Friday, May 24, 2019

The Discipline of Outlining

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I’ve been discussing the possibility of a joint writing project with P. K. Adams, aka Patrycja Podrazik. It seemed too good a coincidence of interests to waste: how many other authors in the United States have written novels set during the reigns of King Sigismund (Zygmunt) the Old of Poland and his co-ruling son, Sigismund Augustus (Zygmunt August)? How many other novelists could even name the major figures at the sixteenth-century Polish-Lithuanian court?

 

Well, now that Song of the Shaman has had its final revisions, although it won’t appear until early next year, and Patrycja’s Silent Water is close to publication, we’re getting serious about our joint project. Silent Water takes place almost twenty-five years earlier than my Song of the Siren, starting right after the marriage of Bona Sforza to Sigismund the Old in 1518. Still, a quarter-century is not much of a difference when we’re talking about events 450 years in the past, and Patrycja is a lovely writer, so if you enjoy my novels, you should definitely seek out hers. Silent Water is a murder mystery, much more puzzle than gore—and let’s just say that Juliana and Felix would feel quite at home in its world.

By now, you’re probably wondering what all this has to with outlining. Or was I just losing it when I came up with the post title? I have, after all, written before about why I seldom outline my novels, not least because it rarely turns out to be a worthwhile use of my writing time. Sure, I like to establish a goal my characters can aim for, and I certainly put some effort into figuring out who they are and what they want. But beyond that, I like to throw them into the thick of the action and see what they do and say; that’s how I find out who they are and, as a result, figure out where the story needs to go to reach that predetermined goal and how it can realistically get there.

Which is fine for me, of course, but for collaboration the free-form approach doesn’t work so well. As co-writers, Patrycja and I need to decide who’ll write what and where to start, not to mention where we’re heading and what paths to take. Even the research is shared, because she knows more about Poland and I about Muscovy. So there’s not much point in duplicating our efforts, especially since she reads Polish whereas I read Russian, meaning that each of us has access to sources barred to the other. In short, we have to plan, because the “tumble into the story and see where it goes” approach is likely to take us both into a thick forest where we wander about in circles with no hope of reaching our destination.


Patrycja, bless her, is a far more disciplined writer than I am (perhaps that’s why she can write murder mysteries, whereas my books tend to orient themselves to espionage and romance). So we’re constructing an outline—in the literary sense of paragraphs telling a story that will ultimately run to ten or even twenty pages, not the 1.A.b.* one-page wonder most of us learned in middle school. We worked out the main points over the phone; we hope to meet in person soon to flesh things out; meanwhile, we go back and forth via e-mail as suits our individual work and writing schedules. Right at this moment, the ball is in my court, which explains why this topic is on my mind.

So far it’s been fun, as I think about how Character A would respond to Plot Point B or strip in Cultural Information C to explain what makes Plot Point B possible. Kind of like my usual free-form writing without the dialogue and detailed settings. And I’m sure it’s a good exercise, for me as well as for our project.

Will I be able to stick to the outline once the writing starts? Ah, that’s much more difficult to predict. If I do, it will certainly be a first. I have to hope I don’t drive Patrycja crazy with my stops and starts and rethinks. But if the outline is strong enough, maybe I’ll get the dithering out in the planning stages and learn something new—about writing and about myself. So wish me luck!

As for the project itself, it’s new and barely formed, so we want to keep it under wraps for a while. Let’s just say that it will be a murder mystery—the first of three, if all goes well—and it will involve not only Russians and Poles but a few wandering Englishmen. The ship depicted at the top of the post might be considered a clue. Gotta appeal to that Tudor fan base somehow....

While you’re waiting, check out Patrycja’s two-part series on Hildegard of Bingen, The Greenest Branch and The Column of Burning Spices. Silent Water will be available for preorder on June 15 (release date August 6), but you can get a sneak peek of the prologue on P. K. Adams’ website, as well as information about the earlier books. And while you’re there, check out the lovely review she wrote (unasked!) about The Shattered Drum. You can see why we decided that we might just be kindred novel-writing souls.

