Tag Archives: writing

Getting to Know Our Characters

I’ve been reading a lot of books to research the new novel, but I’ve also been feeling frustrated. I don’t really have a handle on the woman who’s my main character yet, and how can I start writing until I have a strong sense of who she is? I keep measuring my lack of certainty about this character against my understanding of Betsy Bonaparte, and really there’s no comparison.

Yesterday, however, I began to think that perhaps it is my memory that is failing me, not my creativity. I’m comparing how well I know Sarah, the new character, at the beginning of the writing process to how well I knew Betsy at the end of the writing process. I wish I could remember how strongly Betsy felt present to me when I was first reading her biographies, but I can’t. It seems to be a bit like what mothers say about labor; once you fall in love with that baby as a real physical person, you start to forget the pain of labor. I can’t really remember much about the early uncertainties and doubts I had about telling Betsy’s story.

As a result of that insight, I’m trying to ratchet down my expectations for this stage a bit. Once I finish reading and start developing the chapter outline and character biographies, I think things will improve. I’m sure I will get to a point where Sarah feels present to me. Plus, the real knowledge often comes in the actual writing. That’s where the characters usually start to come alive for me. That’s certainly how it worked with Betsy’s son and even with Jerome.

In some ways, I think I’m worried because I fear I won’t be able to pull off the feat of writing a novel again. But that fear is probably normal too.

If you’re a writer, what is this stage of the writing process like for you?

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Musing About Conflict

I was going to sit down and write a book review this afternoon, but instead, my thoughts about the YA book in question are prompting a semi-philosophical post about conflict in fiction.

Let me give you a brief scenario. In the novel in question, the heroine doesn’t want the life that is proscribed for girls in her time period. She runs away and basically achieves her goal of an alternate life by masquerading as a boy in the very first chapter. The rest of the story is filled with interesting characters (some of whom have conflicts with the protagonist), exotic locations, and once-in-a lifetime adventures. In spite of all that, the first half of the book felt flat to me because there was no overarching tension, no big goal or conflict driving the story from episode to episode. The protagonist got what she wanted in the first chapter and she keeps telling herself how lucky she is.

Am I being too critical? Do you think it’s necessary to have a big conflict driving the story if there are a plenty of little conflicts and adventures along the way?

I should mention that eventually the overarching narrative does develop a big-picture conflict because the heroine begins to fear that her secret will be discovered—an event that would be doubly disastrous because she has fallen in love with one of her companions and knows he will feel betrayed when he learns that she has deceived him for so long. Once I got to the second half of the book, I was much more invested.

I just wonder if my expectations for the beginning were reasonable. I promised the author I’d write a review on Amazon (and I’ve told her of my concerns), but then I began to wonder if I were being too harsh. I’d love to hear what you all think either as readers or writers or both.

 

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The “Writing Process” Blog Tour

I was asked to take part in the Writing Process Blog Tour by C.P Lesley, a fellow writer of historical fiction I met in a Goodreads group. You can visit her blog here.

C. P. Lesley, a historian, is the author of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel—her 21st-century take on the classic Baroness Orczy novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)—and Legends of the Five Directions, a series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible.The Golden Lynx (Legends 1) is in print; The Winged Horse (Legends 2) will appear in June 2014. She is currently working on The Swan Princess (Legends 3).

Here are the questions I was asked to answer for the blog tour:

1) What am I working on?

My first novel, a historical novel called The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, was published in December. It’s based on the life of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the American beauty who married Napoleon’s youngest brother Jerome. A few short weeks later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, we caught it at Stage 1, so I didn’t need chemo. However, going through radiation was debilitating enough, and it prevented me from jumping writing into working on my next novel. Now that I’ve finished my course of treatment, I’m back to researching that project, a historical novel based on the true story of a woman who was taken captive during one of the most brutal Indian wars in U.S. history.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is a very difficult question, but I’ll make a stab at answering. For one thing, there don’t seem to be a lot of historical novelists writing about the United States in the early 19th century, which is when my first book is set. Second, I try very hard to make the background history both interesting and clear to the readers so they can understand the broader context of the specific events of the book. Finally, I’m not afraid to write about characters that some readers might dislike if they met each other in real life. I feel that one of my jobs as a novelist is to help the reader understand why people make the choices they do from their own internal perspective, whether I approve of those choices or not.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I’m drawn to characters more than any particular time period or subject matter. I wrote about Betsy Bonaparte because she was a feisty woman who defied society’s expectations for her and, in the process, overcame enormous adversity. I’ve always been fascinated with characters who have a complex personality. I often fining myself writing about people who have been deeply hurt and about the ways they try to cope with that or recover from it.

4) How does your writing process work?

For me, it’s crucial to be able to listen to the story and let it tell me where it wants to go. I’m not the kind of writer who could ever churn out 50,000 words in a single month the way NaNoWriMo participants do. I can’t force the process because I need time to hear my characters; if I can’t hear their dialogue in my head and if I can’t hear the narrator describing the setting or the action, I’m not ready to write. Usually, I hear approximately half a chapter further along than the scene I’m currently writing. Whenever I do try to write beyond that point, then I find myself driving down a dark road without headlights. Invariably, I get lost.

Next week the blog tour will continue with posts by the following writers, whose blogs I all follow:

 

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Michelle is a native New Yorker who blogs at The Sunflower’s Scribbles on her projects, writing, reading, and whatever else strikes her fancy. She is currently working on a historical fiction novel.

 

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Krystal Jane writes paranormal and fantasy. She also blogs about writing and sometimes random things at the Narcissistic Rose.

