Friday, August 11, 2017

Interview with Sarah Zama

I rarely have two author interviews back to back—in fact, I can’t think of another time in the five years that I’ve maintained this blog—but it just so happened that I read both The Dress in the Window and Give in to the Feeling within a few days of each other. And I had a chance to interview both authors, so I saw no reason to make either of them wait.

Sarah Zama is just beginning as a published writer; she is currently working on a trilogy about the characters whom she introduces in Give in to the Feeling, a novella set in 1920s Chicago. So this book is also one of my Hidden Gems—short but sweet, in this case, and a great way to become acquainted with Sarah’s writing. Moreover, it too offers an inspiring story. You can find out more about Sarah and her books at her website,

What drew you to this story, which you describe as fantasy dieselpunk? For starters, what is fantasy dieselpunk?

I’m not surprised that you’re asking. Many readers (and authors) are unaware of this genre.

The easiest way to describe dieselpunk is: it’s like steampunk set in a more recent era, spanning from the late 1910s to the early 1950s. You have the aesthetics and the history of those decades, but with a twist (history gets punked, as we say) so that these stories are not really historicals even when (as in my case) they are very close to history.

Dieselpunk is such a young genre (the word itself was coined only in the 1990s) that not even us dieselpunks agree on what it is exactly. Many dieselpunks think that only Retrofuturism falls into the genre; we speak about stories that have a strong SF element to it (think The Rocketeer or Captain America: The First Avenger, to name a couple of films people might have seen). But some of us consider fantasy elements to be just as good for a dieselpunk story (think Indiana Jones).

I’ve always been drawn to stories with a twist, stories that have a fantasy element in them. I’ve always been drawn to fantasy, actually. I was a Tolkien fan long before Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, and I’ve been a R. E. Howard fan even longer. But I’ve always loved early twentieth-century history too, especially the Deco years, so it was probably in the logic of things that I would end up mixing these two passions of mine.

I honestly discovered the 1920s by chance, but I’ve completely fallen in love with this era, because it has so many similarities with our own time.

You are preparing a trilogy that explores some of the same themes in this novella—and indeed, I often wanted to know more about the characters’ pasts. Which came first: the trilogy or the novella? But more generally, what draws you to the world of ghosts and spirits?

The genesis of these stories is quite funny.

I started out wanting to write a series of novellas or short stories bound by a recurring cast of characters. I wanted to set it in the 1930s, but at the time I knew nothing—and I mean absolutely nothing—about that time. So I started planning the series, and at the same time I researched that period.

After a year of research, I shifted from the 1930s to the 1920s for a question of accuracy (couldn’t set a few ideas in the 1930s and still be accurate). I also had written zero words of the actual story. So I decided I needed to test my characters and my ideas, since I felt insecure that I could actually handle the time period. I wrote Give in to the Feeling as a character study, and it was such fun! I was already in love with these characters, but writing them made me love them even more.

So after that I wanted to test the setting a bit more. I outlined a trilogy of novellas which were still set earlier than the original idea, and I enrolled in National Novel Writing Month, which is a yearly challenge to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in the month of November. My plan was to write a detailed synopsis of the entire trilogy of novellas, which I estimated would take some 15,000–20,000 words total, and then write whatever I could of the actual novellas to reach the 50,000 words of the challenge. 

Well, it didn’t exactly work like that.

The synopsis of Ghostly Smell Around, the first installment, ended up at 22,000 words. I completed NaNo halfway through the second installment, and at that point I understood my story had plans very different from mine about how it wanted to be told.

I completed the first draft of the trilogy in a couple of years. I revised it completely in a few more. Then I concentrated on the first novel. My plan was (and still is) to try to publish the trilogy traditionally, but I also wanted to try self publishing. So a couple of years ago I went back to Give in to the Feeling, rewrote it completely (because, as you may imagine, I had learned lots of things about these characters in the four years I had spent with them) and published it as an indie novella.

It was a fantastic adventure.

Why the world of spirits? I’ve always been fascinated with spirituality, with ghosts, with the possibility that there might be more than the physical world around us. Maybe because we live in such a materialistic world, I like to explore the possibility that there might be more, a place where what we are (our true soul) is more important of what we have.

Tell us about Susie, the main character. How did she end up in a Chicago speakeasy?

In a very odd way, I’d say.

She’s a Chinese girl and she was sent out to be a mail-order wife, which was quite a common practice in immigrant communities in the first part of the twentieth century. But when she lands in San Francisco, she discovers that her prospective husband has died in the meanwhile and she is taken up by his young associate, which leads Susie to Chicago and sends her life in a much different direction. Simon is an ambitious man who wants to have a rich life. In Prohibition-era America he thinks bootlegging is a viable way to achieve his dream.

The first time I wrote Give in to the Feeling it was really mostly a character study, but the second time I wrote it I wanted it to be Susie’s story. I wanted to see her evolve and become her own woman, as she had the opportunity to be.

The 1920s were an exciting time to be a woman, though not in the way most people think. We often see the 1920s as a liberating time, which it was—to an extent. Flappers did break free from lots of the old bonds, but we should remember that many bonds still stood. We should also remember that most women weren’t flappers in the 1920s. Only young university girls, with money and time on their hands, could afford to be flappers. In spite of this, I do think that most women, especially young ones, aspired to be flappers or at least to be as free as the flappers showed they could be.

This is where the importance of the “flapper movement” (as it is sometimes termed) really lies: not in the achievements, which were limited in time and in some respect in magnitude, but in the breaking through. Its power came from showing a different way, not just to women but to men as well.

To some extent Susie walks the same path, passing through the “freedom” and excitement to show herself the way she wants, and coming in the end to a more profound understanding of what freedom truly is.

And what of Simon? How does he fit into Susie’s life?

Well, if I had to name the character that most evolved from the first version of the story to the published one, it would be Simon. In the first version, he was just the antagonist, but as I revised the novella for publication, I started wondering what drove him. From the beginning I didn’t want him to be a mere villain, but his reasons and his acting certainly became more nuanced and prominent as the story evolved.

I suppose Simon incarnates the danger of ambition not culled by ethics. There’s nothing wrong with what Simon wants, in my opinion, it’s what he’s willing to leave behind to achieve it that is problematic.

Simon is the only character that doesn’t appear in the other stories of this series, and I had a great time exploring him.

Trouble starts when two brothers, Michael and Blood, walk into the bar. Susie and Blood are instantly drawn to each other. What can you tell us about the brothers?

I truly truly love these guys. Readers tell me it’s apparent, but I can’t do anything about it. Blood and Michael were the original idea, the reason why this series of stories exists. In fact, when I originally wrote Give in to the Feeling, I had a hard time keeping it as Susie’s story, because Michael and Blood kept trying to steal the stage.

I consider Ghost Trilogy as Michael’s story, so yes, there is a lot more to learn about him and Blood, their relationship and what caused Michael to flee the reservation. Deciding what to let filter into the novella and what to leave untold was like going through hell!

