Research for historical romances

This week Scribe Brian O’Conor let us know that he’d have to leave us. I’m bummed because I’ll miss his posts, and wish him the very best in the future! This post first appeared Monday on Dale Cameron Lowry’s blog…though I might have tweaked a word or two, since I’m never ever done editing….

This last couple weeks, I’ve been busy celebrating the release of my 1950s m/m romance Aqua Follies. Since the past is on my mind, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned about research for a historical romance.

giphy

There are probably as many ways to do handle research as there are writers out there doing it. My two most recent releases were set in the middle of the 20th century, long enough ago to qualify as ‘historical’, but not so distant from contemporary times. With both these projects, I approached the research as a series of layers, and I did my best to balance information and story.

First, I tried to place my stories as specifically as possible in time, to figure out where they fit in the big picture. For example, Aqua Follies takes place in late July until October of 1955. With those dates in mind, I framed the story with current events. WWII had ended ten years before, but the Korean War ended in July ‘53 so it made sense for the characters’ life experiences to be influenced by those conflicts.

In the mid-50’s Senator McCarthy was in power, and there were several incidents of gay men being rounded up and arrested or sent to asylums. At the same time the Mattachine Society – an early gay rights group – was spreading, and same-sex establishments were in operation in Seattle, their patrons’ safety reliant on a system of police corruption. Those were the kinds of real events that became the framework I crafted the story around.

Once I get the dates plotted out – the top layer – I look for information about what life was like in the time-period. Google is a gold mine for this kind of research. Pretty much the only limit for what you can find is your tolerance for digging. For Aqua Follies, I was able to find everything from essays on cultural attitudes towards homosexuals to the daily weather report, all of which helped me create the world where the story takes place.

It’s the details that will make the world ring true. My final layer of research is seeking out first person accounts that describe aspects of the story. One of the huge benefits of writing a story set in the ‘50s is that I could talk to people who been alive then.

My friend’s father-in-law, Overton Berry, played jazz in Seattle from the early ‘50s, and he was a huge help in filling in the good bits. Overton talked about how professional musicians operated, what the standard repertoire might include, and he also gave me a feel for what society’s attitude toward musicians might be. If I was working on an earlier piece, I’d look for diaries, old catalogues, and magazines to help with the fine detail. I will never truly know what it was like to live in 1950s Seattle, but I learned as much as I could to make readers believe I was there.

And what happens with all this research? Like ol’ Ben Franklin says, “Do everything in moderation, including moderation.”

giphy (1)

A good story will incorporate historically accurate facts without beating the reader over the head with them. This example might be kind of a cliché, but you don’t need a paragraph on how the Colt 45 was manufactured in the middle of a fight scene, and you don’t want a dissertation on a Victorian woman’s undergarments in the middle of sexytimes. Research should inform the story, not become the story.

In my work, I find the process has a real give and take; I write until I hit a detail I need to research, then dig around enough to feel comfortable writing more. In addition, research has helped me solve story problems. For Aqua Follies, I needed something dramatic that would keep my two heroes from coming together. A small story in the Seattle Times digital archives described how one of the real Aqua Follies synchronized swimmers mistimed a dive and nearly drowned. That two-paragraph article became a key event in the novel, and was definitely not something I would have come up with on my own.

Even with the best intentions, though, it’s possible to throw in an anachronistic detail. Despite something like eight beta readers and two content editors, it was the proofreader who recognized that Buddy Holly was still in high school in 1955, so couldn’t have had a song on Skip’s car radio. If there are other little slip-ups and a reader calls me on them, my best bet is to smile, apologize, and add them to my notes so I won’t screw up the sequel.

giphy (2)

I recently read a historical romance that I described as “the Glee version of a Regency”. The author had most of the details down, but there were enough little bumps either in characters’ attitudes or the language they used that I didn’t quite believe that version of the time period. The book sold very well, so clearly not every reader is going to throw their Kindle at the wall if a subordinate forgets to address a duke as Your Grace. Good storytelling is worth the effort, though, and I love the process of excavating the layers of history and finding a balanced way of bringing them to life.

