Reading Books ‘On Writing’

How many of you read books on writing? I do. All the time. I know there’s a lot of writers out there who don’t, and honestly, I don’t get it. If you want to become better at something, you study it, right? So why is writing any different?

I hit a huge snag this weekend with the revisions to my novel. As I explained it to the cashier at Barnes & Noble yesterday, “‘Well, last night I realized that my plot . . . well . . . um . . . my plot sort of needs to exist.”  And it’s true! I have huge issues with the plot. So that’s why I made the 1 hour, 15 minute trip to my nearest favorite bookstore. To find a book specific to my genre that would give me a kick in the head and make me look at things a little differently, so I can hopefully get it sorted. (Starbucks had nothing to do with it. I swear.)

Which made me think about all the books about writing I’ve read over the years, and which are my favorites. (I own at least two dozen; I know I own 2 copies of at least 3 different books.) I thought I’d share with you some of my favorites today.

9781439156810_p0_v1_s260x4201.) On Writing, Stephen King — This goes without saying. If you don’t have a copy of this on your bookshelf, well-thumbed, with scribbled notes in the margins and highlights everywhere, then you SHOULD. I don’t care if you don’t read Stephen King. I don’t. But this man is a best-seller for a reason. Everything you need to know as a beginning author, you’ll find here. Everything you need to remember as an experienced author, you’ll find here. But I think the most important thing you will take away is this:  perseverance.

9781599631677_p0_v2_s260x4202.) The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide:  How To Give and Receive Feedback, Self-Edit, and Make Revisions, Becky Levine — LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this book. I read it cover to cover when I first got it. Not only does she share with you how to choose the right critique group for you, she teaches you how to give constructive feedback to your fellow writers, and provides (glaring and funny) examples of Really Bad Writing. Not only that, but she gives you pointers on how to critique for different genres. A must-have. Even if you don’t belong to a critique group, this will help you revise and edit your own works.

9780061965616_p0_v1_s260x4203.) Unless It Moves the Human Heart:  The Craft and Art of Writing, Roger Rosenblatt — This isn’t a book about writing per se, but it is a short memoir of Rosenblatt’s experiences with teaching an MFA course on creative writing at Stony Brook University. The exercises he leads his students through – and the insights they glean from each other – make this a must-read. If you teach anything at all, but especially writing or composition, then you will love this.

9780684857435_p0_v1_s260x4204.) The First Five Pages:  A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, Noah Lukeman — This was one of the first books on writing I ever bought, and it’s still one I turn to. I used it extensively when I taught creative writing last year. Although my copy is out-of-date in some things, like querying agents, most of the material is still SO valuable. For instance:  “Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript . . .” Lukeman’s goal (and he’s been an editor himself) is to show you the pitfalls, and ensure that your manuscript can’t be dismissed.

9781599631349_p0_v1_s260x4205.) Writing the Paranormal Novel, Stephen Harper — I re-read this about once a year on average. I own two copies. If you write paranormal or urban fantasy, you need this book! Harper has an engaging and funny writing style, the work is up-to-date with recent examples, and he covers everything, from developing characters and setting to avoiding cliches, to making sure your magic systems really work.

9781402293528_p0_v2_s260x4206.) Writing Great Books for Young Adults, Regina Brooks — Brooks is a founder of Serendipity Literary Agency, and this book was THE textbook for the Writing Young Adult Fiction course I took at Oxford University last year. If it’s good enough for Oxford, it’s good enough for you, yes? If you write young adult fiction, you need this book on your shelf. Brooks focuses on how to find the “voice” of a young adult protagonist, how to find characters to fit your story and vice versa, how to pitch to agents, and what you can and cannot do within the genre. This is the newest version, published in October 2014.

Do you have a favorite writing book (or two or three)? If so, share them! Feel free to post them in the comments.

Photo Challenge: Remembered Warmth

I was thinking just today how much I miss summer . . . so this week’s Photo Challenge is perfect. Here’s a few of the images that make me remember the warmth (okay, unbearable heat) of a Kansas summer.

butterfly 7Butterfly on Indian Paintbrush

crepe myrtle 3Crepe Myrtle in the morning light.

geraniums 1 vg

Geraniums on the porch of my favorite coffee house.