Michael and Blood are Lakota Ogalala. I’ve always been interested in the Native American cultures and spirituality, and this interest has deepened in the last decade. Still, I was very hesitant to handle Lakota characters because I had no direct contact with that culture (I was less hesitant with Susie because I have friends who are Chinese). I researched the hell out of it, but still I think this would have been a very different story and they would have certainly be very different characters if I hadn’t met someone who today is a dear friend on an online workshop for writers.

She’s Mohawk, actually, not Lakota, but she helped me get into Native American feelings and thinking in a way I could have never achieved on my own. I know it and I need to acknowledge it. And she’s a writer herself (she writes under the name Melinda Kelly), so meeting her was really the very best thing that could happen to me and my story!

The relationship between tradition and modernity and the survival of traditional practices and beliefs in the modern times is something very close to my heart. Native Americans stand in a peculiar position in this regard, and this may be what inspired me to have Lakota characters in my story. Most of my characters are liminal. They stand in the face of a new world (of change) but hesitate to step into it for fear of what that world may take from them. There’s Susie, who’s a Chinese in America; Sinéad, who’s an Irish immigrant; Angelo, who’s a third-generation Italian-American; and a lot of African American characters who live in the time of the Harlem Renaissance. But none of them express that hesitation in front of change and the urge to find a way to cope better than Blood and Michael, in my opinion.

When can we expect to see more of Susie’s story?

Ghostly Smell Around, the first novel in the trilogy, is at the polishing stage, basically ready to go. I’m trying to get it published traditionally, but we know how these things go, so I may end up self-publishing it. Let’s see what happens.

The rest of the trilogy is written, although it stands at a second draft stage.

As I mentioned, Ghost Trilogy is more of Michael’s story, but Susie is important to it. In the trilogy, she’s a very strong character (Michael considers her to be bossy), who has found her balance in her relationship with Blood and is happy to be part of the Red Willow family. And after going though her own ordeal, in the trilogy Susie is a character who always strives to help others find their way in life and be happy.

I’m very proud of her.

Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your answers with me and my readers. Can’t wait for your Ghost Trilogy to appear!


A bookseller in Verona (Italy), Sarah Zama has always lived surrounded by books. Always a fantasy reader and writer, she’s recently found her home in the dieselpunk community. Her first book, Give in to the Feeling, came out in 2016.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Interview with Sofia Grant

As you may have guessed from the post I wrote back in April about blue jeans, fashion is, to borrow a phrase from Sir Percy Blakeney, “not my forte.” So it rather surprised me how much I enjoyed Sofia Grant’s The Dress in the Window, which is, on the surface, all about the new styles in fashion that arrived in the wake of World War II.

Of course, like most good novels, The Dress in the Window actually explores much deeper themes than fabrics and styles: the importance of family, the long-term effects of the war, the establishment of identity in a changing world. Sofia Grant joins me today to talk about those elements of the book. You’ll find a link to the book in this paragraph and more information about the author at the end of the interview. You don’t even need makeup to read her answers, let alone fancy clothes—so enjoy!

This is your first book published under the name Sofia Grant, but not your first novel. What made you decide you needed a change of name?

Historical fiction is a departure from the novels I’ve written in the past, and using a new author name is a way to signal to readers—both old and new—that they can expect something different this time around. 

What made you want to set your story in this particular time and place?

As a lifelong hobby seamstress and fashion buff, I can’t imagine a more exciting era in American fashion than after WWII!  Women still sewed many of the clothes for their families, which appealed to me, as it gave me an opportunity to write about garment construction. (I know it sounds boring but it really is integral to my plot!) But couture fashion was changing as well, and the wealthy women who were accustomed to buying dresses in exclusive salons had also been affected and changed by the war.

At first I thought I would set my book in New York City, which was then the fashion hub of the country. But choosing a location close enough to commute, but far enough away to give me access to the mills and factories where clothing was made, proved far more interesting.

Although fashion provides the environment in which the novel takes place, this is really a story of a women-only family: Jeanne, Peggy, Thelma, and Tommie. Each character is beautifully defined and rich. Tell us first about the two sisters, Jeanne and Peggy. How do you see them as characters? How do you think about their relationship?

Thank you for that lovely compliment! I am fond of both Peggy and Jeanne, and is often happens in my novels, I figured out after the story was written that they are an amalgam of some of my own traits. I’m creative and impulsive like Peggy but also a bit of a mother hen, as Jeanne becomes over time. Also, there are bits in the book inspired by my relationship with my younger sister. (Funny story—when I gave my sister a copy of the book to read, I had to reassure her that I wasn’t accusing her of being flighty like Peggy.)

Sister relationships in general are so interesting! I don’t think there’s a more intense emotional bond. Sisters can encourage or provoke each other so easily. Envy and competition are balanced by unbreakable devotion. As Peggy and Jeanne face the challenges of loss, grief, and poverty, I tried to show how they antagonize and support each other.

Thelma is the mother in this family, although she is not the actual mother of any of the others. What distinguishes her?

I think it’s no accident that Thelma is around my age and—like me—is intensely maternal. Even when she wants to keep these young women at a distance, she is unable to stop herself from coming to love them.

She also has an unquenchable drive to not just survive but to drink deeply of life. I hope it’s not immodest of me to say that I modeled that characteristic after myself. Following my own midlife reinvention, I discovered I was not willing to settle for society’s notion of what it means to be a matron. Thelma takes her due, in secret when necessary. I admire that.

Tommie, because she is very young at the beginning of the story, necessarily has the least “voice” of the four. Yet she acts as a kind of anchor for the women, or perhaps a source of tension. How do you see her role in the book?

I quite agree! Tommie becomes not just the glue holding the three women together but a driver for them all to try to be their best selves. I find that’s true in my life—in times of challenge, my own children have inspired the adults around them to try to pull together for the benefit of everyone.

Tommie is also a mirror for Peggy. In her daughter she sees a reflection of both her assets and her shortcomings, as well as an obstacle for her reaching her dreams. It is a singular cruelty of that era that women were expected to subvert their desires in service to domesticity and motherhood. Though Peggy strains against those bonds, she never truly abandons Tommie, and her love is constant.

Fabric itself seems at times almost to be an expression of the characters. Each chapter begins with a discussion of a specific fabric that has qualities explored in that chapter. Why did you decide to include that element?

Well! I must say that was a bit of an indulgence, and I’ve been nervous about how it might be received. I love fabric, and my education came from my mother and grandmother, who were truly gifted seamstresses. So these passages are an homage to them, a nod to the happy hours I spent learning at their knees.

Yet I also know that this will be quite foreign to many readers, and I deliberated quite a bit before including them. They aren’t essential to understanding the story, but I hoped to do several things with these bits of text: both set the emotional tone for what comes after, and add a sensory element as well as a sense of historical accuracy.

What are you working on now?

Thanks so much for asking!  (And thank you, by the way, for inviting me to play.)

