Friday, December 26, 2014

The Year in Review

Time for the annual roundup, as I write the last post of the year. Hard to believe 2014 has already gone from Christmas Future to Christmas Past (and I hope yours was lovely). So, what do I have to show for another year on the planet?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. I completed my two challenges for the year, reading fifteen pure history books (actually more, but I stopped counting at fifteen) for the Sail to the Past History Challenge and twenty-six books from my To Be Read pile to sit atop the summit of Mont Blanc for the Reduce the TBR Mountain Challenge. Of course, I added two books to the TBR pile for every one I took off, but that’s what it means to be a bookworm. And doubling the number of books required for the status of historian in the History Challenge seems just about right for an actual historian. Most of my colleagues were rolling on the floor at the thought that anyone would read a mere seven full-length historical studies in a year.

In addition, of course, I conducted thirteen interviews for New Books in Historical Fiction, for which I read at least sixteen books. I published three of my own: The Winged Horse in June as planned, followed by a spur-of-the-moment decision to revise and release Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades to test the new Kindle Unlimited (KU) program introduced by in July. The last two books came out on August 29, just before Labor Day, and did very well their first month—while many people were using their 30-day free KU trial, I suspect. Since then, they have languished. Even my recent attempt to run a Kindle Countdown Deal on them was a flop, although this result seems to have more to do with the effects of KU than with me personally. Many authors are complaining of dramatic declines in their earnings from books enrolled in KU since October; for one example, see this post by M. Louisa Locke. In a similar vein, Countdown Deals unaccompanied by pricy ads apparently don’t do well.

Nonetheless, Desert Flower has garnered some good reviews, the whole thing was an experiment, three giveaways of The Winged Horse went much better, and my novels as a group sell slowly but steadily, so I have no inclination to complain. For the moment, I intend to wait and see what the next year brings. Meanwhile, Five Directions Press is growing: it now has eight books by four authors, with Courtney J. Hall’s Some Rise by Sin complete and ready for production in January. We hope to expand further in 2015.

With Winged Horse in flight, I turned to Legends 3, The Swan Princess. It took a surprisingly long time to get going, in part because I needed to research medieval medicine and certain specific medical conditions that play a part in the story, but more because I needed to figure out what the emotional story was. I knew which characters I wanted to feature from previous books, and I had an idea of what they should do, but I had a much harder time figuring out how they had grown since I last spent time with them and therefore what they next needed to learn. As a result, I spent months tweaking an outline that, as usual, I abandoned (except for the general direction) within twenty pages. But thanks to my inestimable critique group, I’ve more or less figured it out now, and with two lovely weeks of writing vacation to work with, I’m hoping to turn my initial four chapters into twice that by the first Sunday of the new year—at which time work returns with a bang.

Last but not least, I have written fifty-five blog posts since this time last year, including this one and several guest posts on other sites. I won’t say that has been my greatest triumph, because the interviews are fun and having five novels published and a sixth underway makes me feel pretty chuffed. But I do love these weekly posts, and I hope to keep them up throughout 2015. (For more goals, check back next week.)

Wherever you are, thank you for reading my ramblings for another year. May your holidays be merry and bright. And now, where’s that egg nog?

Image © 2009 Michael Wade, via Wikimedia Commons. 
Creative Commons Attribute 2.0 Generic license.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Art of Life

One of the difficult steps in my expansion from writing history to producing historical fiction was mastering the art of the historical detail. Not in the sense that historical novelists often get themselves into trouble: by insisting on cramming every factoid they have carefully researched into their books regardless of whether it fits the story or turns it into the fictional equivalent of a Strasbourg goose. As a scholar of an unfamiliar time and place who stumbled into a fantastically specialized area of study while writing her dissertation, I long ago mastered what Sir Percy calls the “cocktail party spiel”—the ability to summarize a complicated project in twenty-five words or less. The alternative was to watch people’s eyes glaze over as they edged for the bar (literal or figurative—and if you’ve ever wondered why I write novels under a pen name, it’s to protect innocent readers from my academic work). So as a novelist and as a historian, I am a big fan of “look it up,” as in if readers want to know more, that’s what they’ll do.

No, the difficulty I had was in mastering the concept of the emotional detail. Historians look for facts, to the extent that we can extract them from often-biased documents, and the facts of a historical event often fail to convey how that event affected the people caught up in it. The lower a person’s social standing, the less likely we are to find written documentation that reveals that person’s inner life. Or, as Laura Morelli puts it in her interview with New Books in Historical Fiction, we know about the lower classes (in her case, the boatmen of sixteenth-century Venice) mostly when they get themselves into trouble with the law.

Of course, roustabouts and troublemakers are more fun to write and read about than prissy heroines and noble youth who never harbor an unkind thought. But our necessary reliance on the skewed record left to us by history requires us novelists to use our imaginations creatively to develop, within the framework of what we can know about the general attitudes and life situations of specific groups in specific times and places, a creative understanding that we can apply to the circumstances of individual characters—themselves our inventions.

The results, when we get it right, sweep the reader into the past as no dry-as-dust treatise ever can. Take, for example, these two paragraphs from The Gondola Maker.

Peering further back into the shadows, I observe what appears to be years’ worth of neglected belongings: furniture covered in drapes, shelves stacked high with discarded tools, household goods, and more. Within this jumble, my eyes begin to make out the shape of another gondola stored in dry dock, turned upside down on a pair of trestles. The boat is partially covered with a large swath of canvas, but from the portion of the craft that is visible, I see that it is very old and neglected. The paint is dull and scratched, and part of the wood is split on one side, probably the result of some long-ago crash.

My heart leaps as I notice the carved maple leaf emblem on the prow of the boat. Even through the darkness, I would recognize it anywhere: the old gondola was made in my father’s boatyard. (107)

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. If you listen to the interview, the NPR story I mention is also available online and free of charge.

As the son and heir to the workshop of sixteenth-century Venice’s premier gondola maker, Luca Vianello has his career, his marriage, and his place in society mapped out for him. True, his stern father still grieves for Luca’s older brother who died in childhood. And Luca’s left-handedness—viewed in Renaissance Europe as sinister, even demonic—provokes blows from his father even as it causes him to lag behind his younger brother in developing his skills. But it is only when tragedy shoots Luca out of his family’s boat-building business altogether that he can envision the possibility of change.

Through luck, Luca lands a position in another Venetian boatyard, far less prosperous than the workshop to which he was born. He loads boxes, succeeds as an errand boy, and befriends an older, more experienced gondolier determined to introduce Luca to the charms of wine, women, and on-the-side deals. Before long, Luca has become the private boatman of Master Trevisan, painter to Venice’s elite. There Luca encounters  both the beautiful Giuliana Zanchi (and Trevisan’s portrait of her) and the abandoned, broken-down gondola that will become his personal restoration project.