If you’d like more information on writing historical romance, check out these articles by Elizabeth Crook, Chuck Sambuchino for Writer’s Digest, Anne M. Marble for Writing World, and KJ Charles. Thanks very much!

AquaFollies_Digital_Web

AF_blogtags_blurb

The 1950s. Postwar exuberance. Conformity. Rock and roll.

Homophobia.

Russell tells himself he’ll marry Susie because it’s the right thing to do. His summer job coaching her water ballet team will give him plenty of opportunity to give her a ring. But on the team’s trip to the annual Aqua Follies, the joyful glide of a trumpet player’s solo hits Russell like a torpedo, blowing apart his carefully constructed plans.

From the orchestra pit, Skip watches Poseidon’s younger brother stalk along the pool deck. It never hurts to smile at a man, because sometimes good things can come of it. Once the last note has been played, Skip gives it a shot.

The tenuous connection forged by a simple smile leads to events that dismantle both their lives. Has the damage been done, or can they pick up the pieces together?

 

AF_blogtags_buylinks

Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | More Stores

On the Importance of Ritual

The other day a reader asked me if I ever wrote in long hand, much like Neil Gaiman is known to do. I do not–never. I hate the idea of writing something by hand knowing I’ll just have to type it again later, creating twice the work for me. But, I conceded, I do hand write my outlines, always. I tried to type one once because I always end up adding asides and run out of space on my papers, and I thought it would be nice to be able to just add in a line when I needed to but there was no magic in a typed outline.

So, always type a story, always hand write the outline.

Funny, right?

But it got me thinking about the rituals of writing. Any art, really, but writing is my magic, so that’s what I’m focusing on now.

tumblr_ne7t1cdxbl1ssfv5zo1_500

Any professional artist will tell you that you can’t wait for the Muses to speak to you, otherwise you’ll (almost) never get any work done. You have to make your Muses speak on days you just don’t feel like it. On days where you only have an hour, or less, to get the words done. You have to force the magic to make the art.

And there are ways to do this. There are ingredients to every spell and if you manage to figure them out, you can create the magic potion to get the art done even under the worst situations. A few years ago, I was stuck at jury duty for the full 8 hours. I got so much writing done that day, it must’ve been a record, all because I have my ritual to make the magic.

First, I outline. Now, if you’re a pantser, this part doesn’t apply to you. But for me, I allow myself at least a week to complete an outline before I ever start a new manuscript. You’ll have to figure out how detailed or loose your outline needs to be, that in of itself is its own magic spell. If too loose you leave yourself sitting at the keys, trying to figure out how to get from point D to point M. Too detailed you might feel like you’ve already written the story and lose your excitement to actually write it.

Secondly, if this is the start of a brand new book, not part of a series, I allow myself a day to start to curate a soundtrack for the book/main character. I know, this seems like one of those “I’m an artiste! I need my special music to write!” kinda things, but it’s not. For many, both reading and writing a book plays out like a movie in our heads and what is a movie without a soundtrack? You need the creepy notes that warn you the monster is coming. You need the pounding base to choreograph a fight and get your heart moving. You need the sweet strings of a romantic moment. But, I think, most importantly, it gives you the feel of the book or main character. This, for me, is what helps me get into the right headspace for a book, no matter where I am or what mood I am in. And with each book in a series, I add more and more songs to the list until it’s hours and hours long.

1tm5vr

I also have a few universal playlists to help me with certain types of scenes. If I’m in the middle of fights or battles, I have strong lyric-less soundtracks from movies or video games to help me. If I’m trying to get into the head of a strong, angry female, I have a playlist of what I call “angry power” songs, only sung by strong female vocals.

You could be trapped in the middle seat of coach, on a full flight, but you put your headphones on and turn on the soundtrack of your book, and bam! Watch the words flow. I won NaNo last year in that exact situation because I had my music.

tumblr_lnyv5wdbo81qh2o7zo1_500

This also helps if you’re working on more than one project at a time. For example, I’m working on a witch book in my Matilda Kavanagh series and I’m working on a piece of flash fiction that is a spin off from my post-apocalyptic Ash & Ruin series. Neither MC is the same and both worlds are totally different. So, they have their own soundtracks to help me switch my brain depending on which one I want to write in.

