Collaging With Tarot

I've talked before about how I make collages for my books using pictures from the web or magazines or my inspiration folder (where I have hundreds of images from old magazines that I save because they speak to me for some reason.)

One fun thing I did that made a great artist's date/writing exercise was create a tarot collage of my hero and heroine's journey. There's no real trick to it. You just pick a tarot deck with imagery that appeals to you (this was The Secret Tarot by Marco Nizzoli*), spread the cards out on the table, then pick those that resonate with your vision for your protagonist. That's what I did for GRAVE MERCY.





So the top row was the major influences impacting the two main character's lives, and then the second row was the  hero's journey and the bottom row was the heroine's.

Or, you could be even more official and do an actual tarot reading for your characters or story. 

Mostly just a fun way to get in touch with the story at the intuitive level. Sometimes the cards you pick can surprise you.


*I have used my paltry photoshop skills to cover up some of the images so they would be work (and MG!) safe.

Looking For Themes In All The Wrong Places



Hello!

I was going to come back here and tell you all how I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had two seconds to rub together, let alone time to blog, but you know what? You all are smart cookies. I bet you figured that out on your own. Plus? It is fairly boring to talk about.

So instead I thought I’d talk about something that’s been occupying quite a lot of my mental space lately, namely themes. As in the core themes of our work.

[Warning: Possible navel-gazing ahead.]

Part of this was brought about by the fact that I am having a teensy bit of an identity crisis, genre-wise. I was able to straddle a young middle grade and an older middle grade series fairly well. But I am now pulling a dark, older YA into the mix and it kind of tipped me over in terms of understanding who my audience is, what my relationship to my readers is, how I pull all of those various wildly different parts of the authorial me together. Do I talk about the book that’s out now or the one that I’m working on? Does it matter if they’re two separate age groups?

The inside of my head has felt far too much like a hamster wheel for my liking. However, one can only flounder so long before it gets way old and all that’s left to do is get over it and move on. So here I am. I will be having my identity crisis in public and hope that it will be a learning experience for the rest of you.

My website is also due for a massive makeover, and before I could do that, I had to understand the answers to some of the above questions. Actually, I had to figure out the right questions to even ask.

When looking for a story theme, the questions I use are:

What life lesson does your protagonist need to learn?
Where, in her/his emotional landscape, will this journey take her? Will she/he be facing old fears? Discovering new ones? What will they be?
What issues will most of the book's conflict be arising from?
What direction is her/his growth going to take? Learning to accept, forgive, redeem oneself, stand up for what they believe in?
What will they have struggled with by the end of the book?
Also, look at your protagonist’s goals and motivations. What direction are they pointing in?


And while those questions work well for finding themes in a given book, they weren’t helping me step back and get a better picture of how all the various themes I work with tie in.

So I had to go looking for new questions.

What truth am I telling? What is my core truth, the one I go back to time and again. I searched my books, the school talks I give, my work on Shrinking Violets and over on GeekMom. Hell, I looked high and low. I kept stepping back, further and further away thinking if I could get a distant view, I could see the patterns and landscape better.

But I neglected to look deep, deep inside, to that place we all try to hide from the world. Which is highly ironic since that’s one of my biggest messages to kids when I do school visits—that their unique quirky self is their biggest most powerful weapon. Even if it’s the part of themselves that gets them in the most trouble or they find most embarrassing—that core is where all the best stuff in their life will come from.

And then I stumbled on this quote from Caroline Myss (found via Justine Musk's Tribal Writer blog) “You cannot live for prolonged periods of time within the polarity of being true to yourself and needing the approval of others.”

And my immediate thought was, you can’t? Because I have been doing that since I was old enough to breathe.

And it occurred to me that I have been engaged in a battle between being true to myself and pleasing others my entire life. An epic struggle for self acceptance.

Duh. There’s my core theme. Once I named it, I could recognize it in all of my work. It wasn't just about accepting our quirks or turning our weaknesses into strengths, but the constant polarization of opposing needs: that for self acceptance and that for pleasing others. Poor little Nathaniel Fludd, struggling between his innate timidity and wanting to please the intrepid Aunt Phil; Theodosia, needing to do something about all the magic that swirls around her, but not wanting to upset the apple cart with her parents.

Gawd! No wonder I’m exhausted all the time!