Laura Morelli is an art historian and the author of, among other nonfiction works, Made in Italy and Artisans of Venice. In her award-winning debut novel, The Gondola Maker, she draws on her extensive knowledge of the Venetian past and present to recreate a lost fictional world that will astonish you with its rich, varied, endlessly fascinating detail.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Red Fish, Blue Fish

I was answering questions last week about Five Directions Press, the author collective my writers’ group founded in the summer of 2012. The questions are for an article that fellow-novelist Deb Vanasse has agreed to write for the monthly magazine IBPA Independent, so we are flattered just to be included. Once I know when the Independent Book Publishers Association plans to run Deb’s article, I will post the information here. But the questions got me thinking about the place that author collectives occupy within publishing as a whole. 

The question that struck me involved the relative advantages and disadvantages of traditional publishing and author collectives. The question rests on an implicit dichotomy that crops up a lot in discussions of the new publishing climate. Traditional or self-publishing: Which is better? Which will triumph? Which best serves authors? A lot of energy goes into defending one’s own choice and running down the other side.

But why? Surely publishing is big enough to include self-published authors, author collectives, small presses, and large corporate publishing houses. Trade publishing houses and author collectives serve different markets and as a result operate differently. They don’t compete; they complement one another.

The Big Five are huge corporate enterprises. Their employees have extensive experience producing and marketing books. Once they sign an author, they can offer a level of support that self-published authors, even if they set up a collective, can’t hope to match. A trade publisher works with the author to develop a manuscript, provides copy editing and cover design, turns the edited text over to its production department to design and compose the printed book and produce the e-book version, then sends the finished book to a publicist who will organize the marketing campaign.

Furthermore, a trade publisher has connections and prestige that get its books reviewed by major publications and into bookstores; radio and television broadcasters compete to interview its authors. Its titles have a far better chance of being noticed than those of writers who publish on their own or through a small press or an author collective, whose works can easily sink beneath the waves generated by the thousands of books released online every day. Self-published authors can break out of the pack and make as much—or even more—money than traditionally published authors. It’s not easy, though, especially as the market grows.

Still, there are downsides to “big.” All that support is expensive, and trade publishers can’t afford to take chances on books that aren’t guaranteed to sell millions of copies. Inevitably, good projects fall through the cracks. And if a book makes it through to print and doesn’t sell? The steadily chugging publishing train rolls over authors struggling to build an audience. Six months or a year, and the books are pulled from the shelves and pulped. After a while, the author’s contract is not renewed. It’s someone else’s turn in the sun.

In short, trade publishing not only does but must focus on the mass market. What about writers who have put in the necessary time to learn their craft but don’t produce something that millions of people want to read? These are the people who benefit from self-publishing, small presses, and author collectives.

Now I am the first person to admit that the problem with self-publishing is that, because it’s so easy, many people put out what are in essence first drafts. These first-time writers don’t intend to publish before the book is ready. The flush of finishing a first draft gives a writer a tremendous high. You can’t wait to get the book out into the world to soak up the praise you’re so sure it deserves.

Alas, the sad truth is that everyone’s first drafts stink. Yes, even the first drafts of published, professional authors. Sooner or later, the high dies away, the author receives comments and suggestions, and—assuming the book has not been published—the hard work of rewriting begins. Self-publishing too often short-circuits the essential revisions that turn a sketch of a book into a rich and rewarding reading experience.

But if the author resists that initial temptation to send the book out into the world and hires an editor or joins a (good) author collective or finds an innovative small press, that author can experience the benefits of “small.” A collective can define success as a hundred copies sold—or fifty. It can keep books in print throughout the author’s lifetime, building a reputation slowly as more books appear and readers discover them. It can take chances, because the stakes are low: mixing genres, taking the readers along less-traveled paths, publishing novels set in medieval Russia or modern Greece or the reigns of Tudor England that no one writes about because books about Anne Boleyn sell in the millions.

Some people hate joint enterprises. For them, author collectives are no solution. Even a small press is too constraining. Self-publishing is their most appealing option. Others instinctively tune into the zeitgeist and produce books that can and should be picked up by trade publishers, whose skills and experience can connect these authors to their mass-market readers. For those in the middle—the ones who don’t want to go it alone and like having the group’s imprimatur on their work and the knowledge that other writers have their backs—an author collective or a small press may be the ideal match. (The main differences between an author collective and a small press are the financial arrangements and a certain egalitarianism among the members.)

In short, publishing is a big pond, filled with many fish of different sizes and colors, all swimming along yet each in its own little eddy. Which is a lot more fun than a world where one size fits all, don’t you think?

 Thanks to ClipArt Panda for the free fish that became the basis of this week’s image.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Pre-Christmas Sale

So the early results of making two books available for Kindle Unlimited are in: more than twice as many borrows as e-book sales and three times as many e-book sales as print sales. So I’ve decided to experiment with a Kindle Countdown Deal to see what effect that has.

Remember: this is all research, as the two books in question—Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades—were a project that I had expected never to publish until I hunted down the books, revised them heavily, and decided to use them to test the results of going Kindle-only for e-books. I’m glad I revived them, because I had forgotten how much I loved their joint story—and I’m happy with how the revisions came out. But any amount I earn on them is more than I thought I’d make, which keeps my expectations suitably low. And if they attract new readers to my other novels, so much the better.

So here’s the deal. Beginning today and going through 8 AM PST on Monday, December 8, Desert Flower costs 99 cents. From Monday through 4 PM PST on December 12, the price rises to $1.99. After that, it returns to its regular price of $2.99. Kingdom of the Shades will cost 99 cents from 8 AM on Friday, December 12, through Monday, December 15, then go up to $1.99 until Friday, December 19. Then it too returns to $2.99. Closing times for the second promotion are the same as the first.

Apologies to my friends in the UK, the only other marketplace that currently allows Kindle Countdown Deals. Amazon declared the price of the books (set by itself to equal the US dollar price) to be too low by 16p to qualify for a countdown deal. I changed the price to the minimum allowed for such a deal, but then I couldn’t set it up for thirty days. So bear with me, and I will run a countdown deal for you in January. Post-Christmas instead of pre-Christmas, but hey, you need an outlet for all that lovely cash you’ll get for the holidays, right?

So stock up while the price is right. Gift your friends for the holidays. If I get a good response, I’ll try other promotions. And whether you buy these books or not, I do wish you a lovely time preparing for whichever winter celebrations you celebrate.

By the way, the print versions are prettier. They just aren’t on sale. But you can still find them on the sites.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Giving Thanks

Like many people at this time of year, I like to take a moment to be grateful for the good things in my life, which are precious and plentiful. I won’t bore you with a long list; I feel certain that you have a list of your own. Mine includes the usual suspects: Sir Percy and the Filial Unit, of course, but also other family members, friends, good health, a house I love and a pair of sweet cats ever ready to snuggle and play, a lovely neighborhood, a job I enjoy. But it also includes the time and ability to write, the community of writers who support (and critique) my efforts, a publishing climate that makes small presses like Five Directions Press possible and a career that taught me the skills I would need to make use of that climate—and, most of all, the strangers who take the time and spend their hard-earned cash to read and review the products of my imagination. I thank, too, the authors who agree to interviews with New Books in Historical Fiction, without whom the channel would die for lack of content, as well as the many people I have met and interacted with on social media, especially Facebook and Goodreads.