Images: 16th-century painting of The Great Harry, an English carrack, by an unknown artist; Marcello Bacciarelli, Portrait of Sigismund I the Old (1768–71). Both
public domain because of the date of their creation, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Power of Conscience

What would you do to protect your friends and family from danger? This is the question that confronts Deborah Tyler and her stepbrother-in-law Nels Anderson in Ann Weisgarber’s new novel, The Glovemaker. As Weisgarber explains in our interview  for New Books in Historical Fiction, the small community of Junction, Utah—eight families, including Deborah’s—often receives fugitives from the law.

Most of the men are God-fearing Mormons, avoiding trial and certain conviction for the plural marriages that were not crimes when they entered into such arrangements. But a woman alone can never feel certain about the intentions of a stranger pounding at her door—especially in the middle of winter, when no ordinary traveler, polygamist or otherwise, wants to brave the icy rocks and treacherous blizzards that lie between Junction and the rest of Utah Territory.

Even if the visitor is harmless, aiding his escape puts the person who responds to him at risk. So the community exists in a web of secrets in which every member takes a chance on behalf of the others but resists sharing information, so that all concerned can honestly declare their innocence of any wrongdoing.

Balanced on this fulcrum of truth and lies, caring and concealing, responsibility and lawbreaking, Deborah and Nels seek a way to protect themselves and those they love. But as the situation slips ever farther from their control and they find out more about what drove their visitor and his pursuer, they confront a deeper and more timeless question: when does an enemy become just another person who needs help?

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.


When a strange man knocks on Deborah Tyler’s door one January evening in 1888, she faces a difficult decision. She can guess that her visitor is a criminal, because who else would travel to her isolated Utah community in the dead of winter? And her husband, who normally handles such situations, left home five months ago and has not returned. She is tempted not to answer, but that will only send the unwanted traveler to the next house in Junction, endangering her younger sister and her sister’s children.

Besides, most of the criminals who arrive on Deborah’s doorstep are not thieves or murderers but polygamists evading arrest for what the US government has recently outlawed as a felony. Deborah has little sympathy for plural marriage or the men who practice it, but she is a loyal Mormon who distrusts those inclined to persecute her faith and cares about the families left destitute when their breadwinners flee.

Deborah makes her choice. But the next day, a federal marshal arrives in pursuit. Threatened with prosecution for aiding and abetting a felon, Deborah fights to protect herself, her community, and those she loves from unpredictable consequences that draw her ever deeper into a web of secrets and lies.

The Glovemaker (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019) asks important questions about love and loyalty, faith and independence, the power of love and of family. And through Deborah and her struggles, Ann Weisgarber brings vividly to life the joys and terrors of life in a small, isolated community on the US frontier, the moral compromises we all face, and the capacity of one strong woman to adapt in a time of rapid change.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Other Front

As I’ve mentioned a few times over the past year, World War II is having its “moment” in terms of historical novels. Admittedly, as the number of shows on the History Channel and nonfiction works attests, World War II has never failed to attract interest from either scholars or the general public. But in the first five years of my podcast, I rarely received pitches for books set during the war. These days, it seems to be the background for every other book that heads my way.

Now, admittedly, I’ve loved some of the books: Gwen Katz’s Among the Red Stars and Kate Quinn’s The Huntress, in particular—both of which explore the lives of the Soviet women pilots who fought so effectively from their flimsy biplanes that their enemies called them the “Night Witches.” Many other authors have also found new and surprising takes on this well-worn subject. Almost without exception, though, the WWII novels that crossed my desk in the last fifteen months or so have focused on the European side of the conflict.


Not so the two I’m chatting about today. Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared (Hanover Square Press, 2019) and Kirsty Manning’s The Song of the Jade Lily (William Morrow, 2019) have little in common except a dual-time framework in which a young person searches for hidden information about what happened to his/her family during the war and a release date this month. But both explore the war on the Pacific Front and how it affected women who became caught up in the dangers of living in occupied territory.

Much of How We Disappeared takes place in Singapore, not a location we in the United States often think about in terms of WWII, between 1941 and 1945. This part of the story follows the life of Wang Di, eldest daughter of a Chinese family that emigrated to escape poverty and whose homeland has since fallen under Japanese control. Her name means “Hope for a Brother,” a constant reminder that she can never equal in importance the sons her parents eventually produce. Even so, her family protects her from the invading Japanese army, first by trying to arrange a marriage for her and later by keeping her within the confines of their house, until one drastic mistake leads to Wang Di’s capture. A seventeen-year-old virgin, she is loaded onto a truck, carted away to a house, and forced into service as a “comfort woman.” From then until the end of the war, Wang Di never knows whether she will survive the night, or whether she wants to.