I’ve just turned in my next novel to the same editor who worked on The Dress in the Window.  Her name is Lucia Macro, and she’s a true pleasure to work with, as well as very smart about bringing a story to life.

The new book, tentatively titled The Daisy Children, explores a real-life tragedy: in 1937, over three hundred Texan schoolchildren were killed in a gas explosion. But I use a contemporary storyline to explore the aftermath of the disaster, and created a cast of characters that I really enjoyed writing. There’s intrigue, passion, greed, vengeance, and even a bit of a love story. Fingers crossed!

Thank you so much, Sofia, for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you all success with this book and the books to come. Readers can find out more about Sofia and her books at There you can read, in addition to her official bio pasted in below, a longer piece about her writing career and how she got started. If you’ve ever thought about writing fiction, her story will inspire you.


Called a “writing machine” by the New York Times and a “master storyteller” by the Midwest Book Review, Sofia Grant has written dozens of novels for adults and teens under the name Sophie Littlefield. She has won Anthony and RT Book Awards and been shortlisted for Edgar®, Barry, Crimespree, Macavity, and Goodreads Choice Awards. Sofia works from an urban aerie in Oakland, California.

Book Description

A perfect debut novel is like a perfect dress—it’s a “must have” and when you “try it on” it fits perfectly. In this richly patterned story of sisterhood, ambition, and reinvention Sofia Grant has created a story just right for fans of Vintage and The Dress Shop of Dreams.

World War II has ended and American women are shedding their old clothes for the gorgeous new styles. Voluminous layers of taffeta and tulle, wasp waists, and beautiful color—all so welcome after years of sensible styles and strict rationing. 

Jeanne Brink and her sister Peggy both had to weather every tragedy the war had to offer—Peggy now a widowed mother, Jeanne without the fiancé she’d counted on, both living with Peggy’s mother-in-law in a grim mill town.  But despite their grey pasts they long for a bright future—Jeanne by creating stunning dresses for her clients with the help of her sister Peggy’s brilliant sketches.

Together, they combine forces to create amazing fashions and a more prosperous life than they’d ever dreamed of before the war. But sisterly love can sometimes turn into sibling jealousy. Always playing second fiddle to her sister, Peggy yearns to make her own mark. But as they soon discover, the future is never without its surprises, ones that have the potential to make—or break—their dreams.

Friday, July 28, 2017

It Runs in Families

You may remember that in February 2017 I posted about how I read and fell in love with Beatriz Williams’ A Certain Age. So I found it particularly interesting to discover during my recent interview with Beatriz for New Books in Historical Fiction that the characters and fundamental romantic plot of that book derive from an opera that Beatriz knew growing up. (You can find out which opera and how the stories intersect by listening to the interview.)

Also during the conversation, we talk quite a bit about how characters—even whole families—from one of her books pop up in other books. It’s a kind of in-group game: you read one, wonder what happened to X, and bang, there he or she is, starring in another. Or sometimes just making a cameo appearance, like Hollywood celebrities.

I have to admit that, although I wanted to hear why Beatriz recycles her fictional people in this way, I understand the urge completely. Not only do my Legends novels trace the development of a whole cast of friends and family members over the course of five years or so, but I have enough “leftover” potential heroines to people a second series of their own. Naturally, since they will still be moving forward in time, they will intersect with Nasan, Daniil, Ogodai, Firuza, Maria, Alexei, and the rest as seems appropriate. I have the sense I couldn’t stop them if I tried.

So what is the attraction of sticking with an expanding group rather than starting afresh each time as most novelists do? Again, Beatriz explains her reasons in the interview. Mine follow here.

At the most basic level, I envisioned the series that way, but in the early days of writing I failed to understand how simple novel plots need to be, so I had too many characters with too many stories for any one book. These are the “leftovers,” whose backgrounds I know and whose development I have imagined but whose stories didn’t fit into the space available.

A second reason is that known characters come with some of the prep work already done. A writer has to figure out how to grow them, both as individuals and in terms of their relationships, but developing an existing character is easier than starting from scratch. It takes a long time to build a consistent but well-rounded character, so why waste the effort?

Last, for me and for Beatriz as well, those existing characters constitute a story world, filled with the complexities that we find in the real world. They are, if you like, a reflection of a given author’s personality. And like the real world, there are always surprises waiting around the corner, questions demanding answers and people eager to reveal hidden facets of themselves.

So long as the journey entertains and enlightens, we may as well continue along the same path. Because given the way the subconscious works, when that path ceases to lead anywhere, the inspiration will dry up and a new character will force him- or herself into the writer’s mind, insisting on telling his or her story.

Then, like it or not, off we plunge into another story world filled with a different cast. With luck, they too will become friends and family by the time their saga comes to an end.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. We settled on Cocoa Beach, the latest novel, as the featured title, but in fact we talk about all  its predecessors as well.

The State of Florida might have been designed for Prohibition. Its long coastline, its proximity to the Caribbean sources of rum, and (in 1922) its vast stretches of undeveloped coastline made it a perfect target for smuggling. No wonder that lines of ships lay just outside US waters waiting for the intrepid and criminally minded to ferry each cargo of illicit liquor to land.

So Virginia Fitzwilliam discovers firsthand when she travels to the town of Cocoa Beach, then called simply Cocoa, with her two-year-old daughter, Evelyn. Virginia has received news that her estranged husband, Simon, has died in a fire and left his estate and business to her. But when she reaches Cocoa, she soon discovers that Simon's executors agree on one thing: widows should collect checks and not ask awkward questions, including what really goes on in the company warehouse after dark. Only her sister-in-law shows the slightest sympathy for Virginia and her struggle to understand not only what happened to Simon but what his legacy means for her and their daughter.

Told in overlapping narratives that contrast Virginia's past as an ambulance driver in World War I and her early history with Simon to her troubling reintroduction to the man she thought she loved, Beatriz Williams creates in Cocoa Beach what she describes as a Gothic novel in a new, more modern setting. I would call it a psychological thriller, one dominated by a rich and complex cast of characters whose all too human interactions never fail to pull the reader along.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Bookshelf, July 2017

The books are piling up again, so here’s the latest rundown of titles read recently or due to be read soon, ending with the newest Five Directions Press release—in this case a re-release. Except for the last, I’m listing the books alphabetically by author, with a note about how they got on the list as well as what appeals to me about them.


Joy Callaway, Secret Sisters
As an alumna of a woman’s college, I can’t resist this study of young women in late nineteenth-century Illinois who decide to establish the first sorority at their coed college. The effort reveals the difficulties faced by women of the time in acquiring an education, especially in “male” subjects such as medicine, but the real topic of the novel is friendship, both among the women struggling to support one another as a tolerated minority and between the lead character, Beth, and the man she selects to help her win her case. My current read.


