Monday, March 31, 2014

Writing Process Blog Hop

As I mentioned on Friday, a few weeks ago I accepted Gillian Hamer’s call to take part in the Writing Process blog hop. The hop has just a few simple rules, including that you publish on a Monday the week after being tagged (hence my off-calendar Monday post) and link back to the blog of the person who tagged you in a kind of a tip of the hat. I’d also like to mention here how much I enjoy and recommend Gill’s novels. I still have to find time to get to her Complicit and Closure, which I have on my e-reader. I posted my review of The Charter last year—first in a new category of “Hidden Gems,” which tells you what I thought of it. She is definitely a writer to watch.

So, on to the questions:

1. What am I working on?
The Winged Horse—my third novel, second in the Legends of the Five Directions series—is with its beta readers. Two have responded; two are still working on the manuscript. I’m hoping to have all comments back by early May so that I can go through the text once more and have the book out on schedule in June 2014. In the meantime, I’m doing the preparatory character and story work for The Swan Princess (Legends 3: North). I love all the stages of writing, even revisions, but story preparation is particularly fun because I can let my imagination range as widely as I like. The reining in comes later, when I realize there’s no way I can cram all these ideas into one novel without it ending up longer than War and Peace.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
The genre of my work is pretty broad—historical fiction. My first novel, The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, doesn’t even quite meet that requirement. It could be considered a time-travel romance, but it doesn’t involve actual time travel–just a computer game—or a real past, just a fictional one. It’s also very tame by the standards of modern romance. The Golden Lynx and its sequels are genuine historical fiction, but they differ from the rest of their kind by their location—sixteenth-century Russia and the surrounding lands ruled by the descendants of Genghis Khan. I blend real history, slightly altered history, and Turkic mythology in these novels. I use a historical note to deal with the deviations from historical fact and the mythology to reveal characters’ states of mind; I don’t intend the books to be historical fantasy.

3. Why do I write what I do?
I’m a practicing historian, specializing in pre-eighteenth-century Russia. I use the Legends novels as a way to reach people who otherwise have no reason to pick up a book on a place that seems too long-ago and faraway to have any relevance to their lives. If, by reading my novels, people want to find out more about this fascinating time and place where I have spent most of my adult life, so much the better!

4. How does my writing process work?
I use what could be called the modified snowflake method. In the snowflake method, the writer creates a rough outline, which s/he adjusts while writing. After two novels that took forever—because I had no idea where they were going until they got there, so I had to do a ton of rewriting—I have learned to make up an outline and ensure I have a story before I begin writing scenes. I use the exercises in John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story for that purpose. But I am a natural seat-of-the-pants writer who discovers her characters by throwing them into situations and watching them squirm their way out, so five pages into any story, the plot starts veering off in directions I hadn’t anticipated. Even so, the outline helps keep me on track and away from some of the more bizarre side paths.

It’s a modified snowflake method because once I start, I don’t bother to revise the outline beyond plotting out a few particularly thorny chapters. I just keep going and aim to end up more or less where I decided in advance.

Last, my job is to introduce you to the three writers who have agreed to continue the blog challenge.

Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her speciality is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is her first published novel. 

Courtney J. Hall spent her formative years writing mediocre short stories and angst-ridden poetry before turning to novels and finding the critique group that saved her literary life. Her first book, Some Rise By Sin, is historical fiction set at the tumultuous end of Mary Tudor’s reign. Some Rise By Sin will be published through Five Directions Press in mid-2014. Courtney is a member of my writers’ group, so I can promise you that historical romance fans will love Some Rise by Sin.

Pauline Montagna was born into an Italian family in Melbourne, Australia. After obtaining a BA in French, Italian, and History, she indulged her artistic interests through amateur theater while developing her accounting skills through a wide variety of workplaces culminating in the Australian film industry. In her mid-thirties, Pauline returned to university and qualified as a teacher of English as a Second Language, a profession she pursued while completing a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. She has now retired from teaching to concentrate on her writing. As well as The Slave, she has published a short story collection, Suburban Terrors. 

For more on Pauline’s writing, join us for her guest post on May 9, “The Art of the Sword” (Nasan has already set aside a piece of her precious writing paper to take notes).

