who need their peace and quiet in order to be productive.

2) They write in multiple genres - Norah Roberts (romance author) writes as J.D. Robb (erotic thrillers). This makes each of their works easily classifiable.

3) They write in a genre predominantly read and written by members of the opposite gender - I know this is sexist, but it's true. We don't expect women to write fast-paced, brutal battle scenes or crime fiction about serial killers, nor do we expect men to write tender Regency romance centered on a young heroine, especially if it's written in first person. Yes, intellectually we know there are exceptions, but the expectation is that we'll identify more strongly with members of our own sex - something strongly ingrained in us. I may have cut my literary teeth on Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers, but most of my female classmates were probably reading Danielle Steele at the same time.

4) They are actually 'they' - Sometimes a collective of authors publish a series under a single name. The currently popular Young Adult Fantasy series about bands of cats, Warriors, by the authors (Kate Gary, Cheryth Baldry and Victoria Holmes) known singularly as Erin Hunter is one.

4) Their real name is too long, too odd, too ethnic... or maybe they just don't like it - Um, to this day I do not answer to my real first name. It's just not me. It never was. And while, as a youngster, I frequently cursed my parents for giving me such an unusual name, I embrace it now, except that the first name will always be an initial, because I don't want people calling me... oh, never mind. But if I had been born Mary Ann Evans, I probably would've chosen a pen name with a little more originality and memorability, too.

So does it matter to you what an author's name is? Does it matter what gender or ethnicity they are? Would we remember William Shakespeare with the same admiration if he had been named Gomer Pickens? Would he have been discovered at all?

Until later,

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What do you Google?

Besides your own name, that is. Recently a writing friend asked me whether I did all my research before starting to write a book, or as I went along. Well, both actually. It's a never-ending process. Usually, I do a few months' research on historical events and figures first - highlighting books and writing notes. Then I type up a timeline, chew on it for awhile and fish out where the story lies. An outline emerges and while I'm writing the story, I stop and look up specifics that will flesh out the scene. Often, when I'm getting the bones down, meaning the action and dialogue, I just leave 'XXX's or [MORE HERE] - notations that tell me to fluff it up later.

So, I counted more than 70 books within arm's reach: biographies, historical non-fiction and resources (wildlife, locale setting, castles/abbeys/monasteries, weaponry, food, knights, warfare, costumes, medieval life, etc.). I've probably checked out as many again from the library. I once had a system going for which I had G.W.S. Barrow's Robert the Bruce checked out for nearly two years (it was an out of print book and money was tight). When it was overdue, I'd return it and then go check it out again the next day and renew it three more times. Wash, rinse, repeat. Fortunately for me, no one else in Springfield, Ohio at that time had the same obsession I did.

There is no more room on my wall shelf for books, so there are stacks on top of the properly lined up books, stacks on the desk, and stacks on the floor... along with spiral binders and loose papers of printed web pages. I love my books, but sometimes I just need a tidbit and so I surf the net. It occured to me recently if the FBI ever confiscated my computer, they'd find some weird internet searches on it: 'pestilence', 'trebuchet', and 'medieval execution'.

Research certainly slows the writing process down, but it also enriches what you're writing. And I enjoy it because I feel like I'm always learning something I didn't know the day before. So what do you Google when you write?

Until later,

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

And the Greatest Scot is...

according to the results of an STV poll revealed yesterday (St. Andrew's Day): Robert Burns.

I was, of course, rooting for Robert the Bruce or William Wallace, but I heartily admit to having warbled many hours away in my car while singing the refrains from Old Blind Dogs' rendition of For a' that and a' that - 'Is There for Honest Poverty', or The Chieftains' version of MacPherson's Farewell - The Long Black Veil. And what would we sing on New Year's Eve at midnight, if not for Rabbie's Auld Lang Syne?

I don't know what the final tally of votes was, but also in the running along with Wallace and the Bruce were some very recognizable names, such as: writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J K Rowling; entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie and inventor Alexander Graham Bell; actor Sean Connery and singer Annie Lennox; and the man who discovered penicillin, Sir Alexander Fleming.

So here's an homage to my Scottish ancestors, from Rabbie himself:

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart's in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild deer and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Until later,

Friday, November 27, 2009

Queen Isabella

Often referred to as the ‘She-Wolf of France’, the 14th century English queen, Isabella, has been a poorly understood historical figure – her motivations and actions tainted by the biased pen-stroke of past chroniclers.

Isabella was born in 1295 in Valois, France, to King Philip IV of France and Queen Jeanne of Navarre. In 1308, she married King Edward II of England at Boulogne, France. He was 23 and she was not yet 13. It was a union meant to secure peace between the two most powerful kingdoms in Christendom; instead, it ended in the greatest scandal of their time.

Isabella’s life cannot be understood without first examining the men who played a part in it. From the beginning, more than the age difference separated Isabella and Edward, for when they arrived in Dover, the king was effusively greeted by his ‘favorite’, Piers Gaveston. Three times in the years to come, parliament decreed that Gaveston had corrupted the king and exiled him. When Gaveston returned the third time, without their consent, he was pursued, taken into custody and then executed. Despondent, Edward turned to Isabella, who thus far had displayed nothing but the utmost loyalty toward him. She bore him four healthy children: Edward, John, Eleanor, and Joan.

It may have seemed as though all was now well between the king and queen; however, a new sycophant had entered into the picture following Edward’s humiliating defeat at Bannockburn in 1314. His name was Hugh Despenser the Younger.