Third, I always have something to drink. Usually it’s coffee, but sometimes just water. It’s a small thing, but it’s important. It adds to the level of comfort as you stare into that bright screen and create indents on your wrists as you pound away.

tumblr_static_tumblr_static_6ia1u88uwd4wsoogc84swsgco_640

There are other things, like I try to write in the mornings, but if I miss that window, I don’t skip on writing unless it’s One Of Those Days. It’s always easy to make excuses to get out of writing, but unless you’re under a contractual deadline, you’re just letting yourself down by putting it off or treating it like a chore. I mean, some days, it does feel like a chore but when it’s done, damn that’s a good feeling.

Figuring out your rituals to help you get shit done is important. It’s not being a fussy artiste, it’s creating magic. Allow yourself the special combo of ingredients that will allow you to create art no matter what the situation. Make no excuses for doing what you need to get it done and give yourself no excuses to avoid it.
tumblr_og75jz4j4k1rn0kc8o1_500

Speaking of… I have some words that need writing before dinner.

Aqua Follies! $0.99 Preorder till 6/15/17

AF_header_waterdropwithlogo

AF_blogtags_itstime

This has definitely been a process, but Aqua Follies will soon be making its way out into the world. What started as a fun idea turned into a project I’m quite passionate about, and I hope readers will enjoy it, too. This post is short (because I’m blogging E-V-E-R-Y W-H-E-R-E this week and next) but I do hope you’ll check out the blurb and excerpt, and maybe grab a copy while it’s still only $0.99. Thanks!!

AquaFollies_Digital_Web

AF_blogtags_blurb

The 1950s.

Postwar exuberance. Conformity. Rock and roll.

Homophobia.

Russell tells himself he’ll marry Susie because it’s the right thing to do. His summer job coaching her water ballet team will give him plenty of opportunity to give her a ring. But on the team’s trip to the annual Aqua Follies, the joyful glide of a trumpet player’s solo hits Russell like a torpedo, blowing apart his carefully constructed plans.

From the orchestra pit, Skip watches Poseidon’s younger brother stalk along the pool deck. It never hurts to smile at a man, because good things might happen. Once the last note has been played, Skip gives it a shot.

The tenuous connection forged by a simple smile leads to events that dismantle both their lives. Has the damage been done, or can they pick up the pieces together?

AF_blogtags_buylinks

$0.99 PREORDER PRICE

FROM 6/8/17 – 6/15/17

Amazon  –   Barnes and Noble   –   Kobo   –   iBooks   
More Stores

AF_Teaser2

AF_Blogtags_excerpt

When Skip had crossed the line into blatant flirting, Russell blushed like a girl. Skip liked the charge that came with pushing the pedal down, and—despite Lou’s opinions—he had enough self-preservation to know when to cut the gas.

Skip followed Russell to a shadowy area in the back of the parking lot, and once they were out of sight of anyone in the club, Russell brought out the flask and handed it over. Skip took a hit, the whiskey’s smoky burn warming his chest on the way down. “I got another question for you.”

Russell took the flask and raised an eyebrow.

“How come you don’t dance?” Skip was mainly curious, but the words carried more heat than he’d intended.

Russell snorted, crossing his arms over his chest in a way that made his biceps bulge. “I just don’t.”

“Maybe you need someone to teach you.” Lou would sure scold him for this one. “Maybe you just need the right person.”

Russell’s fists clenched, and for half a second, Skip thought he might haul off and punch him. Heck, he probably deserved it. Then Russell choked out a laugh. “The right person. Sure.”

“I mean…” Since he hadn’t been served a knuckle sandwich, Skip struck a pose, hip cocked, hands in the air like they were on a partner’s shoulders. “I can do the cha-cha.” He swung his hips, fighting a laugh at Russell’s perplexed expression. “Or the swing.” He mimed a four-step pattern, then swung his hips again for good measure. Russell appeared transfixed by the motion.

