Archive | February, 2011

The Joys of Research – added value!

23 Feb

Oh, the things you can learn! Some really esoteric bits of information that you’ll uncover may never again cross your path – even in ten lifetimes. But that’s the fun of digging around in the past – or speculating on the future.

I suppose one can’t really research the future, but your imagination might, if you turn it loose. I prefer to let my imagination out to play in the past. I’m currently trying to figure out how looms made knitted fabric for underclothing, etc., in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It’s certainly not vitally important, but since the heroine in my current WIP (work in progress) unearthed a collection of clothing from two hundred years ago, I’m compelled to know what these things looked like, and what they were made of. And it’s entirely possible that once I achieve this goal, that information may never get into the book!

Of course, I have always been a ‘fabric-holic’ to begin with. My grandmother taught me to sew at the age of three  (really!) by giving me a needle and thread to work on the ever-present quilt in her farm kitchen. There was always a quilt in the process, and I presume I expressed curiosity, so there I was. I still have the quilt, which is unfortunately, a bit the worse for the 50+ years of travel and rough-housing that entered its life after Grandma gave me the quilt for a wedding present.

Since that time, I’ve made every type of garment possible for any age or gender, including costuming for various theaters.  I still cannot resist ‘touching’ a fabric to see what it feels like: silky, rough, thick, thin, sturdy, delicate – whatever. However, while I drive my friends nuts by this habit, I do not approach people I don’t know for this purpose!

But that said—and clothing is very important to most stories—there are many other important facts to uncover as well.  Yes, facts, even in fiction!  You really do not want to display your ignorance by utilizing something that hadn’t yet been invented at the time your story is set. And if you’re going to incorporate real people (that is, people known to history for their accomplishments, such as artist or musician) be sure they were alive during that time, and doing whatever it was they became famous for doing.

I promise that if you start delving into historical matters, you will be absolutely amazed! Folks of many centuries ago were truly clever and creative, making use of what was known in their world, and adapting themselves to their climate and habitat. For instance, think of all the musical instruments mentioned in the Bible. Many of them have been refined during the intervening years, but the same systems are still employed. Music can be made by plucking and/or bowing a stringed instrument, thumping on a drum, or blowing into something, such as a horn or reed. Of course, in today’s electrical world, there are many other ways, but all the instruments in today’s orchestra are derived from those three original major categories.

Think about kitchen gadgets. Writing implements. Glasses for improved vision. For instance, did you know that Richard III (who died at Bosworth in 1485) wore glasses? True. You can look it up. Quills (from goose or swan) were the major writing instrument for centuries. Just think – Shakespeare wrote 37 full-length plays and goodness only knows how many sonnets and poems – with a feather!  Well, probably more than one feather, but still . . .   Although metal nibs (points) that fit on the end of the quill only began to be manufactured in Britain in 1822, there are indications that metal pens were actually used, even if  rarely, in Pompei, before it was buried by the volcano in 79.

It was with a quill pen that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution of the US, and the original signers did so with quill pens. That was 1787. And guess what? The Supreme Court of the United States still–to this day–issues quill pens to those attorneys who practice before it. Even today! You can look it up! Here’s a hint:

Who says research is no fun, or dull. Not me! Never! Try it! You might like it.

Part three! Or, writing Secret Shores

16 Feb

March of 1991 found me as president of our local chapter of RWA, busily working my multitude of part-time jobs, with a daughter in residence. Said daughter took me out to lunch for my birthday, and when we returned home there was a message on the answering machine. It was an editor from a large NY publisher, to ask if I’d publicize her book quest with my chapter members. Of course, I said yes, and she faxed me the requirements. (This was before e-mail, I’ll have you know!)

The proposed series of books were to be called “Love on the Great Lakes” and she wanted a book for each of the five Great Lakes. The editor was calling all RWA chapters in that general area to give them first chance at the offer. Other chapters would be notified, but we were first! As it happened, our chapter meeting was two days later, and I happily shared the information.

Daughter (her name was Kristi) informed me that I should write one of them. I replied I didn’t know about that sort of thing, as I was a Regency girl. She persisted. “What Lake?” I asked.  “Mackinac Island” was her immediate response.  “Lake,” I repeated. “Which Lake is it in?” She didn’t know and neither did I, until we consulted a map. The island was in Huron, but barely. I’d been to the island several times in my life, but she’d gone me one better! She’d actually worked there a couple of summers during high school (as did her younger brother, when he was old enough) and even been married there, in the little stone chapel.

