Friday, May 27, 2016

The Faces of Wolves

I've long admired Jennifer Freitag's knack for creating beautiful photo collages to inspire her works-in-progress. So the other day, to assist in whipping up my enthusiasm for getting back to work on The Mountain of the Wolf, I thought I'd try my hand at it:

I used the Fotor online collage maker, which was a snap once I got the hang of it. Graphic arts not being one of my strong points, it did take me quite a little time and frustration before I figured out which pictures went best together and how to proportion them most effectively—but I liked the finished result so much that now I'd rather like to try it for some of my other stories!

(To see more visual inspiration for The Mountain of the Wolf, visit the Pinterest board.)

Next week: summer reading list!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Snoopy Begins a Novel

You know who is really an expert on the writing life? Snoopy. Apparently he's been writing a novel for years, and he knows all about the ups and downs of the process. His writing adventures are legion, but here (courtesy of the Twitter account The UnNovelist) is a series of them in which Snoopy tries to get his plot off the ground...with about as much success as most of us usually have.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Weekend Odds and Ends #28

Lots of links this week!
  • I have been really growing to enjoy Anthony Trollope's books—I'm two books into his Chronicles of Barsetshire series—so I was delighted to discover that there's a new three-part adaptation of his Doctor Thorne (the third in the series) out this year, which looks quite promising! It's coming to Amazon Prime on May 20th, and in the meanwhile, here's a review at Finding Wonderland. I'd best get reading the book!

  • A good piece at Becoming Minimalist: Accomplish More with a 3-Item To-Do List. This is a wonderfully common-sense approach to a to-do list, which makes perfect sense to me.

  • From a back-issue of the National Archives' magazine Prologue, the unfortunate story of the 1890 U.S. Census—destroyed in a fire and much regretted by historical researchers, including amateur genealogists like myself!

  • I appreciated this article from Writer Unboxed on How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as a Writer. A message I needed to hear, as it's something I often wrestle with.

  • The May issue of the Texas Homeschool Coalition's magazine, the Review, includes a piece by Homeschooled Authors blog founder Sarah Holman spotlighting 30 "beach reads" by homeschooled authors, and my The Ranch Next Door and Other Stories is among those featured!

  • Here's an interesting interview at Bas Bleu's Bluestocking Salon blog with Molly Guptill Manning, author of When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, a book that's on my to-read list for this year.

  • And finally, a neat list of the 10 Most Magnificent Castles in the U.S.—including one that helped provide some inspiration for Lost Lake House—from Architectural Digest. (And one they missed: Colorado's Glen Eyrie Castle.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Why Genealogy is Good For Historical Fiction Writers

My interest in putting together my family tree has always stemmed from my fascination with history. Answering the questions of Where were my ancestors at this point in history? What were they doing, and how did they live? forges a link between us and the past, a curiously immediate and emotional link—it's a different feeling than one gets from merely reading and studying history from the foreign vantage-point of the twenty-first century.

On the other hand, the more I dig and discover, the more my writer's imagination feeds off the little scraps of information I piece together. My amateur-level genealogical research has already led from hazy possible beginnings among the Normans of William the Conqueror's time, to the early colonial settlements of Massachusetts; from brick row houses in Dublin to textile mills in New York; from farms in Vermont and Minnesota to a boarding-house in California; through orphanages and Army barracks, through Castle Garden and Ellis Island—from Constantinople to Marseilles to Bremen to Texas. The mere listing of individuals' professions on census records are myriad little sparks of the imagination, begging to be blown into the flame of a story someday. Farmer. Laborer. Sawmill worker. Woolen mill foreman. Teamster. Chauffeur. Mechanic. Domestic servant. Schoolteacher. Housekeeper. Photographer. Railroad fireman. Clerk. Carpenter. Tailor. Café owner.

The answers to who and what my ancestors were create another set of questions: What did this place look like when they lived here? What kind of a living did a man in that profession make; what kind of clothes did his family wear? How and where did the paths of this couple first cross? The figure of an ancestor in the foreground makes me want to learn more about the background...and to resurrect all those forgotten stories in imagined stories of my own.

