Family Myths and Facts–The Value of Research

When I was growing up and I’d ask my mom where we were from, what were we, she’d always answer, “We’re Heinz 57; a little bit of everything.” I love my mom and I know she was trying to be funny, but I always hated that answer. All I took away from it was that our history was lost and we didn’t know where we were from. Mostly, she assumed, we were some combo of Great Britain and Western European. So, you know, very specific and unique.

But she did know two ingredients for sure. She knew my birth father was Irish, and thought he was probably wholly Irish, so that would make me half, and she knew she had a Cherokee grandmother or possibly great grandmother.

Here’s the thing about Cherokee grandmothers: everyone in the South has one. That’s not something I knew growing up but it is a wide-spread myth in the American South. We’re all Cherokee and we all come from Cherokee grandmothers who were once Cherokee princesses. Apparently there were a lot of Cherokee princesses marrying white men and having a lot of white babies.

Obviously we’re Indian, we have high cheekbones and prominent collarbones. Obviously we’re Indian, look how well we tan despite all that British Isles blood.

So I grew up knowing just two truths: I was half Irish and a little bit Cherokee. I clung to these two things because I had nothing else. I was a Navy brat for the first part of my young life and then a Construction brat for the rest, which meant we moved a lot. So I didn’t even have a state that I could call home. Of course I now call Southern California home because I’ve lived here so long and I sound like I’m from here but it wasn’t until the internet became what it is in the last ten years that I was finally, finally able to figure out what was truth and what was myth.

Because I’d always clung to the idea that we were part Cherokee I’d studied a lot about them, I’d done many reports on them in school, I’d given myself a better education about what happened to that nation than anything even honors history classes could give me. But I was never sure who my Cherokee grandmother was. I’d always wanted to write a fantasy novel featuring a Cherokee heroine, but as I got older and the internet got better and I learned a few things about white people and their “connections” with being Cherokee, I stopped myself.

It was a little embarrassing to realize that we’d been perpetuating those bizarre, made-up claims and we probably weren’t even the tiniest of Cherokee or any other native nation for that matter. But it was also disappointing. It was one of only two clues I had about my heritage and I was sad to have that pop like a bubble.

Even as I was coming to terms with the idea that our family myth about a Cherokee grandmother was probably just that, a myth, I still wanted to know my family history. I wanted to know where we came from, when we got to the states, what made up my genetics. I wanted facts, not myths.

So, like any good writer, I began researching.

I plumbed U.S. Census Reports (by the way, I hadn’t realized just how important these things are until I needed them), combed through marriage licenses and birth records, mapping out years and decades and centuries.

Mostly I started only knowing my mom’s information, her mother and father, and some of their mothers and fathers. Luckily my mom was able to get some information, like maiden names from my grandfather.

Also, when people tell you women just aren’t important when it comes to history beyond who they give birth to, they aren’t exaggerating. If I didn’t know a maiden name, the line would just stop with her marriage. I was literally able to follow my grandfather’s paternal lines into the Crusades and early Scottish Royalty and so far I was sure I’d fallen into the Dark Ages to point where years were only three digits. But the women? The women were footnotes, asides, shadows that fell away with the years. So remember women’s names beyond their husbands, please.

But I digress.

With the little information that I had–and I know it’s more than a lot of people had–I was able to find out very quickly on my grandmother’s paternal side, that we were, in fact, English. Not a little bit of everything. English. Now I struggled learning about my grandmother’s mother’s side of the family. There are some hints of vikings and there is some lore about forest witchery and mountain men with great scraggly beards that live in cabins, which is all obviously spot on and doesn’t need research to be proven correct.

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But back to Granddaddy and his family. I was amazed to find out that our family name is an ancient and proud Scottish name. Scottish. Now that rang a bell in my soul. The family eventually moved into England, Kent, specifically. So English yet again. But that Scottish line was amazing to read about and I don’t know if I’d ever had so much pride in my body before. But there was one spot–one name that didn’t match the rest. Grandma Katie. Katie was my grandfather’s grandmother.

