Friday, December 14, 2018

Writing "A Christmas Carol"

It’s a common belief that every author at times suffers from writers’ block. In extreme cases, this inability to write supposedly drags on for years. The helpless sufferer stares at a blank page, unable to set pen to paper (these days, fingers to computer keyboard). Meanwhile, publishing contracts and the demands of eager readers go unmet as the author wrestles with inner demons.

In my experience, this view is a myth. Writers’ block does exist, but for me it indicates one of two things: either I’m trying to force a character to do something that’s convenient for me but wrong for that character, or I’m persisting with a story that doesn’t have enough depth or drama to carry a novel. Ideas, for me, are seldom the problem; they pour in regardless. But not all my ideas are equally good, and some lead me down rabbit holes or into deep woods, where my story becomes entangled in the branches.

In either case, the solution is simple: back off and give my subconscious permission to do its job. Sometimes it will throw up a great solution, and I’ll wonder how I could have been so blind. Sometimes I can prime the pump by writing whatever comes into my head until it stops looking like a swirl of mismatched threads and I start to see the underlying patterns. Sometimes it just takes a while for a character to reveal him- or herself. Sometimes I have to accept the inevitable, let go, and wait to discover a story that has more potential—or allow the existing one to sit for a while, until I understand what the book needs.

For other writers, as in Samantha Silva’s novel about Charles Dickens and the writing of A Christmas Carol, intervention requires an outside force. Her Charles Dickens isn’t suffering from writers’ block so much as a massive disinclination to turn his attention from the book of his heart—which, for the first time in his charmed authorial life, is failing to win the hearts and minds of his public—to the Christmas story that his publisher is urging him to write. Well, not urging so much as threatening to sink Dickens’ already shaky economic ship if Dickens refuses to comply. Harsh reality, needy relatives, and the specter of failure combine to send Dickens’ Christmas spirit—and soon, Dickens’ family—into flight, further complicating his efforts to juggle his own needs and the task imposed on him.

In our interview, Samantha Silva and I discuss the power of present and past loves, the tug between the real woman an author has married and the literary muse of his imagination, the effects of a traumatic childhood, the competing pressures of fame and the writer’s need for privacy, poverty and generosity and the difficulty caused by living beyond one’s means. Most of all, we talk about creating a beloved classic and finding the meaning of Christmas while doing so.

We don’t talk about writers’ block in so many words, because discussing how Silva’s fictional Dickens overcame his problem would spoil the plot of her light-hearted and imaginative exploration of the process by which Ebenezer Scrooge and the three spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future came into existence. But we dance around the topic throughout the interview, and Samantha has many fascinating things to say about Dickens himself, his books, and the psychology of authors. Definitely give it a listen as you dash from store to store. It will remind you of what the winter holidays are meant to be.

Last week I promised news about the New Books Network, but I didn’t expect how personal that news would turn out to be. The NBN has paired with the Literary Hub (LitHub), which will be listing selected NBN interviews as a Friday Feature. And the interview chosen to kick off the new partnership is—drum roll, please—this one! Which is especially appropriate when we consider that the 175th anniversary of A Christmas Carol’s publication is right around the corner: December 19, 2018. Dickens would, I’m sure, rejoice to see the extraordinary popularity he enjoyed during his lifetime extend into the technologies of the modern age.

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

Christmas is not looking bright for Charles Dickens. His latest novel has proven a massive flop, and that upstart William Thackeray doesn’t miss an opportunity to crow. Bills are rolling in, every relative in creation has his or her hand out, the kids (number steadily increasing) have their hearts set on expensive toys, and Mrs. Dickens has already started making plans for the most elaborate holiday party yet. Oh yes, and Dickens’ publisher is begging him to write a Christmas book when the spirit of Christmas seems to have packed up and moved to Scotland together with Dickens’ exasperated family.

Determined not to give in, Dickens moves to a cheap hotel, rents a room under the name Ebenezer Scrooge, dons the disguise of an old man, and roams the streets of London in pursuit of a mysterious young woman in a purple cloak. And surprise, by the time December 25 rolls around, Dickens has not only recovered his joie de vivre but penned what may be the world’s most beloved holiday classic, A Christmas Carol.

In Mr. Dickens and His Carol, Samantha Silva takes events we all know from childhood and, through the application of a light touch and a gifted imagination, turns them into a story at once comfortably familiar and delightfully different.

Images: Charles Dickens in 1842 and the original frontispiece and title page of A Christmas Carol (1843) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 7, 2018

News from Five Directions Press

Due to total work overload, I’m late with my blog post today, although at least it’s still Friday. And for the same reason, I’ll keep it short this week. But we do have some Five Directions Press news to share.