Last, I thank the characters who emerge from the ether or my subconscious, trusting me to bring their stories to life. I’ve had so much fun discovering them and the art of fiction over the last few decades as I went from reader to reader/writer. I hope to spend many more wonderful hours in their company.

So that’s my list. What’s yours?

And oh yes, hope you had a happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Long Arm of the Law

As I have mentioned before, I am a “plot first” writer, which is rather amusing, since I outline my plots only sporadically and early on—or to get my characters out of a hole into which I have inadvertently painted them. But that’s in part because dreaming up plot points comes naturally to me, unlike characterization, which resembles the dragging of large roots from the soil.

As a result, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that I very much enjoyed my interview with Phillip Margolin, whose inventive and twisty plot for Worthy Brown’s Daughter kept me glued to the page. But strange as it may seem, we barely touched on his plot. That’s because in the interviews I always try to avoid spoilers, and Margolin’s plot has enough zigs and zags that the simplest question threatened to give away something crucial.

Instead, we discussed the law. Margolin spent years as a practicing criminal defense attorney, whereas I can’t remember making it through a single episode of Perry Mason. Sir Percy, my esteemed spouse, likes to joke that he got the lowest-ever-recorded scores on the LSAT, but at least he had the nerve to take the exam. Maybe that’s why I decided to specialize in medieval Russia, a time and place where the entire law code fit on a few sheets of paper.

But as Worthy Brown’s Daughter shows, justice had hurdles to overcome in the Wild West, too. In a territory where judges rode their circuits armed with six-shooters and attitude, looking for a handy field or tavern to hear cases, and where the government deprived entire segments of the population of their civil rights, winning a lawsuit or surviving a criminal accusation became a matter of skill, connections, or luck. Colorful characters, shady pasts, and courtroom dramas (some taking place in impromptu courtrooms) abound in this exploration of the U.S. Northwest during the early days of what is now the liberal state of Oregon. Let’s just say it was a lot less liberal then. To find out how, listen to the interview. It’s free, after all (although we love it if you choose to make a donation).

The rest of this post comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction site.

The year is 1860, months before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. Officially, slavery does not exist in Oregon, but the brand-new U.S. state has no compunction about driving most African-Americans out of its territory and violating the civil rights of the few permitted to remain. Worthy Brown, once a slave, has followed his master from Georgia on the understanding that he and his daughter will receive their freedom in return for helping their master establish his homestead near Portland. Indeed, the master, Caleb Barbour, does emancipate Worthy Brown as agreed. But he refuses to let go of Worthy’s fifteen-year-old daughter.

Worthy’s options for securing his daughter’s release are limited, but he obtains support from Matthew Penny, a recently widowed young lawyer just arrived from Ohio. Alas, Caleb Barbour is also a lawyer, wealthier and better connected than Matthew, and their clash of personalities unleashes a series of events that threatens not only their own lives but those of Worthy and his daughter. In 1860, Oregon is, after all, a state where even the local circuit judge relies on his pistol as much as or more than his law books.

Phillip Margolin, a former criminal defense lawyer, turns his attention to the past in Worthy Brown’s Daughter (HarperCollins, 2014). Although the story is loosely based on an actual law case from the Oregon Territory, the twists in the plot are Margolin’s own—and, as one would expect from the author of numerous bestselling contemporary literary thrillers, those twists and turns will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Friday, November 14, 2014

50,000 Pins and Needles

Last week I wrote about Storyist, a specialized Mac/iOS program for novelists, screenwriters, and short-story writers, and bloggers. (I use it for this blog, for example). The context was National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a contest/group writing exercise started several years ago. You might think, as a result, that I take part in NaNo.

In fact, I do not. I tried it once, in 2010, and hated it. I did better with Script Frenzy, an offshoot of NaNo that seems to have fallen by the wayside since I tried it in 2009. So why do I no longer take part?

The main deterrent is not, as you might think, lack of time. To “win” at NaNo, you agree to produce 50,000 words in a month. That’s a tall order, unless you can ignore work, family, exercise, and sleep for thirty days. But I wrote the first draft of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel in three weeks, and that totaled 55,000 words. So it can be done, and I’ve done it. That’s not the problem.

Of course, it helps to feel inspired. When I sat down to type out NESP, I’d played with the story in my head for months, working out every detail. That kind of story doesn’t roll past every day, but there’s no rule that stops participants from planning their story in advance. Work out a plot and characters who will experience conflicts that speak to you, ask questions for which you’d like to know the answers, or borrow someone else’s universe (understanding that you’re writing not for publication but for practice), and you may come up with a book that writes itself. And if you don’t, just keep on slogging. You can always scramble the text before you send it in.

So then, what’s the problem? I love to write; I know what I need to do to succeed; I have enough experience to develop plot, characters, and conflict. What’s holding me back?

It’s the deadlines. That relentless little chart that shows how close I am to the goal, how many words I need to write today, what I will need to produce every day to finish, and how far I’m likely to fall behind November 30 if I don’t pick up the pace. I detest these charts with a passion, and there’s no way to turn them off. It’s a contest, after all, with a distinct goal and time frame. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days is the point of the whole exercise.

I’m not proud of this reaction, but I have to acknowledge it. The deadlines turn writing my novels, a hobby that has always brought true joy, into the equivalent of being a kid forced to eat her broccoli (and for the record, when not forced, I love broccoli). That November in 2010 I couldn’t wait to leave my desk. I procrastinated like crazy. During the week, I watched the wretched charts shoot my completion date farther into January. At the weekends, I crammed to catch up, writing paragraphs that were little more than nonsense syllables just to fill the space. And none of it was fun. The minute I hit 50,000 words I stopped, vowing never to subject myself to that again. And I never have.

I still think NaNoWriMo is a great idea—for other people, less obsessed with charts and progress. I wish all this year’s participants well. May they enjoy exploring the highways and byways of their subconscious minds and the antics of their characters. May they relish the journey whether they reach the endpoint or not. I will wave to them from the sidelines, where I will be writing The Swan Princess, free of charts.

(For those others, not me!)

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Technology of Writing

In honor of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which began last Saturday, I decided to chat about options for producing novels, short stories, and screenplays. The technical aspects, if you like, of writing in the Internet Age.

Some people write longhand, in pencil on legal pads. Some pound out their manuscripts on electric or manual typewriters. I prefer a computer—the bad typist’s best friend. Specifically, I use Storyist, as I mentioned when this blog was brand-new.

Let me say right up front that Storyist won’t work for everyone. It runs on the Mac and on iOS devices, syncing files between computer and iPad with minimal fuss. Windows users have Scrivener—and other programs about which I know less. But their features are similar, if not exactly the same. So the question remains: Why pay for—and learn—a dedicated novel-writing program? Why not stick with a word processor? This post explains why. 

First, let me show you a screen shot.


