History and Storytelling

The Pantheon in Rome

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of visiting Italy with my husband. Although I travelled fairly extensively through Europe in my twenties, somehow I never made it to the land of wine and pasta (with the exception of one short stopover in Sicily where a raging storm kept me and my friend stuck in our hostel for three days straight). It’s been on my travel list for years, so when the opportunity arose, I flung myself bodily upon it.

It was an amazing trip. But one of the reasons Italy has now bumped itself near the top of my favorite-places-in-the-world list came from a somewhat unexpected angle–one that felt more than a little salient to this blog. Italy felt so rich with history–and therefore, stories–that I almost didn’t know what to do with myself.

Who needs armor when you got dat booty?

While I’m no historical scholar, I do know my way around European history. But while touring the various cities we visited in Italy, I found myself nearly overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of history steeped into every inch of the country. In Rome, two thousand year old Imperial ruins abide beside Renaissance basilicas and glossy designer stores. In Tivoli, the rococo grandeur of Villa d’Este stands mere miles from the ancient pleasure palace of Emperor Hadrian. In Umbria, we stayed on an olive-producing estate whose owners once protected Via della Spina, a major arterial road connecting Rome to the Adriatic, used from Etruscan times through the Byzantine Empire. In Venice, the very canals seemed to whisper the astonishing story of a city founded by peasants fleeing Attila the Hun, which would someday become one of the world’s greatest ship-building and mercantile capitals.

Byzantine Mosaics in Ravenna

I don’t write historical fiction. I don’t even really write historical fantasy, although most of my other-world fantasies are in some way informed or inspired by our world’s history. But everywhere I turned in Italy, I felt as though I was touching the edge of some great, palpable history, and I hated that I could only discover so much about each story. Etruscans settling the hills around Rome; the growth of a vast, tumultuous empire where slaves could become emperors; a dissolute, gilded bureaucracy beset by “barbarians”; popes and princes and art and music; a modern legacy of food and fashion and incredible wine. For me, all those periods and stories felt layered on top of one another–a palimpsest place, with fading years etched like ink upon its face. I wanted to read every single line, even the ones lost to time.

As a storyteller, that much history felt incredibly inspiring. I tried to take in as many of those histories and stories as I could–I can only hope that one or several will take root inside me and begin to grow. And if not? I certainly enjoyed the wine, pasta, and sunshine along the way.

Where have you traveled that inspired you with its history or stories?

Hamilton: Three Lines That Grab Me as a Writer

I want this poster!

Earlier this month, my mom took me to see Hamilton in Chicago as an early 40th birthday present (my birthday is in August, but we were up there for a conference). I knew it was going to be good, but I was not prepared for how much it blew me away! I could go on and on about how great the choreography and lighting were, and how much of a genius Lin Manuel Miranda is, but this is about an aspect I never anticipated…how much Hamilton touched me as a writer.

I cry at musicals. A lot. It’s because I love theater and it makes me very emotional. But there were several moments that touched me deep down as a writer and made me sob all the more, but this time, they were happy tears because I knew someone else–and Lin Manuel nonetheless–felt the same way.

First, from a song called Non-Stop, which is the last song in the first act: “Write like you’re running out of time. Write like you need it to survive.”

HOLY CRAP! THIS IS ME! I have never felt so seen as I did during this number. I constantly feel the pressure (self-induced and otherwise) to write more and faster. I’m scared I will die before I get write all of the stories in my head. Writing is literally all I do outside of my day job because a) I LOVE it and b) I feel like if I do anything else it will just get in the way of realizing my dreams.

There is a certain obsession that can overcome a writer that I am feeling very keenly as I’m researching my first biography. I don’t know that I can explain it. It is an extra drive, a stronger sense of need, of owing the characters your all, of being put on this planet to write…so you have to do it ALL THE TIME.

Secondly, from My Shot, perhaps one of the most iconic lines:
“I’m not throwing away my shot.”