First off, it’s the holiday season, and if you have a reader in your life, do think about giving your favorite people a book that will take them on a literary journey along a less well-traveled path. No shade being thrown here against the mass favorites—Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Elizabethan England, anything Austen-related. But readers who are a little more adventurous may love a story that sweeps them into worlds they don’t know, and that’s our specialty at Five Directions Press. 

Whether our settings are contemporary (Greece, Nicaragua, Scotland, invented college towns and virtual reality games), historical (sixteenth-century Russia, the Amazon river basin circa 1910, the almost forgotten court of Mary Tudor, colonial Mexico—including its hidden Jewish community under assault from the Inquisition), historical shading into fantasy (fifth-century Germany, 1950s Switzerland and Ireland, 1960s Nepal and Tibet), or ballet in a wholly imagined outer space, we pride ourselves on taking a place you’ve never been or perhaps heard much about, making it feel like home, and filling it with characters whose stories you can’t wait to learn.

With that in mind, we’ve been running holiday gift guides on Facebook and Twitter, so follow us by clicking on the links and take a look. Maybe you’ll see a title you can’t wait to read—or to give.

We’ve also decided to supplement our monthly “Books We Loved” posts with a new online newsletter feature called “Five Directions Press Authors Dish.” This one is just for fun, although we may work in some writing advice as we go along. The first post went up right after Thanksgiving and, appropriately for that season, talks about food we never expected (or wanted!) to eat. You can read it at

Last but not least, we are planning our 2019 catalogue. Planning is well underway for the launch of my new series, Songs of Steppe & Forest, with Song of the Siren due out in late February. I have corrected proofs and have sent them to four or five lovely fellow writers for endorsements. And here, for the first time, is the public cover reveal—with, as ever, mega-thanks to Courtney J. Hall for that gorgeous type. You can find out more about the story at

Have a great weekend! I plan to spend mine on a virtual journey of my own, back to the Eurasian steppe and the many mental excursions my heroine, a shaman, undertakes. But do come back next week, when I hope my next New Books in Historical Fiction interview will be live. By then, I may have some news about the New Books Network as well.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Creating Conflict

Last week I mentioned that a novel (screenplay, television script, etc.) is not the place to showcase cordiality, mature relationship skills, and the appreciation of others. But fictional characters also require internal conflict to appeal to readers. This is not news: it probably forms the most basic piece of advice in writing classes and craft books. But finding out what a given character’s internal conflict is can challenge the most seasoned writer.

I cite myself as an example. I have, by now, eight published novels, a ninth completed but destined never to go on sale for copyright reasons, and a tenth—Song of the Siren—in the final stages of proofing and due for release next February. You would think that establishing internal and external conflict would by now be as simple as checking off boxes. Sit down, decide what I want to feature this time, figure out which sources of conflict are available, and decide.

But no, crafting a novel doesn’t work that way. At least, it’s never worked that way for me. Sometimes I can spot the internal conflict relatively easily: in The Golden Lynx Nasan imagines herself as a warrior heroine while everyone else in her life pushes her toward the conventional roles of wife and mother. That’s external conflict, but also the source of her internal conflict: which goals take precedence, her own or her family’s? Suppose, in being true to herself, she alienates those she loves?

In other novels the characters themselves force me in a particular direction. I recognized early on that Juliana, the heroine of Song of the Siren (formerly known as Roxelana, for fans of the Legends series, although it turns out that’s not her real name either), had established such effective barriers against change that it would require a disaster to knock her into undertaking the difficult journey toward self-realization. Only stripping her of every emotional and material resource she possessed could reveal her internal conflict and get her to confront and overcome it. Even then, I struggled for a while, once I’d dumped her in a virtual ditch, with ways to get her heading along the road to a better place.

Grusha, for some reason, presents a different kind of problem. A third of the way through the rough draft of Song of the Shaman, I have yet to feel certain that I know what she wants at this stage of her life, let alone what stops her from reaching out and grabbing it. I’ve produced half-a-dozen Goal, Motivation, and Conflict charts without any of them sticking. The minute I think I have her figured out and start a new chapter, she throws me a curve ball, and I know I still don’t have it quite right. But I’m closing in on her, and any day now I’ll see what it is that she’s hiding even from herself.

In part, this process reflects the way I write. Perhaps there are people out there who can run the charts and check off the boxes, but I find my characters, my story, even the details of my plot on the page. I start with raw exposition, pages and pages of it, then turn it into dialogue and action devoid of place or time or sensory detail, and only gradually fill in the blanks through draft after draft, most of them undertaken before I move on to the next chapter and start the whole process again. The fellow writers in my critique group are immensely helpful at this stage, although I’m sure I drive them mad by changing everything around every month, whether in response to their comments or my own evolving sense of the story.