Here you see the opening paragraph of The Winged Horse, combined with a photo gallery of my characters (I’m an intensely visual writer, so I love to imagine my characters while I’m telling their stories). On the left, you can see the Project View, which lists the different kinds of information that Storyist can hold: plot points, character and setting descriptions, research, notes and writing exercises, synopses and more. Already we’re in territory a word processor can’t touch, where I can write in one window while displaying other useful information in various ways.

The second screen shot shows a different view of The Winged Horse. Here you can see the chapters of the novel listed on the left. The character images still appear on the right, but the center manuscript has become a set of index cards representing chapter 1, each containing notes about the individual scenes—their purpose in the story, what they need to convey. If I were to double-click on a card, I would enter its collage, where I could write comments or drag pictures of the characters and settings associated with that section.

The third screen shot comes from The Swan Princess, the book I started this summer. So far, I have only about ten pages of text, which is sure to change as I write, so instead I’m showing the individual character sheet for Nasan, the heroine. It includes fields that came with the program (age, gender, eye color, hair color, build), fields that I defined (patronymic, character type, emotional makeup), my image of the character, and moments in her development—her character arc—linked to scenes in the story where that development takes place. I can show and hide these fields as I like. On the right I’ve displayed the novel’s main settings in outline mode, the third available option (besides text and grid—that is, index cards or photographs). On the left sits the usual list of folders, expanded to show different sets of information. I can get rid of windows, stack them on top of each other instead of side by side, or go into full screen mode and show only the manuscript.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that multiple options have their downside. Learning a new program takes time you could have spent writing. It costs money (although less than some word processors). And just as it’s possible to workshop a novel to death, you can spend so much time plotting and constructing timelines, defining character traits, and collecting data that you forget to write the story. Everything in moderation, as they say.

But the upside is huge. When I can’t remember the color of a character’s eyes or how old that person is in this book, I click into the appropriate sheet, then back to my manuscript, without losing minutes or hours. I can search the entire project for facts, words, or phrases. (Did I overuse “gadget”? I can find out in a flash.) For calculating distances or sketching out a story, saving that great page I found on the Internet or reusing information from a previous book, Storyist is invaluable. When I get farther into the story and want to read it as a book, I can export an ePub or Kindle file; when I need to send chapters to my fellow writers, I save the manuscript as RTF; when I get that great idea right after I’ve shut down my computer, I type it into the iPad app and sync it back to Dropbox. If I need an overview of the story or a shorthand list of characters or settings, the outline view exists for that purpose—and I can export that, too, for distribution in Word. In all these ways, Storyist helps me make good use of my time.

I don’t bother with every bell and whistle. My character and setting sheets remain half-filled, I have yet to produce a complete set of plot points, and it’s a rare book that contains more than a few section sheets. My timeline is perennially out-of-date. Full screen mode leaves me cold, and I tend to forget the collages exist until I stumble over them. But the options I do use, I use every day, and I like knowing the others are there if I need them. When I’ve painted my protagonist into a corner, I set up index cards to walk her out. I add fields to track characters’ internal and external goals. If a chapter seems flat, sheets show where the conflict died. At the end of each book, I save a template to preserve all that work for the next one.

I stay in Storyist until the last minute, then export the RTF files to InDesign for final typesetting. Any revisions I make go back into the Storyist file, which in turn becomes the basis for the e-book versions. At the moment, I still do a bit of final formatting in Scrivener, which lets me remove first-line indents from chapter and section opening paragraphs. But otherwise I produce my novels entirely in Storyist.

If what I’ve said interests you, this is the perfect time to explore: NaNoWriMo participants can get a 25% discount in November. At any time, you can download a demo from the Storyist site. And if right now you need to focus on cranking out those 50,000 words, don’t forget that November 2015 will arrive before you know it. Plot out your next book and characters in Storyist, and you’ll be halfway to the finish line before NaNoWriMo even starts!

I am not employed or otherwise financially compensated by Storyist Software, although I have voluntarily acted as a beta tester for the program since 2007.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Gremlins and Goblins

As luck would have it, this is the first year since I began keeping this blog when Hallowe’en has fallen on a Friday, my usual day for posting updates. So today’s title is a tip of the hat to the holiday, even though I’m far beyond the age when I do more than stand at the door and pour candy into the bags held by eager trick-or-treaters.

Alas, that title is also a far too apt reference to the state of my writing life these days. Gremlins and goblins torment my poor Swan Princess at every turn, making progress slower than the proverbial molasses right when I was hoping that changes to my work life might leave me with more free time to write.

The source of my troubles is not writers’ block or even simple procrastination, although finding the right story for this sixth novel has proven more of a challenge than the other five combined (well, except for The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, but that was a different problem—I had the main plot in three weeks, but setting up the right frame took forever). No, I know more or less what I want to write and how my characters should grow. The problem is literally finding time to spend on fiction at all. And the reason for that harks back to the situation I described in early August.

You see, I had decided not to continue freelancing for the company where I had worked for twenty years, but then the new owners convinced me to change my mind, at least in part. Meanwhile, I had accepted two book manuscripts from different publishers. One was delayed, the other arrived early, the company about to close its doors wanted the current projects finished so it could settle its books, and my main job entered its quarterly frenzy mode associated with getting the latest issue to press on time—in short, I hit a traffic jam. As a result, I’ve been working eight hours a day, six days a week. Sundays go to writing the weekly blog post and, if it’s a New Books in Historical Fiction week, preparing draft questions and finding a free hour to host the interview itself.

So I anticipate that the next few weeks will be hectic, with short posts and few (or no) chapters written on the next book. But I hope the ideas are percolating somewhere in the back of my brain, so that by the time the skies clear in mid-November I will have a fully formed story ready to flow onto the virtual page. Because I miss my characters and the world they inhabit, as well as the satisfaction that fiction writing brings. So take the candy, gremlins and goblins, and leave my Kolychevs alone!

Thanks to Shutterstock for its free picture of the week, no. 220614172.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pearls and Shells

As noted in the post I wrote about my interview with Laurel Corona, “Hidden Lives,” historical fiction can play a special role in illuminating the everyday experiences of women—even today, when historians have made considerable progress in “giving voice to the voiceless,” to borrow a phrase. Nadia Hashimi, author of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell and the subject of my October interview, performs this service for two characters—one in the present, the other in the past. Rahima, the main protagonist in the novel, lives in the early twenty-first century; her great-great-grandmother Shekiba a hundred years earlier. Yet their stories compare and contrast with each other in startling and illuminating ways.

Shekiba and Rahima live in rural Afghanistan, on either side of the cultural divide represented by the modernized, peaceful Afghanistan of the 1950s and 1960s—before the Soviet invasion, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda sent the country reeling back in time. Hashimi’s parents grew up in that period, when women could achieve an education and even study abroad, and it constitutes a major theme of our interview. It is important to remember the existence of that Afghanistan, which is slowly re-emerging from the shadows of fundamentalism and war.