Just as he had with Gaveston, Edward soon began heaping titles and possessions upon Despenser. Ultimately, Despenser too was exiled. Embittered, Edward gathered an army and pursued Sir Roger Mortimer, a formerly loyal Marcher lord who had risen in protest. At Shrewsbury, Mortimer gave himself up, believing he would be pardoned, but he was promptly imprisoned in the Tower of London. With his enemies subdued, Edward recalled Despenser.

In desperation, Isabella wrote to her brother, King Charles of France, for help.

Sometime during 1323, it is believed that Isabella visited Mortimer in the Tower. Then, in August, after the castle garrison celebrated the Feast of St. Pater ad Vincula and imbibed a sleeping potion, Mortimer escaped and found his way to France.

Now under heavy suspicion, Isabella was confined to the Tower and not allowed to see her children. When a dispute over French possessions began to brew, the Pope suggested Isabella be sent to France to negotiate a treaty. Reluctantly, Edward allowed her to go – a very shortsighted move on his part.

In Paris, Isabella and Mortimer met again… and began an affair which they increasingly found it hard to hide. Meanwhile, they collected funds and made plans for an invasion. In September of 1326, Isabella and Mortimer landed in Suffolk with a mercenary force. They were welcomed by the people of England with open arms. Edward and Despenser fled west to Wales, but were eventually taken into custody. Hugh Despenser was brutally executed in Hereford. King Edward was sent first to Kenilworth, where he was persuaded to abdicate, and then later to Berkeley Castle.

Isabella and Mortimer were effectively ruling in the name of the young King Edward III. More than once, an attempt was made to free the deposed king. In September of 1327, an announcement proclaimed that the former king had died of natural causes. For centuries, rumors persisted that Edward II was murdered by applying a hot poker through a horn to his innards through his anus. However, letters uncovered in the last century suggest that he may have escaped to the continent and assumed the identity of a holy man.

Meanwhile, Isabella and Mortimer had accrued a great deal of wealth and were under increasing criticism. Despite the fact that England was now at peace with both France and Scotland, they were gaining many enemies. Young Edward himself bristled at their hold on power and just before he reached his eighteenth birthday in October of 1330, he had Mortimer arrested at Nottingham. Isabella was kept under house arrest at Berkhamsted Castle and learned, after the fact, that Mortimer had been tried and executed.

Isabella spent the next two years in virtual confinement at Windsor, deeply aggrieved by Mortimer’s death. Although she later joined her son’s court, relations between them were strained. She lived long enough to see the births of her thirteen grandchildren – and to see Edward III reverse Mortimer’s sentence of treason on the grounds he had not been allowed to speak in his own defense. After taking the habit of the Third Order of Saint Francis, she died in 1358. Edward II’s heart (or a heart purported to be his) was buried with her.

(This post was originally published on History and Women.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

It's here! Free Kindle for PCs

You can now download FREE software onto your PC for Kindle books! I'll be doing some shopping this weekend. Sure, I needed one more outlet for impulse retail therapy. I can't exactly lug my PC to the doctor's office to read something while I'm sitting there waiting, but maybe this'll convince me to eventually buy a real Kindle - or just Kindle books, period. Smart marketing move, if you ask me.

To get yours, go here.

P.S. And here's what I'm reading now: Coombe's Wood by Lisa Hinsley, a 2009 ABNA semi-finalist. Suspense-filled, fast-paced horror.

Until later,

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trunk Novels and Deadlines

Last night I was searching under my bed for my fuzzy slippers (seeing as how it's practically winter already and my feet were freezing), when amidst the dust bunnies, de-gutted squeaky dog toys, and socks-without-partners, I re-discovered two long-forgotten trunk novels. One was my first ever attempt at a novel, which I'll very loosely describe as historical fantasy, and the other a slightly better attempt at real historical fiction, for which I actually did research, about 15th century Welsh prince Owain Glyndwr. And yes, those are the real trunk novels above which I certified mailed to myself, still sealed, just in case someone hacked my computer, stole my brilliant idea and hit it big - at which point I could sue them and make my millions that way.

What is a 'trunk novel'? As a writing mentor of mine once described, it's one of those feeble attempts at putting together a whole story, which we eventually come to realize isn't the best we can do. And so we nudge them aside (i.e. bury it in a trunk) and write something better. It's hard at the time to admit it and let go, but in retrospect a writer has to see the effort as a learning experience and not time wasted.

On another note, last night I was sprung with a deadline for submitting some blurbs about my stories and the latest revision of my manuscript about Queen Isabella. Isn't it amazing how a deadline can turn you from a brain-dead, thumb-twiddling zombie into a focused, productive individual? I was up until 3 a.m. and I'm operating on two cups of coffee already this morning, but it's done. Now, if you'd have given me a month to do it, I probably would have taken a month. Not that I ever procrastinate or anything...

Until later,

Monday, November 9, 2009

Why Read Historical Fiction?

To my infinite delight, last night The Man in the Iron Mask was on the local TV station. Even though I've seen this movie before (the 1998 version with Jeremy Irons and Leonardo DiCaprio), my teenage daughter was watching it for the first time. She was entranced and so was I. So much so that I totally forgot about The Amazing Race, which was on at the same time. It bears noting here that I am wholly devoted to my favorite reality TV shows. I do not miss them and every time my favorite player or team doesn't win, I vow never to watch that show again - but I always do.

