Archive | May 2012

What You Feel

There’s a lot of books about writing techniques–and this stuff is important. If craft stuff gets in your way, it ends up bending the story in ways that are not good. Tangled sentences and awkward paragraphs can kick a reader right out of the fiction. However, it’s not just about the craft. You have to have something that matters–to you.

This is where I think so many writers go wrong. A writer heads into vampire territory since vampires sell, or writes a historical without really having a deep passion for that era and a longing to dip a toe into living in that time, or gets caught up in what should be a cool idea. But the passion is missing. This is where you get the good book–the writing may work, but there’s just something off. It’s like eating a pizza where all the ingredients are there, but someone didn’t add the fire needed to take okay into amazing.

You can fake almost anything, but you cannot fake passion.

You also need this because at the end of a couple hundred pages even the hottest need to write has cooled so if you start out anything less than desperate to write a story odds are not good for getting the thing finished.

For me, this passion, the feeling that works to keep working comes from loving the work (and hating it sometimes, too), from needing to write the story, from not being able to stay out of that fictional world. It’s got to be there or you end up with words on a page. Which is not a bad place to start. But at some point you have to put more into it.

And that the scary part–you don’t always know when you’ve got that more.

Sometimes writing is worse than ditch digging (I’ve done both, and the digging breaks your back, but writing can break your soul by inches). Sometimes it feels bad but it’s actually really good stuff. You just don’t know. You lose perspective on it, and that’s what you want. You want to be so deep into it you have no idea. You have to throw everything to the winds and dive in and you just have to be willing to make a fool of yourself.

You have to be willing to write god awful stuff and write stuff that may just be tripe and you have to be willing to write stuff that others may hate, because that also may be your best stuff. To me, this is only fun if you’re taking chances. And what’s the worst of it? Someone slams the work (and, yes, that does irritate, but so what–the work is done and has that person ever written a book?), or someone slams you (not the work, which is even more irritating and these folks need to learn the artist is not the art–there are only glimpses of the artists at that moment in time in the art). But this is also where a cool thing happens.

If you’ve written something you really put yourself into, you don’t care as much about what folks say. Because you have the work in your hands. You’ve done your job and if you’ve given it your best there’s a satisfaction in that. You have something that matters to you–and that’s what you hang onto.

The other good news is that the more you do this, the more this becomes a habit. It never gets easier. But it becomes the default way to write.

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Regency Travel: Cary’s New Itinerary

The Post ChaiseWhen you’re writing about the past, too often our references come second, third, or even fourth-hand. We read diaries and letters that are often edited by children and grandchildren. We scan biographies–some brilliant and some shabby beyond belief. And we read books written about the Regency. But sometimes a novelist needs more.

When writing about characters who live in the Regency, we often need t o get into those character’s heads. We need to see how they lived. We need first-hand experience. I’ve been known to read by candlelight–truly an eye-straining experience–brandish a sword, and even try a quill and ink to see what it’s really like.

But there are some books that offer a first-hand experience. And one of my favorites is Cary’s New Itinerary.

At the end of the eighteenth century, John Cary was commissioned by the Postmaster-General to survey all the principal roads in England. He did this by walking these roads, pushing a wheel connected to a counter, which kept a tally of the number of rotations and then produced an accurate mileage.

Between 1787 and 1831, Cary put his knowledge to use and published, among other books, the New English Atlas, The Travellers’ Companion, the Universal Atlas of 1808, and Cary’s New Itinerary. The maps and surveys have some of the most accurate and valuable data about the structure of the Regency world. They also provide an insight into how people traveled in the Regency.

Published in 1815, the fifth edition of Cary’s  goes on to explain that it is, “an Accurate Delineation of the Great Roads, both direct and cross throughout, England and Whales, with many of the Principal Roads in Scotland, from an actual admeasurement by John Cary, made by command of his Majesty’s Postmaster General.”

There’s more detail provided at the front of the book in an “advertisement” that’s more of a preface.

The information alone on roads and distances, with fold-out maps provided, has helped me sort out the practical problems that face any Regency writer–such as, how far is it really between London and Bath? And what roads might one take? However, Cary’s offers much more.

Cary’s divides into neat, organized sections. The man was obviously methodical. The first section lists the direct roads to London–as in all roads lead to this metropolis. The next section gives a list of principal places–i.e., larger towns, that occur along the cross-roads. A cross-road is a road that crosses one of the direct roads into London. At this point, you begin to see how London-centric this world really was. As someone living outside of London, it would be your goal to get to a major town, and then you could get to London. Cary, living in London, wrote his book for outward-bound Londoners, and that is how the book is organized.

The next section is as important to a Regency writer as it would have been to someone traveling in the Regency–it is a list of coach and mail departures. This includes the name of the London inn from which the coaches departed, the towns each coach passed through, the mileage, the departure time, and the arrival time. It’s an utter godsend if you have to get your heroine to Bath at a certain hour on the coach. I can also picture Regency Londoners pouring over this information, planning short trips to the seaside, or to watering towns.

The next section lists all direct roads, as measured from key departure points in London, but this is not just a dry list of mileage. Descriptive notes are tucked into various columns to describe houses of note and distinctive sights. For example, if you’re going to Wells from London, then, “Between Bugley and Whitbourn, at about 2 m(iles) on l(eft) Longleat, Marquis of Bath; the house is a Picture of Grandure, and the Park and Pleasure Grounds are very beautiful.”  This was an era in which slower travel meant taking the time to look at surroundings.

The next section provides a similar treatment for cross-roads, and not to be overlooked, Packet Boat sailing days are listed for England’s various sea ports, just in case an intrepid traveler whishes to travel abroad.