But that Afghanistan is not the world Rahima and Shekiba inhabit. Shekiba, burned and disfigured in childhood, loses most of her family to a cholera epidemic. Her mother goes mad, then dies, leaving only Shekiba to assist her grieving father until he, too, passes away. She has no opportunity to attend school. Rahima’s father pulls his daughters out to protect their honor after one too many boys thoughtlessly teases them and marries her off at thirteen to a warlord three times her age. Shekiba, too, marries men not of her own choosing and must adapt to homes in which she is not the chief wife. Both suffer abuse from their husbands and in-laws; both experience the powerlessness forced on them by birth.

A grim tale, you may think. Yet in the end it is not, because even this traditional (re-traditionalized?) society offers an “out.” Rahima, the third of five daughters, becomes a bacha posh—a girl dressed and treated as a boy—which allows her to return to school and work to support her family. Shekiba finds her way to Kabul, where she joins the women dressed as men who guard the king’s harem. Each of them learns to look others in the eye; each of them internalizes the greater power, authority, and self-confidence enjoyed by men. Each of them uses that experience, when life forces her back into female roles, to fight for her identity, to break the shell that would keep her in her place. Their solutions differ, and in that we can trace the changes wrought by time. But the process itself is timeless. Their journey is the same as ours, as anyone’s.

The rest of this post comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction site. By the way, the Kindle and iBooks versions of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell are $1.99 through October 27, 2014.

Women in the Western world take many things for granted: the right to an education and a career, to walk in the street unaccompanied, to make personal decisions, to choose a marriage partner—or whether to marry at all.

Female characters in historical fiction seldom enjoy such control over their own lives. Even today, as Nadia Hashimi shows in The Pearl That Broke Its Shell (William Morrow, 2014), the lives of women in rural Afghanistan remain as constrained by traditional demands as they were centuries ago. Afghanistan is far from the only place where such a statement applies.

Yet this restricted cultural space includes customs that temporarily allow girls to live as boys or women as men. Male dominance of society can, it seems, withstand the cross-dressing of individual females. Through the lives of two young women living a century apart—Rahima, whose family turns her for a while into the son her mother did not have, and her great-great-grandmother Shekiba, ordered to don men’s clothes and guard the king’s harem—Hashimi explores the contradictions of gender stereotypes, the power of tradition, and the lessons of her own heritage.

What is given can also be taken away, and Rahima and Shekiba are soon forced to live as wives and mothers after experiencing the greater freedom and authority granted to men. As they struggle to retain their sense of themselves in a world determined to return them to their place, each of the women must decide whether to adapt or to escape.

“Seawater begs the pearl to break its shell,” wrote the thirteenth-century poet Rumi. This lyrical, passionate, uncompromising novel reveals the undying power of the human spirit even in the harshest of circumstances. It should be on everyone’s list.

And just a reminder: the GoodReads giveaway of The Winged Horse started yesterday, so if you live in the United States, don’t forget to sign up. And if you don’t live in the United States, send me a message (you can find contact information on the “About Me” page of this blog). I’ll make sure to let you know when I launch a worldwide giveaway.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Beating the Drum

It’s no secret that I am miserable at self-promotion. I can talk up other people’s books from morning to night, but my own? Forget it. What I love best about New Books in Historical Fiction is the opportunity to showcase other writers. I have no desire to become the kind of person who irritates everyone she meets by screaming “buy my books!” at every opportunity. Writing this blog is fun. Posting and re-pinning pictures on Pinterest, a breeze. Facebook and Twitter, when I have time to visit either, allow me to connect with old friends and make new ones. Folks on GoodReads chat about books, which I love. Still, friendship—even virtual friendship—vanishes fast in the face of self-promotion. Social media offer great ways to communicate with people, but no one wants to feel as if the others in a conversation are there only until they’ve figured out how to pick everyone’s pockets.

At the same time, one must be realistic. Before readers can buy a book, they have to know it exists. And new books appear in the hundreds, if not thousands, every day. Many of them, to be blunt, could use better editing, professional typesetting and cover design, and, most important, more time spent perfecting the writing. How is a poor reader to wade through the deluge of titles and find the islets of books worth reading, never mind the works of a particular author?

Someone has to tell them. Traditional publishers have publicists and marketing departments to perform that function, as well as an in with major review publications and bookstores. The rest of us have to find a way to let potential readers know (and remind them) without becoming annoying.

That’s relatively easy when a book is first published. At that point, I feel as if I’m giving people information, even useful information. And there’s some evidence that my readers agree. I have put out three novels this year—The Winged Horse in June, on schedule, then (off-schedule, because I wanted to test the effects of Kindle Unlimited) Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades in late August/early September. On both occasions, I saw a rise in sales during the first month, extending to other books of mine.

But then comes the drop-off as the people who have already encountered my work read their copies of the new books and move on. Some of those readers (you know who you are, and I thank you!) write reviews. Most of the reviews are good. My books routinely pull in ratings of four and five stars—not only from friends—with readers applauding the generally high quality of the writing, especially the characterization, as well as the absence of errors. Although I lay no claim to be the next Austen or Tolstoy, I have reason to believe that the books themselves do not disappoint. But important as reviews are, there is some question as to how much credence prospective readers place in them, given various people’s attempts to manipulate the system. So what else is out there?

Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners Lending Library do seem to be a plus, selling and lending more books than I lose from other sources. Although I don’t intend to move all my books to KDP Select anytime soon, I will explore the pluses and minuses of launching Kindle Countdown Deals on the two currently enrolled. Yet I still find myself wondering: what is the next big thing, the Facebook or Instagram of the future? My project for the next few months is to explore this question. Stay tuned for results.

Meanwhile, if you belong to GoodReads, my giveaway of The Winged Horse (U.S. only, because GoodReads requires print copies, and postage has become exorbitant) opens on October 23, the four-month anniversary of the original publication, and runs for a month. Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades are already available to borrow through Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners Lending Library—and, in defiance of Amazon’s suggested e-book price of $4.99, cost only $2.99 each. You can find samples of several books at my website, and all are accessible through the “Look Inside the Book” feature at So give one of them a try: you just might find your next best read where you least expect it.

If you have advice or experience you’d like to share, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear what has (and hasn’t) worked for other people, as well as which approaches readers like—and which they hate.

Image: Clipart no. 32149408.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fathers and Sons

There’s nothing quite like returning to a book last read in college, especially with the intention of leading a discussion about it with a group of dedicated readers. I barely remembered Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons when I agreed to become (somewhat of) an authority on it for the sake of the Dead Writers Society, although I did have a generally positive sense of the book—far more than I had of certain other classics of world literature that shall remain nameless (John Milton, I’m looking at you). I recalled the nihilist Bazarov and his impact on the gentry family whose country estate becomes the setting for the generational clash that defines the novel, although even if pressed I couldn’t have told you their names. That was about it. But between the erudite introduction to the Signet/NAL version that I still owned (price on the cover, 60¢, which tells you just how long ago I read the book), the reference works scattered around my office, and the mega-cheat sheet that is the Internet, I figured I was good to go.

