Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The What and The How

I've decided to go back to school.

Well, it's a sort of do-it-yourself course. I'm working my way through WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass. Not that I think it'll mean sudden bestseller-dom, but because I've been a long time away from the computer, and I think I could use a "refresher course".

Maass is very good at telling you what makes a bestseller, although it eventually seems that it's more quotes from novels than actual concrete information. The reviewer on Amazon who mentions "valuable nuggets of advice" is right. However, the exercises are interesting and will, I'm fairly sure, prove to be valuable.

I did find one instance where it was easy to suggest a way to improve a story (more tension!) but no really clear direction on how to do it. For that, I went to my bookcase and pulled out BEYOND STYLE by Gary Provost. There I found not just the "what to do" but "how to do it."

So often an agent, or reviewer, or reader can say what needs to be done to improve a story, but it can take a writer to really tell you how to do it.

I've finished the Maass book, although not all the exercises because I need to write more of the actual novel first. Today, I start going through what I've already written. I suspect much of it is going to wind up "on the cutting room floor." That won't be the first time I've had to toss a lot to wind up with some valuable nuggets of my own.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Research: the hunt for more than facts

Many times I've heard people they wouldn't want to write a historical romance because of all the research. I gather they envision historical authors in the dim recesses of a library, or hunched over the computer, looking up obscure information like how to make medieval beer or the names of the parts of the inner workings of a mill just to be able to shoehorn that information into a story. And possibly because they don't have a life.

Well, yes, we generally do have a life. And I don't research just for the bare facts. I'm hunting potential plot complications, things that are going to cause trouble, tension and drama for my characters. And ways to make to my setting more vivid. And ways to make my character seem more real, more human, and "of their time".

For instance, I learned about medieval beer because I wanted a medieval heroine who was unusual for both the time and readers. So I made Mair, the heroine of A WARRIOR'S KISS an alewife, a self-employed brewer of beer. Not exactly a modern occupation, so right away she's of a different time. Instant complication ensued because the hero is a knight, so definitely of a different rank. The brewery made for an unusual and hopefully interesting setting. I found appropriate terms so readers would believe she knew what she was doing.

Here's how I used some of that research (slightly abridged):

"Mair...added more wood to the fire in the hearth of the small house...within the encircling walls of the brewery bequeathed to her by her father.
Other buildings thus enclosed included the malt house, the brewery proper, the storehouse and the stable where she kept her horse and wagon. Her business was a prosperous one, because she was very good at her work. And because it was so prosperous, Mair was beholden to no one, and dependent on no man, and she liked it that way."

Notice I don't stop to explain what a "malt house" is (boring and not necessary here). Notice I don't go into any details here about her father's death. It's implied that her father taught her how to make beer; I don't need to say so. The mention of the horse and wagon, as well as the implied size of her brewery, backs up the assertion that her business is prosperous, and so it becomes believable that she can be an independent woman in a medieval town.

Now, some people will say much of this is "telling, not showing." Yep. That's the way I roll sometimes. I didn't want to have a whole scene of, say, people talking about Mair and how good her beer is and what an independent woman she is, although one could certainly do that. And it might be better. But by doing it this way, I can keep the focus strictly on Mair, and not the people talking about her.

To use another example, the mill:
Once you learn the importance of the mill to a medieval town, you know a destroyed mill can be a major complication, and it's destruction can make for a dramatic scene. Such an incident became a key plot point in THE UNWILLING BRIDE.

"When the timbers were well ablaze, the wind picked up more sparks and sent them spinning in the air toward the mill and the sluice channeling the water from the leat to the wheel. The great wooden wheel itself and the main shaft of white oak were too wet to catch fire, but cinders blew into the wheel pit. There fire found more to feed on - tallow around the lantern gear, and the dry wood of the inner shaft and spindle.
Like capering children the flames raced up the spindle to the rap, the shoe and the hopper, onward to the floor above. The millstone casing caught fire. And the garners storing the grain to be ground. Eventually the entire inner workings of the mill, the beams and the floors were all aflame."

Again, I don't stop to explain what some of these things are, although it took me the better part of an afternoon to finally find the names for the interior working parts of a mill, like "spindle". So why do that research? Why bother? All the reader really needs to know is that the inside of the mill is burning. I bother because by using the proper terms, by showing how the fire spread, I hope to make the scene more dramatic and vivid and real. This fire isn't consuming some sort of movie set, but a building made of individual parts.

A scene like that then allows me to have a bit like this, describing the hero who's been helping fight the fire:

"He stood near the huge millstones that had fallen to the ground and cracked in two. His hands on his hips, he was black with soot from head to toe, his chest and arms and face streaked where the sweat had run down in rivulets.
He looked the way Vulcan might have, before he'd been thrown from Olympus - a powerful, dark god, and one burning with a righteous wrath she shared."