Sofia Grant, The Dress in the Window
My most recent read and the subject of a future author Q&A here on the blog. As the gorgeous cover suggests, this is a novel about fashion in the United States right after World War II, a time when rich women still had their own salons in the department stores where each dress was fitted to them personally by a dedicated staff. Two sisters—one a gifted clothing designer, the other a seamstress of extraordinary skill—try, each in her own way, to break into this rarefied world. But the echoes of their past and of the war that they and the country are striving so hard to forget twist their deep bond with resentments as pervasive as fabric and thread, and a deep secret threatens to tear them apart.


Linnea Hartsuyker, The Half-Drowned King
Next month’s interview for New Books in Historical Fiction takes a dive into the Viking past in the form of a young ruler betrayed by his stepfather and a love affair that may never have a chance to bloom. Shades of Tristan and Iseult blend with a tale of defeat and conquest to create what looks like an interesting novel.



Beatriz Williams, Cocoa Beach
This month’s interview, discussing the latest Jazz Age novel by an accomplished bestselling author with many fascinating points to make about her own and others’ work. Here Virginia Fitzwilliam travels from New York City to Cocoa, Florida, in the wake of her estranged husband’s death and discovers not only a fortune—perhaps based on illegal liquor in this era of Prohibition—but a host of relatives, hangers on, and others determined to secure some of the wealth for themselves, by fair means or foul. Compelling psychological and historical drama by an author with a real gift for creating complex and interesting characters.



Sarah Zama, Give in to the Feeling
Another Jazz Age tale, this one set in a Chicago speakeasy where certain members of the clientele and even of the staff live on another plane. Yes, they are ghosts, and not everyone can see them for what they are. Susie (Su Xie), an immigrant sent from South China to marry a man sight unseen, discovers when she reaches San Francisco that her intended bridegroom has died. His friend helps her out by taking her to Chicago and supporting her, but in return he demands complete and unwavering loyalty. Which becomes a problem for Susie when a man named Blood walks into the speakeasy and wants to dance... This novella only hints at the larger story the author is developing in her trilogy, but it goes down like a well-chilled wine. Another future subject for an author Q&A.


And last but not least, we have The Duel for Consuelo, re-released by Five Directions Press last Saturday (July 15) after being orphaned when Booktrope Editions unexpectedly closed last spring. I love this story of a smart and determined young woman whose simple path toward marriage to the youngest son of the local hacienda owner takes an abrupt detour in the waning days of the Inquisition. We redesigned the cover and reedited and reformatted the text, but the story remains largely unchanged. To give you a sense of what to expect, the book description follows, but you need not stop there. The book page at our site offers both audio and print excerpts, and our newsletter offers an interview with the author.

Like most well-born young women in eighteenth-century Mexico, Consuelo Costa Argenta hopes for a good marriage, preferably to handsome Juan Carlos, son of the local landowner. But Consuelo cannot simply follow her heart’s desire. Born to a Crypto-Jewish mother, raised as a Christian, living under the Inquisition, she must balance the safety of conformity against loyalty to her heritage. As her mother’s mind begins to fail, her hidden allegiance to her ancestral religion emerges, drawing the attention of renegade priests. They spin a financial web intended to ensnare Consuelo’s father, torture her mother, and threaten her own life and happiness.

Misunderstanding her father’s demands for money, Juan Carlos rejects her, and his parents arrange to send her to the nuns of Condera to pursue her education. Learning about herbs eases Consuelo’s pain, as does flirting with another potential suitor. But once Juan Carlos arrives at the Condera court and Consuelo’s father promises her to the wrong man, her future looks grim.

When the Inquisition’s renegade priests kidnap her mother, only Consuelo can save her. If she can first save herself.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Lithuanian Renaissance

After two writing posts in a row, it’s time for one on historical research, I think. As I’ve mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I have begun work on The Shattered Drum (Legends 5: Center). Originally the title referred to a shaman’s drum, and the idea was to focus on Grusha, one of the few important lower-class characters in the series. But as tends to happen with my novels, I realized belatedly that since Nasan is the main series character—heroine of books 1 and 3, vital subplot character in book 2, and important viewpoint character in book 4—Legends 5 should round out her journey in an emotionally satisfying way.

At more or less the same moment, I recognized that the symbol of the shattered drum has a broader thematic meaning that relates as well to the revised plan as to the original one. So Grusha, like several other “leftover” characters whose full histories never quite fit in to the overarching story, will one day have her own novel in a new series that is banging around in the back of my brain. Meanwhile, the new plan requires additional research, which is where the Lithuanian Renaissance comes into the picture.

Now, if you read my posts regularly, I assume you have enough interest in history to know what the Renaissance is—or was. But Lithuania? Seriously? I think most people see the Renaissance as an Italian, or at least West European, phenomenon. Lithuania, in this view, is a teensy Baltic state that escaped Soviet control a bit more than twenty-five years ago. Venice—Renaissance, but Vilnius?


But you would be surprised. First off, Lithuania in the sixteenth century was not the least bit teensy. As the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it included most of modern Belarus and Ukraine. At its height, circa 1430, it encompassed 360,000 square miles. It had a large Eastern Orthodox population, and its state language was Russian. Two and a half million people called Lithuania home in 1430, a level the country would not reach again until 1790.

Second, unlike neighboring Russia, neither Poland nor Lithuania was isolated from the Renaissance. They sent students to the universities in Padua and Bologna. They imported art and architects and artisans from the south. They had a thriving commerce with most of the rest of Europe. Because of Lithuania’s dynastic ties to nearby Poland, it had a Catholic population as well as an Eastern Orthodox one, and by the 1530s it had become caught up in the Protestant Reformation as well.

Third, in 1538, the time period of The Shattered Drum, Poland and Lithuania shared a pair of co-rulers, both confusingly named Sigismund (Zygmunt): Sigismund the Elder and his son, Sigismund Augustus, each of whom served simultaneously as king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania. Sigismund the Elder was then in his seventies; Sigismund Augustus had yet to turn eighteen. But the crucial detail is that twenty years earlier, in 1518, Sigismund the Elder had married Bona Sforza of Milan and Bari, who became the mother of the younger Sigismund. Bona’s arrival strengthened the Italian contingent enough to turn Krakow and Vilnius into mini-versions of Florence.

You can see the difference right away in the clothes. Compare the three public domain paintings in this post, all taken from Wikimedia Commons. From top to bottom, they are Henryk Rodakowski’s The Chicken War (1872, reflecting an event from 1537), Titian’s La Bella (1536, courtesy of the Yorck Project), and Konstantin Makovsky’s The Bride Show (1886, imagining Muscovy in the mid-seventeenth century). The women’s dress in Rodakowski’s and Titian’s paintings are the same style, very Italianate; the Makovsky depicts a different, equally beautiful but more oriental culture.

Unfortunately, history hasn’t always been kind to that part of the world. The expanding Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Prussian empires carved up the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century. The beautiful Renaissance palaces, already much reconstructed and “improved,” came tumbling down. The wars of the twentieth century obliterated what remained. Based on archeological excavations, the newly independent state of Lithuania has rebuilt the grand ducal palace in a sixteenth-century style, but we have to take it on faith that it bears any resemblance to the residence that the two Sigismunds and Bona Sforza knew. And though more than a few diplomats traveled through Vilnius and Krakow in the sixteenth century, they don’t seem to have left much of a record—perhaps because unlike Muscovy, which struck the envoys as exotic and foreign, Lithuania looked too much like home.