A shout of laughter distracted them. A group of people spilled out the nightclub’s door, a woman’s voice rising over the hubbub. “Where are we going again?”

Russell shifted in their direction, hands on his hips. “Annette?” he said softly.

“Wait. I want to go back in and hear the band.” To Skip’s ear, the woman wasn’t laughing nearly as hard as the bunch of guys she was with.

“Come on, sugar. It’s just out here,” one of the men said. Skip didn’t like the way he laughed.

“No.”

This time there was no mistaking the distress in her voice. Russell took off running, with Skip right behind. He detoured to the door of the club, where he ran into Ryker and Susie. They were laughing, his arm around her shoulder.

“Come on, you guys,” Skip said. “It sounds like your friend Annette’s in some trouble.”

By the time they got to the other end of the parking lot, Russell was chest to chest with a drunken college boy, the kind with pale skin, a buzz cut, and a mean attitude. Skip looked around for anything he could use as a weapon if it came to a fight. There were two other fellows backing the one in front of Russell, and Annette huddled against a car, tears streaking her cheeks.

“So you’re going to take on all three of us? All by your lonesome?” The boy stuck his finger in Russell’s chest. Russell grabbed his wrist and leaned into him. The college boy was taller, but Russell was broader and bulkier.

“If I have to.”

Under different circumstances, the rock-solid certainty in Russell’s tone would have given Skip a hard-on. Saving that thought for later, he grabbed a thick branch lying between the cars.

“One against three.” Another of the college boys snickered.

Skip stepped forward, holding the branch loosely. “Looks like three against three to me.” Ryker followed his lead.

One of the arrogant fools came right up to Ryker. “Two and a half against three, I’d say.”

With a click, Ryker opened a switchblade. “Funny how this extends my reach.”

Swinging the branch, Skip took a step forward. The college boys all shifted back, even the one facing off with Russell. Skip might be slender and a little light in his boots, but anyone who grew up in Pioneer Square knew how to fight. He and Ryker moved into position on either side of Russell, and the college boys backed off.

“We were just playing anyway.” One of them laughed like it was all a joke.

“Didn’t sound like that to me,” Russell said. “I think you should apologize to my cousin.”

“Your cousin’s a slut.”

Skip wasn’t sure which one said it, but before anyone could respond, Russell took three big steps forward and put his fist into the middle guy’s belly. The boy dropped to his knees, and Russell stood over him. “Anyone else?”

The other two beat feet, which didn’t surprise Skip. These candy-ass college boys were all show and no go. Susie ran up to Annette, with Russell right behind her. “I’m going to get the car,” Skip said to Ryker. “We gotta cut out.”

AF_blogtags_giveaway

a Rafflecopter giveaway

AF_blogtags_playlist

Sixteen performers and tunes mentioned in Aqua Follies…

AF_Blogtags_bio

selfie with roses

I write romance: m/f, m/m, and v/h, where the h is for human and the v is for vampire … or sometimes demon … I lean more towards funny than angst. When I’m not writing I take care of tiny premature babies or teenagers, depending on whether I’m at home or at work. My husband is a soul of patience, my dog’s cuteness is legendary, and we share the homestead with three ferrets. Who steal things. Because they’re brats.

I can be found on-line at all hours of the day and night at my website (www.livrancourt.com) & blog (www.liv-rancourt.blogspot.com), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/liv.rancourt), or on Twitter (www.twitter.com/LivRancourt). For sneak peeks and previews and other assorted freebies, go HERE to sign up for my mailing list.

Come find me. We’ll have fun!

7 Deadly Sins of SFF World-Building

Writing science fiction and fantasy is fun, and in my opinion, world-building is the bestest most funnest part. Whether you’re writing urban, historical, or alt-world fantasy, or a science fiction set in a galaxy far far away, world-building is a crucial part of the story-telling process. The world (or universe!) you create must be complex and multi-layered; it must be a place your characters operate in and interact with; and it must set the stage for your plot. It’s no easy task, and there are countless pitfalls at every stage of the process of creating a world.

