Writing Distractions, Writing Subtractions … and (hopefully!) Blog Reader Participation

Sometimes, I think I’m optimized to be a writer.

Not that I believe there’s some magical blueprint out there on How To Build an Ideal Writer (“follow these steps ten easy steps and water twice a day”), nor do I believe that an ideal writer is made in only one way, for the world is full of writers, and all of them possess their own particular way of doing what they do best.

Yet, I definitely believe that certain aspects of my personality, temperament, and behaviour contribute positively to my writing endeavours, at least the way I endeavour to do so:

  • I have a very long attention span
  • I can physically sit still for long periods of time
  • My brain naturally amuses itself by telling stories
  • I’m an unrepentant daydreamer
  • I’m curious about people’s inner lives
  • I have a strong vocabulary
  • I believe the best way to explain something is through a story
  • I’m all about delayed gratification

Continue reading

Me, Myself & iPhone

Is your smartphone usage stifling your creativity?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll admit right here that I’m a reluctant import into the world of Web 2.0 – not exactly a Luddite, but no early adopter either, not since Gmail first launched and you needed to be invited by an existing user to join.

I’m not on Facebook, I’m terrible at texting, the predominant activity I perform with my phone is talking on it, and I don’t own a smartphone (or rather, don’t own the corresponding data plan required to boost my phone’s intelligence quotient) because

a)  I don’t want to pay for it, and

b)  I couldn’t conceivably fit any more computing time into my day

Continue reading

The Gift of Boredom

The Fourth Rule of Engagement

We’ve all been there.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing an essay for school, a “Dear John” letter to your soon-to-be ex-boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/roommate from Hell, a letter of resignation, a last will and testament, or a manuscript that will someday outsell Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, and the Bible combined.

At some point in the writing process, you find yourself a little bit stuck and unsure of what to write next.  You find that you need a bit of a break – just a short one – to give your brain a chance to catch its breath from all the mental calisthenics it’s been performing.  And so you click open your web browser, intent on just a quick peek at what’s been happening on the Web while you were busy spinning words into gold.

And then…

And then….

Continue reading

Building a History – finale: Pages From Your Personal History

All fiction writing is historical fiction, even when it’s not….

Over the course of trying to learn how to be an effective writer, I’ve read numerous books, articles, and blog posts on all things to do with writing.

I continue to read blogs on writing to this day.  The majority of my study of nuts-and-bolts writing craft, however, occurred between the pages of this or the other book, and between 2001 and 2004, when I was first starting to take myself and my desire to produce publishable material seriously.

The years that followed afforded me numerous opportunities to really think about, internalize, and practice the various techniques I’d read about in the past.

They also caused me to often forget which books yielded which specific writing tips and ideas about the writing life.

One notion in particular for which I clearly remember the content yet not the source is the idea that whatever novel you’re currently working on is, in truth, the novel of your past.

Continue reading

Building a History – Redux: Where the Streets Have No Name

(A/N: Post title is a play on the song Building a Mystery by Sarah McLachlan and taken from the song Where the Streets Have No Name by U2.)

I am a victim of my own writing predilections, and also a beneficiary of them.

I write historical fiction, but at my core, I treasure the freedom to make and break the rules of the factual and natural world offered by the fantasy genre.

I love learning and writing about how people lived in the distant past, but am less intrigued by stories of real personages out of history, who tend to from the upper classes of society, and instead prefer the historical equivalents to people more like myself.

I’m dedicated to creating a strong sense of place for the reader, for whom distant past settings are likely very alien and divergent from modern life and sensibilities.  Yet not even historians know for 100% certain what in the past was like, thus reference books, Google Maps, and even visiting specific locations in their present-day incarnations can only offer so much insight.

These three writing preferences converge upon a common point, that being the point where there is a gap in recorded history.

I experienced such a gap in my novel-in-progress: in one of the English towns where much of the story takes place, there is no recorded history that I’ve been able to find between the years of 1086 and 1316.  There isn’t conclusive evidence that a castle existed there, but I’ve gone and created one all the same, designing and describing its layout and lifestyle to suit the needs of my story’s plot.

As I mentioned in a previous post within this series, historical fiction and fantasy share a need for detailed world-building, yet differ in that with historical fiction, you have to look all those details up whereas in fantasy, you have to make them all up.

Well, when it comes to places and situations for which there is little recorded history, the historical fiction writer gets to make up stuff as well, thus revealing another meaning to the title of this post series: building a history.

But just how much history does one need to build?

Continue reading

Making a Write Turn (of Phrase)

I have a good friend from Australia.

(I swear, this isn’t the start of a limerick.)

My Aussie friend – let’s call her NR – became a friend having been my roommate here in Vancouver for almost two years.  During those years, we spend a tremendous amount of time together, talking about everything under the sun, singing songs, making jokes, arguing, and telling each other how much we love each other.

Needless to say, I’ve come to know her Aussie accent really well.

I’ve already confessed in a previous post to having a penchant for trying to mimic accents and foreign turns of phrase.  Indeed, NR says that having me around is sometimes like an annoying little echo aping her alternate pronunciations –

  • “AH-mund” (“almond”)
  • “ah-loo-MIN-nium” (“aluminium”)
  • “MAS-sage” (“massage” made to sound really kinky)
  • “Douglas FAAH” (“Douglas Fir” – one of the most common tree types found along the coast of British Columbia)

– not to mention her non-North American expressions, such as “reckon” (to perceive or imagine something), “crook” (ill or unwell), “capsicum” (a bell pepper), and my personal favourite, “rear-vision mirror” (the rear-view mirror in a car, which, when spoken in the typical Aussie cadence actually comes out sounding more like “revision mirror”.)