And once again, many thanks to Gillian Hamer for this opportunity! Talking about writing is almost as much fun as writing itself.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Writing Process, Mine and Ours

This is my regular blogging day, but not my regular post. Having let Gillian Hamer talk me into joining the Writing Process Blog Hop—okay, she didn’t have to twist my arm: I volunteered before realizing that meant I had to find three volunteers, at which point my eyes got that deer in the headlights look and I began whimpering softly—I committed myself to posting on Monday, March 31. 

Being a Scot and naturally thrawn (which, to quote my mother, is what your friends call you when your enemies call you pigheaded), I would have gone ahead and posted on Friday anyway, except that it was a rough week at work and I haven’t had time to answer the questions. I did manage to find three lovely writers who agreed to continue this exercise. Some of them may now be whimpering in corners, but I’m sure they’ll get over it and find three victims of their own. I’ll announce their names, tell you a bit about them and their books, and link to their blogs on Monday as well.

Meanwhile, for reading on your Friday, may I suggest a post uploaded yesterday by my buddies at Triskele Books onto the Writers & Artists site. “The Rise of the Author Collective” looks at the value of group input in creating great books at all stages of production, from writing through publication and beyond (and mentions Five Directions Press and Writer's Choice, as well as other writers’ cooperatives). If you’re considering a cooperative as an alternative to traditional or self-publishing, you’ll find some good tips here. If not, you’ll be alerted to what we hope will become the next big thing in publishing.

Either way, if you’d like to know more, look for The Triskele Trail, put out by the same group of authors (Gillian Hamer, JJ Marsh, Liza Perrat, and JD Smith). The Kindle version is already available on A brand new, spiffed-up print version will be out in the summer, with an updated Kindle version available even sooner. Stay tuned for updates!

And please check back Monday for my full “Writing Process” post.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sworn Sword

Last year, I wrote about changing views toward heroism. James Aitcheson, in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, tackles the question of the military hero head on. Tancred, the narrator of Aitcheson’s Norman Conquest novels—Sworn Sword, The Splintered Kingdom, and Knights of the Hawk—is a character defined by war. It provides not only his means of subsistence but his identity, his reason for being. When a raid leads to the death of the lord Tancred has sworn to protect with his life, that loss jeopardizes his place in medieval society.

In that earlier post I traced a trajectory from the heroism of Beowulf, intensely individualistic and focused on the grand gesture that will lead to immortality—a system in which glory and vengeance make the inevitability of death worthwhile—to the esprit de corps of career soldiers. Tancred is, as one might expect, midway along that trajectory: he wants to avenge his fallen lord, yet the demands of knighthood send him, at least for a while, along a different path. He glories in battle but fights as part of a group, not as one heroic individual against a monstrous or magical foe. He questions the need to kill without avoiding the practice of killing. He fights to defend his lord and his fellow soldiers as well as himself. He is an independent person, a leader, but also a sworn sword. These tensions make him an interesting character, one worth following—even for me, a person more likely to pick up a good cozy or a smart, funny romance than a book about armies.

James and I talked about other things, too, including what it’s like to switch hats from historian to historical novelist and about the real Norman Conquest, the one that followed the Battle of Hastings and tends to get left out of the schoolbooks. It’s a good interview, and it’s free, so give it a listen. You won’t regret it.

And best of all, no smallpox. Even the laryngitis is gone. Maybe all the warriors scared it away.

Although the podcasts are free, the New Books Network has bills to pay. The hosts are a group of dedicated volunteers, but the server space and equipment cost money. One way you can help out at no cost to yourself is to click on this link just before you plan to buy something at, then choose a department from the drop-down menu on the right-hand side of the page. If you bookmark the page, you’ll be able to find it even after this blog post rolls out of sight. And we will appreciate it!

The rest of this post comes from the NBHF site.

The chivalric society of medieval Europe resembled a pyramid, with each man sworn to serve the lord above him in a social hierarchy that reached up to the king. A warrior without a lord had no future, no means of support, no identity. So when Tancred, a Breton knight sworn to defend the newly appointed earl of Northumbria, loses his lord in an English raid, the loss not only deprives him of a leader as close as a father but threatens his entire sense of himself.