Read to jump in? Here are my top cliches and tropes to avoid, listed in no particular order.

sword_of_calandra-643x1024
Basing your other world TOO much on Earth

This is one of the biggest and easiest traps to fall into. Earth’s history and many cultures are far-reaching and complex, and it can be tempting to borrow elements whole-sale without bothering to do much work creatively. Think of how many famous fantasy worlds resemble Medieval-era Earth completely, right on down to the rampant sexism and casual racism (*cough* Westeros *cough*). There’s nothing wrong with using our world’s history and cultures to inspire your made-up world, but make sure it doesn’t become a lazy short-cut. If there’s sexism or lack of diversity in your world, you need a better reason than “that’s how things were back then.” You’re writing fantasy, not historical fiction. Get creative!

Over-use of common nouns

You know what I’m talking about…

The Keeper of the Shadow Throne awaits the Birth of the Kindred.

A Rim-born Elder must name the Crystal Celebrant on the Day of Undoing.

Don’t get me wrong–naming things is half the fun of writing fantasy and science fiction. And capitalizing a regular old word or concept can definitely lend it a sort of otherworldly gravitas. Just be careful not to over-use this trope, or your world will quickly begin to feel lazy and unoriginal.

perfect_planet-626x1024Making your races/cultures/societies too homogenous

So the indigo-skinned Topworlders enslaved the ruby-eyed Burrow Folk a hundred years ago, and now they hate each other with a vengeance. That’s fine, but does every Topworlder relish owning a Burrow slave? And do all Burrow Folk agree with the politics of the Burrow Queen who surrendered to the Topworlders’ superior technology instead of fighting for their land?

Here’s where taking cues from humanity is a good thing. I could strike up a conversation with the person sitting beside me on the bus and within ten minutes we’d be able to think of at least a few things we disagreed on–politics, religion, whether cilantro tastes like soap. Races, cultures, even sub-cultures don’t have monolithic beliefs that trump individuality. Make sure the individuals in your alien races or fantasy societies reflect this diversity.

Introducing a world-changing technology/magic without taking into account all its ramifications

“It’s like our world, but everyone can teleport!”

Yikes. The minute you start talking about wide-spread teleportation, it ceases to be anything like our world. How could it be? Something as potentially life-changing as that would have first-order, second-order, and third-order effects on the way a world was structured and the way its citizens operated within it. Do your world the service of thinking through massive changes in technology or magical power, and what kind of structural changes might arise from that.

Language that doesn’t reflect the world

Contextual short-hands and idioms are rife in the English language (or whatever language you’re writing in!) and they can really trip you up if you’re not careful. This is something I’m constantly correcting in my own worlds–if a concept or idea doesn’t exist in the world you’re creating, why would the character make any kind of reference to it? Good examples of this might be “inching along” if the unit of measurement isn’t inches, or “red as a rose” when there aren’t roses in space.

paperback04Not thinking about minutiae

Do you ever have that moment when you’re watching an intense adventure movie and you think to yourself “Good thing none of them have had to poop this whole time.”?

Worlds, at their core, are pretty boring. Your character may be battling the Dark Overlord of Doom, but the rest of the world isn’t. There’s waste removal and food service and communication infrastructure and architecture and the menial jobs that hold a society together. While your novel doesn’t have to focus inordinately on these things, it helps if you as an author have a basic understanding of how these processes work in your world, so there’s a seamless backdrop for the story to play out against.

Unless you’ve created a magical and majestic world were people literally just don’t poop.

Basing one-dimensional fictional ethnic groups on real-life ethnic groups

Okay, this is basically a continuation of the very first point, but it’s kind of a biggie. Rule of thumb, if you want to have Italians (or Native Americans, or the Irish, or Nigerians) in your fantasy or science fiction novel, you’re going to have to do your utmost to create an accurate and nuanced view of Italian culture. What you cannot do–please please don’t–is name them Etolians and have them running around shouting “Mamma Mia!” while they stuff their faces with spaghetti.