And according to the U.S. Census, when she was a little girl, she lived on “Indian Territory.” You’ll see the further back you go on the Censuses the more offensive and belittling they get when documenting certain groups of people. But Katie lived in a house on “Indian Territory” with her sister and father.

Mom confirmed with Granddaddy that Katie had a sister (whose name was butchered by the Census takers). And my heart fluttered a little bit.

To be considered Cherokee you have to be able to trace your family back to the Dawes Rolls, which were taken 1898-1906. Not a lot of time. But Grandma Katie’s Census record was from 1900. So, with trembling fingers I searched for Katie on the Rolls. And my stomach about dropped out.

There she was, with her little sister and father, all on the same card.

Reader, I cried.

And not because I wanted to point to this things and say, “See! I’m Cherokee!” No. It was more like, relief? Maybe? I’m not quite sure what emotion is the right one. But there was happiness, seeing her name there, giving me back this piece of history that I’d held on to as a child when I had so little. We actually had a Cherokee Grandmother–no she wasn’t a princess. If you haven’t figured it out yet, that’s not a thing.

And no, I am not claiming to be Cherokee or Native because I didn’t grow up that way. I didn’t grow up with lessons and stories and history and culture. But it was exciting to find out what made up part of me. The bio father side is still mostly assumption but I’m okay with that.

So I sat down and wrote a story to honor Grandma Katie. Yes, it’s a story with a Cherokee sister and brother as the MCs. Yes, it’s based on a Cherokee legend. No, I didn’t suddenly feel like I had “permission” to write the story now that I found Grandma Katie, and I’m certainly not claiming #ownvoices with it (but please go check out that hashtag on twitter for some awesome books), but it was something I’d always wanted to do and now that I knew Grandma Katie (and did research about her family), I wanted to honor her, like I’ve done with books from the rest of my background. And I was inspired. I was inspired to write something wholly different than anything I’ve ever written before.

If you’re interested in reading the story, I am going to be sharing it on Patreon, serialized into chapters. I’m making the first post free to the public so everyone can read it and get a taste, but beyond that it’ll be available to people who pledge $3 or more. If you’d like, pop over here to read.

I guess this was a post about inspiration. Or maybe the value of research. Or finding and separating the threads of myth and fact. I guess the post is about what you take from it, dear reader. But this is what led to me writing my story about the Ravenmocker and his sister.

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Changing Gears

For a year and some change, I’ve been in steady-state revision mode.

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Oh, not on the same project, and in different stages of different edits and revisions on those different projects, but in revision mode all the same. There were copy edits for my forthcoming novel AMBER & DUSK…and then more copyedits to those copy edits. Near the beginning of this year, I did put about 50K new words on my Swan Lake WIP, but it was more like a rewrite of an already existing project that I’d worked on the year before. Early this summer I revisited a trunked book to see if it could be given new life. August, I returned to my Swan Lake WIP for yet another round of edits.

You catch my drift. Or should I say draft? (Sorry! I’m so sorry.)

But last week, the shiny book idea that’s been patiently simmering in the back of my head tapped me on the shoulder. “Girl,” it whispered seductively. “You’ve already outlined me, named all my characters, and done enough world building to make my head spin. Let’s do this thing!”

So I gathered up all my notebooks, grabbed my favorite pen, opened up a blank document, and…nothing. Which was especially weird considering I’d more or less already written the opening scene in my head. Or so I’d thought.

“Type!” I hissed at my fingers, poised over the keyboard.

“We don’t remember how!” they wailed in unison.

And that’s when I considered quitting writing for the one-millionth time this year.