This harrowing tale is interwoven with a second story from 2012, in which Kevin, aged twelve, learns of a secret from his dying grandmother. In this more contemporary thread, we also see Wang Di in old age. She has a secret of her own to unravel: where her recently deceased husband went every year on February 12. Her secret and Kevin’s are connected—by the personality of Wang Di, of course, but also by the immediate and long-term effects of occupation by a hostile power.


The Song of the Jade Lily, in contrast, takes place mostly in Shanghai. A twenties-something financial whiz named Alexandra accepts a job there, in part to get away from a disintegrating relationship with her boyfriend. Alexandra, of Chinese descent, grew up in the care of her Jewish grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm. After Wilhelm’s death, Alexandra moves to Shanghai, where she makes use of the opportunity thus offered to solve the mystery of her mother’s past and therefore her own. But we readers watch the story unfold from 1938 through 1954, interspersed with moments when Alexandra searches for or stumbles over one truth or another.

Because I was a friend of the writer Annabel Liu, who lived in Shanghai as a child, I knew in general about the Japanese occupation of the city and the suffering inflicted on the local population. What I didn’t know was that right before and during the war Shanghai was one of the few places that freely accepted Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Europe. Romy and her fictional family are among these refugees.

Not long after the novel opens, Romy loses one brother to murder during Vienna’s version of Kristallnacht and another to the concentration camp at Dachau, although the family members have no idea what conditions in the camp are like and continue to hope that the second son can join them. Meanwhile, they settle into their new home, making friends with Dr. Ho and his two children, Li and Jian—all of whom will play vital roles in Romy’s life.

Here too, the invasion of the Japanese Army threatens to upset the refugees’ hopes for a better future. Romy’s father, a doctor, manages to remain in practice, although as the war drags on, he finds it ever more difficult to secure the medical supplies his patients need. Romy’s fate is kinder than Wang Di’s: she pursues an education and acquires training in both Western and traditional Chinese medicine. Even so, the tendrils of war are everywhere, and they entangle her friends Li and Jian, as well as another friend—Nina, also a refugee—in ways that sweep Romy, too, into the web of power and its abuses.

To say more about either novel would give too much away. Both are well thought through, interesting, nicely written, and innovative in the sense that they look beyond the European theater and recognize that the horrors of World War II didn’t stop at Paris, London, or Stalingrad. Personally, I preferred Song of the Jade Lily, in part because what happens to Wang Di in How We Disappeared—although wholly supported by the historical evidence—is so wrenching and heart-breaking that the problems addressed in the contemporary story pale by comparison. It’s not that the problems are small in themselves—on the contrary. But they can’t quite measure up to the complete dehumanization inflicted on the innocent Wang Di. It might, in the end, have worked better to let her story stand alone. In that sense, the two halves of Jade Lily achieve a better balance.

Your reaction, however, may be just the opposite. Certainly you can’t go wrong with either of these books. If nothing else, you will discover a side of World War II that you may not have imagined. And that’s always a good thing, right?

My thanks to Shara Alexander and Maria Silva, the publicists who sent me copies of these novels with no obligation on me to post a review. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

And as I’ve mentioned before, if you have been my friend on Facebook but have not liked my author page (@C. P. Lesley), that will be the main venue for my writing-related posts going forward. I’ve deactivated my Catriona Lesley account, so if you search for it, you will not see my profile. Other pages to follow are @Five Directions Press and @NB Historical Fiction. Twitter links remain the same.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Investigating the Qing

I first discovered Elsa Hart’s novels through my friend Ann Kleimola, who has made so many wonderful suggestions for how to improve first my Legends of the Five Directions and now my Songs of Steppe & Forest novels. “You have to read Jade Dragon Mountain,” she wrote. (I’m paraphrasing: that was the gist of her e-mail, not the text.)