Anyway, it reminded me that the first book that really captured my imagination and made me a lifelong fan of historical fiction was another of 19th century French writer Alexandre Dumas' timeless works, of which the above is the sequel: The Three Musketeers. After that, there was no stopping me. I devoured every historical work in the classics section and then went on to read more contemporary HF authors of that time, like Jean Plaidy.

All this time, I was also scouring the historical entries in my encyclopedia set. Odd for a teenager, I know, but there was something about not just reading for pleasure, but dipping into the past that made the escapism factor that much more powerful for me. I never actually believed Louis XIV had a hidden twin brother, as is the pivotal element in The Man in the Iron Mask, or that d'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis even existed. I simply enjoyed the stories. If Alexandre Dumas were writing today, I sometimes wonder if he'd be able to get away with his creative license, because his stories do involve real historical figures?

Still, I often ponder on why historical fiction has so many ardent readers? What is it about events and people from the past that so fascinates us? Adventure, romance, simpler times, or making sense of complex events and how human nature molded them? Lots of reasons, I suppose. What's yours?

Until later,

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Doors: A writer's best friend

True. I don't think I need to say much about this. And my friends who are photographers or artists who also spends loads of hours by themselves, content and absorbed in their work, also concur: Doors are a creative person's best friend.

Working at home (and yes, I do consider writing to be more than a hobby) provides tremendous distractions. Housework is the least of these. If the laundry needs to be done and I'm home alone, I can pop up from my swivel chair and attend to it in between scenes or when my brain gets stuck. Laundry does not bark at the meter reader, it does not ask to be fed or taken to school, and it does not rev up the power tools to give me a headache. In short, although it needs to be washed, dried and folded occasionally so that my family can venture out in public without the shame of smelling like the bottom of a gym locker, if I ignore it for a few hours a a few days, no one will die and the world will not end. Yay for that!

Lately, I've been in major writing mode. The family has not yet caught on to this. Me hunched over the keyboard, grumbling at intruders or altogether ignoring them has not been blatant enough. Apparently I need to send up signal flares and an airplane trailing a banner that says: MOM IS WRITING. PLEASE WAIT FOR HER TO EMERGE. UNTIL THEN, ASK YOUR FATHER.

Since I have neither of those, I will go back to hanging the little handwritten index card on my door that says: WORKING, DO NOT DISTURB. EXCEPTIONS - BLOOD, BROKEN BONES, VOMIT AND DOG FIGHTS.

Having said that, I'm having a guilt complex about being anti-social. Writers and artists work odd hours and do, by nature, tend to be reclusive - at least while they're in a creative mode. Some can shut out the world entirely, writing in coffee shops or painting while crowds pass by and ask questions. Some can snap out of the zone to attend to those nearby, then jump right back in. Some of us need chunks of uninterrupted time.

Me, I like my door.

P.S. And I still love my family.

Until later,

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Author bias

Author bias. Is it possible to write historical fiction without it? Does objectivity fly out the window when an author presents a character's point of view?

Hmm, uhhh... yeah. If the author didn't pick whose side to be on in the story, how would she ever get the reader to cheer for the dashing hero or feisty heroine and boo at the villain?

But what about non-fiction authors? Are historians biased? How could they be if history is supposed to be about the facts? This is a problem historical fiction writers are frequently faced with when researching their subjects. Even when delving into primary sources, bias can be present and secondary sources often perpetuate these. The truth is not always easy to sort out.

Researching the murder of John 'the Red' Comyn at Greyfriar's Kirk in Dumfries in 1306 brings about a key question: Who exactly killed him? Robert the Bruce - or someone else? The chronicles of the Englishman Walter of Guiseborough claim the Bruce lured Comyn to the church with muderous intentions; the writings of John Fordoun, a Scotsman of the time, stresses Comyn's betrayal of the Bruce. If you read a translation of the well-known Lanercrost Chronicle, a recording of happenings at the the time by holy men in an abbey just south of the Scottish border, then Bruce 'seditiously' lured Comyn to the church and 'did slay him'. Ronald McNair Scott's 'Robert the Bruce, King of Scots', refers to 'oral tradition' and a 19th century chronicle called Liber Pluscardiensis. Scott writes that Bruce confronted Comyn about his treachery, they quarreled, Bruce struck the first blow and then one of his companions, Roger Kirkpatrick, killed Comyn.

When examining an event that occured centuries ago, the facts are often muted, muddled and scattered. The English version of Comyn's death is obviously going to have a different slant to it than the Scottish one. It just goes to show you there are two sides to every story.

Until later,

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Free Kindle for PCs

While I will always prefer real paper books pressed between my fingers, I don't really mind reading on my computer screen. In fact, having been in a critique group for a couple of years and swapping manuscripts electronically with fellow writers, I've gotten rather used to it. When traveling, I almost always take my laptop and sometimes there just isn't room in my carry-on luggage to cram another book.

I've held off on buying a Kindle because if I have to choose between a $299 device that only downloads books (when I know a year or two from now it will probably be outdated) and new carpet for the bedroom (although I'm very fond of the coffee stains, dog puke spots and indescribably colored traffic pattern), well, I'm gonna buy the carpet. First we have to drywall the garage, though.

But hold on! recently announced it is going to release FREE Kindle software for PCs! The e-reader companies are at war. Hey, works for me. I can support new authors, buy 3 downloads for the price of one hardback, AND save trees all at the same time. (Yes, I'm a tiny bit excited about this.)

Awhile back I blogged about the Espresso Book Machine. The publishing world seems to have been one of the last to be affected by technology, but the 'current economic situation' is applying new pressures to the system. It's hard telling what will stick and while things may seem tough in publishing right now, what is likely to emerge is something more efficient, greener, and with a myriad of options. In fact, it's already started.