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Listen–writing is hard. All of it. Every stage. It is a pure and exquisite expression of individual creativity, but it’s also messy. And hard. Did I mention hard? Revising and editing is hard, and rarely fun. It’s a lot of tweaking and moving around and deleting and adding and rephrasing. But here’s the thing–you’re working with something that already exists. It may be a jumbled, half-incoherent first draft full of cliches, dropped characters, and bad dialogue, but it’s words on a page. It’s something. And even with a first draft, there are probably glimmers of voice, murmurs of character development, a vague inkling of plot.

But facing the tyranny of the blank page–of staring down the barrel at 80 to 100 thousand words of unwritten story–is probably one of the hardest aspects of writing. Especially because if you don’t write the story living inside you…no one else ever will. And that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

So I’m shifting gears. I’m downshifting–back to first gear, where I’m building a world from scratch and filling it with complicated, obtuse characters who aren’t interested in cooperating with the plan I’ve made for them. To second gear, where motivations are finally clear and I’m consistently hitting my daily word counts. And–gods willing–third gear, where I’m up writing far past my bedtime, because I’m not longer a creator but a participant in the story hurtling toward its inevitable climax.

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And then, of course…it will be time for revisions.

Characters: Creation or Inspiration

Most writers will admit that their characters are, in some ways, mirrors of themselves. You’ll give your main character (MC) your likes and dislikes, like, say your preference for how they take their coffee, a distaste for foods you hate, their clothing choices reflect your own, etc. etc. Many author’s first books’ MCs are basically their ideal version of themselves.

Then, as your writing progresses, you’ll branch out and make your MC’s tastes the opposite of your own. Do you like cream and sugar in your coffee? Well, then your MC takes theirs as black as their bitter heart. So deep, so different.

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But really, it’s totally cool to let your characters like the things you like and hate the things you hate because you can really put some real feeling and depth into those descriptions. But have you ever found yourself being influenced by your characters rather than the other way around?

If you’re doing your job, you’re creating fully formed, fleshed out people when you develop characters. Which means giving them preferences, skills, and hobbies that maybe–probably–you don’t have. But to make it real, to make it good and believable you need to learn a lot about those skills and hobbies.

I have done this with a fair share of my books. I know a lot about how vaccines are made now that I had to research it for my Ash & Ruin Trilogy. I know quite a bit more about different magic systems as I developed my own for the Matilda Kavanagh Novels. I learned a lot about ancient Judaic beliefs as I wrote The Brimstone War Novels for my pen name. When I write a witchy book in winter, they inevitably brew hot chocolate and bake goodies and you know, within hours of a writing session, I’ll be in my kitchen doing the same even though I don’t really like to bake. But somehow, these characters make me do these things.

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And now, with the New Book, research has turned to cards.

The women in my family have always read Tarot, but I never seemed to get the hang of it. I read a few spreads for friends in high school and didn’t do too bad, but the idea that I with BOTH dyslexia and dyscalculia could ever memorize the meanings of 78 cards–upright and inverted–and all the different types of spreads and what the card placement in any given spread means was just too impossible a task. But I knew, in my gut, that this MC was going to be a gifted Tarot reader. So it was time to pull my decks back out and try again.

It took a few weeks but I finally gave myself permission to not memorize 156 card meanings and just use my books and note pads to keep track so I could interpret the spreads without the added stress. And you know what? It works for me. And I don’t think I would have tried again had it not been for this character. Which is kinda cool. I’d always wanted to carry on this tradition and felt crappy that I hadn’t. But here I am, thanks to a character influencing me rather than the other way around.

Of course this witchy chick is also going to be pretty good at playing cards too, which, if I do say so myself, I happen to be. So, it’s definitely a two way street.

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How about you? Have you ever created a character so real that you find yourself taking on their hobbies beyond just research? Have your characters changed some aspect of you life you weren’t expecting?