Historical Fiction: Playing in the Sandbox

A few weeks ago on a writing website, someone asked a question that went like this:

“I want to write a historical novel for my first novel ever and I don’t know what era I should use so tell me!”

soapboxThis is one of those times I gently banged my head against my desk and refrained from responding. Because this goes back to my biggest pet peeve. Soapbox time again: you don’t become a writer by saying “I want to be a writer” and then begging for ideas. You become a writer by writing.

Historical writing is so close to my heart, as a historian. My first attempts at novels were fantasy, with a heavy dose of medieval history; later efforts revolved around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of my ideas, truth be told, are based in history — even my urban fantasy series is steeped in several layers of history going back 500+ years. That’s a lot of research! And it bothers me so much when someone says, “I don’t know what era to write in.” Um — how do you NOT know?

As I’ve said before, Diana Gabaldon is one of my favorite authors, for a multitude of reasons. (Her ability to write really hot sex scenes is just part of it. Really.). Here’s one of her interviews, where she talked about how she came to have the idea for Outlander:

Yup. I realize she broke all the rules. Still does. But the point is, she chose a time period herself. Thinking like a writer, she took inspiration from the things around her (Yes, I call Doctor Who an inspiration!), and then proceeded to draft things. She thought about sources of conflict. That’s where Claire Randall came in. And like a good writer, when Claire began to take over the story and boss it around, Diana let her.

History’s a funny thing. It won’t let you get away with much. It’s a sandbox with definite boundaries. And yet, once you start to work within its limits, it seems to expand and grow. Your sandbox becomes infinite. Take Nicky, for example. I had become 100% focused on his run-ins with the local Klan. But as dug into the newspapers for 1924, I learned that there was an entire bootlegging empire in this region. Not only were they bootlegging, they were stealing cars and chickens and even hijacking people on the streets and stealing their valuables! And I knew immediately that Nicky would never, ever get involved in that — but what another level of complexity and conflict for the novel! By playing within the confines of my historical sandbox, I was given a broad base, which may allow me to expand this from one novel into at least two, and maybe a trilogy.

So no. I don’t understand the whole “I want to write a historical but I don’t know when to set it” question. Because to anyone who does historical research, we know that the history will dictate what you can and cannot do.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind, from a historian’s point of view, if you want to do historical fiction:

1.) The characters and your era have to work together. One will inform the other. If they don’t, you’re screwed. I believe Claire and Jamie were always there in Diana Gabaldon’s head, just waiting to get out; it just took her finding the right time period first! When Nicky came to me, there was no doubt he was from the 1920s. The two almost always arrive together.

2.) Your characters have to work within societal norms — or be very aware of the price if they don’t. If your character wants to break the rules of society, you’d better give her a good reason, and a good cover. Let’s say you’ve got a 14-year old girl who wants to attend University of Paris in the 1400s, for example. She’ll have to cut her hair. Behave like one of the boys. Lots of conflict there! This is where so much conflict comes in for Nicky; he knows the rules. He just chooses to ignore them. But he also knows the price he’s going to pay if he ever gets caught.

This is one thing that bothers me so much about Ariana Franklin’s books. While painstakingly researched, her main character, Adelia, consistently acts outside the societal norms — in fact, she acts quite a lot too much like a 20th century woman. It really takes me out of the story; the historian in me keeps saying But she’d have been burned as a witch already!

3.) Research, research, research. Read every book you can get your hands on about that era. Your character’s field of work. Horses. Whatever you need to research, do it. Somewhere out there are experts in your field. Find them. Or I promise, once you publish, they will find you. 🙂 Even if you are 99.9% sure you know what x and y are, double-check everything. Triple-check. I have to find out if you can, in fact, drop a 1917 V-8 Cadillac engine into a 1916 Model T. I’m sure hoping so. If you’re lucky enough to be working within the past 150 years or so, read newspapers from that time period. Get a feel for the language and politics and fashions and rules.