We were given a list of requirements: the book should be set between 1850 and 1900; the hero and heroine had to be American; the story should include the Lake almost as a character; and most importantly, the social history of the area and the time chosen had to reflect reality.  I truly had no clue about where to start or anything else. But Kristi wouldn’t let up. So, finally, I handed her my library card and sent her off to do some research, and bring home a few books for me to peruse. She did. Boy, did she ever!

I think I read two pages of the first one (a history of Michigan by a one-time UofM president) and I was hooked! Within a week, I knew pretty much the plot, the characters, etc. By this time, about six weeks had elapsed since that phone call, when disaster struck, and I ended up in the hospital for nearly three weeks. On the other hand, once home again, I really couldn’t do much of anything but read and write. So I did.

Three months later I had a good sturdy working synopsis and perhaps 3-4 chapters completed. I sent them to the editor, and she calmly informed me she liked it and offered me a contract. WOWEEE! I was in seventh heaven, believe me!  Once I calmed down a bit, I realized the work had just (barely) begun. Every time I wrote more than two sentences, I found myself questioning – everything! I discovered I had no really good idea about entirely too many important items in my story.

Having had to miss the RWA national conference (in New Orleans that year) I felt strong enough to go to Mackinac Island for 4 days in early September. It was so helpful to me to get the geography in my head. I spent time at the Fort, many of the local buildings and businesses that had been there in 1861-63, which was when my story was set. This did NOT include the Grand Hotel which came along later. But I did use the location for the Nicolet home. (I did also go to the Grand Hotel, anyway, for their totally awesome brunch! If ever you have the opportunity to go there, you should NOT miss this opportunity. It’s an experience you’ll never forget! Trust me on that one.)

I rented a carriage with team and driver for two fabulous hours, and it was remarkable. We traversed the entire island, and my driver was so experienced (he’d been driving there for 50-some years!) that he anticipated things I should know about, and wouldn’t have known to ask.  I took 8 or so rolls of film (before digital, too!)  It was much as it had been a hundred-plus years earlier. There are still no motor vehicles allowed – they have the only horse and buggy drive-up ATM machine in the world. (There is an ambulance, a fire truck and a police vehicle, but no others are allowed. You travel by horse, bicycle or feet, or skis in the winter.

Once back home again, I settled in to more research (when were zippers or pencils invented?) on various topics, including yacht building, steam engines, costumes, military and social history, Native American tribes of the area, and not least, the War Between the States. Some of the things I unearthed were just to enticing to leave out of my story, so I had to find a way to work them in. It was definitely worth the struggle!  I made up a bibliography of my many sources. If you’d like a copy, please ask me for it; I’ll happily send it along.  I must say, it came in very handy when I wrote book number five, which was about the parents of the hero in this book.

Approximately two months later, I finished the writing. It took close to another month to proof it, make corrections and have a couple of friends read it, too, to be sure it was as good as it could be. Finally, on December 11, 1991, I mailed off the copy to the editor. Secret Shores was published in May, 1993. Just for the record, of the five Lake books – three of them came from my RWA chapter. I was very proud of our local authors.

Last summer, I brought the book back into print in both regular and large print versions, through CreateSpace.   Secret Shores is available now in plus and as a Kindle. (Your local bookstore should be able to order the paper versions through their regular distributor.)  NOTE:  After all this time, I think the previously broken links to the book description and order pages are now fixed!)

Here’s a recent review of it, if you’re interested:

I was so enthralled by my experience on the island that I wrote a sort-of travel piece about it. And then, a funny thing happened on the way to wherever. It was picked up by any number of sources on the web. Of course I wasn’t paid for any of that, but I’d have written it anyway! Good grief! I’m even quoted on Wikipedia!  True. My article is #28 on their list of references: and then others appropriated it as well!

and and (I’m #26 on that last url. On the other hand, I’m source # 4 at this page.) (And, at that point I gave up. Yikes!)

But you can bypass them if you want, and go directly to the source:

I’ve been meaning to add here that the SPAM filter for WordPress is VERY aggressive, and deletes almost every comment without even giving me a chance to see it first. It’s not adjustable, in any way. If you’ve written a comment that doesn’t appear anywhere, please write directly to my e-mail: which is also the place for other questions. Thanks!

Happy Writing!

The Joy of Finishing Something!

9 Feb

All too many writers, once they’ve begun writing, are suddenly seduced by a NEW IDEA!!! How do I know this? Why do I have 30+ incomplete books in my desk drawer? (Well, really, they’re in my computer somewhere, but who actually cares?) And that’s not to mention the umpteen unfinished sewing/crafts projects tucked here, there and everywhere?