Until later,

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Upcoming releases!

Fanfare, please. Some wonderful news from fellow writers over at Authonomy! In the year I've been on the site, I've had the pleasure of getting to know some talented, emerging authors, a few of whom are now breaking into the world of publishing.

First up is the wonderful May 1812, by M.M. Bennetts, due for release on November 14th, 2009. In the time of Napoleon, the Earl of Myddelton must break the French code to spare men from dying in battle. When the Prime Minister is assassinated in May, 1812, Myddelton is immersed in an ever-increasing crisis, even as his personal life crumbles around him. For more information, check the press release or visit the publisher's website at Trust me, when you read Bennetts' stories, you will believe they were actually written by someone who lived in early 19th century Europe and experienced it all.

Next is this gobsmacking piece of news from the publisher Gollancz: Elspeth Cooper was signed for a three-book deal, with the first story in The Wild Hunt Trilogy, entitled Songs of the Earth, due out in early 2011. Associate publisher Jo Fletcher described Cooper's work as "an unputdownable fast-paced adventure with characters who leap off the page". Having read an early draft, I concur completely. Cooper's writing is brilliant - in descriptive prose, characterization and pacing. It reminded me why I fell so in love with the fantasy genre in my teens. Cooper's name will be added to my now resurrected list of favorite fantasy authors, like Brooks, LeGuin and yes, even Tolkien.

In a time when new writers often despair of ever getting into print because publishers are paring down on their lists, this is evidence to the contrary. Talent will find a home. And the world will have new writers to read.

I have the feeling there will be more good news to come.

P.S. Yes, I know I promised a post on author bias and it is coming. Honest! I've just been busy writing, really!!! I figured while I had momentum I'd better run with it.


Friday, October 2, 2009

How much is too much?

Last week in a fit of retail therapy, I ordered research books online. They sneakily arrived while I was out of town (judging at the Australian Shepherd Club of America National Specialty, which was one of my lifetime goals - yay!). This morning I decided to organize my desk before jumping back into the writing. Good intentions and all, but alas I made the mistake of opening up the packages. I should have ruthlessly shoved them aside for weekend reading. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Did not.

A wrinkle in time then occured. 'Tis true. A black hole opened up beneath my chair on rollers and somehow I lost an hour of writing time. One moment it was 11:02 a.m. and the next thing I know, I glanced at my watch again and it was after noon.

One book follows the life of Robert the Bruce, and another about Edward II is still en route. Neither of these were available when the seeds of my stories were but moldy little sprouts in the lightless recesses of my brain. I'm hoping they'll help flesh out some weak points in the plot, but also afraid I'll end up adding another 30,000 words to bring realism to the story, then deleting the same amount later so as not to overwhelm the reader . It's a vicious cycle in the chaotic process that is writing, but it happens.

Next, I opened The Medieval Fortress, by Kaufmann and Kaufmann. I forgot I had laundry to fold, a story to finish and even, I'm pretty sure, my own name for awhile. Page after page of detailed sketches of castle gates, timber hoardings, and arrow loops (who knew there were so many different kinds?). Oh the glory and wonder of research! I read, I see PICTURES, and I am THERE!!!

Then I realized the danger that lurks for writers of historical fiction. Detail brings reality and credibility to stories, but it can also overrun them. Like dark chocolate and Toasted Almond coffee, both of which I love, research for me is best done in moderation - otherwise, I'd never get on with writing. So maybe the question is not 'how much is too much', but 'how much is enough'?

Okay, drawing on my inner strength and sliding those pretty books far, far awaaaaayyyy from me. I will not touch them until I have written today. I will not touch them until I have written today. I will not touch them until I have written today. I will not...

Until later,

Friday, September 25, 2009

Redeeming the past

Recently, I had a comment from someone who'd read the beginning chapters to my story Isabeau, which is about Queen Isabella, the wife of Edward II of England. In essence, the remark was, "We all know the gruesome end that Edward met." For those of you who don't know yet, the myth that has been perpetuated for centuries was that Edward II was murdered in Berkeley Castle by having a hot poker inserted up his rectum. Here is where I bow to the sage Alianore, whose blog on the life of Edward II is an absolute goldmine. In a recent post, she addresses some of the misinformation surrounding his death, and if you peruse past posts, she sheds a whole new light on his life.

A letter written in 1340 by an Italian priest named Manuel Fieschi to Edward III more than refutes that rumor, it purports that Edward escaped, took refuge for a time in Corfe Castle, and eventually found his way to a hermitage in Lombardy. I must say, the murder theory is more sensationalistic, but the possibility of a fallen king living in disguise among monks is pretty darn intriguing, too. Edward II is not one of England's best loved monarchs, because clearly he made a lot of bad choices, but I think a lot of what motivated him was that he placed love and friendship above compromise and peace. In short, he was willing to accept conflict (or perhaps delusional enough to think people would just forgive him and let him live on his own terms) in favor of rewarding those (Gaveston and Despenser) he felt undying loyalty towards.

When I was writing about Robert the Bruce, making him into a likable character was almost too easy. Who couldn't admire a rebel who leads his ragged band to battle to overcome great odds and rise victorious? But I've also embraced the challenge of writing about historical figures who've not always had the best reputations, such as Edward I, Edward II, Piers Gaveston, Hugh Despenser, Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer. I'm not going to say which, but some of these I simply cannot redeem. Some, I can, to varying degrees.