Of course, there's even more prosaic ways that researching genealogy can inspire a historical fiction writer. Character naming, for instance. If you ever run dry when trying to name characters, just take a look over a census for the time and place you're writing about—or even just look at the names in your own family tree. To give you a slight idea of what a fruitful resource this can be, here's just a sampling of women's names that I've seen, as either first or middle names, among my own ancestors and their relations:

Agnes - Almira - Amelia - Amy - Anna - Aurora - Belle - Bertha - Bessie - Beulah - Blanche - Bridget - Calista - Catherine - Della - Eileen - Elizabeth - Ella - Emily - Emma - Essie - Estella - Ethel - Etta - Fidelia - Frances - Grace - Harriet - Hazel - Honora - Ida - Irene - Jane - Jemima - Jennie - Jerusha - Josephine - Julia - Julietta - Laura - Lela - Lena - Louise - Lucinda - Lucy - Luna - Margaret - Mariah - Marion - Mary - Maud - May - Myrtle - Ora - Phoebe - Rebecca - Ruth - Sarah - Sophronia - Susan - Susanna - Teresa - Ursula - Valeria

You could write a dozen novels and not exhaust that list.

When it comes to colonial and early America, the names can be particularly unique and entertaining. One New England ancestor of mine, name of Manassa Sprague, had brothers named Hiram and Cyrenius, and another rejoicing in the full name of Governor Galusha Sprague. Another ancestor had a brother named Independence, while some of the more interesting women's names I've spotted included Alpha and Czarina. How a woman born in New Hampshire around 1800 (Independence's sister, by the way) was given a name that is Russian for "empress" is a curious question in and of itself.

Irish names, on the other hand, present a challenge to the researcher in that they're all the same. If you're looking for an ancestor named William or Edward, chances are there'll be at least five Williams or Edwards sharing his surname in any given city.

Historical fiction writers, have you explored your family history? How has it influenced your writing?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Inside an Ebook

In case you ever wondered, this is what the inner workings of one my ebooks looks like.

The HTML method, which you see here, is basically similar to the coding behind a webpage. If you use Blogger, click the "HTML" tab in the post editor after you've written a post and you'll see the code that formats your posts to appear the way they do. (Actually, I often click into that tab and use HTML to get the formatting I want in my posts these days, since Blogger's image insertion, etc. is frequently glitchy.) Or—and I'll bet you didn't know you could do this—in your web browser, open any site, then go to "View" in the menu bar and click "Source." Your browser should show you a wholly unintelligible (to most of us) page of much more complicated code than that which goes into one of my ebooks, which is the source code for the webpage.

I love this method for my ebook formatting because you have complete control over the ebook's ultimate appearance. Just putting a word-processor document through conversion software often means that invisible formatting in the document can come out as errors in the finished ebook—you wouldn't believe (or if you know Microsoft Word maybe you would) how many odd, unwitting bits of text formatting you can get into your .doc while you type without your even knowing you did it. But with HTML, you can specify exactly how you want your paragraphs indented and spaced, how big you want your chapter headings and where to position them; you can ensure that punctuation marks and special characters like "é" or "ç" are rendered properly instead of showing up as a box or a hieroglyphic (I'm sure you've seen this happen in ebooks); and know that all of this will display properly on whatever kind of e-reader it's loaded onto.

I kind of have fun with this. No, I do have fun with this. It's kind of ironic, considering that I've never regarded myself as a tech person.

Need an ebook formatted? I can do it for you! Check out my formatting info page right here.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Western Short Fiction: A Cross-Section

It's been a while since I've talked about Western fiction on here, and I decided it was time to do something about that. Today I'd like to share some short story collections by Western authors who've influenced much of what I've written in the genre so far.

Why did I begin by writing short stories myself? Well, probably because I thought the mindset of years back still prevailed—the years when hundreds of all-fiction magazines were the proving-ground for young authors. You started with short stories, got your name in front of the public, and then you graduated to novels. Also, at the time I got into indie publishing there was a lot of excited talk about short fiction undergoing a revival in the digital age because of convenience and short attention spans (although now many people are agreeing that the e-short renaissance never really materialized as much as they thought it would). Anyway, I began by writing short stories and I don't regret it, because the work I put into them was so much honing of my writing skills.