The other thing that occurred to me was that I will likely never have this fully mastered. Like a recovering alcoholic, it will be a one day at a time kind of thing. Maybe, at some point, it will be a week at a time or I will even be lucky enough to have a month long reprieve from this struggle. But I suspect it will always be a part of me, and even more, that that is a good thing because that is where my core story juice and passion come from. Putting characters in situations where they can experience transformative change that brings them one step closer to true self-acceptance.

So that is my core truth and one that all of my characters struggle with as well. I also think it’s why my stories tend toward middle grade and YA—because those first steps towards self acceptance and separating ourselves from our family and peers’ expectations for us come at those ages. (Also, clearly I am emotionally stunted. But in a productive way at least.)

The thing is, by recognizing our core journey, every daily challenge can have deeper meaning and be one more step on an ongoing path to the next stage of transformational change.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot the last couple of weeks. How about you? Are you guys all way more evolved than I am and have known for a long time your deepest, most core themes?

Writing is a Harsh Mistress

 

 
I was cleaning up a pile of papers that has sat next to my computer forever, and stumbled upon this quote that I'd printed out. I had not made a note of where it came from, so spent half an hour googling and searching and found out that, of course! It was from the brilliant Barbara Samuel//Barbara O'Neal's speech that she gave at RWA Nationals in 2004. If you haven't read it, please do. If you have read it, go ahead and read it again. It always moves me--often in new and different ways.
"She wants your experiences. Your brain. Your heart. Your soul. She wants to know that you will give her everything you have, whatever you have, when she needs it. She wants that secret you’ve never told anyone, ever. She wants that wound that can still bleed if someone brushes it by accident. She wants your pain and your bone marrow and your joy and every desire you’ve ever known."

Yes. This. Every time I read this I am reminded that I truly must give everything to the page in order to produce my best work.

The Science of Free Will

 

 
 















As a writer, one of the things I am most fascinated by is human behavior, the choices we make, why we make them, what calls or pushes us to one action and prevents us from making another. What drives the human psyche?

Wikimedia Commons
Because the truth is, our preciously held and highly valued ability to make free, independent decisions might not be as clear-cut as we thought.
 
For the longest time, human actions and choices were viewed in the simplest of terms: good versus evil, right vs. wrong. To early church fathers, free will was a hotly debated topic. If all events had been predetermined by an omnipotent god, how can our wills ever be free? In medieval thought, a human’s will was very much a battleground between God vs the Arch Fiend as they wrestled for a man’s soul—and the ability to make his choices for him. During the Reformation, Martin Luther declared free will a fiction as all human actions were predestined by God.

In the 20th century, our understanding of will took on entirely new layers and complexities with the birth of psychology. With the work of Freud and Jung, much of what had once seemed like willful bad choices or evil, now had an explanation in the intricacies of the human mind: unconscious, subconscious, repression, and transference, not  to mention the id, ego, and super ego.

But modern sciences have come to shed even more light on an already vastly complex subject. It turns out that our wills are not nearly as free—or as independently minded—as we once thought. Highly complex creatures that we are, we are subject to a host of signals, input, feedback, and influence that we never suspected.

Wikimedia Commons: Wapcaplet
We now know that we are greatly influenced by the people around us; their actions affect our actions in ways we are often not even aware of. In a famous experiment conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1963, test subjects were required to administer electric shocks to various learner’s when they failed at their tasks. The willingness of people to do what authorities told them to do, regardless of the perceived harm, showed just how susceptible we are to authority figures and the need to conform.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book BLINK, the author brings us even more subtle ways in which this sort of influence takes place. In the book he ably dissects gut reactions and our concept of instinct and exposes the sometimes unpleasant underbelly of what goes into our ‘gut’ response and shows us just how subject to undue influence we can be. It turns out we humans can easily be conditioned and primed by the environment around us. In experiment after experiment, people were shown to be primed. Tall men were often found to be positively associated with leadership roles and consequently achieved higher positions within companies and earned more. Even more disturbingly, these sorts of influences aren’t limited to how others see us–they can greatly influence our self perception as well. Gladwell cites another experiment conducted by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson. When African Americans were asked to identify their race before taking a difficult, standardized test, their correct scores were cut in half.
 