In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Turgenev. Like many twenty-year-olds reading a book under compulsion and worried about the exam to come, I missed the subtlety of Turgenev’s characterization and language, which shine through even in translation, the first time around. I had not then studied Russian history, so the significance of the date—1859, two years before the emancipation of the serfs, a time when planning for the emancipation was already underway—passed me by. I had a nodding acquaintance with the Slavophiles and Westernizers, so I knew that Turgenev was assigned to the latter group and that the nihilists came later, expressing a more radical and political viewpoint. But I didn’t see that Nikolai (Nicholas) Kirsanov, the gentry landowner, is a man of both the past (his peasant mistress) and the future (he has already divided his land with the local villagers in return for rents that they refuse to pay); that his son, Arkady, will one day be just like his father, despite his brief flirtation with au courant ideas; and that Bazarov, although ostensibly a radical skeptic, is knocked off his perch by old-fashioned romance. Indeed, the woman he falls for, Madame Odintsov, is in her way a better nihilist than he is; she soon sends him about his business, his ideological principles revealed as a cover for uncouth behavior and what was then known as “lack of address” but which we might call nerdiness.

The devil is in the details, as they say, and Turgenev’s details are marvelous. Consider this early introduction: “Bazarov came hurrying through the garden, taking the flower-beds in his stride. His linen coat and trousers were spattered with mud; a clinging marsh plant had twined itself round the crown of his circular hat; in his right hand he held a small sack, and something was wriggling inside it” (chapter 5, George Reavy’s translation).

Not exactly the way to endear yourself to a bunch of aristocrats who for the last hour or so have been expecting you to join them for tea. Yet Bazarov sees no problem, brusquely admitting that the sack contains frogs and he plans to experiment with them. Which he obviously does, because that evening “the two friends went off to Bazarov’s room, which was already pervaded by a sort of medico-surgical odor, mingled with the smell of cheap tobacco” (chapter 7, Constance Garnett’s translation). And this on an estate where at least one person, Arkady’s uncle, prides himself on maintaining his cultured St. Petersburg style, however rustic his surroundings. But then, Arkady’s uncle, Paul or Pavel depending on the translation, and Bazarov find themselves instantly at loggerheads. Bazarov at one point calls Pavel an “old fogey” to his face—an even bigger social solecism in 1859 than it would be today. Their relationship goes downhill from there.

Yet whatever his flaws, Bazarov is not a cliché. His awkward, impassioned character stands at the heart of the novel. He changes the lives of those around him, ordinary people with everyday concerns—so much more like most of us than the idealists and world-changers. It is as if Turgenev wants us to realize that big ideas affect everyone: those who push for social change, those who resist it, those who regard it with puzzlement, those who do their best to adapt, even those who try to ignore it. In Fathers and Sons he creates examples of all five kinds of people, throws them together, and shows us the sparks that fly when they meet.

The book is not perfect. The plot at times seems forced and the conflict contrived. The relationship between Bazarov and Madame Odintsov moves too fast for plausibility, and the ending strikes me as a cop-out, less a resolution than an example of the author’s unwillingness to let an awkward situation play itself out to its logical conclusion. But for a book that fits into two hundred pages, the thing is a masterpiece. Politics, economics, culture, gender relations, youth vs. age, city vs. country, tradition vs. science—Turgenev paints it all with delicate water colors that revive the world of Russia before the Great Reforms and make it real, even now, almost 150 years later. That’s an extraordinary achievement.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Art of Translation

This week I interviewed my second translator for New Books in Historical Fiction. As luck would have it, both books were originally published in Russian. The first  interview, Liv Bliss discussing Dmitry Chen’s The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas, focuses on Central Asia and Iran in the mid-eighth century and can be considered classic historical fiction. This week’s interview with Oliver Ready comes closer to historical fantasy, but not the kind that involves vampires or werewolves or even the spirit messengers that enliven my Legends of the Five Directions series, who are not intended to be “real” so much as natural elements of the world as understood by my characters. Rather, as you can see from the description below, Sharov’s narrator challenges the facts of biology as well as history.

I have not read either novel in the original, but I was struck in both cases by how smoothly the translators rendered these complex stories into English. So I thought that for this week’s post it would be interesting to chat a bit not only about translation as an art but about art as a form of translation. Good translators do not mechanically match words between languages. Instead, they seek equivalent expressions, words that carry the right connotations, phrases and images that can evoke in readers of the target culture an experience similar to that produced in readers of the original culture. This enterprise includes an element of creativity, a sensitivity to language and social systems, that machine translation systems—remarkable as they are—simply cannot provide.

But authors, too, perform a kind of translation. Artists (writers, dancers, athletes, performers) yearn for the state of creativity that psychologists call “flow,” where the ego disappears and the artist becomes wholly absorbed by the activity. It feels like transcendence, as Sasha tries to explain to Danion in Desert Flower.A writer in “flow” does not experience him- or herself as creating but as recording a film or tape made up of characters’ actions, emotions, and words, of settings and costumes. The film originates in the writer’s imagination but appears to come from outside. The subconscious takes over, the writer becomes a translator—and many writers see themselves as at best inadequate to convey the images playing out in their minds.

Writers need good translators. Characters need good writer/translators. And readers need both, if they are to enjoy the full benefit of others’ creativity at work. So let’s hear it for the art of translation—and the translation of art.

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

Historical fiction, by definition, supplements the verifiable documentary record with elements of the imagination. Otherwise, it is not fiction but history. These elements often include invented characters, made-up dialogue, the filling in of vague or unknowable events and personalities. Through the more or less careful manipulation of historical truth, the novelist seeks to uncover a deeper emotional truth that speaks to both the reality of a past time and the needs of the present.

Before and During (Dedalus Books, 2014)—Vladimir Sharov’s exploration of Soviet life and the revolutionary movement that preceded it, skillfully translated by Oliver Ready—pushes historical invention to its limits. Set in a Moscow psychiatric hospital circa 1965, the novel follows a patient identified only as Alyosha as he pursues his self-assigned quest to create a Memorial Book of the Dead, à la Ivan the Terrible, by recording the life stories of those around him and people of importance in his own past. One fellow-patient, Ifraimov, launches into a long and fantastical account of reincarnation, philosophy, revolution, free love, and incest that sweeps from Mme de Staël and Lev Tolstoy to Lenin and Stalin—assiduously recorded by Alyosha.

As Sharov’s English-language publisher puts it, “Out of these intoxicating, darkly comic fantasies—all described in a serious, steady voice—Sharov seeks to retrieve the hidden connections and hidden strivings of the Russian past, its wild, lustful quest for justice, salvation, and God.” It’s quite a ride. But if you love Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, this book’s for you.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Advice from the Field

Back in August 2013, I mentioned in passing a book called The Triskele Trail. At the time, I was initiating my “Hidden Gems” rubric (expect a new entry in that series soon) with a look at The Charter, by Triskele author Gillian Hamer. I planned to get back to The Triskele Trail, which I enjoyed, in a later post, but life got in the way and I forgot.