When it comes to the Western genre, I think I've probably read equal amounts of novels and short fiction. But many of my favorite Western authors made their mark during that heyday of magazine fiction, and so about half the books on my list of top favorite Westerns are short story collections. Here are three of the best:

Heart of the West by O. Henry

Though perhaps best-known for his New York City stories, O. Henry spent a significant amount of his life in Texas and wrote around forty Western stories altogether. Only a baker's dozen of them are collected in one all-Western volume, Heart of the West; the rest are scattered throughout his other collections. If you've got his Complete Works on your shelf like I do, you're all set—but otherwise, Heart of the West is a good place to begin. When I talk about O. Henry's Westerns here, though, I'm referring to his whole body of work. To get an idea of the variety of tone and subject, compare just a small sampling: "Madame Bo-Peep, of the Ranches," a lyrical, almost-novelette-length ranch romance; "The Roads We Take," a brief tale of outlaws with a twist ending that packs a sharp punch; "The Pimienta Pancakes," a pure comedic cow-camp delight; "Art and the Bronco," a wry combination of frontier legend with politics and publicity; and "Friends in San Rosario," in which we are shown a small Texas town in which the early pioneers have settled down into leading citizens. All these, and more, show the same wit, wordplay and eye for colorful detail as the most famous of Henry's stories, applied to the landscape of the turn-of-the-century West.

The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

I've long been meaning to re-read this volume from cover to cover and try to write a good review. I can't 100% recommend every single story in it, but most of them are excellent. I've never read another author who can sketch character and setting and describe action in so few words. Leonard's territory is the Southwest—there's even a map at the beginning displaying the area in which most or all of the stories are set—a desert landscape of Army posts and Apache reservations, abandoned silver mines and adobe villages. Often the stories build high suspense, from the well-known "3:10 to Yuma" to the highly creative "Under the Friar's Ledge." Many of them—and I'd say this is a defining feature of the collection—take a familiar Western scenario, such as the pursuit of bank robbers by a posse in "Blood Money" or cattle thieving in "The Rustlers," and lift it to another level through a keen focus on the interplay between characters.

The Hanging Tree by Dorothy M. Johnson

I've always hated the idea of a divide between "westerns" and "serious historical fiction," but the best way I can think of to describe Dorothy Johnson's writing is that it bridges that gap completely. Her characters and her stories are complex and the outcome often bittersweet, and in reading them one glimpses the scope of the whole West against whose backdrop they are set. Each story in the collection is equally well-crafted and will stick in your memory, but my favorites are the poignant "The Gift by the Wagon," the title novella "The Hanging Tree," and the rare dash of humor in "I Woke Up Wicked," a tongue-in-cheek tale of a cowboy who "accidentally" joins an outlaw gang.

What is it that these three very different authors have in common? I've thought about it, and noticed three things.

  • One: good writing. I don't need to elaborate on this; read any of them and you'll see that for yourself. Each author's style is different, but their command of the English language is uniformly excellent.

  • Two: unexpectedness. We all know about O. Henry's famed twist endings, but one thing that I noticed and appreciated about both Leonard's and Johnson's stories was that in very few could I make a guess at how they would end. As I've said before, I don't think you have to avoid the tropes of the Western genre to achieve originality or unexpectedness; I think the key lies in filling those situations with well-developed, complex human characters, who will make the reader question what they're going to do next.

  • Three: variety. All three of these writers successfully mined the wide, colorful panoply of characters and situations the American West has to offer. Pile all three of their works together and survey the casts of characters and you will see what I mean: men, women and children; black, white, Mexican and Indian; miners, soldiers, settlers, sheep ranchers, cooks, storekeepers, schoolteachers, politicians, doctors, bankers, plus plenty of appearances by the three essential figures of lawman, outlaw and cowboy.

Have you read any of these stories? Which were your favorites, and why?

Monday, May 9, 2016

Three On Research

As I feel my way through my first serious attempt at researching a historical novel, it's been a happy coincidence that during the past month several other writers whose blogs I often enjoy have shared their perspective on that very topic. If any of you are in the same boat as I am (you see this project means I have nautical terms on the brain), I'm sure you'll find as much to appreciate in these posts as I did.

  • Novel Research: 12 Ways to Ace Your Book by K.M. Weiland. A good step-by-step overview of the process, which also touches on how to create an authentic feel for your story without over-stressing about every last detail.

  • Video Blog | Historical Fiction Research by Emily Ann Putzke. In this entertaining vlog, Emily shares some of the research methods that have worked best for her—I like the ideas of finding one good primary source to work from, and of alternating periods of research and writing.