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James Whittake
The choices we make can be radically different when we are surrounded by groups of people. Whether this is due to the contagion theory or collective effervescence,  the phenomenon of mob mentality has been with us for a long time. People will often act differently in a crowd, often in irrational, sometimes violent ways. Even matters of taste and artistic preferences are influenced by others–and not merely in the form of highly respected cultural reviews. Our taste in these things can be influenced by even anonymous opinions. Experiments have shown there is a cumulative advantage when judging creative merit–the opinions of others is often a huge factor in whether or not we ourselves like certain music, books, and art.

And as if all those behavioral and psychological components weren’t confusing enough,  neuroscience and genetics are shedding light on an already highly complex dynamic. More and more scientists are learning that our brain makes decisions before we are even conscious of them, questioning just how ‘freely’ we make those decisions.
 
Wikimedia Commons
Dennis Myts
As they continue to decode our genes, scientists have made some interesting discoveries. In addition to a handful of inheritable diseases, there are more and more seemingly random diseases for which people carry a genetic predisposition, illnesses like cancer, obesity, infertility, or heart disease.

And what are we to make of cellular memory? Some think it is a pseudoscience at best, and yet what about the inexplicable events and choices we seem to have no power over, that are seemingly made for us? In one family I know, a shocking number of members have died just after turning fifty—but from a variety of causes: a railway accident, artheriosclerosis, a car accident, cancer, a heart attack. No where near enough of a pattern to be able to attribute it to health factors, but a very strong sense of predestination overshadows that family. In another family, a startling number of them have married perfectly healthy people, only to have those spouses develop major, chronic illnesses. Situations like this often have me pondering the idea that we are destined to live our lives over and over until we reach a state of enlightenment that takes us to the next level. But what sort of enlightenment is required to stop unknowingly marrying sick people or avoiding premature death?

However, even with all the neuroscience and genetics and psychology, there is still something fundamentally unknowable about where our deepest decisions and truest choices come from. Behavioral geneticists attribute only about 40% of our behavior to actual genetics, with 10% attributable to a shared family environment. That leaves up to 50% of our behavioral tendencies to an unshared environment, and that’s where the truly interesting stuff happens. What causes one sibling who has suffered abuse to perpetuate that cycle of abuse, while another is able to stop it? What part of their environment was different enough to give one person the strength to choose a different path?

The truth is, I don’t have the answers. For me, it’s asking the questions that has value. Being aware of all the factors that go into our choices makes us all the more able to strip away undue influence or hidden pressures so that our will can be as freely ours as is humanly possible. I suspect there is no definitive no answer and our understanding of all the factors will be in a state of flux and discovery for generations to come. Human will defies theologians’, psychologists’, sociologists’, and even neuroscientists’ explanations. We are more complex than that. We encompass all those aspects—and more. Each decision we make, each choice we act upon is a complex alchemical* brew of social, neurological, genetic, and, psychological processes, stirred together with a heavy dose of The Unknowable.

Which is what makes us such fascinating beings. And something I’ll try to keep in mind the next time one of my kids gets in trouble.


*For you science purists out there, I am kidding. I only ever use alchemy to turn my surplus lead into gold. I would never use it for something as important as making decisions. For that I always read entrails…

[originally posted on GeekMom]

A Whopping Dose of Random

 
I went to the chiropractor today as part of my Full Body Tune Up so that I can still be writing when I'm seventy. As we were chatting away, he asked me if I felt I'd 'made it', which had me stopping to think. With as much as I think about this stuff, you'd have assumed I'd have a firm marker in place for that, but I didn't. I started to say once a person hits the bestseller lists, but even that must seem tenuous, once you're there. But as we talked, I realized that I've started to feel like this whole wonderful gig isn't going to be snatched away come morning. Maybe that's as close to feeling one's made it as one gets in this business.

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I also happened to notice my chiropractor's hands today. He's a big, burly guy--a record holding power lifter and it shows in his hands. They actually reminded me a lot of my husband's hands, who has worked as a heavy equipment mechanic for a number of years. I realized that made a strange sort of sense since a chiropractor is pretty much a mechanic of the human body.

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An unanticipated consequence of having two new books out next month as well as two new paperback editions is that I have author's copies piling up here in my living room at an alarming rate. At last count I had a combined total of NINETY books! I feel a number of contests and giveaways coming soon....

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I think I forgot to post my very cool news here! I mentioned it on Twitter and Facebook, but I don't think I talked about it here.

Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: The Unicorn's Tale is on the Spring 2011 Indie Next List! Hurray, Indies! And thank you!

And Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus has been nominated for an Agatha. Yep, that's my name next to John Grisham and Kathy Reichs! Huge thanks to Malice Domestic for this honor.

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Oddly enough, literally everyone I met and talked to yesterday was in a horrible mood. I'm wondering if it was the impending earthquake we were all sensing.

Also? In spite of the three of us here in the house having had horrible, rotten, foul mood days, within about 5 minutes of sitting down at the dinner table, we were laughing. There is no miracle like that of a wonderful family.

Peeking Out of My Hermit Cave

It has been brought to my attention that I have been very quiet lately, and yes, I have. This book is being a bit of a bear to start—for many reasons. A primary one being that it is dark, dark, dark. And I shrink from all that darkness. But try hard as I might to pull it in other directions, that’s where it wants to go. So it has taken me the last two weeks to give myself permission to write the first draft as dark as I need to then, I assure myself, I can lighten it up in subsequent drafts. I mean, that IS the advantage to being a multiple drafter, right?

But I feel like I’m stumbling along in fits and starts, feeling awkward and cumbersome. To help me through this clumsy, graceless stage, I am rereading the classics: BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott and ON WRITING by Stephen King. They are hugely helpful and I am very much enjoying and soaking up these gentle encouraging voices full of bone deep wisdom. It is wisdom that I seem to need right now. Lamott, in particular, seems to be speaking right to me.

But also, as I struggle to hear the faint glimmerings of these new characters in my head, I need to tune out some of the voices on the outside because that noise and commotion draws too much of my attention. When I turn down the volume of the external world, it is much easier for me to hear my emerging characters. So I am alive and well, just…pensive. And quiet.

I’ve never needed quite this much psychic exclusion to start a book before, but I’ve also never written anything this tortured, so it makes sense. It is probably not surprising that these books did not demand to be written until my children were grown and self sufficient. To counteract all this sturm und drang, I am spending lots of time walking in this world, enjoying my family, reminding myself that old wounds do heal, lives that seem dark can find hope, essentially doing whatever I need to do to keep the nature of this book from overwhelming me, while still giving it the nurturing attention it needs to be born. A bit of a juggling act, actually.

Also? I am trying to be ergonomically savvy. The older I get the more aware I am of the wear and tear the act of writing and mousing and typing and sitting for hours on end has on my body. I had an ergonomics specialist come the other day and evaluate my process and stations and retweak everything. I want to be able to do this for another twenty or thirty years, so I need to make sure I’m not over stressing various joints, tendons, and muscles. Which is pretty much guaranteed if you spend nine hours a day on the computer, so I’ve just been cutting back in general.

Bag of Tricks

I talked the other day about my handy dandy back of tricks that I use to coax my characters and stories to reveal themselves to me. As promised, I’m going to detail some of those in this post.

One of those is the brilliant old faithful by Debra Dixon, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

It’s a simple concept, one that is often overlooked due to its very simplicity. If you haven’t read Deb’s book, do try to find a copy to check it out because the depth with which she explains the concepts are very worth it.

Basically, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC) is making sure you know your characters EXTERNAL goal (what she wants) MOTIVATION (why she wants it) and CONFLICT (what’s standing in her way). IN ADDITION to knowing and understanding her INTERNAL goal, motivation, and conflict. The thing is, lots of us might want to be writers or senators or nurses, but chances are we all have very real, very unique, very private reasons we want those things. Doing this exercise ensures that you know what makes your character tick.

When thinking of an INTERNAL goal, it helps me to reframe that as the question, What is lacking in my character's life? What does she need to be fulfilled as a person? What Life Lesson does she need to learn?

I think of the internal motivation as the reason she needs to learn this lesson or the reason she has this great, gaping emotional hole in her life. What bad messages or poor choices she’s made in the past that have kept her from achieving fulfillment. And lastly, the internal conflict can be a couple of things: It can be what is compelling her to hang on to those old messages/lessons that keep her from moving forward, or what event/catalyst has to occur in order to move her forward emotionally.

Make a grid on a piece of paper and see if you can fill in those elements for your character. Even if you think you know them, oftentimes they change or solidify or evolve over the course of the story.

The second tool I use to suss out my characters is a cheat sheet I made from Donald Maass’s book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. He poses some great questions in that book, questions that really help me grow my plot from the seeds of my main character. One of the questions I work with in the beginning is: Define what truly matters to my character. Does she have a tortuous need, consuming fear, aching regret, passionate longing, burning desire, inner lack? (You can probably see that this ties directly into the INTERNAL goal from the above GMC.)