Any cultural or ethnic group within your novel should have multiple dimensions and a believable culture regardless of whether your main character comes from this culture or sees it as “other.” And this is where it gets tricky–the more your fictional group resembles the real-world group, the more you’re going to have to worry about being respectful and true to life. This becomes especially true when dealing with marginalized groups, but should really be implemented across the board. When in doubt, find a sensitivity reader, but that should be your back-up plan. Do your homework, and make sure you’re not basing a fictional ethnic group on a real-world ethnic group just because it’s easy.

Well, that’s world-building in a very large nutshell. Any questions? At the end of the day, creating a made-up world as complex, multi-faceted, and often nonsensical as our own world isn’t something that happens overnight. Take your time, be creative, and don’t rely on short-hand to make your point.

What are your favorite/least favorite SFF world-building tropes? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

Author as Leader – 5 Tips to Position Yourself for Success

Purchased from Adobe Stock

The other day I was reading an article about a certain health care executive for my day job (which is in health care marketing) and I realized the exact same advice she gives for developing leadership skills in that industry could be applied to authors.

What’s her advice? I’m going to outline it and then talk about how I think it applies to us.

Build a network of great colleagues that represent a variety of connections in [the industry] – I think we writers do some of this without really thinking about it because we are so happy to be with our tribe, to meet people who understand what it’s like to have characters talk in your head, or conversely, to suddenly stop talking, and all of the other oddities that make us writers.  I met all of my fellow Spellbound Scribes on Twitter several years ago when we were all trying really hard to finish books by the end of the year. I think we were maybe connected by the #amwriting conversation. (Do any of you remember for sure? I remember we called ourselves #teamawesome for quite a while.) Sometimes, it’s just that easy.

Join professional organizations/volunteer – Networking should also be something we do consciously. Almost every major writing genre from horror and mystery, to romance, historical fiction and women’s fiction has at least one (if not multiple) professional associations. Join up. It’s okay if you don’t do much at first while you get the lay of the land, but then get active. Go to conferences. Join a committee. Volunteer to write or run something for them. The more you get out there, the better your chance of making friends and getting more out of your membership.

Identify leaders you want to be mentored by. Don’t be afraid to make a list of the top authors in your genre and make a concerted effort to meet them. Got to their signings or to conferences where they will be attending. Say hello. In the meantime, create lists on Twitter of the hot authors your genres and slowly get to know them through social media. That way, when you finally do get to meet them at a conference or signing, they will hopefully remember your name or at least an interaction we’ve had.

I’ll give you a brief example of how this has actually worked for me. A few years ago, I fell in love with Patricia Bracewell’s writing. I tweeted her and told her how much I loved her debut novel Shadow on the Crown. She wrote back and was very gracious, so I started following her. We’d tweet from time to time. Then about a year or two later, I got to meet her at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver. I told her my name and reminded her of our conversations. I was fortunate that we got to talk for a bit there. Then the following year, I asked her for a blurb for my book. She wasn’t able to give one, but she did tell her fans about my book’s publication. Now, next month, I’m going to be on a panel with her at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland. All because we stayed in touch via social media.

Mentor those just starting out. This is key in any industry, and it’s just a nice thing to do. Think about when you were a green newbie. Chances are good that someone took you under their wing, or at least took the time to answer your questions. Now, you are that expert, so it’s your turn to give back. Whenever I speak at an event, I make sure to hang around after to answer questions and I always let the audience know they can email me anytime (and I give out my business card). When they do email, I respond quickly. I may not always have the answer, but at least I can try to point them in the right direction. If you’re in a local chapter of a bigger organization, seek out the new members and do your best to make them feel welcome. Even if you don’t believe in karma, helping those who are new is the right thing to do.

Think big – We should all be planning our publishing empires. How many plot lines are in your head? How many series can you envision writing? Do you plan to branch out into other genres? Who might you want to team up with to co-author a book? If you write fiction, what non-fiction topics could you tie in and write about? Have you considered writing a companion book to one of your series? What about opening your copyrighted world for development by other authors, like Kindle Worlds allows?

Why stop with ebooks when print and audio are reasonable to produce? Have you thought about boxed sets (either producing your own from your books or joining with other authors)? What steps can you take to get into foreign markets in English? What about translations? Who can you talk to about merchandising or TV/film rights? Even if you know these things won’t happen for years, be thinking about them now. Cultivate contacts and learn new skills. That way, you’ll be ready when the time comes.