To be honest, I’m pretty sure she’d recommended both Jade Dragon Mountain and Elsa Hart when the novel first came out in 2016. I’d meant to follow up, but too many books got in the way, and by the time I cleared the pile, I’d forgotten about this one. But when she mentioned it again, I went after it right away, purchased it as an e-book, and ... devoured it within three days. I was hooked. 


I tracked down Elsa and talked her into an interview about the third book, City of Ink. Meanwhile, she sent me the second in the series as well. I read The White Mirror and loved it even more than Jade Dragon Mountain, if that’s possible—not least because it takes place in the mountains separating China from Tibet, a terrain my steppe nomads would appreciate. I can now attest that City of Ink is even better than its predecessors. So you can imagine how much time will lapse between my learning that book 4 has arrived and my starting it—yes, zero minutes would be an excellent guess.

So what makes this series so special? First, there’s the setting, which is unusual yet brought so vividly to life that I felt I could look out the window and see the locked bamboo gates and the exhausted examination candidates lining up, eyes red and quill pens in hand. Second, the characters—always crucial for me—especially Li Du, the calm and thoughtful but persistent librarian detective, and his friend Hamza, a very different and much more dramatic figure who makes his way along the Silk Road through the power of his storytelling. Individual characters in each mystery are also deeply thought out, with believable and often conflicting motives. Third is Li’s own story, which we understand in greater depth with each book. 


But fourth and supreme are the puzzles, some of the best I’ve seen and essential to every good mystery novel. It’s rare for an author to give me all the clues yet fool me three times in a row, but Elsa Hart has managed to do exactly that. So listen to our interview, but don’t expect spoilers. Then read the series, in order. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

As ever, the rest of this book comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

If there is one thing more fun than discovering a new (to oneself) author, it is discovering a new author with a series already well underway. In City of Ink  (Minotaur Books, 2018), the third of Elsa Hart’s mystery novels set in early eighteenth-century China during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor and featuring former imperial librarian Li Du and his storytelling friend Hamza, Li has returned to his former home of Beijing.

His intention is to learn more about the events that led to his own exile from the capital years before, the result of guilt by association. But he soon discovers that the imperial library has been closed since his departure, and to make ends meet, he takes a job with his former brother-in-law, in charge of the North Borough Office. When, on the eve of the imperial examinations, a young woman is murdered at a tile factory in the North Borough, Li accompanies the investigator to the scene of the crime. The case appears clear-cut, since the victim turns out to be the wife of the tile-factory owner, and she is found with a man whom everyone assumes to be her lover. Clearly, this is a crime of passion, committed by the jealous husband. The authorities rush to endorse this explanation, since crimes of passion are not punishable under the law and the whole matter can be neatly swept under the rug before the imperial examinations begin.

But no case associated with Li Du is ever what it seems. As he and Hamza chase the real solution through the locked alleys of Beijing and past the city walls into the surrounding territory, Hart’s richly informed, beautifully detailed, and wonderfully complex yet satisfying story plays out against the backdrop of early Qing China, with its rebels, dynasts, foreign visitors, and ordinary folk with conflicting motives—not to mention Li Du’s own troubled past.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Lost Worlds

For the last couple of months, I’ve been working with fellow Five Directions Press author and New Books in Fantasy host Gabrielle Mathieu as she revises her latest novel, Girl of Fire, for publication. It’s a historical fantasy set on a planet other than our own—somewhat medieval, somewhat magical, but not directly connected to anything on Earth. In return, she’s been helping me with Song of the Shaman, due out next year.

One question we keep batting back and forth is where the boundary lies between too much and not enough information. But that question is really a subset of world building. How does an author convey the rules and substance of a world outside the reader’s experience? More specifically, how does one convey information without stopping the action cold?

Obviously, authors of science fiction and fantasy have to deal with world building. But so do historical novelists. By definition, a world that existed decades or centuries before we were born lies outside our experience. How do we make it real for ourselves, then communicate that reality to our readers?


We research, of course. We read documents and studies; we search the Internet for images; we visit museums or watch films and TV shows to get a sense of the physical objects associated with the period; we look for diaries and letters and, if we’re lucky and aren’t working on an era too far in the past, talk to people who lived then. We can’t expect to shed our modern perspectives entirely, but we can, and should, do our best to explore the differences between past approaches to life and present ones.