And next I begin character journaling. I begin writing about that character’s emotional scars and wounds. I poke around in her distant past to find out what might have caused them, how they developed, why they didn’t heal. The truth is, often two different people can experience a similar event--or the same event--and only one person is affected or traumatized by them. Because we all have different emotional baggage we're carrying around. I try to get at the heart of why THIS problem is so cataclysmic for THIS character that it tilts their world (either their inner world or their external world) on it's axis.

I try to become that character and see what my subconscious sends up in the way of character memories—often very surprising things bubble up—things that I did not consciously plan or think of, but are perfect nonetheless. Some questions I use to get started are:

When did things begin to go wrong for her? In what way? What were things like just before they went wrong? How did she try to fix things--if she tried at all? 


Another big benefit to journaling is that it helps me get familiar with the character’s voice. It’s like warm up drills on the piano keys before busting out into Rachmaninoff.

But for the last few books, I’ve been using other resources besides writing and plotting tools; I’ve added psychology books into the process and boy, is this helpful when I’m flailing around, trying to define my characters and their problems and their ultimate arcs. As I mentioned a few months ago, THE HERO WITHIN was invaluable as I wrestled with Ismae’s story in medievalteenassassin#1. This time around, it is Clair Pinkola Estes WOMEN WHO RUN WITH WOLVES that is saving my bacon for this second assassin book. Having said that, I think WWRWW works especially well for me since I write fantasy. Not sure how much help it would be if I wrote contemporary, realistic fiction.

As I leafed through WWRWW, I found invaluable clues to my character and not only what is at the root of who she is and why she behaves how she does, but what she will need in order to heal and grow. One thing I stumbled on this time around that I don’t remember reading before was the author’s descansos exercise. The book—and the exercise—is intended for individuals but I’m going to do it for my character. And that is, to make a timeline of all the little deaths of spirit and psyche my character has suffered (and she’s had a LOT—her past is very, very dark). Note each huge heartbreak and betrayal—whether actual or emotional, pay attention to where she felt abandoned or ignored, where she was forced to do things that were totally against her nature. Because all of those things that happened in her past inform who she is in the NOW of the story. They will give me the knowledge I need in order to understand how she will behave and react during the events of the story.

So now I’ve got all the subconscious juices flowing—and in the direction I want them to be flowing—and words and pages are accumulating at a satisfying pace. However, lest I end up with too sprawling or shapeless first draft ( I need something to let them flow into. That’s where the SAVE THE CAT template that I talked about a couple of weeks ago comes in. And I’m going to talk about how I marry those two together next week. But while you’re waiting, go and try a couple of these exercises and see how they work for you. Especially if you’re stuck or having a hard time bringing a character to life. Or if any have a similar types of exercises you use to help bring your character to life, I’d love to hear about them! I am crazy for writing exercises and processes. ☺

Thinking, Stewing, Fermenting, and Percolating and the Joys Therein


For the past week I’ve been cogitating on the necessity of thinking to the writing process—or at least MY writing process. And then a few days ago I came across a blog post where someone was talking about how what people NEEDED to do to be a productive/professional writer was to sit down and write one page in an hour. They had done the math, you see. They figured out how long it takes to write an email and computed that into how long it would take to write a page, and if you did that three times during the day, voila! You would have a book—or three—by the end of a year. Mind you, this was a professional writer who made his/her living at writing. They firmly believed that all this thinking and researching and note-taking were simply procrastination measures and by and large useless and not-necessary.

It was all I could do not to pull my hair out by the roots and scream at the computer screen.

It would be one thing if this person had made it clear that it was THEIR process—but to extrapolate it out to the writing public at large was, at best irresponsible, at worst egotistical.

I have written over twenty books, and published thirteen of those. The longer I am involved in this writing gig the more convinced I become that the actual writing—putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard—is sometimes only 20-30% of the writing process. Not because I’m avoiding anything or letting myself be sidetracked, but because good pages don’t just happen. They are thought about and pondered over. They stew and ferment and percolate. This is especially true as my books become longer and more complex. Depth and nuance doesn’t (usually!) just fall from the sky in a burst of inspiration while I happen to be pounding out my 250 words per hour. It can, but it doesn’t always. Most often, you have to go out and hunt depth and layers and subtext and club it over the head, drag it home, and then finesse it into your WIP.