Finally, Cary’s provides an index to Country Seats, or as Cary’s notes, “In this Index the Name of every resident Possessor of a Seat is given, as well as the Name of the Seat itself, wherever it has a distinctive Appellation.”  This is actually a list from the 1811 returns to Parliament, as noted in the book. In the Regency, this actually would have been a much used feature, for it would allow a traveler to look up and visit various great houses and country seats. It was a time, after all, when visitors expected the great houses to always be open for show, and to be gracious in their hospitality.

Overall, Cary’s is not a book that will give you insight into the politics of the Regency, nor into the social structure of that world.  However, between its worn covers lays the description of the Regency world that can put you back into that era, just as if you were traveling the roads of England.

POV — What Readers Don’t Notice (Unless it’s Wrong)

Point of View is a phrase that writers use to death. It’s one of those things that a reader doesn’t notice until it’s done badly. But it’s also one of the most critical skills because it affects everything else in the story.

You don’t really think about until you have to figure out whose point of view gives you the best story.

Now, the “duh” moment here seems to be that well, of course any story uses the point of view of the main character. But sometimes that doesn’t work so well. Dr. Watson is the point of view character in Sherlock Holmes stories so Sherlock can seem smarter. (Watson’s no slouch, but by making him the POV character, the writer can hide clues that Sherlock will eventually use to make amazing deduction.)

My rule of thumb is to use the character with the most at risk in a scene–this gives the scene better conflict and drama. That risk also works better, too, if it’s emotional risk–a character who doesn’t care that a gun is pointed at him is not going to give you great drama if that character doesn’t care about dying. But this is a guideline, not a rule. Also, this doesn’t help with the whole story.

Should you write in third person, first person, multiple viewpoints, single?

This goes back to being a reader first.

What do you read? What do you like to read the most?

I’ll read just about anything, cereal boxes included. But while I like first person stories–when they’re good, they’re brilliant–I tend to read more third person. I’ve written first person stories, but I lean towards third person. But I’ve also learned over the years to control this so it’s a limited third person–I’m not dragging the reader into everybody’s heads.

There are also a few tricks to smooth viewpoint transition.

1 – Use proper names, not pronouns. He/she (or even worse, he/he) tends to put the reader deeper into his/her point of view. By moving out to a proper name, you’re moving the viewpoint out (like a camera would move out), which helps smooth the transition.

2 – Use action to hand off the POV switch. As in: Helen dropped the book. John caught it and handed it back. Notice how the action again moves the reader out of thought and into “seeing” a scene, so the action allows a change of POV by also helping move the POV out a little, into the room before dipping back into someone’s thoughts.

3 – Use clean sentence and paragraph structure to keep the transition cleaning. You can do anything, even change the point of view in the middle of a sentence. But why risk losing your reader by doing this? Instead, make your transitions clean and clear.

If you use POV right, no one will ever notice it. But oh, if you do it wrong, everyone knows.

Writing the Regency Novel

I’m giving a workshop at the RWA National Conference this July (just got the times and it’s Friday at 4:30 – 5:30, so early enough to enjoy dinner Friday). And part of what I’ll cover is why set your fiction in the Regency era?

For all that it covers an amazingly short time span (1811 to 1820) the English Regency has a remarkable allure.  Mystery writers, including the great John Dixon Carr, have chosen this era for a setting, and the Napoleonic wars offer the setting for the popular Sharp series by Bernard Cornwell and the Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian’s. In Romance writing, the Regency is perhaps the most popular historical time period, and has launched many now best selling authors. But why should such a short time span–nine years really, although the Regency influence extends over perhaps thirty years–prove so magnetic?

Answering that question could be the target of a scholarly book, but space is limited–and time fleeting–so perhaps the best course is to emulate the Regency in brevity, as well as in style, and carry things off with a high hand. Of all time periods, the allure of the Regency might well be that it was a time when style triumphed. The era sparkles with wit, gallantry and elegance in fashion, furnishings and frivolity. It was an era in which a man with no background–Beau Brummell–could become the leader of male society just because of his style and wit. At the same time, Turner was painting and shocking the world with his art, while Byron was writing and shocking society with his life. Charles Fox was being brilliant in politics, and shocking just about anyone who met him. And Sheridan was writing plays that still amuse with their wit.

It was a brilliant era. And an era of the extremes of rich and poor, and yet it was an era in which if you were good at something, you could gain fame and fortune. The prizefighter John Jackson (1769-1845) won fame with his fists, but went on make his real fortune by teaching boxing lessons to the cream of society. For a gentleman to say he got the chance to spare with Jackson was considered a social coup. The status given Jackson makes him perhaps a forerunner of the modern sports superstars. In fact, the Regency could be said to be a time when much of our modern sensibility of admiring skill–rather than inherited status–seemed to take hold.

A full answer to the appeal of the Regency era, however, must look at not just the actual time period itself, it must take into account the fiction and films which have so greatly shaped our impressions.

All this and some details of the history that you have to get right (and what can you fuss with or make up) will be covered in the workshop. But it’s worth noting that the Regency’s reflections to our era cannot be overlooked: change, uncertainty, but still the need for daily routine, and the relief of pleasure. The royal scandals filled newspapers with sympathy for the Princess of Wales, and this left the Prince unhappy about this. There were opportunities for those with vision, and at the same time great risk for those so unwise as to invest in the wrong future.  All of these qualities resonate with us. However, the Regency is blessedly in the past.  It is a world slipped into the past and therefore one with a safely known future.  Somehow these people who lived then found a way to happiness, to prosperity, to joy, to survival.  And what more comforting message can a reader find?