What have I got here? Well, we know the mill's in really bad shape from those cracked stones. We know the hero was very much involved in the physical activity of fighting the fire. We know he looks like a Greek god (hubba), and that he's furious - this is a man of powerful emotions. And we know that at this moment, the hero and heroine are in the same emotional place - a link in their relationship has been forged by this fire. (And lest you think I'm that much of an intellectual writer or one who plans these things out, I just got that notion of the link in their relationship forged by fire RIGHT NOW. The things one's subconscious does....)

So you see, I'm not doing all the research just for the bare facts. I'm hunting for ways to make my characters and my settings more vivid, more interesting, more dramatic. And when I find 'em? Oh baby, that's exciting!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Back To Basics

During this past spring and summer of much work and excitement (including the recent discovery that the pipe to our house from the water main had become disconnected - hey, at least we didn't have to pay for that repair!), I have actually found myself saying, "I don't know how I ever found the time to write."

Well, summer is over and the cooler air has arrived - and hopefully less maintenance and no minor, time-sucking catastrophes.

More importantly, I finally feel ready to get back to writing after my long spring/summer break. Believe me, it's been a little weird not writing for several weeks after twenty years as a professional writer, but I needed the break for many reasons, so I have no regrets.

I do need to prime the pump, though, so I've decided to do some writing exercises with an eye to revising a project I was working on before my hiatus. Some exercises I'm doing are listed on my website here and some are from Donald Maass's Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook.

So far, I'm enjoying them and discovering lots of things to add and change and fix in my work-in-progress. Yeah!

Now if only I can lose the five pounds I put on eating too much junk, as well....

Thursday, September 08, 2011

He's baaaack....

Turns out I spoke prematurely. Shawshank is back, with a new bigger, better tunnel. Time to try the bright lights, to see if that makes him relocate.

And in other news, we apparently have a break in the join from the water main to our water line. Many guys, trucks, etc. out front as it gets fixed. Then we have to drain our water heater in case there's sand in it.

Not a good day to concentrate on anything except what's going on with the water pipes.

At least we have electricity. For now. Apparently thunderstorms are forecast for later today. This could be one doozy of a day.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Where have I been?

Egad, has it really been over a month since I last wrote a blog post? What the devil have I been up?

Well, not writing, I must confess. I've been busy with home and cottage maintenance and renovations.

After the Night of the Bat - when I discovered a bat flying around inside the cottage, much to my dismay - the fixing of the chimney moved up the List of Renovation Priority. There's a picture of the scaffold. You can also see the overgrown wisteria on the trellis on the deck, above the Giant Hosta. I spent hours cutting that wisteria back this summer, and some ivy, too.

We had already arranged to have work done on the foundation. One of the supports was rotting, and it was a little shaky in another. There's a few dollars, let me tell ya, but after watching all those home renovation shows, I've learned structure is too important to ignore.

Those workmen discovered a leaking pipe, so that meant a call to the plumber, as well. Who knows how long it might have been had they not? We have now instigated a "Check the Crawl Space At Least Twice a Year" policy.

New heating and cooling vents were added upstairs. Unfortunately, one of the workmen put his foot where he shouldn't, so I had some ceiling paint touch-ups added to the list.

I had some other paint touch-ups outside as well, on the railing of the sliding Door to Nowhere (that's it beside the chimney on the second floor). That was a treat (not). As those of you with bi-focals can attest, when working at something above eye level, you have to lean your head back to see up close. This is not fun to do when one is on the highest step of a step-ladder.

I've also had to clean up the back garden at the cottage, which got left until this week because of the many mosquitoes in residence.

Back in the city for a week, I had to deal with the back garden there, which meant a lot of pruning. Oh, and they tore up our street for repaving, which meant removing and replacing our driveway paving stones. That wasn't done quite properly, necessitating a call to the city and an inspector's visit.

I've also been keeping track of Shawshank, the skunk living under our shed. Or at least something was, and we're assuming, based on the evidence of our nostrils, that it was a skunk. Last time I put a wee barrier of twigs and leaves (easily moved) over the hole, it was undisturbed. On the other hand, the folks next door - my folks, in fact - have been having incursions under their shed, so I fear Shawshank (and/or children of Shawshank) may simply have moved next door.

As you can see, despite my efforts, the skunk burrowed beneath the shed. Hence the name "Shawshank."

Has it been all work and no play here in the Land That Time Forgot? No. I've been doing lots of reading and I now have an awesome sea glass collection, thanks to many walks along the beach.

What does one do with all that? At a local arts fair, an artist had made mosaics from sea glass. I have the materials here, including frame, but haven't found the time to get to that. Just like my manuscript.

However, now that the cooler weather is here and once my garden is finally cleaned up, I'll be getting back to writing.

Or at least, that's the plan.

Or maybe I'll wind up taking a little bit of a break from gardening, etc. and have a nap.