So here I am, again trying to find out what my characters would see, touch, smell, hear, eat. What would amaze or appall them? Would they adopt the very different style of dress? Would they stick to their own customs with a stubbornness bordering on defensiveness? Which characters would adopt one approach and which the other? Whom would they meet, and what would they think of those people, especially the Italian queen accused more than once of poisoning her rivals?

Friday, July 7, 2017

Writers' Intuition

In last week’s discussion of themes I mentioned the idea, ruthlessly cribbed from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, that characters in a novel do not exist in isolation. Instead they form a web, and their interactions through the plot push the story forward, cause the protagonists to change, and embody varying approaches to the novel’s central moral argument, its theme.

I also noted that at least in my case, themes arise from my subconscious mind. I discover them only after I complete the first draft (other people’s mileage no doubt varies, as the saying goes). Although I plan novels in various ways discussed elsewhere on this blog, my best writing appears when I fall into the zone where words pour onto the page and I become more a recorder than a planner. In the zone I write by instinct. Sometimes the results are kasha, but more often they have a flow that I can’t attain otherwise. Almost always they reveal elements of a character I hadn’t previously recognized. And those elements can surprise me.

Take, for example, Tulpar, an antagonist in The Winged Horse. When I set up that novel, I knew I wanted to explore the consequences of polygamy on the children, especially the sons, of men with multiple wives. Even judged by the standards of the Russian court in the 1530s, which forms the backdrop of the Legends novels and where the royal family could give the Borgias a run for their money, the Tatar successor states to the Mongol Empire had an extraordinarily large number of khans who came to power by assassinating their brothers.

In part, it was an example of “rule by the strongest”—carried to its extreme in the Ottoman Empire, where a system developed in which each concubine could have no more than one son and each sultan began his reign by tracking down and killing his half-brothers. But the reality that so many of the sons had different mothers must, I think, have also played a role in the conflict. Full brothers can, of course, hate each other and try to kill each other. And the half-brothers often fought together as well as against one another. Even so, I was curious about what role polygamy might play.

I decided to give Ogodai a half-brother, Tulpar, older than he and therefore stronger and more experienced, since an antagonist’s main role in a novel is to oppose the protagonist and thus force the protagonist to change. Most of us resist change, so the more powerful the antagonist, the greater the pressure on the hero/heroine to buckle down and do the hard work of self-improvement. Even in a romance, the hero and heroine typically act as antagonists for each other, at the same time as they are both protagonists. That’s why love stories so often start out with a man and woman who either dislike each other or see a situation in opposite ways. Without that conflict, the characters have no reason to change. There is no story.

So far, so good. But right away I ran into a problem: I hadn’t ever mentioned this older half-brother in The Golden Lynx. Well, how could I when I hadn’t created him yet? So I came up with a story for why no one in the family talked about him, and although I knew it was a bit far-fetched, it worked well enough for that book. The idea was for the two half-brothers to battle it out to the end, and may the best man win. They had plenty to fight over: a potential wife, leadership, bragging rights, a sexy concubine, even a philosophy of how this independent horde could preserve its freedom. The main difference between the brothers was character.

Then something happened. I realized that Tulpar was a perfect match for someone else in the series. How did I know? At the time, I couldn’t have said. I just thought, “Oh, those two so deserve each other. It would be great fun to throw them together and see what happens.” But looking back, I see that somehow I grasped that they were dealing with the same problem, but starting from very different places and approaching their troubles in very different ways. Their assumptions and reactions would push them to change, then support them as they changed. Even then, it took a third character to intervene and show me (and them) how the change could come about. A character who knew the hidden story and could act as an intermediary—and no, I won’t tell you more than that. You have to read the book to find out!

Getting from Point A to Point B took a lot of work. I had to twist things around so the new story could emerge from the old one. I had to go back to the far-fetched explanation and completely rework it so that it would make sense from the perspective of this character who had revealed his hidden depths in that unexpected way. I had to figure out how that realization altered what I could demand of him. Most important, I needed to understand how Tulpar’s view of the world would interact with that of the other characters. Where was the web? Who else in the series shared these issues, and how would they contribute to the whole? But the effort was worth it, every bit, because it made for a better story. And in the process I fell in love with them, as I do with all my main characters; otherwise I can’t write them.

It took me most of the first draft of The Vermilion Bird to answer the questions. And wouldn’t you know? Halfway through another character decided to share her story. I never did find a way to work it into this novel, and I am not certain this particular character would ever undertake the difficult work of personal growth. So I have yet to decide what to do with this information. Perhaps she will always lurk in the background, an amusing distraction, a perennial secondary figure.

But I’m laying the groundwork, just in case. Because I wouldn’t put it past her to take over a novel of her own. Call it writers’ intuition. It’s happened before. 

Image: Clipart no. 314581

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Story Behind the Story

Last week I mentioned in passing Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters. Toward the end of that book, she has a chapter on theme, which she renames “worldview” to avoid the cringe that most of us experience in recalling elementary- through high-school literature classes and all the themes we had not then lived long enough to recognize, never mind understand. 

The chapter got me thinking: how would I, as an adult, define theme in reference to a novel? Does a novel even need a theme? Many writers insist that their works neither have nor require a theme, and that it’s up to readers to decide what meaning a book has for them. Others, including myself, disagree. A theme, as I show below, acts as a kind of organizing principle, imparting emotional coherence to a work of fiction. It keeps plot and character focused on the essentials.

Now I would be the first to admit that I pay little attention to theme in the initial stages of writing. First off, only some stories present themselves to me in sufficient detail early on for me to perceive the underlying theme. Even the few that do I don’t entirely trust: they are likely to morph midway through, revealing a theme I had not anticipated. But once that first draft is done, I agree with Kress that a theme helps pull a story together. As John Truby notes in The Anatomy of Story—another on my top five list of must-have writing craft books—it’s a mistake to regard characters as existing in isolation. Instead they embody differing attitudes and responses to the novel’s central theme. The plot offers them a chance to express and develop those responses.

So what is a theme? Is it really the same as a worldview? Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “a subject or topic of discourse or artistic representation,” which doesn’t clarify much. Truby equates it with the writer’s moral vision, which does correspond with a worldview in part yet seems to offer a more exact definition. But I think the concept is much simpler than that. In brief, the theme is what the book is really about.

Take my Legends novels as examples. The theme in The Golden Lynx is vengeance: what do you do when someone close to you, an innocent, is murdered? One approach adopted by the characters leads them to kill in return, out of a desire for revenge or justice. A second has them take refuge in religion. A third pushes them to investigate what went wrong, including whether the innocent was in fact as guiltless as the family believed. A fourth redefines vengeance as preventing a different crime, and so on. The varying fates of those embracing this or that approach express my moral vision about revenge and what it can and cannot do for people.

