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Blog Hopping for The Writer’s Process

14 Jul

I’m doing a question and answer session today for The Writer’s Process blog. It is a little introduction to my writing, and those of you who know me may learn something about me you didn’t know before. I would love to read your comments!

What am I working on/writing?
I am currently working on a YA historical fantasy set in England in the early thirteenth century, tentatively titled Magic Words. It centers around the royal treasure that was lost by King John in the Wash, an arm of the North Sea along the coast of England. My main character is a young girl with magical powers whose family may have something to do with the location of the treasure, but of course because of her powers, she is accused of witchcraft and is running for her life. I chose the subject of the lost treasure because it truly is a historical mystery. The treasure was lost in 1216, and no trace of it was ever found, although treasure hunters have certainly looked for it.
I have the rough draft of the story finished, and now I am revising and verifying the historical facts that can be verified. This is the first YA story that I have attempted, and I am quite excited about it.

How does my writing/work differ from others in its genre?
Although Magic Words is my first YA novel, it is similar to my other novels in that three out of the four are set in Britain. The fourth is set on a fictional island in the Caribbean. I get my best story ideas while I am traveling, and setting is very important to me both as a reader and a writer. The story grows out of the setting, and the setting is as much a part of the story as any character.
I write the kind of stories that I like to read, and that usually involves a foreign country and maybe a time set in the past.

Why do I write what I do?
I have been fascinated by British culture and history since I was a small child. When I was five or six years old I had a scrapbook where I pasted photos of the British royal family that I found in newspapers and magazines. I played “princess,” but a real princess, and I learned about the history of the royal family. As I grew older, I continued to follow the royal family, but I also studied British history and read every historical novel set in Britain that I could get my hands on. I taught history at the high school level for several years, and eventually traveled to Britain. I have been there several times now, including spending two weeks in Wales at writing retreats, and I never tire of it.
I was also inspired by the mysteries of Elizabeth George, an American writer who sets her novels in Britain. I admire her attention to detail and knowledge of present day Britain and their criminal justice system.

How does my writing process work?
As I said before, setting is very important to me. I usually start with a character in a scene, in a specific setting. Once I have this germ of a story written down, I think about what I want to happen with the character, and so give myself a direction with the story. I find outlines too rigid, and I don’t stick with them because I come up with other ideas as I write, but I do have a direction in my mind where I want the story to go. I sometimes write sketches of the main characters to flesh them out and learn about their personalities and how they handle situations. I keep track of the characters on a chart or list, because they tend to go off in unexpected directions, or pop up in a scene where I didn’t plan on them appearing.
Once my rough draft is finished, I go back and tighten and clarify the story, add color, and verify facts and historical details. I don’t try to do all my research before I start writing, but it is very important to have historical and geographical details accurate.
Writing the rough draft is the easiest part, because I can just let my imagination flow. I have even worked on rough drafts while walking around the classroom when I was substitute teaching. Revising takes more concentration and focus.

This is how I write. I would love to answer questions or respond to comments.

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Who Loves Lady MacBeth?

23 Jun

 

Writers often create characters who are not likeable, to serve as foils or antagonists for the main characters. These antagonists exhibit qualities in opposition to the main characters in order to create conflict. Readers love an evil character. Think of the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. We love to have someone to cheer against and hope for a demise appropriate to their state of badness.

As a writer, it is fun to create a “bad” character. There is a kind of evil “bitchiness” that comes out in characters who do and say things that I would never do. I have heard the same said by actors who enjoy playing evil roles like Lady MacBeth. There is something very satisfying in the complexity of a negative character. Few people are truly evil, and the “good” people and characters have a little of the dark side hidden away,too.

Then there are some books whose characters are not likeable at all, but that still convey an important theme or idea. The Great Gatsby is one that springs to mind. None of the characters is a nice person, except maybe for Nick Carroway, the narrator, who may have gone on in life to be a good person, but the book contains an important message about materialism and selfishness.

All in all, writers want their readers to either love or hate their characters enough to care about what what happens to them, whether they survive and succeed, die a horrible death, or something in between. That is what makes a story. And even then, sometimes, the “good” don’t come out on top, and the “bad” are not punished enough for our liking. That’s life.

In my latest book, Hotel Saint Clare, I loved writing the character Crystal. While she is not 100% evil, she is a character I loved to hate.

Can you read a book in which the main character is unlikeable? Have you put a book down because you just didn’t like the characters?

A Full English Breakfast with Variations

25 Jan

On the first page of my novel The Gate House, the main character, Nara, bemoans having to prepare a full English breakfast at her aunt’s bed and breakfast. If you have not had the opportunity tuck into one of these artery clogging delights, I will describe it for you.