Anticipate changes – This is easier said than done unless you are a natural futurist, which I am not. I’m sure we all wish we could have foreseen the advent of self-publishing, but we can do our best to look for trends within the bigger industry or at least stay informed of what visionaries are thinking. Join newsletter lists, follow blogs, join Facebook groups. That is how you’ll know what’s going on, and over time, you’ll start to notice trends. Here’s one that’s been going on for a while, but is popping up all over again lately: traditional publishers (especially the Big 5) devoting fewer and fewer marketing dollars to mid-list and emerging writers. If you can recognize trends like this, you’ll be able to do something about them. In this case, maybe you set aside a percentage of your next advance to hire a publicist, or maybe you learn how to design your own ads.

No matter how you are published, you’re your own best advocate, and you always will be. By taking that leader’s advice and incorporating these thing into your career as best you can at the moment, you’ll be positioning yourself for success. Our industry is tough, but if we can demonstrate the same qualities that make a good business leader, we will attract positive attention. Like anything else, you get out of your writing career what you put into it.

Does any of this resonate with you? Why or why not? What other advice would you give? What have you done to be a good leader in the writing community?

Back to Basics

Here at Spellbound Scribes, most of us are old pros when it comes to writing. Whether we’ve published several books and stories or have just been at the grind for years, the mechanics and spirit of writing have been ingrained upon our lives, etched in black ink for all to see. Which can make it easy to forget that not all writers have gotten so far in the process. Some writers are still at the very beginning, grappling with questions of how to write, and perhaps even more importantly, why.

torch, flame, creative commons
Be inspired

Sometimes I dabble in answering questions at the community-sourced Q&A site Quora. I recently stumbled upon a question from a young writer who reveled in the simple pleasures of putting language to paper, but wondered whether that was enough. Should one have a literary voice that came through on paper? And did it count as writing if there was no deep meaning or profound content? The questions shook me, and I realized it’s been so long since I thought about the simple but deep-seated questions at the very heart of being a writer.

Here are my thoughts:

Writing for writing’s sake, whether poetry or prose, is enough. I strongly advise any young/new/inexperienced writers to unburden themselves of any expectations or assumptions about what writing is, what it looks and feels like, or what it’s supposed to accomplish. Words have power—feel them thunder through your veins, hungry for freedom. Then let them tumble forth, unbridled. Enjoying yourself while putting words to paper is wonderful, and not something everyone is lucky enough to experience.

In fact, after years and more manuscripts—finished and unfinished—than I care to mention, this purity of feeling arising from the act of creation has changed in many complex, indefinable ways. My relationship to setting words to paper has altered irrevocably, and I linger with occasional envy on the memory of what it was like to write before I was a writer. Never for long—after all, that impulse is what brought me to this point. Still, no one should ever apologize for writing for the joy of writing.

Personality comes from practice. In writing, having personality bleed through into your writing is called voice. Some writers have very strong internal voices that inform their writing (think Chuck Palahniuk, Ernest Hemingway, or Maya Angelou) and leap off the page, as recognizable as faces or names. Developing your voice as a writer is a process that can take years, and the Spellbound Scribes have discussed it at length in various blog posts throughout the years. Here’s the TL;DR on the basics:

Read widely. Non-fiction, fiction, magazines, novels, blogs—read everything you can get your hands on. Exposing yourself to a broad variety of voices will allow you to begin to grasp what appeals to you, or clenches your jaw, or echoes in your bones with a feeling you can’t name.

Be sure you grasp the basics of grammar, syntax, diction, and punctuation. Some of the most well-known authors bend these rules in pursuit of voice, but intention is key. You have to understand a rule before you can effectively break it.

Let your real voice shine through into your literary voice. Do you swear a lot in real life? Swear in your writing. Do you use slang? Figures of speech? Are you brusque and to the point, or do you prefer poetic turns of phrase and flowery descriptions? Identifying your real-world voice can help you define your literary voice.