How? you ask. By looking at all the available information, not just popular theory. And, perhaps even more importantly, by attempting to understand what drove these people to do what they did. Was it greed, power or lack of morality? Or fear of losing control of their fates, the hunger for revenge or the trials of forbidden love? I mean, were they really evil and unscrupulous, or were they restricted by the mores and laws of their day, born into situations they would not have chosen, or trapped in toxic or dead marriages? Hmm, when you think about it that way...

More and more these days, writers of historical fiction and non-fiction are tackling the perpetually maligned figures of the past and providing plausible motivations for their actions. Note that I don't say excusable, but if we attempt to understand the psychological and emotional causes, then we can become less judgmental and more sympathetic. I suspect, though, that it will take many more decades to undo the erroneous information about many past events and people that has already survived for centuries.

I always liked a challenge, though. So bring on the bad boys. I like digging around inside people's heads to figure out what made them tick.

Until later,

Friday, September 18, 2009

Going there in your head

Back at the HNS conference in June of this year, they offered a session on what to do for research when you couldn't travel to the location. I distinctly remember that being one of the time slots when there was more than one talk I wanted to attend and so I missed it, but I can't tell you how often this comes up for historical fiction writers. This is an enormous problem especially when you live in rural Ohio and are writing about 14th century England and Scotland. Around here, about the only on-site research I can do would be picking a farmer's brain about the mechanical workings of a John Deere tractor.

This week I've been writing a scene which takes place at Scarborough Castle in 1312, just before Piers Gaveston was besieged there and gave himself up. Very likely, it was the last place that he and Edward II were together - and what a heart-wrenching time that must have been, knowing the the Earl of Lancaster was bearing down on them, hellbent on capturing Gaveston and bringing the king to terms.

Flipping through every book on my shelf, I discovered I had zero useable details to draw on. So, the internet search began and suddenly I had dozens of details through pictures and descriptions. I needed to know where the castle is located in relation to the sea and town, the topographical layout of the surrounds, and the blueprint of the castle itself. This, at least, told me something about the architecture, the vistas from any vantage point, and how impregnable the fortress was due to its location on a promontory on an isthmus of land.

Now, I have a setting in my head. I can envision what lies to the east, west, north or south. Where they might have been standing when they shared their last words. The lay of the land. The smell of salt air and the sting of the wind.

It's something, but I still wish I could go there, even though the place is in ruins, the buzz of automobiles can probably be heard in the distance and there are motorized yachts in the harbor instead of medieval sailing ships. The internet is a valuable tool that puts the world at our fingertips, but there's something transcendental and inspirational about standing in the spot where history unfolded. This is when I wish I was independently wealthy and could just hop a plane and be there.

Until later,

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

If you could turn back time

A segment on NBC's Today show this morning yanked me out of blogging limbo (I could blame vacation, the start of the school year and being up to my ribs in heavy revisions on the second Robert the Bruce book, but really it was lack of initiative, IOW - laziness). The topic was time travel and while I can't wrap my brain around how you would actually achieve such a feat, it does get your imagination flying in a very H. G. Wells-ian way.

Recently, I was exchanging messages with another historical ficiton writer and we were talking about how drawn we were to historical sites and aritifacts to the point that when we were near them we felt a connection to the past. I still remember going to Caernarvon Castle a decade ago. After a short scan of the bailey, I ran up the spiral staircase of one of the towers. Standing on the castle wall, palms pressed to the stones, I imagined Longshanks arriving there with his entourage, his son Edward (II) toddling about the rooms, and the bustle of activity in the town. Forty-five minutes later, I remembered my friend, who did not like heights and had been paitently waiting for me at ground level. At Harlech Castle, I could practically sense Owain Glyndwr gazing out over the sea as the wind whipped around him, reflecting on how he had united Wales and defied Henry IV, only to have his princedom slowly crumble away as alliances failed him.

I could stare for hours at old architecture and works of craftmanship. Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth held my rapt attention as much for the story as for his in depth explorations of stained glass, stonework and the building of a cathedral. Set me down in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and you'll likely find me hours later still reading the plaques in the medieval weaponry area.

Imagine being present at one of history's pivotal events: battles such as Pearl Harbor, Hastings, Waterloo, or Bannockburn; the invention of penicillin or powered flight; Martin Luther King Jr's 'I Have a Dream' speech; the San Francisco earthquake or the hurricane that swallowed New Orleans.... Days, moments or events in which the course of mankind or nature was forever changed. It boggles the mind to think of being able to go there to witness them.

If I could go back in time (not forward, I don't want to know what lies ahead), rather than witness an event, as incredible as that might be, I think I'd want to speak to historical figures - interview them in Barbara Walters fashion: "King Edward, what were you thinking when you recalled Piers Gaveston for the third time?", "Queen Isabella, at what point did you decide you'd had enough of your husband and were going to do something about his misrule?", or "Robert the Bruce, at any time, did you think you just might fail in your quest for independence? What inspired you to stay so focused and determined?".

So if you could turn back the clock, be there, what would you see or do, who would you talk to?

Until later,


Friday, August 14, 2009

Authonomy - is it for you?

In StirlingEditor's blog post, The Ultimate Survivor's Guide to Authonomy, she brings up some very valid points about the web site authonomy hosted by Harper Collins UK. Begun a little more than a year ago, its primary purpose was to serve as a cyber slush pile. The idea was that writers could post their stories there, then the other site members (predominantly writers) would sift through them, vote for their favorites by putting them on a virtual shelf, and at the end of each month the top five would land on the Editor's Desk, where they would be awarded a professional critique. There was also the obvious possibility of Harper Collins plucking something from the slush pile - a very attractive lure to any struggling writer. So far three manuscripts have been selected from further down for publication and a few others are currently under consideration.

