Friday, June 28, 2019

Revising Real Life

Novelists—as well as screenwriters, playwrights, producers of short stories; in short, writers of all types—often hear that their characters and plots should be realistic. Protagonists and antagonists must, we are told, sound and act like the people we meet on the street. Readers need to understand motivations, experience the story world from the inside, recognize the settings and the characters as something that, if not familiar, is comprehensible.

All of which is true—and yet not true. Because real life is often boring, its meaning obscure. Conversations meander amid a flood of hemming and hawing, slang and trivia; family members retreat behind their cellphones. Random accidents abound: a child leaves the door open, and the dog runs away; a trip to the wrong restaurant causes everyone in the household to fall ill with food poisoning, and as a result the homework doesn’t get finished on time; the power goes out for no apparent reason, interfering with any number of plans.

Fiction can’t afford the luxury of the meaningless event or the repetitive conversation. It needs drive and movement and drama, and above all it needs (most of the time) to make sense. Novels portray daily life, to be sure, but they shouldn’t mimic daily life. The creator of fiction is, by definition, telling a story—with a beginning, a middle, and an end and about characters who (usually) change and grow in ways people often don’t in real life. The story looks like the everyday world and to some extent sounds like it, but it’s real life distilled in a crucible and stripped of its ordinariness, its irrelevancies.


I was forcibly reminded of this point while reading Adrienne Celt’s wonderful Invitation to a Bonfire in preparation for my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview (recorded today, so stay tuned for the exact link sometime after July 4). The book is, as Adrienne Celt admits early on, a homage to the well-known Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov—the author of Lolita, among other works.

Like Nabokov, the lead character, Lev/Leo Orlov, grows up in Russia, leaves the country for Europe to get away from the 1917 revolution, and ends up in the United States. He has a wife named Vera, and in the 1930s he becomes involved in a passionate affair with another woman. Some of the personality traits that characterized Nabokov and his Vera also make their way into the story.

And there the resemblance stops. The real Nabokov reconciled with his wife and died in 1977, after a long and productive life including a fifty-two-year marriage that produced a son. Lev Orlov is not so lucky. We know from the opening page that neither he nor the girl he falls for, Zoya Andropova, will survive the year of their cataclysmic relationship. For a long time, we don’t know why, and we certainly don’t know how, but by the time we reach the end, the whole trajectory is clear. Some characters grow while others don’t, but the dialogue between them and the factors that drive them and the locations where the actions take place are all crystal clear.

Because they have to be. It’s not real life; it’s fiction, and fiction doesn’t have time for loose ends. It has—it must have—a vivid, engrossing story to tell, packed with action and emotion. Otherwise, why would we read it?

Photograph of the Nabokovs' shared burial site in Switzerland by Gorodilova, 2009, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Ah, Summer


I have, I must admit, an ambivalent relationship with summer, which arrived to little fanfare this morning. In terms of temperature, I much prefer spring and fall, so much brisker and more focused with their rapid changes in the garden, their warm days and cool nights. With luck, I can go days or weeks without needing either artificial heat or air conditioning. Whereas the minute the outside temperature tops seventy-five, my loft office becomes unbearably hot and muggy, to the point where just staying awake is a challenge without running either a fan or AC.

Yet for all that, there are things I love about summer—quite a lot of them, in fact. The long, lazy days; the opportunity to disappear into my writing cave without raising eyebrows; the slower pace caused by this person, then that, going off for a week or a month; the drop-off in books piling up; the fresh vegetables and light, airy clothes—every year I feel as if I’m releasing a huge sigh of relief and recharging my mental batteries for autumn, sure to roll in soon enough and kick me back into action.

So, what are my plans for the more relaxed months gathering on the horizon? Mostly to write: I want to finish and typeset Song of the Shaman, then make real progress on Song of the Sisters. With lots of nice, quiet weekends and two ten-day stretches off, I shouldn’t have much trouble getting where I want to go—especially since I don’t really care how far that is. And of course, in the writing category, I’ll still be posting here every Friday, rain or shine.

I’m also meeting in person with P. K. Adams in a few days to discuss that joint project I keep dangling here on the blog. Not sure whether we will start writing this summer, but I think we’ll have a firm plan and most of the prep work by Labor Day. That outline I posted about a couple of weeks back has generated a bunch of new ideas and directions, so we’ll see what happens.

By the way, I promised to let you know when her latest novel went up for preorder. That has since happened, and you can find the Kindle edition of Silent Water on Amazon. The print edition will be released on August 6, which, coincidentally, is the same day as G. P. Gottlieb’s new mystery, Battered, mentioned in passing below.


Summer wouldn’t be much fun without beach reads—even in the absence of a beach—so I have at least four interviews scheduled for New Books in Historical Fiction (with most of the reading already done!), as well as one with G. P. Gottlieb for New Books in Literature, where she gets to be the guest and talk about her new novel, Battered: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery. I have a couple of smart-looking historical romances I plan to read and review for this blog, as well as a couple of books due out later in the summer where I will do either a written Q&A with the author or just a spotlight on the novel. And I’m about to start a final run-through on the first book in Gabrielle Mathieu’s new series, Girl of Fire (Berona’s Quest 1), which Five Directions Press hopes to bring out in late summer/early fall.

So I expect to have plenty of fun things to occupy my time, despite the laid-back loveliness of the next few months. No doubt, fall will be here before I know it, and I’ll be hauling out the sweaters and relishing the chill in the air. But for now, it’s summer, and I plan to enjoy every warm and light-filled minute. What about you?