Eventually, I get far enough into the novel that I understand where it’s heading and therefore where it needs to begin and what has to happen for it to get there. Sometimes I manage to create a list of potential events to act as a guideline; in other cases, like Song of the Shaman, the list keeps morphing as the book develops. But once I get to that magic midpoint, when I understand the source of the main characters’ internal conflict, that’s when the real fun begins. The rest of the book writes itself, and I become a channel through which it flows onto the page. When I reach the end, the critique group comes into play again, ensuring that the whole thing hangs together in minds other than mine.

Internal conflict isn’t limited to heroes and heroines, of course. It’s an essential element in “rounding” (that is, filling out) a character, and in a well-crafted novel antagonists and secondary characters also have conflicting hopes and fears. But theirs are always lesser; otherwise they take over the story. For the protagonists, deep internal rifts and choices that pull them in opposing but equally appealing directions are essential. Only then do they come alive on the page.

Images purchased from

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Five Positives and Fiction

I’m writing this post on Thanksgiving Day, which by the time it posts will have given way to that mad shopping extravaganza known as Black Friday, the lead-in to an outburst of nonstop commercialism designed to communicate the idea that anyone who waits to shop for their loved ones will lose out.

I suppose the timing could prompt a marketing post—an overdue topic, no doubt, as marketing is the element of novel writing least often covered on this blog. But instead I’m going to focus on Thanksgiving, with both a capital and a lower-case T.

It’s a lovely idea for a holiday, Thanksgiving, even if it does sugar-coat the abominable history of those first settlers’ interactions with the Native Americans. A holiday to stop, take a breath, spend time with those close to us, and appreciate all the great things in our lives is something we all need. In this mad-rush world, taking a moment to think about the good things relieves stress and produces a much-needed balance. It’s too bad that merchandising has increasingly encroached on even the one special day devoted to that exercise in gratitude.

Giving thanks also strengthens relationships by encouraging us to notice the many kind and helpful things our partners and family members do without being asked. Dr. John Gottman, who runs the Love Lab in Seattle, has discovered that happy couples exchange five to seven times as many positive comments as negative ones and that he can predict who will divorce on that basis alone. If you don’t already give your chosen partner more praise than complaints, try switching your emphasis. You’ll be surprised. And having made the switch myself, I know why. It makes my relatives and friends feel good, of course, but perhaps just as important it makes me feel good about them. I get annoyed like everyone else, but the thanks help me keep the irritations in perspective, so they don’t block the positive things from view.

One place this approach doesn’t work, though, is in fiction—by which I mean fiction itself, not interaction with other writers, where keeping criticism positive is just as important as it is in any other arena of human contact. But novels and scripts thrive on conflict, and nothing propels conflict faster and more effectively than people who talk past one another, who just can’t let go of their own way of looking at the world. This is conflict at its most raw: not meaningless arguments, which soon become boring and predictable, but the clash that occurs between people with fundamentally different views of how life works, who can’t find a point of agreement even if they want to (and in fiction, they usually don’t want to).

And why can’t they resolve their differences, at least until the end of the story? Because they can’t accept that the other person also means well, even if he or she seems misguided, or can’t believe that the other person has knowledge they lack or that their own blind spots may be getting in their way. They can’t, in short, appreciate the other person. They don’t feel thankful that this person, so unlike themselves, has entered their lives. Even antagonists don’t see themselves as unhelpful, never mind evil, although antagonists are perhaps less likely than any other category of fictional character to understand that their way of approaching life is not everyone’s and their desire for some object or goal can’t justify trampling on the rights and feelings of others.

But we are not fictional characters, and if we make the effort, we can understand the value of reaching across the aisle—in the general, not simply the political sense. So let’s, by all means, read and watch and enjoy the struggles of our favorite good guys and bad guys as their authors strive to keep them benighted and apart until the resolution. But in our lives let’s remember to express our gratitude for the good things our fellow humans do. Thanksgiving, it turns out, can be an all-year event.

And one last thank you to my readers: as of this week, this blog has had more than 100,000 hits. Some of them bots, undoubtedly, but for those who were not, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. May we have many more virtual exchanges, and Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Images purchased from

Friday, November 16, 2018

Gotta Love Those Bones

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago on this blog (“Dipping a Toe in the River of Time”), one of the best parts of being a historical novelist is the freedom to make things up. When I wear my historian hat, I am not exactly solemn—I can get excited about historical mysteries too—but I do spend a lot of time checking details and ensuring that the sources can support whatever argument I make.

I do the same as a novelist, but the beauty of writing fiction is that when the sources go silent or provide conflicting information, I can step back and give my imagination free rein. I did that in my latest novel, The Shattered Drum, which as a quick online check reveals, opens with the funeral of Prince Andrei of Staritsa, who died in December 1537 after six months in a Kremlin prison. Readers of the series will recognize his name, because the previous novel, The Vermilion Bird, takes place against the backdrop of the events leading to his imprisonment. For everyone else, he was Ivan the Terrible’s uncle, the youngest of a large family and one of three sons who survived into the 1530s.