Stirling Editor explores both the positives and negatives of the site, why writers flock there and how some of them use the site. It's worth saying here that every site member's experience there varies from fantastically beneficial, to horridly upsetting. I posted my work there originally to see what kind of reaction it would get - I needed to know if there was hope for me, or if I should reconsider my career path. What I learned was that some readers loved it and gushed profusely (which made me feel quite undeserving), while others just didn't 'get it' and spared no harsh words. After recovering my wounded pride from the latter, it always occured to me that even the most lauded writers and those who regularly hit the bestsellers' lists have their critics.

I now take criticism less personally. And praise with more humility. I learned by reading a variety of works to gage very quickly why certain writing did or didn't capture my attention - this was something I've since applied to my own writing. I've received valuable feedback that has improved my stories considerably - a favor which I try to pay forward when I'm able to. I've also learned the monumental task that agents and editors have sifting through their own slush piles - there is so much quality work out there, it's no wonder that achieving publication has as much to do with luck and persistence as it has to do with the talent of the writer.

The sum total of the experience has caused me to raise the level of my own writing. And to be more determined to get it out there to reach readers. I've met some phenomenal people and for that reason alone it has been worth the time.

For most, authonomy itself will not result in publication. For a few, it will. It can be about shooting up the rankings or just getting that one bit of advice or morsel of validaton that you need to carry on. It can be drama and competition, a huge time vaccuum, or a place to forge solid friendships. It is what you make it. Is it for you?

Until later,


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

And the award goes to...

My dear friend and crit group partner, Anita Davison, nominated my blog for a One Lovely Blog Award, with the stipulation that I pass it along to three more deserving people. So here are the recipients:

Julie Conner
, who is like my soul sister and who writes with such vivid imagery that I feel like I've stepped into a 3-D flick when I read it. Last year she was kind enough to read and comment on my whole ms. and offered me some truly valuable insights. She's just beginning her blogging career, so stop by and check it out.

Jack Ramsay, a Scot now living Down Under, who's been exceedingly generous with his time and advice to fellow writers. He's also a very funny guy! Together with Karen Bessey Pease, the two have started a blog devoted primarily to the topic of bullying (and Karen has a fantastic book called Grumble Bluff on that very subject).

And Gev Sweeney, a fellow Authonomite, who's been posting her lovely book, The Scattered Proud, chapter by chapter. I am in awe of her talent. Not to forget that she's exceedingly kind and always welcoming to new faces over at Authonomy.

Until later,

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Writing rituals

World crisis averted. This morning I realized what a creature of habit I am - and an addict. My coffee supply was low and I had a brief panic attack in which I broke out in a cold sweat and had heart palpitations, but thank goodness my husband was going to the village and could re-stock it. You see, after stumbling out of bed and letting the dogs out, the next thing I do is make myself a pot of coffee before jumping in the shower. My brain cells do not speak to each other unless I massage my scalp with vanilla- or green tea- scented shampoo and then pour some caffeine down my throat. Actually, it would be more effective if I just injected the latter, but it's the sensation of tasting my java that's the best part of my morning. Do not even try to carry on a civilized conversation with me before the coffee kicks in and I've rinsed away yesterday's grime. My husband can vouch that I'll likely just mutter at you in a tone that says, "Go away."

Imbibing my cup of morning coffee is probably the most essential part of my writing routine. As I said, I'm not coherent without it and nothing quite stirs the senses like a steaming mug of Toasted Almond or Chocolate Raspberry. And it must come from the Emporium in quirky Yellow Springs, Ohio where they wrap the stop sign posts in rainbow crochet and if your car has a Reublican bumper sticker you're an endangered species. Ordinary, mass produced grocery store coffee is not an acceptable substitute. I've been known to open the bag of coffee beans and just inhale it.

Said coffee, for optimum writing output, must be in one of either two mugs: Henry "Hotspur" Percy or Edward, the Black Prince. These two mementos were purchased at touristy Warwick Castle on a trip to England. Somehow, drinking from them makes writing about medieval places more of a connection. Okay, so I'm a little weird that way, but the rule at our house is that no one but me is allowed to drink from those cups and they are reserved for writing days, not lazy weekends.

My husband calls me a 'coffee snob'. Hey, it's a cheap habit and if it helps me write, what's the harm? I'd have less withdrawal symptoms if I lost my cell phone and my laptop was attacked by a computer virus and the horrible blue screen of death popped up. Just, please, don't ever take my coffee away.

Until later,

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Capture of Elizabeth Bruce

Did you know that Robert the Bruce's wife, Elizabeth, was captured and held in custody by the English for 8 years?

Yesterday, while revising my second Robert the Bruce book, Worth Dying For, I came across this picture. It made me think of Longshanks (King Edward I of England). I suppose that bears explaining.

In 1306, Robert the Bruce and his ragged band were fleeing south through the Scottish Highlands after a devastating defeat by the Earl of Pembroke at the Battle of Methven. On the 11th of August, near the Pass of Dalry, they were ambushed by Argyll warriors led by John of Lorne. Before engaging with Lorne's forces, Robert sent his wife, Elizabeth, daughter Marjorie, and sisters Mary and Christina off with the Earl of Atholl and his brother Nigel (or Neil).