A full English breakfast consists of thick British back bacon, eggs, sausage, baked beans, tomato, mushrooms and toast. Just so you don’t have the impression that the tomato and mushrooms add a healthy touch to the meal, these are cooked in the frying pan in the grease left from the bacon and sausages, hence another name for these concoction, the fry-up.

There are many regional variations in England itself, before moving on to Scotland and Ireland. Every region has its own sausage and bacon, and chips (French fries) are often included. In the north of England, as well as Scotland, you will likely find a slice of black pudding on your plate. The Irish prefer white pudding (same as black pudding but without the blood), and a slice of thick brown bread. The bread is the best part of the whole deal in my opinion.

In my travels around the British Isles, I have learned to order only a part of an English breakfast, if at all. Scrambled eggs, toast, maybe a sausage. Or eggs, toast, tomato and mushrooms. I first encountered a Scottish breakfast in a bed and breakfast in Lincolnshire. It was the original Gate House, for which my book is named. The proprietor, who was Scottish, prepared the whole meal for us, including the black pudding, which I passed on. By the time I reached Ireland, I had learned to order only portions of the meal, but I do love that brown bread. I also learned that in Ireland, and probably Scotland too, I could order porridge (oatmeal) and clean out my arteries once in a while.

My character Nara, who grew up in the Caribbean, craved the fresh fruits of the islands. She has my tastes.

 

In my

 

Forward to the Past

27 Apr

Writers never throw anything away, or at least they shouldn’t. This week I pulled out an old “almost novel” that I wrote before my first one, The Gate House, was published.

This one, tentatively titled Nara of the Islands, is really the original story of my protagonist who appears in both The Gate House and Lydia’s Story. This book tells of the years just before she and her father moved to England, and her life in the fictional Caribbean island nation of St. Clare.

It is interesting to read something that I wrote almost ten years ago, and to see how my style has changed, and the images of my characters. It is a very different book from the last two in some ways. Although it is somewhat a mystery, there are elements of magic that I let go of in the later books.

I think it is a story that needs to see the light of day, for better or worse. I plan to polish it and at least self-publish on Kindle later this year.

If you are a writer, do you sometimes “resurrect” old pieces to rework them? And readers, what about other types of old projects? Is it fun or frustrating to go back something you worked on in the past?

Reading Outside the Box

26 Oct

I read mostly mysteries and suspense novels, because that is what I write and because I review books for Suspense Magazine. But occasionally I read something outside of those genres. I find that a different type of book and writing style can spark my own writing and stretch my creativity.

Last night I downloaded The Book Thief to my Kindle, as a borrowed book from my library. I have only read a few chapters, but I was struck by the originality of the writing. The first person narrator is Death. He (or she?) tells the story of a young girl, the book thief, who manages to cheat Death more than once.

The story is set in Nazi Germany, so it is clear in what direction this book is headed. But I know that although the story may have been told before, it has not been told in this way.

As a reader or a writer, it is good to move out of the familiar and try something new. I would never have thought of writing from the point of view of Death, but it would be a good writing exercise to write from the point of view of an inanimate object — the cave where the body was found, or the diaries that held the words of Lydia, the main character in my book Lydia’s Story.

As a reader or a writer, what do you do to climb out of the box of familiarity and try something new?

Writing Honest Book Reviews

10 Sep

There is a lot of criticism these days about biased book reviews and writers reviewing each others books in order to post glowing reviews. I write reviews for Suspense Magazine, and I also occasionally read a book by a fellow writer and post the review on Amazon and GoodReads. I never write a negative review. And I have read some books that I did not enjoy at all.

Even if I don’t like a book, there is probably someone out there who will. There is no reason to trash someone hard work. I describe the plot and characters in the novel, and try to place to story in a category. If it is a story of zombie aliens rampaging the countryside, I make that clear. It’s not a story that appeals to me, but it appeals to some readers.

If I really believe some parts of the book are badly written, I may just question those aspects and try to put it in perspective. If a writer uses an expression that is regional, but doesn’t fit the character, I will mention it. If a writer makes a small error, as in a recent example when I reviewed a book in which the “French press was whistling in the kitchen,” my antenna for errors goes up, but I won’t mention it. Everyone makes mistakes.

I  have seen reviews that criticized the use of swear words in a novel, and either too many sex scenes or too few. As a reviewer, I want to be as honest as possible without dwelling on the weaknesses of the book or the author.