No matter that Tancred is away on another mission when the raid begins, that he fights nobly to defend his embattled lord, that he loses his sweetheart and almost his life in the raid. He has broken his oath, despite his best efforts, and no other lord trusts him to fulfill the terms of his service.

It is England in 1069, three years after the Battle of Hastings, and Tancred is fighting for the Norman invaders in hostile territory, where the English forces have rallied under the leadership of Edgar, the last Saxon prince. The earl of Northumbria and most of the two thousand knights under his command are the first casualties in what will become England’s last attempt to throw off a successful invader.

As James Aitcheson reminds us in this month’s interview, the grand battle that makes it into the history books marks only the turning point in any invasion. And although it has become a cliché to say that history is written by the victors, the Norman Conquest has traditionally been one area where that adage does not apply. Sworn Sword and its sequels reveal the other side of a familiar story through the eyes of victors who do not yet know whether they will win or lose.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Writer’s Choice

If you have been following this blog, you already know that Five Directions Press is not the only writers’ cooperative in publishing today. Indeed, when authors confront the array of tasks associated with self-publishing—editing, cover design, typesetting, marketing, and the general need to produce and upload files in multiple formats—it would be astonishing if people did not seek out like-minded and amenable souls to share the journey. I discovered Triskele Books—a group of writers living in the UK, France, and Switzerland—on GoodReads, the Internet book club, and engaged in a blog conversation with them last year. Their “how we did it” guide, The Triskele Trail, is available on Kindle and will soon be revised for print. If you think you might like to start your own cooperative, The Triskele Trail offers lots of useful information on what does and doesn’t work.

As a sign that this is indeed part of a broader trend, Joel Friedlander, whose The Book Designer should be on every self- and small-group-published author’s blog list, hosted an article on cooperatives by Jordan Rosenfeld a few months ago. It provoked a lot of comments and not a little interest among readers.

Just recently, I came across another coop, also through GoodReads. This one is Writer’s Choice, based in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Like Five Directions Press and Triskele Books, Writer’s Choice grew out of a critique group—in their case online—at the point where the writers involved had full novels that were getting good responses from agents and editors but, for one reason or another, no contracts. So they banded together and decided to take advantage of the new publishing environment. For the moment, they have three authors, each with a book in print, and more on the way.

G. J. Berger, South of Burnt Rocks—West of the Moon
Chosen as Best Published Historical fiction of 2012 by San Diego Book Awards, winner of the BRAG Medallion.

After three great wars, Rome has crushed Carthage. Now the undefended riches of Iberia beckon—gold, tin, olives, wine, and healthy young bodies to enslave.

Lavena, last child of the strongest remaining Iberian tribal leader, confronts the Romans who plunder and loot her land, at times helped only by her father’s favorite dog and a special horse. Guided by spirits of earth and sky, she strives to unite her people and oust the Roman menace. Based on real characters, places, and events, South of Burnt Rocks recreates that shadowy history—and eternal human nature rubbed raw.

P.D.R. Lindsay, Tizzie
There’s no slavery in the Yorkshire Dales—not in 1887, not ever. But loving families use artful schemes to enslave the innocent. Twenty-nine-year-old Tizzie is such an innocent. She has worked herself down to skin and bones as a dairymaid on the farm of her dear brother, his Scottish wife, and their three boys and one girl—Agnes.

Expert at many things, though not in spotting conniving entrapment, Tizzie longs to see young Agnes escape her own spinster fate. In trying to help Agnes find an education and avoid a life of drudgery in their male-dominated world, Tizzie begins at last to suspect her family’s treachery.

Soon she discovers it plans to enslave and use up Agnes, too.  With only her wits to guide her, Tizzie tries to right years of wrongs and set Agnes free.

Sharon Robards, Unforgivable (2014)
Bestselling author of A Woman Transported

Australia, 1966. Seventeen-year-old Sylvia, without a husband to legitimize her pregnancy, has no choice but to wait for the birth of her child in St. Joseph’s Hospital, managed by the Sisters of St. Anthony on behalf of the Catholic Church. No girl has ever walked out the front gate without leaving behind her baby. Sylvia intends to become the first.