I don’t wish to discourage you from thinking, and plotting, etc., but—don’t let yourself be swayed from the original, either. At least – not too far! Sometimes, an idea that’s been hiding in the back of your brain somewhere, suddenly wakes up and says, ‘Hey! It’s my turn. I’ve waited long enough.’ And it begins pushing everything else out of the way in its insistence to be first! Okay. Fine. Do at least make copious notes about this idea – you don’t want to lose it. But neither do you want to continually succumb to the lure of the something new. This is hazardous—especially if you’re a very prolific thinker.

It’s very true that the more creative you are, the more creative you become. It’s like you suddenly opened up a new room in your brain, and it has to be filled with something (nature abhors a vacuum, remember?) so you begin to think of new things with which to fill it. Truly!

Nevertheless, I cannot begin to stress strongly enough the importance of finishing something. Anything! You will find yourself unbelievably empowered by having finished something all your own and unique to you, perhaps in spite of all those doubters who didn’t think you had it in you! Well. What do they know? If they had half your creativity and gumption, they’d be doing the same thing you’re doing. Don’t give it up. Don’t give up on yourself. And don’t give up your advantage, either.

You may think this new idea is the very best one you’ve ever had. And it may well be, but as long as you’ve made notes so you can go back to it later, it will only improve with time. It’s more important to continue with your current project, gathering experience and knowledge as you go. Every little seed of ‘how to do something’ is valuable to you. Don’t just scatter them around. Accumulate them and hold them close. You’ll never know when you’ll really need them.

Have you ever heard of SMART planning? I discovered  this on the web some time ago. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. For instance:

Here is a goal: I will write 10 pages by the end of this week.

This is a clearly-stated goal that, on the surface, seems to be reachable. If you know going in that your schedule will not allow you to produce this much, then simply set the goal a bit lower. Try for 8 pages. Or 6. Or maybe one page a day. It’s not a sin to aim for less and produce more! It will, however, set you back considerably if you set an unrealistically high goal that you cannot achieve. There is no time limit for you to reach any particular goals, except the ones you set for yourself. It really will not help you to set a goal that is unreachable. The most important thing is for you to be able to reach your goal, not just once—but several times over—so don’t handicap yourself before you begin!

Your sense of accomplishment when you have finished something is awesome! You will never forget it, either.

A slight word of warning. Once you have indeed finished your project, you will naturally feel a bit of letdown. Don’t be discouraged by this—it’s a natural reaction to the high achieved by your accomplishment. It’s perfectly okay to take a few days or even a week off from your now-finished activity, before setting a new goal with a new project.

Always remember how you achieved your goal. Take little steps. Organize your ideas as much as you can. (Some of us do better at this than others!) Don’t be seduced by the supposed need for ever-more reasearch! Set realistic goals for yourself, then—plunk your rump in that chair, and write!

There’s a scene in Secret Shores that absolutely grabs everyone who reads the book. (Actually, it’s Chapter Fourteen.) It’s the one that prompted my daughter to yell at me, when I got stuck before writing that chapter. I’d known before getting to that point in the writing, that there would be a shipwreck and how it would all turn out. But then, I had a spell where I just didn’t want to write. I couldn’t figure it all out. I mean, I love writing almost as much as anything else I’ve ever done. But yet, I worked at avoiding the computer and the chair in front of it.

Anyway, one night Kris called and asked how the book was going. I said I was stuck. “Where?” she asked. I replied it was chapter fourteen. She was silent for a moment or two – I swear I could hear the wheels grinding in her head, even over the phone lines.

“That’s the shipwreck, isn’t it, Ma?”

“Yup. It is.”

“So? You knew it was going to be in there. You told me that months ago. So, get upstairs and put your ass in the chair and write it!”

Well, gee, what else could I do? I went upstairs and put my ass in the chair and wrote the entire chapter. In ONE sitting. Just the way you could read it now. My editor made NO changes. Even after all these years, I cannot read it without crying. And that chapter grabs absolutely everyone who reads it in the exact same way!

I tell this story in all my writing classes, as an example of getting it done! It always draws laughs and renewed determination on the part of the students.

Of course, I’d never even have written that book were it not for Kristi. Bless her heart.

Remember – the longest journey starts with a single step. Won’t you please come back next week for the rest of that story! (How I came to write Secret Shores.) 

I’ve been meaning to add here that the SPAM filter for WordPress is VERY aggressive, and deletes almost every comment without even giving me a chance to see it first. It’s not adjustable, in any way. If you’ve written a comment that doesn’t appear anywhere, please write directly to my e-mail: which is also the place for other questions. Thanks!