Yes, yes, everyone and their brother loves this song. But as an indie author, it has special meaning to me. People ask me all the time how I win so many awards, etc. I don’t want to sound flippant, but honestly, I win because I enter contests. Of course, you have to have a great product, but you can’t win if you don’t play.

Being an indie author is all about taking chances. Sometimes you win big, like I did with taking a chance on a new company called Taleflick and ending up with a movie option for Madame Presidentess. Sometimes you lose so much money you want to cry. *cough* print ad in a magazine *cough* But the key is you have to try. Pay attention to the opportunities in the industry, investigate them and if they sound good to you, inquire. That’s all it takes. If you see a shot, take it. If you don’t win, you’ve lost nothing (or as in my case with the ad, you’ve only lost money). But if you do, it could be your ticket to success.

Last, but certainly not least, from the closing number of the show: “And when my time is up, Have I done enough? Will they tell my story?…Who tells your story?”

First of all, “when my time is up, have I done enough?” OMG, the question every artist asks. And chances are good the answer will be no, because there is always something new to create. It’s both the blessing and the curse of being a creative.

As for the other half of the quote: I write biographical historical fiction and now biography because the idea of someone’s life being forgotten rips my guts out. That’s how strongly I feel about it. That’s why I choose the unknown/little-known characters. Everyone has done something worthy of being remembered and if someone doesn’t tell our story, it feels like we never lived. I want to save as many historical women from that fate as possible.

Will my story be worth telling someday? I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I’ll be over here “writing day and night like I need it to survive, not throwing away my shot” and eventually, winning a Pulitzer. Just you wait.

The Benefit of the Exploratory Trip

One of the most important things a writer can do when writing a book, is to make the reader feel fully immersed in the world of the story. The reader should see the world as if they’ve been there; they should smell the city streets with its cars and restaurants, or country road with the sun-baked dirt and drying leaves, or the crisp, cool, lung-burning cold of snowy mountains; they should hear the languages, the voices, the animals, the hum of the world.

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If you’re writing a fantasy world, obviously, you just gotta make this all up and try to remember these precious little details and hope the reader can see what you’re trying to paint with your words. So often when books are made into TV and film you hear people say, “It’s exactly as I imagined it!” If so, then that means the writer did a great job conveying to multiple people to see the same thing in their heads.

But what if you’re writing about a real place?

If you’re writing about a place that people are familiar with, you gotta hit those notes and those notes tend to be different for everyone. Take Paris for example. For me, I have a scent memory of roasting chicken that evokes a neighborhood in Paris where I spent my honeymoon because one of the grocers from the neighborhood market always had roasting chickens in the windows. That’s pretty specific and might not work for everyone, but talk about warm rain in the summer, where the sun refuses to set until after dinner and almost late enough for bed? That’s more universal. But if you haven’t been there in the summer, you might not know that the sun doesn’t set until well into the night. If you don’t know a place well enough to describe it accurately, your world won’t be believable.

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Which is why a lot of writers will make sure they’ll set their books in places they’re familiar with. Like me, again, for example. I have one fantasy series set in the town I live in and one apocalyptic series mostly set in the county I live in. I know this area inside and out. So I can imagine it in an apocalyptic setting and what that might mean. I know what it’s like in summer and winter and I know what our beaches smell like and how long it takes to get from one side of town to the other. I can immerse a reader even if they’ve never heard of my town.

So what do you do if you want to set a book in a real place that you’ve never been?

I highly recommend an exploratory trip. Obviously, I’m talking about something that takes time and money and not everyone can do that, so if you can’t, try to reach out to locals, read travel blogs, check Insta posts, do whatever you can to familiarize yourself. But! If you can, then go.

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As writers we’re not always sure what we can and cannot claim as write-offs on our taxes, but an exploratory trip can be. Just make sure you’re actually going to do research and can back that up should you need to. (Also, do not take tax advice from me, go get a CPA or an accountant to help you make sure everything is on the up and up.)