Although the sources are terse on the subject of Andrei’s death, they suggest that he, like his older brother before him, died of starvation. If so, the command to deprive them of food almost certainly came from their sister-in-law, Elena Glinskaya, and her favorite, Prince Ivan Fyodorovich Ovchina Telepnev Obolensky, then the most prominent court representative of the Cheliadnin clan. As I do in the novels, we’ll refer to him from now on as Telepnev, for simplicity’s sake.

It’s generally believed that Elena and Telepnev were eager to get rid of Andrei and his older brother because as adult males of the royal house, they posed—or were perceived to pose—a threat to the rule of Elena’s older son, known to history as Ivan IV “the Terrible.” Three when he came to the throne, Ivan was seven when his uncle Andrei died. So although nominally an autocrat in whose name all government took place, Ivan himself had no say in these events.

Less than four months later, on April 3, 1538, Elena passed away. The sources don’t describe the circumstances, but they indicate surprise, and for good reason. We don’t know exactly when Elena was born, but the most likely dates are 1508 or 1510, making her sixteen to eighteen when she married and twenty-eight to thirty when she died. Even in the 1530s, the sudden death of such a young woman raised eyebrows. Rumors of poison abounded, and fingers immediately pointed at the powerful Shuisky clan, which opposed the Cheliadnins in general and Telepnev in particular, but historians have never been certain. 

What we do know is that Elena’s unexpected death turned an already precarious situation into something close to a free-for-all as the clans started jockeying for position. Within ten days, the Shuiskys had taken over the government and ordered Telepnev’s arrest. He too soon died of starvation in a Kremlin cell. His sister, who had served as nanny to Ivan IV and his younger brother, was stripped of her position and shipped off to a convent. And although the young Ivan IV remained grand prince and would one day be crowned as Russia’s first tsar, he became a kind of political football: bereft of his parents and parent substitutes, he fell under the control of either the Shuiskys or their chief opponents, the Belsky clan, depending on who was on top at any given moment. Ivan later gave Russia’s aristocrats plenty of reason to regret their behavior, but that’s a story for another day.

Since it seemed unlikely that the mystery of Elena’s death would ever be solved, and the circumstances surrounding her passing were so portentous and fascinating, I invented a plot for her murder that satisfied the needs of my novel. Not to give away spoilers, let me say only that I chose to treat the rumors of Elena’s love affair with Telepnev as fact and extrapolated from the absence of reliable birth control in the sixteenth century an extremely inconvenient and potentially scandalous pregnancy. How those two events led to Elena’s death, I will leave readers to discover for themselves.

So far, so good. I confessed my sins, as I always do, in the Historical Note. The novel came out, ending its series, and I moved on to the next one. As far as I knew, that was the end of Elena and Telepnev in both the literal and the figurative sense.

But as so often happens, life had other ideas. This week my friend Ann Kleimola, whose expertise in Muscovite history has saved me from more than one blooper, sent me a photo from her phone with the table of contents from a new multivolume collection on the burials of Moscow’s grand princesses. “What do you want to see?” she asked. I told her I’d love to know what they said about Elena Glinskaya. Was she really poisoned, I wondered, because a hasty exhumation in 1929 had found evidence of mercury and arsenic in her bones but not enough to prove deliberate poisoning. (Mercury was used in medicines at the time, and arsenic in cosmetics.)

Indeed, the specialists at the Kremlin Museum who conducted the new exhumation and examined the stone sarcophagus that contained Elena’s remains concluded that, given the high levels of mercury and arsenic in her bones and the presence in her skull of formations associated with toxic mushrooms, her death was almost certainly the result of deliberate poisoning. After considering various possibilities, they came down on the side of mercury as the agent. They did not speculate on who gave it to her or how.

But that was not the most amazing conclusion the scientists reached. Elena’s low iron count suggested that not long before her death she had suffered a massive loss of blood, most likely in childbirth. The bone of a newborn was found in her tomb, as well as assorted other objects that no one has yet explained.

Clearly, that’s not the end of the story. But the scholars felt comfortable enough with the results to argue that the rumors about Elena and Telepnev, still circulating after five centuries, were based on fact; that Telepnev fathered Elena’s infant, although DNA testing is not possible for several reasons; and that someone had a motive for ensuring that the whole truth never came to light, even if that meant murdering a reigning grand princess.

And they say the Borgias had a lock on treachery. When will the Legends of the Five Directions find their TV series or movie?

Images: Prince Andrei of Staritsa and his older brother according to a 17th-century fresco on the walls of the Archangel Michael Cathedral in the Kremlin; Elena Glinskaya and her husband, Grand Prince Vasily III; the death of Elena Glinskaya according to the 16th-century Illustrated Chronicle Codex—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.