In the great religious and social upheaval brought on by Vatican II, amid a thriving adoption industry driven by society’s fierce disapproval of unmarried mothers, a determined teenager battles with the nuns to save her child.

And on a different topic, I’m happy to report that my interview with James Aitcheson (Sworn Sword, The Splintered Kingdom, and Knights of the Hawk) went off without a hitch—or a cough. So stay tuned for the link to that podcast, which should be live by the middle of next week.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Wonders of Wikipedia

After two years of running circles around me, The Winged Horse is finally off my desk and whinnying at my long-suffering beta readers. With any luck, they won’t find too much wrong with it, meaning that I can unleash it on the world in June as planned.

Meanwhile, I’m beginning on Legends 3, The Swan Princess. It’s a huge, soggy mess at the moment, little more than a bunch of disconnected ideas, half of them tossed up by my subconscious for reasons that remain unclear. So when not pushing myself to complete the exercises in John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, my go-to book for the beginning of any novel, I’m doing research. This is not the kind of in-depth, years-long research I use in writing history—although my mix includes books written by scholars, and even books written in Russian by scholars. Instead, it’s research to spark the imagination, to woo balky characters and tame a plot that threatens to have more branches than a holly bush, some of them every bit as prickly.

And my preferred site for that kind of research, or indeed any kind of research that is at a quick and dirty beginner level? Wikipedia.

Among scholars, such an admission is, shall we say, frowned-upon. And it’s true: Wikipedia articles can only skim the surface of their subjects and sometimes contain errors, despite higher standards imposed in recent years and enforced by the input of dedicated page editors. Even the Russian version, Vikipediia, which tends to have longer and fuller entries on the kinds of obscure topics that interest me—Islam-Girei Sultan of Crimea, the Venerable Trifon of Pechenga, the fortress of Ivangorod (Sebezh), and so on—can go only so deep.

But as a place to start, Wikipedia is marvelous. Most entries have pictures, public domain or Creative Commons, and maps and links to other, more informative sources. The entry for the Pechenga Monastery (where, readers of The Golden Lynx will remember, a certain character has been exiled to ponder his sins) led me to a small book in English, hosted on the digital Internet Archive, not only describing what remained of the monastery in the late nineteenth century and what was still known about its history but also recording legends associated with the monks themselves, including its founder, Trifon. It would be going too far to say that Trifon’s legend is historically accurate, but it is historically attested. And since I’m writing a novel, not a history, historically attested is more than good enough for me.

In other cases, a brief survey of current information addresses my needs. This tends to be particularly true of medical, geographical, and biological information. A list of symptoms, a map showing the range of a particular type of plant or animal, a description of topographical or species characteristics, even dates and the spelling of a name in Russian or Tatar can be invaluable. I go online, read the entry, print it if necessary, and I’m back in my scene. Even for work, if I’m checking the spelling of a name or the date when some event happened, Wikipedia is most likely to have the information I need readily accessible, front and center.

Last but not least, those pictures are precious. I’d love to visit Pechenga, but the chances of that are small. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons, I have at least an idea of what my antagonist may see as he gets ready to wipe the ice of the monastery from his fictional feet. I have downloaded views of the Sura River, Tatar dogs, flags and banners, ancient fortresses, flowers and animals, shamans and their instruments, and much, much more. All these enrich my understanding of the world my characters inhabit, even if they do not appear on my blog or on the covers of my books.

So let’s hear it for Wikipedia. It’s an example of the Internet at its most creative.  And even if you don’t choose, as I do, to support the site during its annual fund-raising campaigns, it’s a project worth celebrating.

Speaking of images,, which I mentioned in a long-ago post, “Images, Images Everywhere,” is closing down as of March 10, 2014. The site owners will move existing accounts, including any unpurchased downloads, over to ThinkStock, owned by Getty Images as is Unfortunately—and perhaps not coincidentally—ThinkStock prices its images appreciably higher, at the same level as Shutterstock. So is no longer a mid-level solution.

Maybe something else will come along to replace it. We can hope, right?

Konstantin Korovin, St. Trifon’s Brook, Pechenga (1894)
From Wikimedia Commons
This picture is in the public domain because of its age.