In The Winged Horse, the story—the theme—revolves around the competing claims of loyalty: to oneself, to others, to a principle or a cause. The Swan Princess explores integrity, in this case from the perspective of a young woman who has gone too far in the direction of pleasing others and needs to recover, then incorporate, her own sense of herself without swinging from one extreme to the other. The Vermilion Bird, almost finished but not yet published, focuses on family through a group of characters who in some cases adore their families (who may not always deserve their love) and in others can barely bring themselves to speak to their family members (who do not necessarily deserve their dislike, although they have certainly done things to provoke it). Book 5, The Shattered Drum, is one of the rare novels to have already revealed its basic structure—probably because it ends the series, meaning it has a lot of loose ends to tie up. But I am less than twenty pages into it, so while I have a hint of what the theme may be, I know better than to reveal it yet.

You have no doubt noticed that these themes are interconnected. The desire for vengeance arises in part from loyalty to the person hurt, which in turn often comes from that person being a close friend or family member. Loyalty can inhibit the development of a separate identity and thus of integrity, which is above all the decision to respect and value one’s private self. Families certainly impose demands and expectations on their members, behaving and expressing emotions in ways specific to the culture in which they live but also to themselves. These demands necessarily fit some personalities better than others, and that in turn feeds questions of identity and integrity: How does a person like Maria, heroine of The Vermilion Bird, cope inside a structure that ruthlessly suppresses her gifts and imposes tasks on her in which she has no interest? How does she respond when a different family makes different assumptions that, however welcome, force her to change her fundamental beliefs about who she can and should become?

The Shattered Drum, too, incorporates elements of these themes. Which one dominates in the end will have more to do with emphasis than exclusivity. As writers we constantly revisit our own story, from different angles and with varying perspectives. The appeal to readers depends on the extent to which our problems reflect their own—or, more grandly, basic human themes.

Put that way, the concept of theme seems not so difficult to grasp. When we sit down to write a book, especially a novel, we may not have a particular theme in mind. Perhaps it’s even better not to have one. Then we can give our imagination free rein in the beginning rather than force it into a box. But for sure, our subconscious minds have a theme, and by the end of the first draft it will become obvious. At that point, the writer’s job becomes exploring the theme from as many angles and viewpoints as possible. Because if you have nothing to say, why write a book in the first place? 

Image: Clipart no. 109572471.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Beast Within

Early in my interview with Gabrielle Mathieu for New Books in Historical Fiction, I ask her about the tag line for the first book in her Falcon trilogy, The Falcon Flies Alone: “We all have a beast locked within us, but in Peppa’s case it’s more than a figure of speech.” We talked about anger and self-assertion, especially in women, and how they are often socially suppressed or, if not suppressed, evaluated differently from the same behavior in men. Gabrielle notes that she is not as blunt in her anger as her heroine, Peppa, but instead tends to avoid conflict. I could relate, as I have the same issue with several of my heroines.

Later in the interview, Gabrielle mentions that what distinguishes her antagonists from her protagonists is that the former use “some very blunt instruments” to attain their goals. These two comments got me thinking about how fiction is, in some respects, a way of exploring emotional paths not taken—for readers as well as for authors. In novels we can explore vengeance and murder, crises and conflict. We can talk back if we’re shy, beat our opponents up if we are timid or physically weak, flirt with infidelity or fall madly in love with characters who will never leave their socks on the floor or forget to pick us up at the airport. We can release the beast within—investigate it, test it, revel in it—without hurting ourselves or anyone else.

The same point applies to other art forms, of course: movies and television, especially. But well-crafted, well-written novels and short stories dump us inside another person’s head in ways that real life cannot, that even video cannot. We can see the world through the eyes of a falcon, a bad guy, an abandoned teenager, a runaway bride. We can experience life at the extremes, as most of us would much rather not do in real time. As Nancy Kress puts it in her wonderful Dynamic Characters, “In our lives we want tranquillity; in our fiction we want an unholy mess, preferably getting unholier page by page” (159).

And Peppa surely does get herself in an unholy mess, which gets unholier not only page by page but book by book. That’s why her story grabs us and doesn’t let go. But don’t take it from me: listen to the interview, then buy the book.

You can also hear (and in the case of The Falcon Flies Alone, read) an excerpt from the first two books at their respective pages on the Five Directions Press site: The Falcon Flies Alone and The Falcon Strikes.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction (and is cross-posted to New Books in Fantasy and Adventure).

Peppa Mueller has a lot going for her. The daughter of a deceased Harvard professor who gave her an eclectic upbringing, she is heir to his fortune, and Radcliffe has accepted her application for undergraduate study in chemistry—her gift and her passion. Too bad that her conventional Swiss relatives cannot imagine why any young lady would want a college education in 1957.

Sick of their constraints, she runs away from their home in Basel, even though she cannot collect her inheritance for another two weeks. A house-sitting job draws her to a remote Alpine town, where she becomes the subject of a terrible experiment. Wanted for murder, accused of insanity, and beset by visions of herself as a fierce peregrine falcon, Peppa decides to go after Ludwig Unruh, the man who has victimized her and now holds her precious German Shepherd hostage to force Peppa to participate in his ongoing research into psychedelic plants.

But Unruh has far more experience with both chemistry and life than Peppa does, not to mention far fewer scruples. And as time goes on, she discovers that her past and his are inextricably intertwined. She wants to stop him, she wants to get herself and her dog out of his hands, but to do either, she must first survive his experiment. In The Falcon Flies Alone Gabrielle Mathieu, the host of New Books in Fantasy and Adventure, creates a compelling, fast-moving novel that straddles the line between reality and the world of the imagination.

Friday, June 16, 2017


Few things are more satisfying to a writer or publisher than seeing a manuscript you’ve worked on for months or years appear in print. E-publication has its merits, and tablets and e-readers handle novels, which tend to have few images and simple formatting, with particular aplomb. Even so, it’s not like holding an actual book in your hands: admiring the cover, turning the pages, noticing the small details that say, yes, this is a published book.

So it’s always a special joy to announce a new work by one of our Five Directions Press authors. This month we focus on Denise Allan Steele’s new novel, Rewind, formally launched just yesterday. It’s charming, touching, hilarious—everything a novel should be.

Denise says she wrote the book because her kids begged for stories of the “olden days” (i.e., the 1970s) when she was a teenager in Scotland. The novel follows the adventures of Karen Anderson and her best friend, Carol, as they survive secondary school, attend college and nursing school, marry and have children, work in their chosen professions, move to different continents, and ultimately reunite at the funeral of Carol’s ninety-year-old Grandpa Jimmy, setting off the second half of the story.