Their point was that fast writers were much better and more likely to be true professionals that slow writers. Gah. Of course, that doesn’t even address the issue of those of us who write some books slowly and others quickly…

The funny thing is, I was wrestling with this very issue before I even stumbled upon this blog post. I had set my Start Date for the medievalteenassassin#2 as Feb. 1. As I said, I’d been gathering research materials and making notes and blocking out the big picture plot things. But try as hard as I might, the story egg was NOT ready to crack yet. Was. Not. Now sure, I wrote a couple of pages. And I could very easily have forced myself to stay there and write X number of pages until I have five pages each day. But what sort of pages would they be? The wrong ones, ones leading into a story I didn’t want to tell. Now sure, you can always fix a bad page—but sometimes committing too early to the wrong story is not helpful. Besides, I could have blindly put words on paper that had no depth, no nuance, no layered meaning, and no subtext, but whatever is the point?

So instead, I pulled out my bag of tricks that I fall back on time and time again to help dig around until I find my character and story. (My next post will detail those tricks—I pinkie swear!) Some, like the above referenced blog poster, would call that procrastination. I call it assembling the material from which I plan to craft my story. Sure, one can build something using any old materials one has on hand. Or. One can look long and carefully for the right materials, the ones that compliment and contrast, provide shadows as well as illumination, and are the best quality—the strongest and most aesthetically pleasing materials one can find.

All this ruminating and mulling bore rich fruit. I quickly realized I had started in the wrong place. Once I made the adjustment and backed up, the pages came much, much more easily. Where I had been eking out two painful pages a day, when I backed up and did the necessary story and character work, I was able to write 20 pages in three days. Not a record, by any means, but much more free flowing when they came from the right place. They are still first draft pages, but they have the bones and sinew of the story I am trying to tell, rather than no relation to anything I’m trying to convey.

So the point I am trying to make is that, no, there is no one formula or approach one has to take in order to be a professional working writer who can support themselves with their writing. Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.

The Speech Heard Round the Kid Lit World


Last week at SCBWI’s New York conference, Sara Zarr gave a speech that resounded powerfully with writers everywhere. The crux of the speech was about reclaiming our creative life from the demands of the market and the business side of publishing. There is a great recap of the speech here and here. It was a hugely important speech, and one that I think many, many writers needed—and wanted—to hear. To be given permission to put creativity front and center in their careers again.

I actually feel that I have done a fairly good job of arranging a creative life that sustains me. However, a couple things she said really resonated.

Most of us need to stop doing half of what we’re doing and start doing the other half well.

Yeah, I’m doing too much. I know it. I had hoped by giving myself a month off before starting a new book, I could get caught up and maybe even get ahead. And I did in a couple of areas, but not others. Some days, I am pulled in so many different directions, I hardly know where to start. I don’t think I can quite give up half of what I’m doing, but I can pare way down.

I’m going to cut way back on Twitter and, I think, give up Tweet Chats. Not that I’ve participated in all that many, but it is a bit of a mental pull, and that part I can eliminate. I’ll still pop on there occasionally, but I won’t try to catch up with everyone all the time.

I’m reducing my blog reading by 2/3. Out with all the industry and publishing news, the declarations of the death of the printed book, and the age of the E-Reader. I will keep up with one particular online series, because I think as an author I need to be informed, but not assaulted, which is how I feel sometimes with so much news. And is, now that I think about it, one of the downsides to Twitter—we are absolutely assaulted with news and links.

And yeah, thinking about doing a year long writing workshop here on the blog was a tad overambitious, especially with my Shrinking Violet and GeekMom commitments. Even more difficult though, was I can’t use samples from my work in progress, but the time required to figure out new examples was too much, and even worse, created a second story running through my head, crowding out the work. So I am going to give that up. I will still post craft stuff as I deal with it, but it won’t be quite as structured as I had hoped. Also? I will quit beating myself up when I don’t manage to get a new blog entry posted every week.

A creative life must be sustainable.

And frankly, as I get older my wrists and shoulders are barking at me to spend way less time on the computer. Not just on the computer, but writing in general. I get thumb sprain and index finger strain from writing so much with a pen. My wrists begin flirting with carpel tunnel when I spend too much time on the keyboard, and my shoulders are sick of mousing. So even though I don’t battle the M&M bowl, my current set up is not sustainable, at least not as far as my body is concerned.

