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,