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Historical Fiction: Getting the Words Right

I enjoy history, but I’ve never gone into depth in any era or historical subject. I’m usually content to know the general outlines, pick up a few interesting details, and leave the rest. I’m also lazy. Disciplined, organized research is beyond my concentration abilities, so when I write in any depth about a subject, it’s because I’ve gradually absorbed so much information over the years and I’ve also accumulated a ton of articles about it. Those articles are a resource that I can draw on without too much extra effort.

I would never write a historical novel. I wouldn’t dare. Because it isn’t just about facts, which are comparatively easy to come by if you know how to do research. It’s also about language, and if you’re not a native, there is always the possibility that you are going to be tripped up somewhere along the line. The rhythm, the vocabulary, particularly the slang, and the differences in speech when you’re portraying people of different social classes — all of these are land mines waiting to go off under your feet.

When I read a novel that takes place in a different time period from mine, or in a different nation, I don’t know enough to be critical of the research. Unless there are very obvious anachronisms that even a casual reader can identify, I’m quite happy to be drawn in by the feeling that I’m now in a different world, even if it isn’t as accurate as keen-eyed critics would prefer.

I recently discovered K.J. Charles’ historical male/male novels. They’re romances, which seems unavoidable these days, but what I enjoy about them is that the world her characters live in is fascinating, and the characters themselves are complex and realistic.

For an interesting discussion of historical fiction, read Charles’ Anachronism and Accuracy: Getting it Right in Historical Novels.


Are There Books that Make You Feel Dumb?

Public Service Rant

On the Perils of Feeling Dumb While Reading

This is one of those articles that makes me wonder why so many people feel insecure about their intelligence. Because of their fiction-reading! If you dislike or don’t understand a popular and well-regarded novel, there must be something wrong with you. Everyone will tell you so. The author hones in on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a book that everyone raves about. She didn’t like it. And everyone who got into her discussion about it on Twitter told her, yes, you’re stupid, or you just don’t have the background.

Having read American Gods and disliked it, I chalked it up to personal taste, as any intelligent person would. At least that’s the position I took. I felt no guilt or inadequacy. It was a genre I’m not terribly crazy about, though I do enjoy a fantasy now and then. There are a lot of books that are highly regarded that I don’t like. Some of them I couldn’t even finish. But there is more than personal taste at stake here.

The truth is that a lot of books (and authors) are overhyped. But while they’re at the top of the best-seller list or being examined under a microscope in college courses that deal with “important literature,” there’s no point arguing. In the long run, many of these “You just have to read it!” books disappear and are never heard of again. Just browse through the fiction section of any well-stocked used book store. Read a few reviews that explain very clearly why a book isn’t as good as everyone seems to think. Read retrospective analyses that do the same.

Public acclaim isn’t a measure of intelligence, either the enthusiasts’ or yours. Fiction isn’t written to separate the sheep from the goats. Enjoy, or not, as you please, but don’t question your own judgment or your intelligence.

New Covers

There are new covers in the right sidebar, for Hidden Boundaries and Crossing Boundaries. They aren’t published yet, but will be soon, I hope.

What I’m Gonna Do, I Think

I’d like to expand the reach of this blog, make it more useful and interesting. I’ve been thinking about how to do that, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

1. Write more book reviews. My reviews have been so few and far between that there are probably quite a few readers who aren’t aware that I’ve written any at all. I’m going to try very hard to change that. (I know: “There is no try, just do.)

2. Invite guest posts. That pretty much speaks for itself, I think. I’ll set a few guidelines and see where it goes.

3. Invite book promotions. No fees. No requirement that your book have x number of favorable reviews. But I will set definite guidelines and will also put a limit on the genres I’m willing to host here. For instance, no zombies, no erotica. Not even romance, thank you. Mainly, I want to avoid the equivalent of popcorn movies — read once and discard, and books that are clearly written for no other purpose than to make as many bucks as possible.

This could work out very well, both for the blog and for authors who’ve written books worth reading, but are having problems with promotion. This isn’t the biggest blog on the net, but it has enough of a readership to be of use to a writer.

Or — it could be an unmitigated disaster, resulting in an overload of work for me, and a lot of people ticked off about being rejected.

What sayest thou, faithful readers? Would you like to see any of these features? All of them? None? I’m open to suggestions and criticism.

A Short Ageism Rant

Every once in a while, you run into something that blows your mind a little. Nothing to get really angry about, unless you’re the type of person who’s easily triggered into anger. Just enough to make you heave a deep sigh and wonder if things will ever change. And realize that, no, they probably won’t.

So this rant focuses on an example of ageism that was probably meant kindly, but betrays the belief that there are classes of people, whether it’s the handicapped, people of color, or whatever, who are admirable simply for being able to do things that “normal” people do.