But a summary can’t capture the joys of this delightful novel. So here is an excerpt from Chapter 1, “Abide with Me” (spelling is British Standard, because at least two-thirds of the novel takes place in Scotland):

Carol and I sat huddled together on the cold hard pew of Kilbrannan Parish Church. The weak sunshine coming through the huge stained glass window above our heads illuminated the figure of Saint Andrew, the ruby red of his gown beautiful and rich against the sapphire blue of the Scottish flag behind him. I had always loved that window, the way it gave me a feeling of peace and God and benevolence and contentment, the colours precious and magnificent in the austerity of the chilly old Presbyterian church. I had last seen the window from the inside in May 1977, when I had just turned fifteen. That was the day that Carol and I had been thrown out of the Girl Guides for refusing to say out loud the Brownie Guide promise that we would serve our God and our Queen. We felt that the Queen had enough servants and we definitely didn’t want to serve God, so we were asked to leave. We didn’t tell our mums and every Friday evening for months we had put on our Guide uniforms and gone to the amusement arcade at the beach, got changed in the toilets and hung about at the slot machines looking at boys and buying candy floss with our Guide money. Our sham was over when Mrs. Howie, the Guide leader, met Carol’s mum at the bus stop and our mums made us go the next Guide meeting and apologise.

I put my hand in Carol’s. “You okay?”

I hadn’t seen her since the last time I was home a year ago, and it felt like we had been together last week. Every time I came back to Kilbrannan, even after twenty-five years, it felt like I had been gone for a few days, and Carol and I just slotted back in to our lifelong friendship.

“Remember the last time we were in here and we got chucked out of the Guides?” She snorted, trying not to laugh. “And we had to go and apologise to that old bag Mrs. Howie. I still see her in the town, and she still glares at me, after thirty years!”

“Do you think that might be because you shouted ‘God save the Queen, the fascist regime’ at the top of your voice as we were running out of the church?”

Now, don’t you want to read more? You can find the book at or get more information at our Five Directions Press site. The book already has thousands of likes on Facebook, so don’t miss your chance to rewind the tape of Karen’s life—and your own.

Friday, June 9, 2017


Incredible as it may seem—it certainly seems so to me!—this month marks the fifth anniversary of this blog. If you had told me, in June 2012, that I would succeed in finding things to say every single week for five years, I would have wondered what mind-altering substance you had consumed. Yet here I am, five years on, occasionally frantic in my search for suitable topics for discussion but generally posting on time.

This month also marks the fifth anniversary of Five Directions Press. On June 3, 2012, we published the first version of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel (since reissued in a smaller size with a much spiffier cover designed by Courtney J. Hall). At the time, we saw our coop press as something of an experiment—a lark, even, like those old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films about putting on a show. We had only the vaguest idea of what we were doing, but the climate seemed right for a cooperative enterprise that lay somewhere between completely self-published and the commercial format monopolized by large corporate conglomerates. We gave it a try, not knowing what to expect, and it’s been great.

That first title has become twenty, out or due by early next year, as well as several more approaching completion but not yet ready to add to the website. (For those counting, Cover no. 20 is awaiting its big reveal next month before appearing on our Books page.) The latest went up on Amazon within the last twenty-four hours: stay tuned for that announcement next week. Our small group of three has tripled, and most of us have more than one book under our belts. Marketing is still a challenge, but we have learned lots about book production, publication, website design, newsletters and press releases, social media, even promotion. Two of us host podcasts on the New Books Network. And the topics of our books range from the dissolution of the Roman Empire to twenty-fourth-century ballet, with many highways and byways in between, and cover the globe from the secret Jewish communities of Inquisition-era Mexico to psychedelic experimentation in 1950s Switzerland.

Selected Five Directions Press Books
Image © 2017 Five Directions Press

Last but not least, June marks the ninth anniversary of the writers’ group that gave rise to Five Directions Press and produced most of its early titles. Each year at this time we go out to lunch, forget about the critiques, invite friends and fellow writers, and celebrate. That lunch is this weekend.

So a short post today to say that we’re enjoying the journey and to extend our thanks to our authors (who are also our staff), our indulgent families, and especially our readers. Let’s hope this is the first of many five-year anniversaries for Five Directions Press and its writers!

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Shattered Drum

Although The Vermilion Bird is far from done, I have a complete story and am working on my fourth draft. A friend is checking the text for historical errors—or will be when she has the time. As I feed chapters to my writing group and receive comments, I make adjustments, of course, but since they too have busy lives and writing of their own, it will be three to four months before they can get to the end. So I decided, this past week, to use the down time to think about the next—and last—Legends novel.

Usually when I start a new project, it takes a good six months of back and forth before I make serious progress: planning, writing, research, rewriting, sharing, more rewriting, fill in the blanks research, character development, new writing, and so on. This in-between time seems the perfect opportunity to start planning a structure, identifying potential story elements, settling on major characters, defining their goals and motivations as well as the obstacles in their path—all the stuff that goes before actual writing begins. I’m not ready yet to shift my focus from the hero and heroine of Vermilion Bird, and without that, actual writing would be wooden at best. But I am ready to start imagining how the next, or in this case familiar, hero and heroine must struggle to reach a new set of goals.

Being a pantser by nature, as noted previously, I don’t get any closer to a detailed plot than a list of things I’d like to see happen. That changes as soon as I sit down to write. Still, having a sense of where I’m going is helpful, even if my characters do tend to take on lives and wills of their own. I love the surprises they deal out when I’m least expecting them. And having a sense of who those characters are at a given moment, even in a series that has already been underway for nine years, is a definite must—although that, too, evolves over time.

Here, in Legends 5, I find the list of story elements relatively easy to construct. A series can’t just stop, after all; it must tie up the major developments of the earlier books, adding a sense of general closure to the resolution every story needs even as it establishes a clear direction—beginning, middle, and end—of its own.

But I also find myself reluctant to say goodbye to these fictional people who, by the time I finish The Shattered Drum, will have enriched my life for over a decade. Can I bear to let them go? Will the new series slowly coalescing at the back of my brain, which follows into the 1540s and beyond certain characters who never received their due because the world isn’t quite ready for 1,500-page novels, make up for having to reduce my favorites to cameos and walk-ons?

I don’t know. In a sense, I’m not sure I want to find out. But that sad day remains a year or two away. For the moment, I’m looking forward to putting my fictional family through its paces one more time. I hope that one day, when I reach the end of that road, you’ll enjoy the results.

Images: Nomadic Girl, screen capture from Myn Bala; Butterfly and Chinese Wisteria Flowers, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Sources and Stories

Even when I was young enough to think of everyone over thirty as a kind of antediluvian dinosaur, I always enjoyed hearing stories of the past from my elderly relatives and their friends. It seemed like opening a window on another world. So I was especially struck when I interviewed Michelle Cox—the author of A Girl Like You and A Ring of Truth, both romantic detective stories set in 1930s Chicago, with a third already on the way—to hear that many of the events that her heroine experiences come from stories told to her by a patient at the nursing home where Cox worked for a while.