  • All Your Research Questions Answered by Suzannah Rowntree. Suzannah is working on a massive historical epic set during the Crusades, so her excellent commentary on various aspects of the research process is not just tremendously helpful, but makes me feel a whole lot more confident about grasping the relatively smaller historical focus of my project. If she can do it, so can I!

Also, I don't think I've mentioned this before. If any of you can offer some good suggestions for reading material on the topics I'm researching, please do send them my way! I'd like to find some good books on the daily life of average Americans on the home front during World War II. Anything relating to destroyer escorts, particularly in the Pacific Theatre; and books about the Leyte Gulf campaign of late 1944 (the naval aspect). I also need a little background about the U.S. Naval Academy in the years immediately before the war, and haven't had much luck finding that online. If you've read anything good on these topics, let me know!

Monday, May 2, 2016

April Cloudburst

On the last weekday of April, I needed 200 words to reach my Camp NaNo goal. My original plan was to just write a few paragraphs and get those 200, and leave the last 5,000 or so that I figured were left to the story to be finished at my leisure. So I sat down to write...and I couldn't exactly stop at the end of the page because I was just getting into the thick of a scene...and so I kept going...and kept going...

In the end, I kept writing madly until I was almost literally dragged away from my notebooks to make meatballs for supper...and then went back and wrote some more  while the meatballs cooked until I was once more dragged away to eat them. My total for the day ended up being around 3,500 words, and left me with only one chapter more to write in the whole story. I wrote that last chapter today, and so the first draft of The Mountain of the Wolf is done.

It was certainly a nice way to end this challenge, because I haven't had a wholly-engrossed, can't-stop-writing day like that in a long time. I dug my way slowly through this first draft at a few hundred words a day, and in a way I'm relieved to be done with it. Now I have a commitment-free month ahead of me in which to take deep breaths, do a bit of editing on minor projects, and find time for non-writing hobbies like baking or painting that kept getting pushed aside because Camp NaNo took the best hours of the day.

It's also encouraging—and a little surprising—to realize that I've accomplished two of my writing goals for the year, and made a start on the other two open-ended ones. At less than halfway through the year, it's a nice place to be.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Weekend Odds and Ends #27

  • Here's your laugh for the day: hilarious grammar mistakes in vintage want-ads.

  • Over at the (newly-made-over!) Penslayer blog, Jenny Freitag has been turning out inspirational posts at the rate of a mile a minute, and these two are my favorites: how to be more efficient while working from home, and some tips on how to show love to your favorite blogs (one of which I am adopting, as you see).

  • This fascinating post at Stars and Letters was part of the Beyond the Cover blogathon that I participated in earlier this month—letters by the art directors of To Kill A Mockingbird about a trip to Monroeville, Alabama to gather local color for the film's design, assisted by Harper Lee herself. It's easy to see why the film turned out so well. (I was also interested by mention of the interior of Mrs. Dubose's house—I wonder if early drafts of the script included her subplot?)

  • A real-life Lassie-come-home: a sweet story about a sheepdog who left his new English home and traveled 240 miles back to his original owners in Wales.

  • This is pretty neat. Eighteen albums of sheet music hand-copied by Jane Austen and her family members have been digitized, and are now available on Internet Archive. (HT: Austin Kleon)

  • For Marguerite Henry fans—did you know that nowadays you can camp on Assateague Island, right in the midst of the wild ponies? I didn't, until yesterday!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Research Diaries, Part II

If I were writing down a set of guidelines for research based on my own experience, a phrase appropriately couched in 1940s slang would likely head the list: "Get the dope from somebody who was there."

Honestly, personal accounts are the best. That's not saying that a well-informed, well-written piece of historical nonfiction isn't excellent, because it often is—and depending on your subject, sometimes that's the only resource available. But if you want to capture the feeling and spirit of a time period, and understand the way people thought and how they reacted to the historical events you're studying, a good memoir, journal or collection of letters is golden.

On the other hand, a not-so-pleasant conclusion I've recently arrived at—and this isn't just my predilection for old books, but a clearly discernible fact—is that there's a notable drop-off in the quality of grammar, punctuation usage and general writing style in nonfiction books published within the last decade or so. Several times recently, when reading for pleasure or for research, I experienced for the first time in my life the impulse to send a volume sailing in a graceful curve across the room (for reasons grammatical and otherwise). They were library books, however, so I refrained. I did send one of them back with pencil notes in the margin—also a first. I've always felt grateful to those knowledgeable prior readers who make discreet penciled corrections to the model of a plane or the caliber of a weapon, and I felt rather as if I were paying back a debt to them.