All fine and good. The difficulty lies in the doing. Lengthy descriptions deflect attention from the story, and as a general rule people don’t talk about things they take for granted (known among authors as the “You know, Bob,” problem—as in having a character say something like, “You know, Bob, that girl who grew up in our house—the daughter of Mom and Dad?—she’s our sister”). No, really? Who’d have guessed?

But if people don’t say things that seem self-evident to them, they do interact with their environments pretty much nonstop. And those actions and assumptions reveal a lot about how characters believe their world should work and therefore how they perceive its underlying rules. These assumptions inform even the most basic details of characters’ lives. And detail is the best way to convey them. Let’s take a simple example. 



A character picks up a cup and notices it’s empty. He looks around for something to fill it. What will he choose: wine, beer, milk, tea, cider from his own orchard? The choice reveals something personal about this character’s tastes, but also about his circumstances and values—whether he’s wealthy or poor, whether he lives on the land or not, the part of the world he calls home or the possibility of trade or even the time period, since tea and wine and cider weren’t always available everywhere. The drinking vessel, too, tells a tale: a crystal glass conveys a quite different message from a goblet chased with gold or a cup roughly formed from unfired clay.

Perhaps the cup is cracked. The character could try to fix it herself or summon a repair person or, moving up the social ladder, ring the bell to call someone else to summon the repair person. That person may race to respond to the summons, if it comes from a wealthy household known for its generosity, or shrug and dismiss it out of hand. After all, she’s worked for this person before and it didn’t go well. 

If she accepts the job, she must travel to the house—hut? castle? apartment? cottage?—by whatever means of transport characterizes that society. She may go quickly or slowly, motivated by urgency or reluctance, respect or disdain. She may believe she has no choice but to obey. She may jump at the chance to prove her skill. She may want to undercut the better-known or more senior artisan in town. Each motive has different consequences and reveals different assumptions about this character’s place in the larger society.

Characters will also have views about how the cup ended up empty or broken, which they can share with other characters or, if they don’t trust those around them or anticipate ridicule, keep to themselves. Careless servants? Mischievous house elves? Thirsty children? The interpretations say a lot without elaboration.

That’s just one routine element of life, but there are many. How often have you said, to yourself or someone else, the equivalent of “Oh, it would rain on my special day!” or “Of course all the traffic signals were red. I was running late!” Well, characters can do that too. Some may blame the weather, others their own sins; some call on God, whereas others perform spells or ride winged horses into spiritual realms. Still others favor logic and deride all statements of otherworldly intervention.

The mental explanations your creations provide or the dialogue they exchange reveal how they think: no detailed explanations needed. Ground a setting or an experience or even the weather in a character’s unique view of the world, and you can get a lot of information out in chunks so small and painless that readers won’t even notice them going down.

And when those options fail, you can always fall back on that old chestnut, the “fish out of water.” People inside a family, a group, or a society don’t ask basic questions about how it operates—although you can throw them a curve ball in the plot that will force them to re-examine what they think they know. But those from outside the sub-world—whether they are young and uninformed, elderly and forgetful, or accustomed to operating by different rules—must seek explanations for behavior that puzzles them if they are to succeed at their goals. And the people who have to deal with those newcomers will ask questions too, if only at the level of “why on earth didn’t you” [fill in the blank].
So break it up, make it personal, and above all, keep it relevant to your characters’ concerns of the moment. That’s how you get around the dreaded information dump and bring a lost world to life.
 
For an example of an author who handles this task particularly well, read Elsa Hart’s mystery series, set in early Qing China and discussed in my latest interview on New Books in Historical Fiction. It went up too late for a discussion in this week’s post, but check back next Friday to find out more.

Images: Khokhloma ware © 2009 Politkaner; Goblet © 2013 Jonathan Cardy; Clay cups © 2017 Sidheeq; Waterford crystal glass © 2008 TR001—all Creative Commons 3.0 or 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

And as I’ve mentioned before, if you have been my friend on Facebook but have not liked my author page (@C. P. Lesley), that will be the main venue for my writing-related posts going forward. I’ve deactivated my Catriona Lesley account, so if you search for it, you will not see my profile. Other pages to follow are @Five Directions Press and @NB Historical Fiction. Twitter links remain the same.