Images on subscription from iClipart.com.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Love under Difficult Circumstances

It’s always hard to tell why a particular book appeals more than others. Is it the complexity of the characters, the intensity of the conflict, the beauty and expressiveness of the writing, a compelling plot? Could it be a synchronicity with one reader’s mental state and emotional circumstances at the moment when she picks up the book? Or is there some magic combination of all those factors that come together in a way that draws readers in and makes them care?

Certainly an element of chance does play a role. I divide my own reading by stages of alertness, with research in Russian at one end of the continuum and old favorites at the other. When even the old favorites can’t hold my attention, I know it’s me, not the books, and I take refuge in ballet videos on YouTube and movies I’ve seen a dozen times or more.

But whatever the secret, those factors came together for me in The Woman in the White Kimono, the subject of my latest interview with Ana Johns. This remarkable debut novel explores young love, the effects of war, prejudice in various forms, and family secrets hidden for decades. Read on to find out more, then listen to the interview. You won’t regret it.

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


Naoko Nakamura is only seventeen when she falls madly in love with an American navy man. It’s 1957, and the US occupation of Japan has ended just a few years before, leaving bitter memories among the local population. Even though Naoko’s beloved Hajime wants to marry her, her family will have nothing to do with him—in part because they have another husband picked out for her, but also because marriage to an American will cast shame on the entire family. When it becomes clear that Naoko is pregnant, her mother gives her a choice: rid herself of the child or leave the family forever.

More than fifty years later, as Tori Kovac’s father lies dying, she learns he once had, as he puts it, “another life before this one.” Her journey to discover the truth of that other life leads her halfway around the world as she struggles to separate truth from the stories—always dismissed as fiction—that her father told her as she was growing up.

Ten thousand babies were born to Japanese women fathered by US servicemen; the vast majority of them did not survive. The Woman in the White Kimono (Park Row Books, 2019) explains the challenges the children and their mothers faced. Ana Johns tells a story that will linger in your mind long after you turn the last page.

Friday, June 7, 2019

A Web of Images


One of my guilty pleasures is cover design. Although that’s not my official responsibility at Five Directions Press—I handle copy-editing, book design, and typesetting, whereas our covers are in the capable hands of Courtney J. Hall, who knows her way around Photoshop better than I ever will—I’ve come up with ideas for the covers of all my own novels except for the current version of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. That last is Courtney’s, and the moment I saw it I fell in love with it. She also produced those beautiful fonts for the Songs of Steppe & Forest series, and she’s the person I tap for suggestions, critiques, and the final go-ahead, since no cover goes onto a Five Directions Press book without her approval.

That said, in my spare time I love to explore images and their potential as book covers. I have covers for books I may not write for years, the stories of which are limited to a main character, a love interest (maybe), and a vague goal. The cover, like the title and the cork boards filled with character images that sit next to my manuscripts on screen, are essential writing tools. They spark thoughts and symbols, emotions and descriptions, themes and personalities. My primary approach to the world is visual: change a character’s picture, and I develop a new sense of that character’s essential self.

So where do I find the images for my covers? For sure, Shutterstock loves me, because I spend far too much of my not so generous royalties there. Pixabay, with its ever-growing store of royalty-free photographs, is fantastic as well. But for Songs, as you can see from the Song of the Siren cover to the right, I decided to go with public domain art from nineteenth-century Eastern Europe and Russia.


Public domain art has one big advantage: unless owned by a museum or library that chooses to assert its rights, it can often be used without copyright issues and free of charge. But it also has one huge disadvantage: many of the files available online are too small and too fuzzy for a book cover. By the time you blow the image up to the minimum needed for a trade paperback, what you have left is a collection of visible dots. E-books, being computer-based, have a greater tolerance for poor image quality, but even an e-book cover can look unacceptable if the original picture is too small.

As it happens, I got lucky with most of the Songs covers. The one for Song of the Siren comes from a large file readily available on Wikimedia Commons and via the National Museum of Warsaw. Most of the others come from Wikimedia Commons as well. And in the process of tracking them down, I learned quite a bit about Russian realist art and the group known as the Wanderers and a good deal more besides. That in itself has become a great source of pleasure.

Song of the Shaman gave me fits, though, not least because nineteenth-century Russian artists didn’t paint a lot of shamans. After weeks of searching, I found one painting by a Polish artist resident in the Russian Empire, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t track down a version of the file that was usable for a book cover. I even purchased a personal license from a stock photo site for a high-resolution image of the painting, wanting to check it out before I decided whether it would be worth the higher charge for publishing use, only to discover that the high-resolution version looked worse than the doctored (but too small) Wikimedia Commons file. Missing paint, dull covers, too little contrast between the frame and the art, you name it: the problems added up to a series of flaws that either lay beyond the bounds of even Photoshop’s magic or would take so much time to fix that the end product wouldn’t be worth the effort expended.

So with a sigh of regret I gave up that idea. And I’m glad I did, because not long afterward I remembered another painting from circa 1905, perhaps not so obviously a shaman but still appropriate to the book’s theme (and, not coincidentally, a perfect depiction of its heroine, Grusha). And when I searched Wikimedia Commons, after a couple of tries I discovered a version large enough that I could compress it into a nice, sharp image without Photoshop doing what it typically does during compression: adding fake dots of its own. I had to tweak the colors and position the painting just right and even airbrush out a hand, but the results are exactly what I hoped for.

And soon you’ll get to see it. But I’m not quite ready for a cover reveal yet. First I have to ensure that the novel itself is ready for prime time. Then I need to work with the other authors in Five Directions Press to figure out the best publication schedule. By September, though, I hope to have a complete text and a plan. Stay tuned!


Images purchased by subscription from iClipart.com.