All the no-longer-recognizable jobs—26 girl, taxi dancer, curler girl, usherette at a burlesque theater—as well as the all-too-familiar ones like floor scrubbing were held by this one patient, who, to paraphrase her words to Cox, also had “a man-catching body and a personality to match.” Given that the patient was in her eighties when she shared her story, we can only imagine what she was like in her teens, as Henrietta von Harmon, the heroine of this series, is when we meet her.

We talk about many other topics in the interview, including the road to publication, the fate of that first dreadful novel that writers inevitably have stashed in a drawer, and life during the Great Depression, as well as Henrietta and her fellow characters. But the lady behind the story is the part of the interview I didn’t and couldn’t anticipate. She gives a whole new meaning to the term “historical research.”

Indeed, I’m a little jealous. If only I could interview a real sixteenth-century Russian or Tatar.... Wouldn’t that be fun?

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

It’s January 1935. Prohibition has just ended, but the Great Depression has not, and much of Chicago remains under the grip of the crime lords who profited from the trade in illegal liquor. Eighteen-year-old Henrietta von Harmon, despite her aristocratic name, struggles to keep food on the table for her overwhelmed mother and seven younger siblings. After too many evenings spent cleaning, peddling drinks, and keeping score for dicers at a local bar, Henrietta jumps at the chance to double her income by taking a new job at a nightclub, where she dances with customers late into the evening. Too bad she cannot share the story with her family, who would be scandalized at the potential damage to her reputation if they knew. Then her boss turns up dead, and the customer to whom she is most attracted reveals that he works as a detective for the Chicago Police. The search for the murderer leads Henrietta into even more unsavory circumstances, and soon she’s wondering whether even the police can keep her safe.

In A Girl Like You and its sequel, A Ring of Truth, Michelle Cox introduces a rich cast of characters and a lovable heroine just trying to make her way in a cold and unforgiving world.

And for those of you who follow the interview participation of my cat, yes, he was there. He just decided to devote himself to purring that day instead of the usual piercing meows. Guess he liked the stories too!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Writing Groups

Back in February, I wrote a post on how to avoid publishing before a book is ready. Near the end of that post, I recommended, among other things, finding a critique group of fellow writers. But what is a critique group? How is it organized? What does it do? Where would you find one?

The answer to most of those questions—excluding the last, in some ways the hardest—is “whatever you like.” So rather than get into all the possible variations, I restrict myself here to a brief overview of my own writing group, soon to celebrate its ninth anniversary.

We got started—and here is one answer to the “where?” question—when Ariadne and I independently joined a statewide writers’ organization. I saw that an open-forum writers’ group operated out of the local Borders (remember them?), but by the time I discovered the group’s existence, it had moved out of easy driving range. Through the statewide organization Ariadne, Courtney, and I eventually found one another, together with a fourth member who left after a couple of years, and our writing group was born.

We knew from the beginning that because we all wrote novels, we needed to be able to share at least a chapter at a time. So unlike the group that met at Borders, which had lots of people each exchanging five pages per month, we settled on no more than four people and a limit of thirty double-spaced pages, flexibly enforced depending on how many of us chose to share at a given meeting. Otherwise, we had only two basic rules: everyone must be actively writing; and barring an emergency, everyone must attend each session.

So what does that mean in day-to-day terms? Take Vermilion Bird, which has twenty-six chapters in the rough draft. After several months of not sharing, or sharing only an outline or character sketches or goal, motivation, and conflict charts, I moved into a regular rhythm of two chapters a month (25–35 pages). Up to this point, my critique partners have seen the first sixteen of the twenty-six, in some cases more than once. In particular, the crucial opening chapters took several rounds of suggestions to knock into shape.

This month, for example, I sent chapters 15 and 16, in the form of a Word document, to Ariadne and Courtney by e-mail two weeks ago. By the time we meet on Saturday, they will have read the chapters, probably more than once, and I will have read theirs. I expect to see a few comments on things they liked but also flagged passages that confused them, went on too long, verged on information dump, sounded “off” in terms of the dialogue, or—my particular bugbear because I was raised in chilly northern climes—included characters taking things far too calmly or behaving in ways better suited to an English drawing room than the Eurasian steppe.

I will take those comments, figure out how to respond without jeopardizing my inner vision of the story, and make changes. Then I will look at the chapters that follow to see how those changes ripple through the rest of the book, and revise those before sending the next two chapters for critique in June. If, as happened with chapter 15, a suggestion leads to a thorough rewrite, I may decide it’s best to share that chapter again. It’s hard enough juggling three different writers’ books over the course of a year or more without looking at a chapter that seems to bear no resemblance to the story one sort of remembers reading last time. At the end of the process, when the other group members have read all the chapters in ones and twos, we dedicate a meeting to one person’s work and read it from beginning to end to pick up continuity errors, repetition, missing setups, inconsistent characterization, and other issues that can slip from view during those thirty-page-at-a-time critiques.

The group—serious, as usual.

What makes it work, more than anything else, is the individuals involved. This is the factor in some ways least susceptible to control but most vital to a group’s success. We were lucky in that we turned out to be compatible, both in what we write and how we offer critique. An approach emphasizing the positive and offering suggestions without judgment or, worse, insult is essential. Grandstanding, posturing, and revenge games will kill a group before the members have a chance to figure out each person’s strengths and therefore which suggestions take priority. 

A mix of strengths—plot first and character first, for example, or historical and literary—helps each member grow. The group will also function better if the members are at about the same stage of development; people writing their first paragraph can learn from writers with several novels under their belt, but they find it difficult to offer criticism and are easily intimidated, which throws off the balance of the group. A bad group can do more harm than no group, so this element of the decision should take precedence.

But assuming you can find the right emotional mix, what are the advantages and disadvantages of critique groups? Why would you want to consider one, and why might you instead prefer to seek out another way to improve your writing?

First, the advantages: I learned to write from working with others who were struggling with the same issues I was and who provided specific feedback on my specific story, rather than the generalizations that how-tos on the writing craft necessarily supply. It’s fun to talk to people who understand what you’re doing when you sit in front of the computer for hours on end or know how it feels to wake up in the middle of the night with characters jabbering in your head. And in those crucial early years, especially, writing is a lonely exercise with few rewards and fewer ways to separate the bad from the good in one’s own work. A writers’ group that fits your style offers a great way to test things out and learn, however slowly, what works and what doesn’t.

The disadvantages are not many, but they do exist. Even with our thirty-page limit, getting through an entire novel of three to four hundred pages takes a year or more, plus the final read-through and revisions. The input from the group—even a compatible group—can move a writer in a direction that may not fit an as yet hazy vision, requiring eventual push-back. On occasion, we get over-involved in one another’s work and have to disconnect, allowing the person writing the story to have the final word on its form and its content. None of these issues is fatal, but they do need management. For me, the end result of a better book and the pleasure of working with fellow writers who really know me, my strengths and weaknesses, and how I approach a project is worth the emotional investment of learning how to take (and give!) comments, but your calculation may not be the same.

There’s much more I could say, but this is a blog post, not a novel. What has your experience been? Have you ever joined a writers’ group? Did it work for you? Leave a comment below.