Just as well, as it turns out, because Triskele Books has just released a much expanded version of its “how we did it” guide, now called The Triskele Trail: 2014 Edition—A Pathway to Independent Publishing and endowed with a spiffy new cover (although the old cover was pretty good, too). Triskele is also hosting a giveaway of the book—for the link, see the bottom of this post.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must mention here that although Five Directions Press, the writers’ cooperative/indie press of which I am a part, had nothing to do with the Triskele Trail project, we are featured in “How a Collective Works #2,” an updated version of the interview exchange previously published here and on the Triskele Books blog. So my present post makes no claims to being a dispassionate review. My intent is to get the word out, because this is a genuinely helpful guide to the basics of self-publishing and the benefits of working with a supportive group of fellow-writers rather than going it alone.

Triskele Books itself began as a group of five authors—Gillian Hamer, JJ Marsh, Liza Perrat, JD Smith, and Catriona Troth. The collective has grown since then, but these five remain the heart of the enterprise. In this they resemble Five Directions Press, which has published books by five separate authors (and hopes to add more) but is managed by the writers’ group that first came up with the idea. The Triskele Trail starts by describing the founding of the group and its philosophy. Like the cooperative, the guide is a collective enterprise, with the various members contributing chapters on the areas where they feel most competent to comment.

The bulk of the book addresses basic questions that beginning authors need to know: Why publish independently? Whom to trust? How do other collectives operate? What do editors and proofreaders do, and how do you find one? What is an ISBN, and how do you get one? What do the various publishing acronyms—ARC, AI, barcode, blind folio, QRC, etc.—mean? When do you need an EIN (employee identification number), and for what purpose? How do you get anyone, anywhere, to notice and buy your book without driving your 300 Facebook friends stark, staring bonkers with your self-promotion? Good cover design and book formatting—what are the guiding principles, how do you implement them, and when should you hire a professional to do the job for you? Copyright: how do you assert your own and avoid infringing other people’s?

All important questions, and the answers are delivered in clear, easy-to-follow prose, punctuated by interviews with other collectives as well as (developmental and copy, not publishing-house) editors and lists of useful resources. The authors make it clear from the beginning that these are not rules to follow so much as suggestions based on their own experience, what worked for them and what didn’t. Much of the advice focuses on the UK market, but even so, I learned a lot from this book—and I’ve spent the last twenty years in academic publishing, not to mention the last two accumulating my own list of triumphs and mistakes as my fellow-authors and I struggle to get Five Directions Press off the ground.

Even if you decide not to self-publish, you will find much of value in The Triskele Trail. Today’s publishing environment assumes that authors will polish their manuscripts before submitting them to literary agents or publishers and will play a significant role in marketing and promoting their own work. And although in-house departments may handle editing, cover design, and sales, it never hurts to understand and appreciate what the professionals contribute.

So if you’re writing the Great American (Canadian, British) novel, take a look at The Triskele Trail. And if you’ve wondered about self-publishing but worry about the amount of work required, consider a cooperative. You may be surprised to discover how much support is out there, and how much you can learn from authors who have traveled a little farther along the path.

From Thursday, September 25, through Sunday, September 28, 2014, you can enter to win a free e-book copy of The Triskele Trail at the Triskele Books blog. You can enter through Facebook or by using your e-mail address.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Hitting the Books

I have spent my entire adult life studying Russian history and culture, especially that of the sixteenth century. My main published nonfiction work is a translation of sixteenth-century Russia’s one domestic conduct (that is, how to run your household) book, known as Domostroi. Yet as I prepare to refocus my novelistic energy from the imaginary planet Tarkei and the very real world of ballet to my recently completed outline for The Swan Princess (Legends of the Five Directions 3: North), I find myself astonished to discover yet again how many basic questions of everyday life remain largely unaddressed in the historical literature.

For example, my plan for this novel requires one of the series characters to suffer an ailment of the heart. (The exact ailment, although known to me, would not be clearly distinguished by characters at the time, no matter how many medical books Nasan consults.) It’s a relatively common ailment, with symptoms and medical treatments easily researched on the Internet and elsewhere, but I have yet to answer such basic questions for sixteenth-century Russia as:

  • How would a self-educated young Tatar woman think about heart problems? How do they fit into the “four humors/three essences” theory of medicine characteristic of European and Islamic medicine at the time?
  • What drugs or other remedies would be available? Which would be common knowledge and available from local healers? Which would be strange enough that they might cause conflict between Nasan and her patient?
  • Would any of these treatments be effective? If so, how do they work, and what would my budding doctor see?
Given the problems with medicine in this time and place, moreover, the most sensible and undoubtedly preferred course for this character would be a religious pilgrimage. That raises another host of questions:
  • Could a group of noblewomen accompanied by a suitable number of guards and servants expect to stay at the monastery that is their ultimate destination, or would they have to go to a convent?
  • If they stay in a guesthouse, what would it look like?
  • Could they attend services in the monastery chapel, or would they go to a church? Would they attend services at all, or just wait outside with the crowd for the monks to process by with the holy icons and bless them?
  • If they do attend services, would the patient be permitted to sit on account of her social station and her illness, or would she have to stand like everyone else—at least until she keeled over and had to be carried out?
  • If, as required by the mores of the time, the noblewomen travel with veils over their faces, under what circumstances would they remove the veils while on the monastery grounds?
  • If they remain veiled, would other characteristics—their own or those of their retinue—reveal their identities to the antagonist waiting in the wings?
And so it goes. Every tiny plot point (and this is just a rough outline!) reveals complex details that require elucidation. If the information does not exist, I can make it up; I’m working as a novelist here, not a historian. But ensuring that no one now knows the answers—that’s where the work comes in and where I inevitably make mistakes.

I don’t mind the search. I am, after all, a historian first. I love to research. But oh, what I wouldn’t give for The Time Traveler’s Guide to Ivan the Terrible’s Russia or What Anastasia Ate and Elena Glinskaya Wore or some other quick and dirty guide to the nitty-gritty specifics of early modern Russian life. 

Well, so long as it was accurate. Which I guess would bring me right back where I started....

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, Fortune Telling (before 1915), via Wikimedia Commons. This picture is in the public domain in the United States because of its age. 

The girls are studying a rooster, whose choice of grains they believe has predictive significance—probably as effective as much medieval medicine.

Friday, September 12, 2014

What's in a Name?

Among the often-overlooked and under-appreciated elements that go into preparing novels for publication are the people increasingly known as “beta readers” (after the “beta users” who form such an important part of testing software programs before release). Beta readers kick the tires of novels that have gone through numerous drafts and appear ready for release. Typically, they have not seen the book before; in this sense, they stand in for the readers who will approach the novel without prior preparation—unlike a writers’ group, which has had intense and direct contact with both book and author from the beginning. A good writers’ group can be invaluable, but eventually novels have to face the world without the benefit of prior acquaintance, and beta readers oversee an important transition point on that journey.

For Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades, I especially needed good beta readers. I had begun the novels early in my fiction-writing life, while my sense of what constituted good writing remained somewhat hazy. And although I felt pretty comfortable that I recognized what needed fixing, I desperately wanted someone else to assure me that the revised books merited publication. I was lucky not only to find a good friend to bounce ideas off in the early stages but to find two great beta readers as well (in the interests of full disclosure, one of the two is a member of my writers’ group, but she had never seen these books before or discussed them with me and in fact learned of their existence about five minutes before they landed in her in box).

Their comments were interesting, enlightening, and helpful, but the one that gives rise to today’s post is a question: how do I come up with names for characters and places in my stories?

Good question. The true answer is, “It varies.” But the process offers some fun insights into how writers think, so I decided to share them.

With the Legends of the Five Directions series, the answer is fairly simple. For the Russians, I look for names appropriate to the period with minimal alternate forms. Russians love nicknames, and most names have several variants that express closeness at a given moment—from full name and patronymic (formal, showing respect) to super-affectionate. In the sixteenth century, when my stories are set, there were also forms assigned to people with lower social standing, now called pejoratives and most often used among criminals. These are the forms assigned to my servant and soldier characters: Stenka is one example.

I don’t follow every convention of the time: for example, women often used their husband’s name instead of their father’s, and family names were not yet set. Except when forced by circumstances such as baptism or monastic vows that necessitated a name change, I try to give each character one name appropriate to his or her station and stick to it throughout the series. Place names are not a problem because they are all historical, although the place associated with the name today, if it still exists, may bear little resemblance to its sixteenth-century self.

With my Tatar characters, I initially botched it by pulling in every Tatar or Mongol name I could think of. After a while, I realized that “Tatar” was not one amorphous group but many subcultures, some of which had “dibs” on certain names (Girei—also anglicized as Giray or Girey—for example, was associated with the rulers of Crimea). These days I use a list, downloaded from the Internet, which tells me not only the names but where they originate. As much as possible, I favor names of Turkic or Persian origin, although there are lots of Muhammads and Ibrahims in Tatar history, too. Ideally, the name says something about the character: Bulat, for example, means “steel” in Tatar. Gulnara derives from gul—flower, especially a rose—more appropriate, perhaps, in that lady’s youth than when we meet her in middle age. Diliara has the connotation of sweetness, and Firuza means “turquoise,” a semiprecious gem traditionally perceived to have healing powers.

All this sounds very rational and planned. But what happens when I try to change a character’s name? I’ve made such attempts on several occasions, for one reason or another. Nina Pennington, in The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, began life as Sara. But around the time I was ready to release the book, I ran into numerous heroines named Sara and decided to change mine. Sounds simple enough, but it took forever to find a name that suited the character as well. Eventually I settled on Ninel, shortened to Nina, and that stuck. Sort of—I still call her Sara if I don’t stop and remind myself otherwise.

Girei, in The Golden Lynx, as well as his parents Bulat and Sumbeka were less successful examples. It turned out to be easier to manufacture a connection to Crimea than to find an alternate name for Girei. Nothing “felt” quite right, to me or my writers’ group. Bulat and Sumbeka worked well until I decided to set part of The Winged Horse in Kazan, which in 1534 contained a historical Bulat (Shirin) and Söyëmbike (the Tatar name Russianized as Sumbeka). Again I wrestled with alternatives before deciding that it was simpler to change the new characters’ names than the old ones’, not least because it avoided any overlaps between the historical originals and my inventions.

So how do I come up with names? I research, in part, but mostly I seem to capture them out of the ether, settling only when I sense a fit between the name and a character’s personality. Not a satisfactory answer, perhaps, but a true one. When it feels right, I go with it. I just try to ensure that the results remain possible within that time and space. 

When the time and space are my own—as with the Tarkei Chronicles—then I let my imagination run free, pulling in every language where I have even a passing acquaintance as raw material and trying to ensure that the final choices don’t tip too far in one direction and sound like the places and people linked to them. For sounds themselves convey meaning, and like music one has to hear them in combination to know what feels right. Developing an ear for language is (or should be) part of a writer’s job—and a fun job it is.

Image: Rosa rubinginosa © 2005 Stan Shebs
Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License 1.2.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Pixels Versus Print

Or the Dangers of Editing on Screen

As you know from reading these posts, I’ve spent the last five to six weeks overhauling Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades for publication in the KDP Select program run by But because publishing with KDP Select governs only e-book sales—and because I love print books (for why, see “The Beauty of Books”)—I designed and typeset paperback versions of the books as well. It’s been an education, and I decided the main lesson might make a good subject for this week’s post.

Normally, I prepare print editions first and deal with the e-books as close to the end of the process as possible. There’s a practical reason for working this way: good typesetting technique requires facing pages to match in length, and with the short paragraphs typical of dialogue-laden novels, getting that to happen often requires last-minute paragraph breaks or editing. E-books are more flexible in that regard.

But this time, because my focus was on the e-books, I prepared the two editions side-by-side—and a rare pain it was, too, trying to ensure that not only did every change to the typesetting get echoed in the e-book file but that I introduced no typos in either while correcting each one separately. Throughout my two weeks of vacation, I went through the 155,000-word Tarkei Chronicles time after time: reading the PDF, proofing the e-book, entering new corrections, repeating the whole process until my brain was whirling like Sasha’s thirty-two fouettés. Even after the vacation ended, I read files in the evenings and entered corrections at the end of my workday.

Altogether, I went through the two books six times each—and then went back to include the suggestions of my loyal beta readers and proofed them again. Surely, they were ready. I uploaded the .mobi files to Kindle Direct Publishing and the PDFs to CreateSpace, ordered proof copies of the print books, and sat back to wait. No errors, right?

Hah. The print proofs arrived, and as soon as I opened the first one, I saw a pair of doubled words that had escaped me in the seven previous rounds. And then another pair, and another. The second book referred to itself instead of its partner in the “More by This Author” section, the result of injudicious copying and insufficient editing. And so it went. In the end, I sat down with a notepad and pen and read both books cover to cover, noting every single infelicity of phrasing, set of doubled words, unneeded adjective or adverb, and the like—all of which had eluded my careful attention on screen.

The good news is that I found only one actual typographical error in 155,000 words. I had written “proceed” when I clearly meant “precede.” Other “must fix” items included a place where a character reported information she could have gathered only through a kind of spiritual osmosis, since she was unconscious at the time, and a couple of descriptions that didn’t quite line up. Everything else was stylistic, but man, was there a lot of it.

I fixed everything I’d listed, doing my best to ensure that I didn’t miss anything and that the two files lined up, checked them both again in case I had introduced more errors, then sent in new PDFs and new Kindle versions. In the process, I came up with a better cover for Kingdom of the Shades—always a good thing. And as far as I know (but I have ordered a second set of proofs and plan to reread the e-books to be certain), the new, improved, spiffed-up versions are the final, final text.

Meanwhile, I learned something. Order a print proof. Make sure it’s good to go before you worry about anything else. Because I guarantee there will be things you see in print that you will never see on the screen.

And what will we do when print books really do go the way of the dinosaur? I suppose we’ll just live with the errors, not even recognizing they’re there. A daunting thought, that, for a lover of books.

Art from, #20745397.