Spectating Instead of Creating

Sometimes I feel like I’m the Queen of Getting Stuck in a Rut, which, as far as royalty goes, isn’t very glamorous. (And when I say “rut” I don’t mean a routine, either, because one of my ancillary kingdoms is the Duchy of Procrastination, neighbored by the Earldom of Wasting Time). For me, when I’m focused on a project I develop a strange fixation with having all of my “active” work rhythms–journaling, reading, listening to music, plus of course writing–be in service of the project I’m working on. Which means that when it comes to leisure activities–when I know I should be refilling the well in an intentional way–I don’t have the mental capacity left for anything of substance and turn to fluff. Bad movies, Regency romance novels, Candy Crush Saga. Not that there’s anything wrong with fluff! But (wo)man cannot live on fluff alone.

And then the next day I feel guilty for failing to refill the creative well, and I buckle down even harder on what I’m allowed to read and write during active work time.

Rinse, repeat. Binge, purge.

Sigh. Like I said, Queen of Ruts.

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A few weeks ago, I bought a ticket to the pre-Broadway world premier of Moulin Rouge: the Musical. Now, even though I love musicals, I almost never see them live. First, there’s the price, which is always steep, especially if you don’t want to use binoculars to see the actors’ faces. Second, there are the crowds, which make me nervous on a good day and can induce panic on a bad one. And third, there’s the husband who hates musicals, which is usually an easy excuse to let myself talk myself out of going based on the first two reasons.

But this time was different. I kept staring at the glamorous poster and thinking about the extravagant movie and its bohemian ideals: Freedom, Beauty, Truth & Love. I knew I needed this. So–gnashing my teeth at the price–I booked a ticket before I could change my mind.

I’m SO GLAD I did!

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The venue–the historic Emerson Colonial Theater–was stunning, frescoed and gilded in true Fin de Siecle glory. And the show was magnificent! From the very first number I was completely swept away, transported to Paris and the Moulin Rouge. I laughed, I cried, I cheered, and I clapped along to a seriously dizzying array of elaborate pop-culture inspired songs and dances. I think I barely blinked for three whole hours, enraptured in the sensation of being a spectator to someone else’s art. And when the curtain finally fell and I walked out into the night, I felt full. I felt inspired, with stories and songs and images dancing in the darkened set of my mind, just waiting for the spotlight to shine on them.

So maybe the choice isn’t between gruel and fluff; rigorous work and mindless fluff. Going forward, I’m going to try and challenge myself to participate in other forms of art that will challenge, excite, and inspire me. My own art can only grow in leaving it behind for an hour or two.

Author’s Note: The original title was changed after a dear friend pointed out a problematic element that I had failed to register. I offer sincere apologies to anyone who may have been offended and I will seek to be better in the future.

Are You a Successful Writer?

There are a lot of ways to measure success. For some, just accomplishing a goal, like finishing a book, is a success. For others, it’s getting that book published. And for others still, it’s a measure of money that determines if they’re a success.

In the publishing world there are a lot of misconceptions. Some still hold that self-publishing isn’t as prestigious as traditional publishing. It certainly is a much harder road to travel if you aren’t already a well-established author and/or personality with a base of readers who are going to jump on the publication of your book and boost you through the sales rankings. But, even without that, self-publishing is just as viable an option.

I didn’t have a base when I started publishing. I still get a little defensive when someone asks me if they can find my book on a shelf at Barnes and Nobel. My first year I counted every single sale because they were so few and far between.

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But.

Since then? In the seven years I’ve been self-published? I’ve made more money from book sales than many, many traditionally published writers. I carried my household as my partner built his business.

But.

Like so many industries, book sales are cyclical. And the lows feel very, very low. So most writers have a second job if their partners can’t carry the financial load alone. Yes, I said “second” job, not “day” job because writing is a job. A lot of writers can’t let go of the idea that writing isn’t a job because we often think of writing as a vanity—a hobby. But it’s not. It’s a job. There are days when I’ve had a marathon of words or a particularly difficult scene to write, and I’ve walked away from my desk exhausted, struggling to remember words, and needing to veg out. Just like a “day” job.

There was a second misconception there: that a successful writer shouldn’t need another job outside of writing.

