Writing

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10 Jun Style

Alexander Pope, by Michael Dahl

 
 
True ease in writing
comes from art, not chance,

As those move easiest
who have learned to dance.

’Tis not enough
no harshness gives offence;

The sound must seem
an echo to the sense.

—Alexander Pope
“An Essay on Criticism”

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05 Jun Writing while Walking

No, not with a portable device of some kind. Although according to my friend, mystery writer Dana Fredsti, there is such a thing as a laptop harness. If I had something like that I’d be dangerous, because I get very wrapped up in what I’m writing.

I mean that I write in my head while I’m walking. It has to be solitary walking—when I walk with the dogs and the Broadcasting Legend™ it doesn’t work. But when I’m by myself and the sun is shining and a little breeze is blowing and I walk down along the creek, whole scenes unroll, mostly in dialogue. Being alone means I can “read” them out loud to myself as I go, listening to how the words sound together.

And the neighbors only kind of think I’m crazy.

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25 Apr The Blob at the Edge of the Universe and the Shaman Queen of Ancient Japan

Could anything be more irresistible? It seems an international team of astronomers have discovered what’s called an extended Lyman-Alpha blob so far away that what they’re seeing (given the speed of light) is something that happened at the dawn of the universe. It doesn’t look like much but to astronomers it’s a mysterious and fascinating object.

It has been named Himiko, after a queen in ancient Japan, said to be a sorceress. Quoted from Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories: Later Han Through Ming Dynasties by Tsunoda Ryusaku, tr. 1951:

She occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people. Though mature in age, she remained unmarried. She had a younger brother who assisted her in ruling the country. After she became the ruler, there were few who saw her. She had one thousand women as attendants, but only one man. He served her food and drink and acted as a medium of communication. She resided in a palace surrounded by towers and stockades, with armed guards in a state of constant vigilance.

Even more intriguing:

When Himiko passed away, a great mound was raised, more than a hundred paces in diameter. Over a hundred male and female attendants followed her to the grave. Then a king was placed on the throne, but the people would not obey him. Assassination and murder followed; more than one thousand were thus slain. A relative of Himiko named Iyo, a girl of thirteen, was [then] made queen and order was restored.

Makes me want to write a young-adult historical with the shaman princess as the heroine.

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22 Apr Writing Like Nostradamus

Nostradamus wrote a lot more than his well-known Prophecies and Almanacs. He cast many individual horoscopes and made many individual prophecies to private (usually noble or royal) persons. In the course of my research for The Second Duchess I found a prophecy Nostradamus made privately to Alfonso II d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, although I won’t go into detail about it here because who knows? Perhaps one day it will play a part in another Ferrara story.

However, this seed of information is presently flowering into a lovely plotline in the new book I’m working on. What if, what if. What if Nostradamus had written a series of prophetic quatrains for Mary of Guise, the dowager Queen and Regent of Scotland, mother of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots? Mary of Guise visited France in 1550-1551 and might, just might have met Nostradamus, whose first published Almanac was for the year 1550.

What if the secret quatrains revealed the future of Scotland, vis-a-vis England and France? Imagine what, say, Elizabeth Tudor in England and Catherine de’ Medicis in France would have given to lay their hands on those prophecies.

What if Mary of Guise kept them in a silver casket? What if it was the same casket that eventually held the Casket Letters? What happened to the casket in between?

The thing is, to make this work I have to write the prophecies myself. So I have to write like Nostradamus. Now that is historical fiction with sprinkles.

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16 Apr Historical Fiction with Sprinkles

Perfect pie crust, light and flaky. It even has sprinkles!For a writer, I don’t actually write much about writing here, do I?

For me, writing a book is like making piecrust. (Mmmm, pie.) One must pay attention to what one is doing and pull it together with a light hand. Work it too much, and it gets tough and gray. Give it to someone else to play with, and it may turn out to be mince instead of apple. Take it out of the oven every few minutes to see what it looks like, and it will never be more than half-baked.

So although I am in the very early stages of working on a new project, I won’t be writing about it in much detail. It’s also set in the sixteenth century. It also features some historical personages and some fictional characters. It also combines elements of mystery, adventure, romance, character study, fabulous food and magnificent costumery, palace intrigue and sudden death.