Last year I was lucky enough to take an exploratory trip to Ireland. I’d studied many, many things about Ireland through my life, but nothing could give me the education that I got by actually being there. For example, I had no idea how many wild blackberry bushes grow all around. What a detail!

In a week I’m taking a road trip to Las Vegas. I know, Vegas, right, sure, it’s for work, wink-wink. But it is. I have a trilogy set in Vegas and I am on the verge of starting to write the last book (FINALLY) and I need some inspiration. I’ve been struggling all year to get back into writing after taking a much needed break, and I think immersing myself in the desert, reminding myself what that world feels, smells, sounds, and looks like will help me spark that inspiration. You behave differently when you’re some place different than home, you have new experiences even if you’ve been there before. You eat strange things and you meet new people. All fodder for a book and the world building of that book.

If you can do an exploratory trip, make sure you research ahead of time so you don’t forget things you wanted to see or do once you’re there. And take pictures, lots and lots of pictures. Notes are good and can help some people, but taking photos to remind yourself what something was like can be invaluable. Especially if you want to remember the details of something you might not write down.

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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.

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.

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.

Bypassing Writer’s Block

FullSizeRender-2I got it bad. And I’m not talking about that Usher song from 2001 (hello yes old). I’m talking about the dreaded writer’s block.

Every writer I’ve ever known has a different take on writer’s block. It’s actually something we Scribes have discussed a number of times on this very blog. Some suffer from it it; others don’t. Some claim it doesn’t even exist. (I claim they’re lying). Some say the only way to get over it is to work through it, which is pretty solid advice. Others recommend refilling the well by revisiting beloved books and movies. Some say you should give in to your instincts and just lie in front of the TV watching bad Christmas movies and crying into your wine until the literary gods finally take pity on you and send you a decent sentence or two. (What’s that you say? Oh, that’s just me?)

Honestly though, it sucks to feel like your “muse,” or whatever you want to call it, has deserted you. For better or for worse, it’s easy as a writer to let your sense of self-worth get all tangled up in your creativity, your productivity, and the pace at which you create art. And that’s kind of where I’m at. This fall has been tough for me. Between ongoing edits of my forthcoming novel, a big move accompanied by a lifestyle shift, and a death in the family, I haven’t had much time for new projects, and even when I have tried for new words, I’ve been deeply disappointed in the results. Which makes me even more anxious about writing, or not writing, aaaaand the cycle continues.

IMG_1969And then I picked up a book on a whim at my local indie. Riding on the recent trend of hygge–a Scandinavian-inspired cozy lifestyle–the book includes a number of fairly accessible craft ideas. Now, my adventures into crafting have historically followed this pattern: 1) I get really freaking excited about a craft, 2) I impulse-buy all the supplies for said craft, 3) I spend like one hour actually making the craft, 4) I realize that crafting is hard, and 5) I never touch said craft ever again. But this particular book included some information that I hadn’t realized before.

Apparently, scientific research is beginning to find that creative activities can lead to relaxation or a meditation-like response similar to that induced by yoga, while also raising neurotransmitters associated with elevated mood. This news wasn’t so surprising once I thought about it–my own anecdotal experiences with past art projects backed this up. So I bought a decent amount of supplies, figuring that if I wasn’t writing I would at least be creating pretty things to hang around the house during the holidays.

IMG_1970I’ll skip right to the end here, folks. This experiment has been a resounding success. I mean, I’m laughably bad at crocheting, I have paper-cuts from Danish origami, and my wreaths look like they were made by children, but I have ideas again. Something about having my hands and front-brain occupied seems to leave my creative brain free to float wherever it pleases. It does, in fact, feel very zen to just zone out and let my hands work until bam! An idea strikes and I’m running for the closest pen and paper.

That’s all I’ve got so far–scribbled notes and half-finished crafts. But even if that’s all this experiment nets me, it’s worth it just to have something new in the arsenal to banish that dreaded writer’s block.