As a reader, I want to read reviews that tell me what to expect, but I always take extremely negative reviews (of anything, not just books) with a grain of salt. Long, negative rants just sound like the reviewer had a bad day, or dislikes the book or author for some other reason.

Check out some of my reviews on Amazon or GoodReads and tell me what you think. See if you can tell if I liked or dislike the books.

Where do characters come from?

22 Feb

My characters are frequently based on real people, but as the story develops, they take on a life of their own and bear little more than a superficial resemblance to the person on whom it is based.

In the case of Nara, the main character in The Gate House, she is based on the daughter-in-law of a friend from my days in Costa Rica. Her name is Nara, a unique name, and she is petite with dark hair and grew up in a Caribbean island nation. But that is where the similarity ends.

From that basic description, I created Nara Blake, who lives in the Gate House with her father and aunt, and whose interest in art along with her innate curiosity leads her into trouble.

Elaine, the cathedral tour guide who becomes involved with Nara and her adventures, is based on a real guide I met at Lincoln Cathedral. But of course I know nothing about the real woman’s personal life. I created one for the character in my novel.

Next time you are in a public place, look around and imagine a character from someone you see. From that person, you can create a story, or invite him or her into a story you are writing.

Here are a couple of websites I like for help in creating characters:

How to Create Characters http://kathrineroid.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/how-to-create-characters-for-a-novel/

Fiction Factor http://www.fictionfactor.com/characters.html

Isla Tortuga, Costa Rica

Journal Writing Tuesday

24 Jan

Who writes letters anymore? A quick email, a text or a phone call is more the way to go these days.

There are two things going on in my life right now that have caused me to think about the slower pace of life in years that have passed not so long ago.

The first is that I have begun corresponding with some older relatives who do not “do email.” A cousin of my dad’s (that would make her my first cousin once removed) has written letters to me several times after she found out that I had written a book. And another cousin on my mom’s side has helped me with a writing project I am working on. She remembers my mom in the years of World War II when my dad was overseas, and my mom wrote to him nearly everyday for three years.

The second factor is the book I finished last night — The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. This novel was written and set in the mid-nineteenth century. I found myself frustrated at the slow pace, and sometimes at the slowness of the characters to move on and solve the crime! Without telephones, even the police had to write notes to be hand delivered, make a special trip by horse-drawn carriage or train, or rely on the mail. However, mail delivery seemed to be much quicker and more reliable than it is today!

As a journal activity, try writing a letter. You can write the first draft in your journal first, and then rewrite on stationery. Remember stationery? Most everyone has an elderly relative or friend who would love receiving a letter. Or send it to a child. Everyone loves opening mail! Who knows? We could start a new trend, and keep the Postal Service in business as well.

Missing Book Stores

3 Jan

Yesterday I drove twenty minutes to a “major book store.” There is one that is closer, in the same major chain, but it doesn’t have a coffee shop and is quite small. I made the trek yesterday because I love buying colorful calendars after the first of the year when they go on sale for half price. There may be a little less selection than December, but I can usually find one or two that I enjoy.

Yesterday, January 2,  the racks were almost totally bare. I don’t know if people are buying more calendars, or if the store did not stock as many to begin with, but I was very disappointed.

I took a little walk around the store and realized that it felt more like a typical box store than a book store. The front of the store was crowded with gifts, toys and after Christmas discounts. The store was designed for shoppers, not readers. I suppose that is fine, if that is the kind of store you want, but I felt uncomfortable. I wondered if the employees of the store actually read any of the books.

I support reading in any form. Even though I have not yet purchased an e-reader, if you are reading books electronically — enjoy! I will break down and buy one eventually. But I crave a store where I can go in and ask a question about books, and the clerk will be able to answer me, or find someone who can. I want to go in a book store and feel that I am in the presence of knowledge and ideas. I know such stores exist, and I will find them and support them.

I realize that I said last week that I would be blogging about journal writing. I will get back to it, but I had to get this off my chest.

Have you thanked an author today?

23 Feb

Some people read a few books a year, some about one a month, and some, like me,

devour books like they are daily nourishment, which they often are.
If you are a writer, you know the time, effort and sacrifice it takes to get the book in front of the reader, just like the effort of putting a good dinner on the table.
And just like you thank the cook, or compliment the chef, how about thanking the author? This is especially true of less well-known authors. I can tell you it is pure delight to receive an email showing appreciation of my writing. I feel like sitting down at my computer and getting right back to creating more enjoyment for my readers.
I am developing the habit of sending a note to authors whose books I enjoy. It is easy to find an e-mail address on the author’s web site. And I have received some lovely notes back in reply.
So thank an author; you will make someone’s day!