Happy Writing!

Respecting the boundaries of your chosen genre –

2 Feb

Okay. I’ve been told I make it sound all too easy – just sit yourself in front of your computer and start typing. Whiz! Bang! Three months later you have a book.

Well, no, that isn’t exactly the way it works – especially if you’ve never written anything or don’t exactly know what it is you want to write.

Generally speaking, a person who truly wants to write a book will have been thinking of it for some time—months, even years. It’s the act of putting yourself in close contact with an instrument capable of changing your words and thoughts into the written word that establishes you as a writer. Maybe not a published author just yet, but you can’t be published until you’ve actually written something. And it has to be reasonably good, when measured by several standards.

We’ll begin by presuming you have a basic working knowledge of the language of your choice. In the US, it should be English. This doesn’t mean you couldn’t start in your native language (if not English) but at some point, you will have to convert it to English. If you’re more comfortable in another language, then you may certainly start with that one. Translation can come later.

If your book of choice is a historical novel of any variety whatever (and I’m including the various genres in that word ‘novel’ at least for now) you really, truly, need to know something about the time frame in which your story is set, as well as the geography that houses the action. It’s lovely when you can visit the actual place, even if your story may be set decades, even centuries earlier – or later, who knows? But, thanks to libraries, it’s very possible to have a workable mental image of the scene, while wandering no more than a few miles from your home.

My biggest (and continual) gripe about historical novels is that too many authors (and a good many who should know better) decide on a given time and place, because it’s a ‘popular’ choice. That doesn’t necessarily make it the best choice. Especially when said author then proceeds to use modern-day customs, speech, manners, etc., while trotting the characters around in a historic setting. It just doesn’t work.

Regency England (1811-1820) is the most popular setting for historical romance novels at the moment – followed by Medieval-Renaissance Scotland! Who knew?  Many writers cite Jane Austen as a major influence. But guess what? Jane Austen wrote contemporary fiction with a touch of satire. Yes, indeed she did! Although she lived until 1817 (within the Regency period),  she was simply writing what she observed as she looked around her.  She wrote about everyday life with a devastating wit, and the  capability of seeing beyond the outer trappings of wealth and society to find the person within.

If you really want to set your book during that time and place, then read up on it. Will and Ariel Durant’s book ‘The Age of Beethoven” is a great place to start. Investigate costume books: there are lots of wonderful ones out there – for instance John Peacock’s ‘The Chronicle of Western Costume’ will take you from ancient Egypt to about 20 years ago. In color! I never get tired of looking through that book.

There is an entire series of ‘Everyday Life in _____’  (fill in the appropriate blank for your chosen period) part of the Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life Series.

The absolute key to a successful historical novel of whatever kind is this. No matter how much you think you know about a given topic, somewhere out there in the great, wide world, will be someone (or many someones) more knowledgeable about your given topic than you are. You can absolutely take that statement to the bank. And chances are excellent, they’ll be very vociferous (and possibly vitriolic) in condemning your baby because . . .  Once such condemnation is splattered all over the web, you’ll never get it back again. You’ll probably not be able to make it go away, either. Sloppiness in this regard is the unforgivable sin.

If you want to write a mystery – there has to be a crime somewhere in there. At least it doesn’t have to happen in the first five pages. Set-up is important, but there still must be a punishable crime. Before the book is finished (even on the very last page) the perpetrator of said crime must be identified and made to see the error of his or her deed.  Certainly, you can include elements of romance or fantasy or history in your mystery novel, but don’t lose sight of the main story line. And if it’s a historical mystery – you must really do your research. For instance, don’t use fingerprints before they meant anything other than a smudge on the glass.

Romance, of course, requires a romance between two people of whatever variety. It can also have elements of mystery or fantasy or horror, but over and above all other considerations, the romance IS the plot. And don’t you forget it! Generally, once the two main protagonists meet (even if they don’t sense the attraction immediately) they may not consort with anyone else. That’s a big no-no. They may indeed have a past, and even talk about it in a non-confessional manner, but that’s in the past and that’s where it stays.

Conventions of each genre are readily available at the web-site for each of them. Last time I looked, there were roughly a dozen varieties each of romance, mystery, fantasy, western and horror tales. Do your research before writing. It’s also helpful to read. Read everything! Don’t just concentrate on your chosen field, but vary your reading enough to see what else is out there, and what authors you might like to emulate – plus those you want to avoid at all costs. There are plenty of each out there!

As always, if you have questions or comments, you may send them to me at:

Until then, happy writing!