This morning, I left a comment in a discussion on a website that I read regularly. When I went back to see how the discussion was progressing and, possibly leave another comment, there was the one that provoked this rant. It was out of the blue, and totally irrelevant to the discussion. It was addressed to me and praised me for still writing and speaking about things that I believe in, at 70. So the person knows something about me, but is a bit behind on the age thing. If 70 is amazing, maybe 77 is just too unbelievable to mention publicly. Or maybe the person doesn’t really know me that well.

As I said, it was probably meant kindly, but was a perfect example of the condescension that people display, quite unconsciously, toward anyone who differs from their concept of “normal.” And believe me, I get just as annoyed when it’s aimed at other classes of “exceptional” people. Ageism isn’t even the worst of it.

Rant over.

Chuck Wendig’s “Write Club”

The first rule of Write Club . . . Well, you should let Chuck tell you what the first rule is. Along with a lot of insights into us crazy people that work with words.

Obligatory Reiteration: Writers Write (Or: “Welcome To Write Club”)

Unexpected Changes

Every once in a while, I try to step back and get an overall look at what I’ve been doing with my writing. Getting out from under the trees to see the whole forest. Surprises seem to pop up with increasing frequency lately. The biggest surprise is that I’m moving away from novels and moving toward short stories and nonfiction, with maybe a novella tossed in here and there. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but one dictated by my gradual loss of energy and the knowledge that I can’t really afford to invest in stories that will take two or three years (or more) to develop.

In a way, writing novels went against my natural inclination to write short. I blame NaNoWriMo for that. Just kidding about the blame. NaNo got me off my butt, so I owe it whatever career I have, if I can even call it a career.

The first thing that started turning my mind toward short was the Scrivener folder with dozens of story ideas. Just looking at the titles and notes was enough to make me tired. I’d have to live another three decades or more to tackle even a fraction of them. Then I looked more closely. How many of them had enough substance to become novels? Not many, really. Hmm. Short stories? That might make more sense.

And then there were my conversations with Danielle de Valera about the length of time it took to get a novel finished and published, and about her short stories. Then there were the magazine links she kept sending my way. Submit, why don’t you?

Novels were starting to look like a temporary aberration that I was just starting to recover from. I’ve been so deep into them that shorter fiction didn’t look like an option. I’d never written short stories and didn’t know if I was capable of it. Some ideas were too big to be contained in the short form. So I thought until I started reading shorts and paying attention to their possibilities.

But I still have several unfinished ones that require decisions about their fate. I’m working actively on New Serfdom and Gift of the Ancien, and I do intend to publish them. All the Broken Places isn’t too far along, but is worth developing and trying to sell to a romance publisher. The Warden, reluctantly, is likely to be put on a permanent back shelf.

I’m also working, more or less simultaneously, on two stand-alone short stories that I hope to finish and start submitting soon, and a themed collection. A Well-Educated Boy may turn out to be a novella rather than a novel. I hope. And there’s the nonfiction.

So much for my adolescent dream of becoming a famous novelist.



How Long Does it Really Take to Write a Novel?

Like my last post asking how long it should take to write a novel, this question has no answer. It takes as long as it takes. But it’s a very interesting question for me to consider at this particular moment because I’m actively working on a complete revision of the novel that I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2012. In July of 2012, I started writing posts tracking the development of the idea up to NaNo. Somehow, that dropped by the wayside and I stopped posting about it in October. But I did write the novel.

The New Serfdom turned out to be the shortest novel I’d ever written for NaNo, and the length, just under 51,000 words, reflected my growing uncertainty about it as November went by. By the end, the novel I’d written was very different from the one I’d planned. And because I was no longer sure what kind of story I wanted to write, it was a mess. The basic idea was still there: a United States broken up into variously weak and strong local governments, survivalist enclaves, and personal fiefdoms reviving slavery, serfdom, and indentured servitude. But I didn’t know where I wanted the story to go. Which meant that I had no idea how it would get there, or how its central characters would relate to each other.

So I put it away because I can’t stand to throw away a good idea, but I didn’t think I’d ever have the heart to wrestle it into something worth reading. But there are stories that won’t let you go even if you choose to let them go. So, off and on, over the last year, I’d plug in some notes, mostly about the characters. After a few months of this, I began to see a different story coming out of it, mostly because I knew the characters a lot better than I had when I wrote the darned thing.

It’s coming along pretty well, even if there are still some questions about what kind of decisions the main character will make at the end and how that will influence what everyone else does. There’s no guarantee that I’ll finish it, but that looks like a real possibility. And if I do, there’s a load of posts about it that might just turn into something like The Evolution of A Novel.

How Long Should it Take to Write a Novel?