4.) There is some room for play. But not much. We often talk about “poetic license” and “taking liberties.” But you have a contract with your reader. If you’re telling them this is a straight-up historical, that’s what they’re expecting. Take one step out of bounds, and you’ll never hear the end of it. If you choose to write alternative history, or a time-travel novel, then your reader will expect you to take a few liberties. For Nicky, I’ll be taking a handful of liberties; I already know that. But the liberties I plan to take all make sense within the confines of the 1920s. Never give your characters an easy way out. By playing within the sandbox of your era, you make sure their conflicts, and their risks, are genuine.

So if you’ve ever thought about writing a historical novel, keep these things in mind. People who read historical fiction are a unique group; they’re often historians or “amateur historians” themselves (I put that in quotes only because the “amateur” historian often has more knowledge of a particular subject than a trained, degreed historian!), and they will rip you apart if you get one thing wrong, like underwear.

So go find your sandbox. It might look small now. But I promise, once you start to research and write, you’ll look up one day and realize that sandbox has no limits.

When a (historian’s) dream comes true

For six years, I’ve been obsessed with a story that I first stumbled across in my local paper. We have a “100 Years Ago Today” segment, as many papers do, and I started to read about this particular case that had occurred. In 1898, a man named George Kimmel had disappeared without a trace. Eight years later, a prisoner in New York suddenly told the wardens that he was Kimmel . . .

Reading the little 2- and 3-sentence tidbits in the paper made me curious, and I started going to the library and giving myself migraines with the microfilm. (Seriously, people. Microfilm sucks. Give me 100-year-old newspapers any day.) Curiosity moved swiftly into obsession. Was the guy in New York really Kimmel? And if not . . . what had happened to him?

As I said, the case went to trial numerous times. Here’s a tip:  doing research on cases that are not part of the online Archives database is HARD. Particularly if some things are held in one place, and some things are in another . . . I nearly gave up several times because even though I had the case file numbers and names, I couldn’t locate the files. Honestly, I started to think that they’d been lost or destroyed long ago.

But then . . . I found them.

And I spent yesterday at the National Archives in Kansas City, laying eyes and fingers – for the first time ever – on a set of papers I’ve searched for for two years. Seeing them sitting there in their archival boxes, so neat and tidy — it was a surreal moment for me. They gave me the rules — only one box and one folder on the table at a time, no gloves (not for paper documents), no pens, no feeding the documents after midnight — and left me to it.

All the names I’ve become familiar with for the past six years were there. Bacon, the lawyer. Edna, the sister. Denton, the local bank teller. Swinney, who threw a monkey wrench into the entire thing. Subpoenas. Depositions. My God, the depositions! Entire books of depositions. I was trying very, very hard not to cry sometimes because really, crying in an archive and getting their papers wet is not a good thing. But then I pulled out one last deposition — and actually had to turn around, because I was afraid I would cry.

As a historian, there’s a moment where, when you’re researching someone, it becomes real. They become real. When I researched David Rice Atchison a few years ago, that moment was when I was looking at his diaries on microfilm and there, at the top of one page, in his elegant scrawl, was My daughter Molly has gone away to college today . . . This big man, who had been a Senator, who had led the Border Ruffians against Kansas, who had fought in the Civil War, who had owned slaves, suddenly became real to me in that one sentence. His heartbreak and his pride were clear, even across the distance of more than a hundred years.

So even though I’ve been working with this particular case for 6+ years, there was always a veil between me and these people. I’d been reading about them mostly in the old newspapers, and truthfully, I’d begun to think that it was all made up. A story fabricated – and then syndicated – by someone who needed to make a buck or two.

But then I picked up that last deposition and saw the handwritten notation on the front. “Deposition of Geo. Kimmel, taken at Auburn State Prison, 1908.” That’s the moment, for me, that it became real. That I could finally lay to rest the fears that this was fiction, that I would never find the truth because none of it was true. Kimmel’s the central figure in this incredible story, and whether he really gave that deposition in 1908, or whether it was someone just claiming to be him, is part of what I have to discover.

So in the next two weeks, I get to go back at least twice — I’m guessing three times, so please, little Saturn, make the trip! — and photograph and catalogue the entire thing. Yeah. All three boxes, and 2,500 +/- pages. I don’t know yet what will be important and what won’t.