On the brighter side—at least it's the brighter side in my opinion; those who have to live with me might think differently—when you do find an excellent research book that is packed with just the sort of details you're looking for, it has the effect of leaving you feeling like you're ready to burst. For weeks I have longed for someone on whom to unleash a torrent of detail about destroyer escorts' size, weaponry, maneuverability, training, and primary uses, along with tales of particular ships' exploits—probably very little of which will actually make it into the pages of my novel, but is still good to know (and tremendously interesting). For the most part I swallow my enthusiasm, not wanting to bore anybody. But I'm still looking for a chance to corner someone and fix them with a glittering eye, like the Ancient Mariner, and tell them all about how the USS England sank six submarines in twelve days or how the USS Samuel B. Roberts made four knots over her maximum speed in the Battle off Samar.

Getting back to essentials, probably the single most vital passage I've come across so far in actual relation to my planned novel is this one relating to the censorship of a ship's outgoing mail:

...Each envelope, after being sealed, was stamped with a small circle in which was inscribed "Passed by Naval Censor," then it was initialed by the censoring officer. The officers stamped and initialed each other's mail unread, on the principle that those who were charged with enforcing the regulations would neither violate them nor jeopardize a fellow officer whose initials attested to his confidence in one's own integrity. That may well have been a violation of the rules, but that was the way it was. There was room, also, even in wartime, for exceptions based on judgement, trust, responsibility and integrity. The same courtesy the officers extended to each other was extended in special cases to solid, responsible individuals in the crew. After a thorough explanation of what could and could not be said, I certified, unread, the personal correspondence of [several men under the author's command]. Other officers did the same for men they knew could be trusted, and whose privacy they felt it unnecessary to violate. (Edward P. Stafford, Little Ship, Big War: The Saga of DE-343)

The issue of mail censorship was one thing that worried me about writing an epistolary novel. Should I just write the letters in full, and make-believe that they reached their recipient that way—or should I try to imitate the appearance of a censored letter by blanking out words and phrases? The above paragraph was an illumination and a weight off my mind: as my male protagonist is an officer, censorship thus becomes a non-issue. (It rang a bell of accuracy, too: I recalled once reading a mention of a sailor who sent letters home uncensored because of an understanding with a superior officer, and this explained the practice.) All I need to do now is find the official censorship guidelines for wartime letters, so I know what he would and would not be able to write.

The journey continues...

The Research Diaries, Part I
image: postwar photo of USS Rombach (DE-364) from Wikimedia.

Friday, April 22, 2016

April Snippets

At one point I cherished fond hopes of being able to raise my Camp NaNo goal from 20K to 25K words, but things didn't quite work out that way. As matters stand now I think I'll probably come in under the wire just in time with my original goal and be satisfied with that. The past week hasn't been exactly easy. I'll tell you, if it wasn't for Camp NaNo keeping me up to the mark I might have knuckled under and put my notebooks away for a while by this point...but seeing as it is Camp NaNo, I forge on. Anyway, here's a few snippets of The Mountain of the Wolf from all throughout the month, mostly from the early scene-setting part of the story:

Quincy got up and went to the door and opened it. A rim of pale light still rested round the horizon, and above it, a single glimmering star hung straight over the canyon. All else was blue-black. The silence was enormous, as if the vastness of the uninhabited mountains expanded after dark.

Asked in that honest way, it sounded like such a small be a little lonesome. Rosa Jean would have given a good deal not to answer the question, but she did not feel like being rude this morning—not to someone who had treated her better than most.

There was no answer, and [Charlie] slid his elbows off the fence and moved closer—edging round outside a certain radius from the door, however, for he had met a pan of dishwater in the face before, and he could not be entirely certain it had been by accident.

As they neared the herd one or two mares' heads went up, nostrils flaring to snuff suspiciously—one of them stamped a hoof, but still they did not move. Then suddenly a trumpeting whinny rang from the canyon walls and a dark streak of a stallion plunged from the brush where he had been keeping lookout, diving between the mustangers and the herd.

Quincy turned and looked down at him, and somehow the sharp blue slice of his glance robbed Charlie of any further desire to be facetious. "Mind your own business," he said.