How long should it take to write a novel? There’s no answer to that question, of course. Unless you’re writing purely for money and you need to churn out as many novels as you can in a year. So if I tell you that I’m drastically rewriting two novels, one that I wrote in 2009, and also one that I wrote in 2012, you’re likely to think that I’m the type of writer who suffers endlessly over every sentence, every vocabulary choice, every bit of punctuation, trying to achieve an unattainable perfection. I’m picky when it comes to all those details, but I also have a pretty good handle on them, so they aren’t what keeps me whacking away at novels that are, technically, complete.

In the case of Gift of the Ancien, it took someone else’s eye to make me see that a character I considered the protagonist just wasn’t very interesting, and that two other characters, to whom I’d given short shrift, needed to be more fully developed. In the case of The New Serfdom, the entire story got away from me and turned into something completely different from the original concept. So both novels demanded major rewrites, with The New Serfdom being the most difficult to deal with. It’s also the most challenging and, therefore, the most interesting.

Back on the shelf with you, Ancien. Welcome to a front row seat, Serfdom.

The thing is, that when we talk about someone taking years to finish a novel, we do think about it as an obsession that sweeps everything else out of its way. The author will never write another thing until this one masterpiece is good enough to be revealed to the world. That might have been true in the old days (whenever those were), but not today. Even if we only take into account the time differential between starting over from scratch with pen and ink every time you want a clean copy, and doing it on the computer, I don’t think it’s a true picture of the long-promised novel that never seems to get finished.

Enter multi-tasking. Or maybe serial-tasking. What I read about more lately, and what I practice myself is the creation of several (many) WIPs, any one of which the author may be working on, either simultaneously with others or in a random or planned switching back and forth from one to the other. That’s how I work most of the time. Novels are long, development takes time, and powers of concentration burn out, so there comes a time when abandoning one story temporarily and switching to another keeps the production cycle going.

So it may take years to complete a novel, but there are others also coming along. And because they probably all take different amounts of time, if you have enough WIPs in the hopper, you might eventually find yourself finishing more than one, or even two, a year. It’s sort of like juggling. When you’re just learning to juggle, two balls is easy, the third is difficult, and the fourth is impossible. But once you’ve mastered the skill, you can have all four balls in the air at once. And impress the hell out of everybody.

I’m still working on that.

Writerly Links

I’ve added a couple of links to the Writing/Publishing sidebar:

K.M. Weiland   Her latest post: Are Your Loose Ends Too Loose? is an excellent read for those of us who have trouble wrapping things up. “Readers like just enough loose ends so that they’re able to feel the story and its characters live on even after they’ve closed the back cover. You want them thinking, ‘I wonder…’ You do not want them thinking, “Huh?!’”

Kristen Lamb’s Blog   This is a particularly good blog for new writers to read. It’s very personal, friendly, and full of good advice without being dogmatic about it.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has been running a series of posts on discoverability on her blog. I haven’t read them all, but someone linked to this one: #12 which is mostly about using short stories as one of the ways to expand your reach to readers. It starts out discussing pricing, but gets to the meat very quickly. Well worth the time it takes to read a longer-than-usual post.

Useful Procrastination

I’m actively avoiding the attempt to compile Perfect Slave in Scrivener. I can only deal with so much frustration before giving up. Not permanently, but long enough to recoup my courage and give it another try. Or another fifty or so tries.

But I’m using the time somewhat profitably and will have a new topic to post about fairly soon — flash nonfiction. It isn’t exactly brand-new for me since what I’ve always done best is the essay form. But this is a different approach and will be more or less experimental for a while.

Building a Website

Once I decided that I really need a high-quality author’s website, the work began. My Weebly site was okay, but I’d never put as much thought into it as I should, and I always felt uncomfortable with Weebly. I didn’t really want to spend money on a site, but I wanted maximum design flexibility, among other things, and free sites just don’t offer that. I’ll probably go with Squarespace, but I won’t use the free introductory period until I have the content well worked out, and a solid idea for the design.

In the meantime, I’ve been looking at other author’s sites to get ideas, and haven’t been impressed by many of them. Trying to see them as a reader would, I wound up wondering why readers would bother to come back after one visit. So I’ve been picking up ideas, always keeping in mind that I want the site to be well-organized and easy to navigate, offer reasons for readers to keep visiting, and, above all, that it be representative of the kind of writing I do, both fiction and nonfiction. That’s a pretty tall order, but it’s beginning to take shape.

Of course I’ve also been reading articles on website design, particularly on what an author needs for a successful site, and some of those have been very helpful. One of the best is Amber Ludwig’s Make Your Website Do the Work: The 6 Site MUST-Haves to Sell More Books, Improve Your Credibility and Grow Your Following. It’s a quick read. If you are considering building a website to promote your writing, I’d consider it a must.


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