This story has haunted me for so long. But finally, I’m going to know the truth.

Resolutions? I’ve had a few . . .

Resolutions. We all make them. We all break them. And you’re probably wondering why in the bleep I’m talking about them in early December.

Well. Because today is my birthday. And because for the past few years, I’ve made my resolutions for the next year on my birthday, not New Year’s Eve. I do this for two reasons:  a.) it seems to mean just a bit more, and b.) let’s face it, New Year’s is less than a month away.

I looked back on last year’s resolutions this morning, and tried to assess where I was this year, and what I did, and was it all worth it? There were things I did that didn’t even make the list — like this blog. There were things I wanted to do — like go to England — that haven’t happened even after five years on the list. A lot of my resolutions had to do with financial issues. But quite a few had to do with my writing. And that was interesting, because at this time last year, I had no idea that in just two short months, I was going to decide to scrap my entire novel and start over. So here were my goals . . . and how I did.

1.) Finish Nicky’s story (tentative title, Rumrunner) — Um. I did research. 🙂 I did write a little more. And one of my goals for this year is to finish the research, finish the novel, and start querying by May.

2.) Fix Ghost Hunt This is the one I scrapped. I knew something was desperately wrong with it, but it took six months away and a lot of soul-searching before I realized what the problem was. Once I knew that, I was fine. I wrote a draft of the new novel (Book 1) in 8 weeks, spent the next three months revising, and should have a query-able draft by December 31!

3.) Research my nonfiction historical — YES. I found at least two of the major court cases I needed for that. Next Saturday, I’m going to see the main one in person!!! Not only that, but I talked to the woman who is restoring the house where the guy I’m researching lived!

4.) Write 1200 – 1500 words/day — Well. No. I think, when I tallied up what I’d done (95K on one novel, 110K on a second, and about 5-10K on various other novels) that I’d done an average of 700 words per day. Some days I wrote thousands; some days, nothing. But hey. I wrote two novels this year. Give me some credit! 🙂

One thing I’ve learned over the years is this:  you can’t keep a resolution unless you break it down into small, manageable goals. So let’s say your goal is to write a novel in 2015. Admirable. Doable. Absolutely. But. What’s your plan for doing that? And I don’t mean sitting down and plotting it all out (though if that’s your gig, by all means, that needs to be done!).

For instance, I’m already working on my goals for next year. One is to finish revisions to a book and query agents. So I’m going to break it down like this:

  • Finish edits and revisions to Book 1 by December 31. (I have notes. Every time I revise something, it gets crossed off the list. This is hands down the best way to fix all the things that need fixing in a novel.)
  • Research agents to query over Christmas break, and create a spreadsheet of them, their agencies, and their submission requirements.
  • Write my query letter. Have beta readers go over it. Tailor it to fit each agent I’m querying.
  • And then, the crowning achievement:  have an agent by May, 2015. (Yes, I know, this is entirely dependent upon many, many things out of my control. However, now the universe has that deadline. It better deliver.)

So how will you keep your resolutions — writing and otherwise — for 2015? You can! Just break them down into small, manageable goals. A list of items that you can cross off. (There is nothing quite so satisfying as crossing items off a to-do list. I highly recommend it.)

Is one of your goals for next year to write a novel? Fantastic. If you need to do research ahead of time, make a list of things to research, and where you need to do that, and most importantly, a deadline by which to have it done. If you need to plot it out, go for it — but give yourself a deadline. Do you thrive on x numbers of words per day or week? Set a goal, and then decide if you need to get up an hour early, or write over your lunch break, or write every other day. It has to be something that works for YOU, though.

So get cracking! 🙂 And do check in later with your progress, please!


Forgotten . . . But Not Gone

There’s so much here in Kansas and Oklahoma that’s almost gone — and usually forgotten by almost everyone. Wandering around the pastures near my house, driving down random dirt roads, seeking out the remnants of history . . . these are a handful of the images I’ve captured this year.

plymouth dash 2Old Plymouth sedan, in a pasture near my house.

frieze 3Part of a frieze that has broken away from the Ponca City Depot, Ponca City, OK.

bridge 4Abandoned bridge north of Newkirk, OK.