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This one is hard for me. Not that I think that of other writers, but that I think that of myself. Like I said, financially, I’ve been successful in writing, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the cycles of book sales. And I’ve had side hustles related to writing; I offer professional beta reading and content editing. But that’s not steady work for me. My partner works very hard and we’ve traded carrying the financial load throughout our relationship. But I knew it was time that I looked for a second job outside of writing again.

It’s a hard pill to swallow. I was doing so well, I shouldn’t need to do this! But. I just can’t, as prolific as I have been, I can’t pump out a book a month or every other month to keep up with the new generation of self-publishers who do this. I’m not formulaic and my stories take energy and power from me. I can only give so much.

But as soon as I made this decision, and as soon as I saw the first money in my bank account from this decision, a weight was lifted from my shoulders. I almost passed out from relief it was so over-whelming.

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And now I don’t feel guilt from taking time to write. I’m actually excited to get back to writing. No, you shouldn’t ever feel guilty writing, but I’m just telling you where I was in my headspace. I want to enjoy writing and I can’t if I feel guilt, even if that guilt is totally self-imposed.

So if you’re in the place where you think you aren’t a “real” writer if you have a “day” job or if you’ve been a writer and can’t quit said day job to be a full-time writer or if you are a full-time writer and realize the bills are closing in and need to get a second job, none of it matters. None of it takes one tiny piece of your success away. I’ve met best-seller listers who are baristas at Starbucks.

You can’t write if you can’t pay your bills.

So go get that side hustle and be proud of it, just don’t forget to claim your writing time. That’s the job you really love, give it the attention it deserves.

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When Competition is Motivating

I’m a very competitive person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shut up.

I’m beginning to realize that rather than discourage me, the success of others motivates me to work harder, to reach farther, to branch out into areas I otherwise would be afraid to go.

A few years ago, my fellow Scribe Emmie Mears had a run of great news in her career, securing four book deals in one summer for both fiction and non-fiction books. At the time, I was 1.5 years into being on submission for my first book, Daughter of Destiny, and I was starting to see cracks in my relationship with my agent. So while I was happy for Emmie, I was also feeling insecure, which led to me being VERY jealous.

Not long before Emmie’s announcement, my agent had told me the editor who had my book at the time was so certain we were going to get an offer that she wanted me to write a non-fiction book about the Celts so she could tie it into my Guinevere books. I thought she was nuts. Me? A non-fiction author? Right. I didn’t think I had the education or skills for that so I dismissed it out of hand.

I was in Chicago on vacation when I found out about Emmie’s good fortune. Of course, I stewed for a while, but then I thought, “If Emmie can get a non-fiction book deal, why can’t I?” Over the next two months, I researched my little heart out and ended up with a proposal and a 50,000 word book. Sadly, we never got to send it to the editor because the publisher ultimately passed on Daughter, but it made me do something I never thought I would. (I never have published that book. Maybe someday. I have since published non-fiction, though!)

Then just last week I found out a second author I know online, Chanel Cleeton, had her book Next Year in Havana chosen by Reese Witherspoon as her book club pick. When this happened to the first of my friends, Kate Quinn (for The Alice Network, such an amazing book), I wasn’t jealous, just very, very happy for her. But for some reason, Chanel’s announcement really got to me. (My best guess is I am feeling insecure again and that is probably right because I’m looking to go back to traditional publishing for my next few books after three years as an indie author.)

But again, after a few hours of being jealous, during which I created the graphic to the right, it energized me. I thought to myself, “well, if that’s going to be me someday, I better get a move on.” Now, at the time I was editing one book (fiction) and working on a proposal for another (historical non-fiction). What did I do? Began putting feelers out for yet another non-fiction book to determine if there is enough information on my subject to warrant a biography (I can’t find evidence that one has ever been written on this woman, but there might be a reason for that.)

My point to all of this is that you can take a negative emotion like jealousy and turn it into something positive. It just takes a little creative thinking. If I can use all the success of my amazingly cool author friends to power me on, I should be to the moon in no time!