Nigel Bruce reached the Bruce stronghold of Kildrummy, but within the month the castle was besieged by the English. Unfortunately, the castle blacksmith, lured by promises of gold to whomever handed the fortress over, set fire to the stores of grain. Nigel was forced to surrender. He was hanged and beheaded in Berwick.

Elizabeth Bruce and the other women, however, were not at Kildrummy. They had been escorted further north with the Earl of Atholl, with the aim of reaching Orkney where they would take ship to Ireland to hopefully reunite with Robert. They made it as far as St. Duthac's shrine near Tain, when they were captured by the Earl of Ross, a supporter of the Comyns, Bruce's enemies. They were transported to the monastery of Lanercrost - straight into the hands of Longshanks.

The Earl of Atholl was conducted all the way to Westminster, where he met the same fate as Nigel Bruce. His head topped a pike on London Bridge. Marjorie Bruce was placed in a wooden cage, which was hung from the walls of the Tower of London (although she was later moved to a nunnery); Mary Bruce was sentenced to a similar fate at Roxburgh Castle; and Christina Bruce was treated more leniently, being consigned to a nunnery.

Queen Elizabeth was too valuable for Longshanks to risk her health. She was placed under house arrest at Burstwick-in-Holderness, where she spent the next eight years of her life.

Much happened to Robert the Bruce during this time. In June of 1314, the Scots triumphed at the Battle of Bannockburn over the English, led by King Edward II (Longshanks' son). While Edward fled to Berwick, the Scots also captured the English baggage train, which included the Great Seal of England and the Royal Shield. King Robert was able to use these to procure the release of his female kin (all but for Mary, who is presumed to have died).

After eight years apart, he and Elizabeth were finally reunited. Even though they did not have any children in the early years of their marriage, they had two daughters and two sons after Elizabeth's return.

Now that's a happy ending!

(More inspirational cat pictures at:

Until later,

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Never-Ending Battle: Story vs. History

Over at the Historical Novel Society discussion list, a lively debate is again raging over historical accuracy vs. the elements of story in historical fiction. The basic question is: How far can writers of historical fiction bend the truth before they've overstepped the bounds of writing responsibly? The topic was stirred up recently when someone posted a link to a Publishers Weekly article by Peter Mandel, which raises the question of whether or not we over-analyze fiction (both books and movies) in regards to their accuracy, rather than just allowing ourselves to enjoy them.

I have an opinion, but I'm interested in hearing from others, readers and writers.

Meanwhile, I'm thinking of writing fantasy.

Until later,

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Staying positive in tough times

I recently came across a post at BookEnds LLC, Literary Agency that got me thinking about how our attitudes affect our actions and the implications that may have further down the road. Those of us who write have been hearing for awhile now the dire straits the publishing world is in: how fewer new authors are being taken on or how established authors are being directed to focus on their better selling material. In my critique group and on other writers' forums, the topic often arises of whether we should write the stories that most inspire and interest us, or focus on what is commercially viable in order to increase our chances of publication (that's another sizzling topic for a blog post that Anita Davison covers in her post, Should Authors Write for the Market?).

It's so easy to get sucked into the pervasive doom and gloom atmosphere of the current economy. But as Jessica Faust says in the BookEnds post, instead of worrying about things we can't control, perhaps we should focus on those things we can? She sees the decreased numbers in book sales as a precursor to change. Rather than not taking on new clients at all or foregoing submissions, she's proceeding business-as-usual. However, she is being pickier and demanding more perfection in what she takes on or submits.

While we're all waiting for the logjam to clear, maybe we should take this as an opportunity: to write more entertaining stories, become better at the craft of writing, ask ourselves what people want to read, and explore new possibilities for reaching readers?

Movies, TV and computers still have not killed books. They continue to exist and will indefinitely. What form they will take and how publishing will operate in the coming century remains to be seen. Meanwhile, keep on writing!

Until later,

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Hi All!

Today I blogged at History and Women on Sacagawea. Stop by and visit. Her journey westward in 1805-06 across the Continental Divide and back as part of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery - while carrying on infant on her back - certainly puts many of us mini-van driving soccer moms to shame. I know I couldn't do that and live to talk about it.

Until later,

Monday, July 13, 2009

Why not write about what you DON'T know?

Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien had adhered to the advice: "Write about what you know"? There would be no Middle Earth, no hobbits, no Gandalf... Not only would an entire genre of literature fail to exist, but I'd bet my eye teeth many of the great books we know today would never have been written.

Really, who spawned this suffocating notion that we must first be experts in a given field to write about it? Perhaps the better advice would be to write about what fires your imagination and what you're so passionate about that you could bury yourself up to your elbows in reference material for days on end?

I've been asked many times why I write about medieval times or certain figures like Robert the Bruce, Owain Glyndwr, Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer. The seed of my fascination began with a childhood spent reading Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers and a plethora of Jean Plaidy books. But spare time for reading died with college and children.

Then, I saw the movie Braveheart. Yeah, yeah, yeah - you historical accuracy purists who so readily decry its inaccuracies may clamber down from your soapboxes for a moment. Truth is, I had never even heard of William Wallace before then. Never. And I only had an inkling who Robert the Bruce was. Yet because of that Hollywood-ized version of a historical era, I was so inspired I wanted to learn more. It re-ignited my love for history and reading and a dream I'd had since I was 12 - to write. Not about something I knew, but something which inspired me: the struggle for freedom, the weak overcoming the strong, hope, persistence, loyalty --- all of it lying in wait in history's chronicles and waiting to be told to new generations.