 

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Author, Actor, and Artist, Marc Royston holds degrees in English, Theater, and Information Technology and the equivalent to a B.S. in Biology. In consequence to the Great Recession, Marc lost his home, his job, his retirement, all savings, and most of his belongings. Destitute, he has since lived with family and friends. Marc Royston is currently editing the first four volumes of Part One of his serialized novel, A Wizard’s Life. He has a blog of the same name.

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Looking for Writers to Participate in a Blog Chain

In two weeks, I’m going to take part in a blog chain about the writer’s process. At the time I post my entry, I also have to list three other writers who’ve agreed to participate. So I’m asking you, my readers, if you’d like to take part. The blog entry consists of answering four questions about your writing process.

Any takers? It could be a chance to get some new traffic to your blog. First three volunteers are in.

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A Cool Milestone

library

Ok, I know it’s a blurry photo, but I was trying to be low-key about taking it instead of acting like a hyperactive puppy spotting a squirrel. This is what it looks like when your book is featured at your local library in preparation for an upcoming author event. Just one of those things I was never sure I’d achieve.

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Outlining Historical Fiction

It feels as though I’ve been very slow at starting the new novel, mostly because of the distraction of cancer treatment. This week, however, I finally felt like I was getting somewhere. That’s because I stopped just reading about the historical background for the book. I actually started on the outline.

My method is pretty direct. I start by listing chronologically the main events from the life of the woman I’m writing about—at least, the ones that pertain to the period of the novel. Unlike The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, which covered a time span of more than 30 years, the next book will cover only a few months. Once I have my list of actual historical events, I’ll start adding fictional episodes as needed: events that fill in the gaps of motivation and character development. The third and final step will be to sort those roughly into chapters.

I still have a lot of reading and research to do yet, including a trip this summer to the area where the action of the novel took place. But as a writer, I’m happiest when I’m juggling research and more creative activities.

I also received some really terrific news today. I heard from a state historical society that they have three photographs of the interior of my main character’s house (taken before the attacking Indians burned it). And I can purchase copies. That’s going to be an invaluable help to me as I write.

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Blue Freckles

Not sure if I’m going to be doing a whole series of cancer poems or if these are just a temporary product of adjusting to my new state. At any rate, I found myself writing this in my head in the middle of the night as I lay unable to sleep. I’m still too close to it to judge whether it’s any good, but I decided to post it anyway.

 

BLUE FRECKLES
Lying upon unyielding plastic,
I stretch out my arms,
not to the side like
crucifix Jesus,
but above my head
in the age-old sign of surrender.
In the next room,
a technician flips a switch,
sliding me into
a whirring, clicking tunnel,
so a machine can scan my contours
and locate the exact spot
from which a surgeon excavated—
not buried treasure—
but life-threatening malignancy.
That task done,
the tech tattoos three indigo dots,
on my sternum and
each side of my ribcage,
a trinity of blue freckles
to serve as a map for future treatment
and the guiding stars
of my voyage to survival.

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Prognosis for the New Year

New Year’s Day is traditionally considered a time of new beginnings. This year, that construct has a totally different meaning for me.

I thought December 31, 2013, would be the New Year’s Eve that I looked back over the year with great joy because I’d finally published my first novel. Well, life had other plans for that particular date in my life. About mid-day on New Year’s Eve, I received a phone call telling me that I have breast cancer.

The tumor was small, we caught it early, and at this point the prognosis is good. I have another procedure next week to remove a lymph node and biopsy it, and the results of that procedure might change the diagnosis considerably. But for now, I’m assuming that my outlook is good and that we’ll be able to lick this thing with minimally unpleasant treatment.

That said, I don’t really know what’s ahead of me. I plan to keep blogging, but it will probably be less often. I assume my energy levels will flag as I undergo whatever treatment regimen my doctors recommend, and it’s more important to work on my next novel than to post here five times a week.

I do not intend to turn this into a cancer blog. It will still focus on my writing, but I may mention my health as it relates to my life as an author.

And I guess that’s all I really have to say about this right now.

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On the Other Side of Publication

It’s been two weeks since The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte came out, and I’ve been learning what it’s like to be a published novelist rather than an unpublished one.

Some of the things I’ve been doing the last fourteen days include sending out review copies, scheduling signings, autographing books, and getting the beginnings of reader reaction. Two friends have already finished reading the novel, and their responses were very enthusiastic. The hardest thing about remaining unpublished all these years has been not having much of an audience beyond my beta readers. I always imagined what it would be like to have readers say they loved my novel, and now that’s starting to happen. Admittedly, so far I’ve only heard from friends, and they are predisposed to like it, but even so, the comments I’ve received so far have helped make all the years of effort seem worthwhile. Now I’m looking forward to getting more objective responses.

One thing has surprised me is how much I enjoy signing books. I’ve never really fantasized about giving out autographs, but I take a lot of pleasure in making a book personal for my readers. “My readers.” A phrase I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to say. One advantage of achieving this childhood dream a little later in life is that I appreciate it so much.

Sorry if this post borders on the gooey. I’ll be back to my usual self tomorrow.

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Lament (a poem)

A few months ago, I had a strange experience as a writer. I woke up on the morning of my birthday with this poem in my mind. Apparently, I had written it in a dream.

Lament

In the elongated shadows,
cast by the setting sun,
I stoop to pick handfuls
of beans for supper.
The rest of the crop have grown
bloated and fibrous,
the product of distracted neglect.
In the clapboard house behind me,
my sister sits by a window,
dreaming of some future escape.
Our father wants her to marry
a farmer as past his prime
as these beans,
a man who will never be
a strong support
for such a tender,
fruit-bearing vine.
And I, rooted to this land
by love and obligation,
am as mute and
helpless to intervene
as a stump.

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