Now I need one of you to do something else really awesome so I can get my butt in gear for the historical non-fiction proposal I really want to get out to agents soon. All I have left is researching and writing the sample chapters. Go! Do! Succeed!

How to be Creative in the Chaos that is Now

First, let me say that I am proud of Liv and Lyra sharing their posts the last two weeks. As authors and public figures it’s difficult to know whether or not to speak up about politics, always afraid of hurting our livelihoods for offending people. But I think we all know that things are just different now and we need to speak up and not fear reprisal. If you didn’t get a chance to check them out last month, please go have a quick read.

I do want to get back to talking about writerly things, but we cannot ignore the fact that the current climate has really had a hard, hard impact on writers. The constant chaotic news loop we’re stuck in takes so much out of us. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, there is some new horror or frustration or just plain bullshit that has us throwing up our hands, randomly cursing, or slumping over with a deep sigh.

So how, how do you push through all that crap and be creative? How do you check out if even for a little while so you can get your words for the day? You don’t want to look away because that is a privilege and the guilt is overwhelming. But you lose your goddamn mind if you don’t take a break once in a while, right? Another chaotic loop.

Well, first of all, the best thing you can do is look the monster in the face. Take five minutes in the morning to call your three reps (both senators and your MOC) and tell the staffer or leave a short VM with your name and zip code and tell them why you’re calling, what you’re supporting or protesting. They’ll take a note, thank you, and be done with the call. Boom. One important contribution done. And yes, you should do this multiple times a week. If you have phone anxiety call after hours and leave a VM, those still count.

Secondly, participate, if you can, in protests. I can’t tell you how much faith and hope and resolve the Women’s March gave me last year. Even in my small city, the turn out was amazing. This past weekend my husband and I joined in on the Families Belong Together March. In the past my husband has had to work when the protests were scheduled in our area, but not this one, so he was able to go. He really didn’t think it would be much of a turn out, he wasn’t as excited as I was. At least, not until we got there. When the crowd filled in his whole demeanor changed. He joined in on the chants, he raised his fist, he took a spare flag from another protester to hold up (this was a very big deal because my hubs is a Marine Vet and in Nov 2016 he packed away all his USMC and veteran apparel and refused to wear any of it or talk about being in the service because he was so angry and disillusioned).  Seeing so many people turn out in our small piece of America, seeing all the other veterans proudly wearing their hats and shirts, really changed something in him. If you need that, go to a march.

And finally, do what I’ve done. Give yourself a break. Not forever, not indefinitely, but take the time you need. We all need to recharge. When you’re ready, get back to work, but take as much time as you need to finish a project. You all know I’ve been talking about a new book, but I haven’t written one word yet. I did finally manage to flesh out the two main characters and that feels like something. In doing so I was able to think about the magic systems and a seedy, black market system that will work as a wonderful red herring to the mystery I’m still figuring out.

Another thing I did to help me this year was become a student again. Not back to uni or to a workshop,  but I did look up Brandon Sanderson. Plenty of people know who I’m talking about, but if you don’t, he’s a best selling Epic Fantasy writer, who also happens to teach. And what’s even more amazing, his lectures are on YouTube. I watched an 8 series lecture and took copious notes. I started watching because I wanted to learn what he had to say on magic systems, but then realized it was a whole class and decided to start from the beginning.

Now, I’ve written quite a number of books, so I like to think I know what I’m doing, but it was still nice to take this as a refresher course. It gave me some food for thought about a lot of things and it felt good to be a student again. There are a lot of his lectures to be found, but I started with his BYU 318R Writing Class. Seriously, check it out. And if you’re a newbie writer and struggling with your first book and can’t afford/don’t have time for school, take advantage of this. It was an amazing course, probably better than a lot of the classes I took in uni because so many of those were focused on reading.

Hopefully something here helps you figure out a balance to being informed without being overwhelmed and getting back to work. We need a middle ground; don’t let them steal your fire.