Be true to yourself, but also don’t be afraid to experiment. As Steven King says in On Writing (a book I highly recommend for any writer, new or experienced):

“You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury—everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hard-boiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew.”

There is no Platonic ideal of “meaning” in writing, nor should there be. Meaning arises from two areas in the practice of writing: what an author means or intends in their writing, and how any given reader interprets that meaning upon reading what the author has written. A writer are responsible for only one of those areas—the first.

Nietzsche wrote: “Thus the man who is responsive to artistic stimuli reacts to the reality of dreams as does the philosopher to the reality of existence; he observes closely, and he enjoys his observation: for it is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life.”

Watch, listen, read, write, repeat. Live a life rich with adventure, and emotion, and intention. Fill the well of creativity with beautiful, strange, incomprehensible things. Be present in your life, fly on magic carpets to faraway lands, cavort through dreams and night-time fancies. Everything else will grow naturally on its own. In the meantime, enjoy the wild ride!

“I have to be rent and pulled apart and live according to the demons and the imagination in me. I’m restless. Things are calling me away. My hair is being pulled by the stars again.”

Anais Nin

You Can Take a Break; You’re Still a Writer

The last two posts have been about being stuck while working on a writing project. I’ve seen a lot of this lately; so many creatives are struggling to work in the climate we’re all facing.

When I was young, a teenager, I reveled in my dark, black moods to create my best work. I even did better writing term papers when I was unhappy. And some people stay that way their whole lives — they need that dark place to tap into their creative muse to get words or other art done.

But as I’ve grown older, as I’ve turned this into a job, I’ve found it much harder to work when I’m in a dark place or when life is being difficult. I don’t want to create magic and monsters and adventure. I want to curl up and be alone with my dogs and husband and shut out the world. Even if I’m working on something dark or difficult and it brings me down while I’m working, so much so, that when I leave my office I have to physically shake it off, I don’t need to first be in that place to write those words.

I participated in Camp NaNo in April. I set myself a goal of 40k words. In the beginning, it went like any NaNo usually does. I had my outline and was ready to get started and felt good about my daily word counts. But, as the month went on, and things in my life weren’t perfect and outside things started to drain away my energy, I found each word that much harder to type. When I finally hit my 40k word goal, I was relieved. I had one day to spare, but I did it. Obviously, that’s not the whole book. But with everything else going on outside of writing, my hubs and I agreed we needed a week to decompress. So I promised myself if I hit my NaNo goal, I was going to take a week off from writing to get my head right again.

That was last week. This week, these are the first words I’ve written. We planned our “take a break” week from everything but the bare minimum at just the right moment. We run a business together and we had an emergency happen last week that, had I been writing, would have taken any energy away from my daily goals. We’ve weathered the emergency and I think the ship is righted and we’re going to be okay, but I am so glad I gave myself permission to take a break from my book.

This book is from my favorite series and if I had continued to write while dealing with so much, I think it would have suffered and when the editing came around, it would have been a snarl of a headache to fix.

I used to say you had to write every day when you’re working on a project. Yeah, take the weekend off, or a day here or there if you like working on the weekend, but don’t abandon the project because you’ll lose momentum and the narration and it’ll be so much harder to pick back up. But I needed that break. It’s okay to take a break. The book will be there when you get back and if you’re serious about writing, you’ll go back to it.

I’m 40k words in, the beginning is always a huge hurdle and I’m almost half-way done, so there’s no reason for me to be scared that I can’t pick it back up.

We have to give ourselves permission to take a break when we need it. Burn outs and break downs are real and horrible and if you can see one coming before it hits, you should do whatever you have to to avoid it. We all need self-care and sometimes that means dealing with life while your imaginary friends take a seat and wait for you to come back.

Well. This isn’t quite where I thought this post was going to go, but there you have it. I’m nearly 20 books into the business, so I think I can safely say that each book is different, each book will ask different things of you and you just have to trust your gut with each one. Some will come hard and fast and you’ll never take a break because you’re just trying to keep up with the words yourself, and others will take their time and give you the space you need, you just have to let yourself take it.

It’s okay. You’re still a writer. Every book has its own process.