It is hard, because I do so much research on the computer. Not just for the books, but for everything—colleges, health issues, politics, current events. Every little fact that crosses my path I usually feel compelled to research. Clearly I need to give some of that up and step away from the computer. So I’ll be doing a lot of that in the next few weeks as well as hiring an ergonomics person to come in and help me set up the most ideal environment for my aging joints.

A creative life should be engaging, expanding, not reduce you to word count and computer.

I have written three books a year for three years, and while I knew that was a sort of hyper-accelerated push, it is also important to realize it was not, nor was ever meant to be sustainable. I am feeling a huge need to step back into real life. It is so, so easy to default to the relationships I have online. I’m an introverted hermit, after all. But I want to do more walking and hiking and have weekly artists dates outside the house, spend more time with my parents and friends. Maybe do some volunteer work. Being so deeply in my writing cave for so long was exactly what I—and my career—needed. But now the need has passed and it’s time to expand my world once again.

So those are the thing that Sara Zarr’s speech gave me permission to do. What about you? Did her speech inspire you to shift things in any way for yourself?

Some Thoughts On Historical Accuracy

 

 
I have been thinking a lot about historical accuracy as I work on these medieval French assassin books. Lucy had asked (quite a while ago—sorry Lucy!) if I would talk about historical accuracy on the blog, and since I was discussing historical research in general, I thought it would be a good time to address it.

But first, a warning: I am not a purist. If you are looking for someone who holds up pristine historical accuracy as the One True Shining Purpose, I am not your girl.

For one thing, I think historical accuracy is an elusive beast, especially the farther back in time you travel. But that very elusiveness is exactly why so many historians tackle time periods that have been written about before: because things change. Sometimes it is the actual information and facts that change—new discoveries are made, new methods of dating or interpreting old facts emerge. But other times it is merely US who have changed, our perspective on history. A great example of this was the influx of histories in the seventies that were told/viewed through the eyes of women or minorities who’d been involved in the historical events, but whose side hadn’t yet been told.

There is also great disagreement on a lot of historical concepts and facts. Just trying to define the middle ages or medieval time period for example, can lead you on a long and twisting goose chase. Some declare it ended in the middle of the 14th century, while others claim it ended in 1450, where still others claim it ended in 1492. You can find solid historical arguments for each of those dates. The truth is, you can often find a variety of sources that will support an even wider variety of interpretations.

So which does a writer choose?

The one that serves the story they are trying to tell.

Some writers are writing in order to convey absolute historical detail and accuracy and take great pride in that, as well they should because it is so tricky. But others (like me) are mostly interested in evoking the sensibilities and flavor of a time period. I don’t mean that we slap historical costumes on 21st century characters and calling it historical, but rather we try to explore the mindset and worldview of earlier times, but in a way that is accessible to readers.

This is especially true for me since I write historical fantasy. I am already drawn to the murky, under explored parts of historical periods—their folk beliefs, superstitions, relationship to Other, and their spiritual anomalies—things that most real historians have traditionally steered clear of.

Then there is the added layer of conveying the history in the story as the people of that time understood it, or so that it is accurate when viewed through our 21st century lens. A great example of this is that I’ve been dinged in a view Theodosia reviews for being inaccurate about mummies, and I so want to ask this person to please point me to their research. Not because I want to argue, but because the four sources I consulted all supported my dealing with mummies and the researcher in me would love to examine this source that disputes that. Or is her source a more 21st century source rather than the information Theodosia and other Egyptologists would have access to in 1907?

Another example is that even now, they is still disagreement and dispute as to who really reached mountain peaks first or who the first man to discover the north pole truly was.

You begin to see the complexity.

My medieval France book is proving the most difficult, not only because the time period was recorded in such a subjective manner, but because most of the earliest sources are in French! Middle French at that, and I simply am not dedicated enough or willing to wait long enough to learn that language before I write this story.

What I am doing for this book is dipping my hand in the cauldron of what we know of the events at that time and pulling out those that are most relevant to the story I want to tell. There are vast amounts of historical facts and details I am not even touching—to do so would turn an already huge book into an encyclopedia! But even more important, they aren’t relevant to the story itself.

My own guidepost, touchstone, call it what you will is that the history serves the story. (Again, I want to reiterate that this would never fly if I were writing historical fiction rather than historical fantasy!)