This is all fun and games for me, and NR as well I’m fairly certain, for it’s practically a national pastime among the Australians to “take the piss out of” (tease or make fun of) friends and likewise be a good sport when others take the piss out of you.

However, beyond mere amusement, my interactions with NR have led to think a lot about dialects in general, and how that effects my writing.  For not only do numerous ones tend to exist within a given language, these dialects also vary across time as well geographical space.

In other words, how do I create effective historical dialogue?

Continue reading

Places That Don’t Exist (Anymore)

(A/N: Post title is a play on the song Places That Don’t Exist by Conjure One.)

Two of the first things people want to know upon learning I’m writing is historical fiction novel is where and when it takes place.

The answers, for the record, is England in the early 1200s, but there’s so much more involved in creating a story setting in any genre than just choosing an era and location on a map.  There’s even more to it than just descriptions of what the building and scenery look like.

In his book Characters & Viewpoint, science fiction author Orson Scott Card refers to the setting of a story as the milieu, which he defines as the following:

The milieu is the world surrounding characters – the landscape, the interior spaces, the surrounding cultures[,] … everything from weather to traffic laws.  [It] includes all the physical locations that are used … with all the sights, smells, and sounds that come with the territory.  The milieu also includes the culture – the customs, laws, social roles and public expectations that limit and illuminate all that a character things and feels and says and does. (pp. 48-49).

Readers love to feel as though they’ve been transported into the world of the story.  A large part of that is achieved by creating an authentic setting.  One thing a writer can do to better capture both the structure and mood of where his/her story takes place is to visit the site in real life.  Reference books and Google Maps, after all, can only take you so far.

I indeed visited that part of England where my novel-in-progress is set, however, my novel-in-progress is historical fiction, which means the locale I toured through last summer is a much different place now than it was eight hundred years ago. The specific era of my story setting is long bygone, and very little in its modern incarnation can be back-cast to the past.

This thus leads me to wonder: when it comes to the task of creating a sense of place out of places that don’t exist anymore, is my job as a historical fiction writer easier or more difficult than that of writers of other genres?

Continue reading

Tell It Like It Was

(A/N: Post title is a play on the song Tell It Like It Is by Tracy Chapman.  I don’t know what it is about this series of topics that lends itself well to making post titles out of modified song titles, but I plan to keep rolling with it as far as it will go.)

Every writer has to conduct some manner of research to inform his/her story.

Even when writing a memoir or a tale otherwise drawn completely from personal experience, I’m willing to bet the writer will need to look up or into something, whether it’s the layout of a city or the history of a particular landmark, or the number one single on Billboard at the time.

In historical fiction, however, the research needs are as astronomical as they are minute.  Not only must one research the plans of cities (that may or may not still exist), you also need to know what the roads were paved with.  Information about a landmark might be coupled with that about what was fed to the slaves that built it.  The names of popular songs might be accompanied (no pun intended) by details on what the stringed instruments of the time period were strung with.

And that’s not all; not by a long shot.

Continue reading

Only in the Past

(A/N: Post title is taken from the song of the same name by The Be Good Tanyas.)

What exactly is historical fiction, anyway?

I’ve been actively writing it for five months now, and thought about writing it for at least two years prior to that.  But it’s only in the past two months that I’ve actually stopped to ponder what historical fiction is really all about as a category of novels.

I have a blogger that I follow to thank for this period of reflection.  Over at the blog entitled On Becoming a Wordsmith, historical fiction writer Elaine Cougler has been generating good discussion on this topic, starting with this post and continuing with this one.

According to Elaine (quoting Wikipedia), at its simplest, historical fiction is defined as follows:

Historical fiction tells a story that is set in the past. That setting is usually real and drawn from history, and often contains actual historical persons, but the main characters tend to be fictional. Writers of stories in this genre, while penning fiction, attempt to capture the manners and social conditions of the persons or time(s) presented in the story, with due attention paid to period detail and fidelity.

From what I gather from the discussion over at Elaine’s blog, the historical fiction genre (and I use the term “genre” very loosely here, as the second post I’ve linked above raises the issue of whether historical fiction is truly a genre at all), can be further divided into two broad subcategories:

a) Stories that contain actual historical personages and historically accurate events.

b) Stories in which the era and location they’re set in is historically accurate, but the characters (and perhaps even the events as well) are fictitious.

Continue reading

Building a History

(A/N: Post title is a play on the song Building a Mystery by Sarah McLachlan.)

I never planned to become a writer of historical fiction.

Cooking and feasting – The Bayeux Tapestry, circa 1070, England

From what I gather from various authorities on the matter, no sane person ever would.

When I first started taking myself seriously as a writer and writing with a view to someday attempt getting my work published, fantasy was my genre of choice.

Fantasy, after all, was the genre unbounded by the rules of the modern world, and even the natural world.  It was the genre in which anything could happen so long as it was properly motivated and followed some manner of internal consistency.

It was the genre in which you could make your own rules.

Continue reading