The fun part about being a writer is that you learn so much in the process. And when that research shows, so will your readers!

Until later,

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Do you have Writer's Block?

Recently on a writers’ forum I belong to, someone posted the question: Is there such a thing as ‘writer’s block and do you ever have it’? What writer has not stared at a blinking cursor, willing the words to appear on the screen and they just don’t come? What causes the logjam and how do you break through it? First, you have to understand why it’s happening.

One block to writing productively is not being 'in the moment'. IOW, distractions. I have this 'thing' where I have trouble writing if my husband is at home. The children are easy to chase away or threaten into silence. The spouse, not so much. His woodworking shop is right under our bedroom where my desk is. Try writing when the power saw is going on and off at random. Argh! At that point I might as well pack up and take the laptop to the library. Tough to get into 'the zone' when I'm constantly being yanked out of it.

Not being in the right emotional frame of mind to begin with is another biggie. When I can, if I'm in some intense emotional state, I skip to a scene where that applies and use the mood in my favor. If I'm feeling blue, I write the scene where all hope seems lost, a lover has been jilted, or someone has just died (with Gregorian chants playing on the CD). If I'm mad at someone or feeling vengeful, battle scenes are cathartic.

But the biggest 'block', for me at least, is often self-doubt. Another rejection letter can kick it in or a critique that knocks the wind from my sails just when I was in need of a boost. Suddenly, I ask myself why I even bother. I tell myself I'll never succeed, I can't finish this, my writing is crap. But then I realize that by not writing, by giving in, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's easier not to write - to fail - than to chisel away and forge ahead, to hope, to dream, to invest the time and take the risk. Give into it, and the pressure's gone. But so's the possibility of achieving that dream.

So, do any of you have writer's block and why?

Until later,


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pfaffing About

Years ago, I was reading a writers' forum on the internet and the term 'pfaffing about' came up. Here's the theory:

When writer's block strikes and staring at a blank computer screen is enough to drive you to madness, somehow you need to beckon the Muse of Creativity to sit snugly on your shoulder and whisper the words that will fly from your fingertips. How? Go do something else.

Me? I clean. Now, maybe I'm a freak in the world of writers, but my best writing happens when I push up my sleeves and scrub the bathroom tiles, organize the filing cabinets, or sweep out the garage. You might think this is avoidance behavior. True, it is. I like a clean house, but I don't like to clean any more than the next person. It takes time, my hands get all cracked and dry from the nasty chemicals, and it's mindless work. But that last one is the key. Push a vacuum across the floor, chasing dust bunnies of dog hair, and there's not much to do but think. And that gives my imagination freedom to wander. So I dash over to the keyboard, pound out half a page and when I get stuck - AGAIN - I go mop. If my desk is piled up with paperwork, if there are fallen-over stacks of books in my bedroom, or if there is a snowy layer of dust on the furniture - I probably haven't been writing.

Yesterday my bathrooms got all sparkly clean... and I plowed my way through a challenging scene. Today I have to finish the chapter (my calendar tells me I must), so maybe I'll start painting the trim in the bedroom? Weird, I know, but it works for me.

So here's wishing all my writer-friends a tidy house and many brilliant pages. Pfaff away!

(P.S. Anita Davison will say this is a myth and totally untrue.)

Until later,

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Battle of Bannockburn

The Battle of Bannockburn was fought on June 24th, 1314. It was never in Robert the Bruce's plans to face the English on the battlefield in full force. Guerrilla tactics - ambush, burning crops and driving off livestock so the enemy could not take them, and taking fortresses by surprise and later razing them - had proven highly successful. However, thanks to his impatient brother, Edward Bruce, things fell out a little differently. One year before, Edward had laid siege to Stirling Castle, but being the restless sort, he quickly struck a deal - that if the castle was not relieved one year from then, it would be handed over to the Scots. Of course, Edward II of England was not going to let it go so easily. He marched north, thinking he only need show up and the castle would be his without question.

As we all know, that was not the case. In the weeks to come, I'll be sharing more about Robert the Bruce's struggle for Scottish independence. For now, here's an inspirational video featuring Steve McDonald as he reads Robert Burns' famous poem, Scots, Wha Hae Wi' Wallace Bled:


Until later,

Friday, June 19, 2009

3 Things to Bring to the HNS conference

Hindsight is 20/20, right? Three things that I now know you need to bring with you when you attend the Historical Novel Society Conference (for which I didn't get the memo):

1. Your business card.
- It's been years since I carried any. I used to have them for my dog kennel, but it just became easier to say, "Google us/me." Anyway, needless to say, when I sat down at dinner Friday night, I think I was the only one at the table who did not have one. They do help you remember names and I need to catch up and drop a few people an e-mail who gave me their cards. Connections, connections.

2. A camera.
- The costume contest is highly memorable and gobs of fun. Again, if you have a photo of someone, you have something to remember them by AND something more interesting to post on your blog than canned pictures (like me). Maybe one day I'll discard, lose, or run over my ancient cell phone from 2004 and get one with a camera built in. But then I'd probably need my kids at hand to remember how to work it, seeing as how I can barely add phone numbers to my cell phone (I'm a teensy bit technically challenged.)

3. Your husband.
- After attending the Late Saturday Night Sex Scene Reading, your husband will not only appreciate the second honeymoon, but book the two of you for next year's conference... or so I imagine. I haven't actually been able to get mine to agree to go yet.

Oh, and if I were to add one more thing, it would be don't forget your brains. People who read historical fiction are uber-smart.

Until later,