Or as I like to call it—historical fiction with sprinkles.

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02 Apr #Agentnonpareil

Have I mentioned lately how much I my manuscript? I’m in the last couple of chapters of revisions and I’m so happy with how it’s turning out.

I also have to say that I my agent Diana Fox for her suggestions and support. Everybody’s been talking about #agentfail and #agentwin, it seems, but for me Agent Diana transcends all the categories into #agentnonpareil. And no, I don’t mean those little chocolate candies with white sprinkles.

Although chocolate is always good.

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23 Mar More Words

This is a book I could just sit and read for hours on a rainy afternoon:

The Dictionary of American Regional English

Try some of the quizzes. Larrup! Maypop! Mulligrubs! Noshery! Being from Texas, I actually know what Juneteenth is.

Speaking of words, my revisions are moving forward in fits and starts. The new book is clamoring for attention and I’m having to pet it and chuck it under the chin and reassure it that yes, I will take it out for a nice long walk and maybe even a ride in the car next month when its older sister is finished.

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11 Mar The Worm Moon

Let's start calling it the Robin MoonWorm Moon? Who would name a full moon the Worm Moon? And in my birthday month, too.

The reason it’s called the Worm Moon, or so the tale goes, is that in March the ground at last become warm enough to bring earthworms back to the surface, which means robins will return (why didn’t they call it the Robin Moon? Much nicer-sounding) and the earth itself will soon be ready for tilling and planting.

Other names for March’s full moon are Crow Moon, Crust Moon (because the snow would thaw during the day and re-freeze at night, forming an icy crust over the surface, Sap Moon, and Lenten Moon. It’s the last full moon of Winter.

In other news, my revisions are proceeding apace. Both doggies seem to have recovered from their gastroenteritis. It’s (once again) gloomy, rainy, thundery and lightning-y today, but all is not lost—the Broadcasting Legend™ is making bean soup from scratch, with a ham bone and everything. Mmmmmm. Perfect rainy-day food. Tomorrow I’ll post his recipe.

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03 Feb Seven-League Boots

Seven League (Cowboy) Boots(In my case, of course, they’re cowboy boots.)

There are several big, exciting, seven-league steps a writer takes. One of them is the sudden strike of The Idea. Another is typing “The End.” Another is making that click connection with the perfect agent for you and your work.

I’d already done the first and second, and very satisfying they were, too. This week I took the third giant step. I’m so pleased to be able to say that The Second Duchess and I are now represented by Diana Fox of Fox Literary.

Onward!

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24 Jan Dreaming

The other night I saw the last scene of my book in a dream. No, really. It was bizarre. I wasn’t acting as one of the characters—I was just hanging in space, observing. (Although come to think of it, I may indeed have been acting as one of the characters.) It was more or less like the ending I’d written, but not quite.

The truly startling thing is that I remembered it, word for word, when I woke up. I wrote it down right away (I keep a flashlight, pencil and notebook beside my bed, having lost far too many middle-of-the-night ideas and dream revelations in the past) and in the morning rewrote the end of the book. The changes are small but, for me, important.

Anybody else dream parts of their writing?

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15 Jan Suicide (No, I’m Not Considering It)

One of the fascinating aspects of writing historical fiction is the never-ending struggle to keep your word choice consistent with your time period, while avoiding distracting “Olde Englysshe” constructions. My trusty sidekick in this battle is the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Take the word “suicide.” Two characters in my book are suspected suicides. However, the word “suicide” itself was not recorded until 1651, about a hundred years after the time of my story. For other words or phrases I could use, I read documents of the time, and mused over Hamlet and the discussions of Ophelia’s death—the Shakespeare Search Engine is another way of checking word usage (in English, anyway) in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Words. I do love words.

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13 Jan Revisions

Revisions finished! O frabjous day, callooh callay! It’s fascinating how a few words, or a line, or a paragraph, can completely change the tone and meaning of a scene. So not huge amounts of rewriting. Just a little snicker-snack here and there with my vorpal blade of mimsiness. Or something.

I really like the changes. Now I need to let them rest for a few days, then re-read.

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11 Jan Barbara’s Little Office

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, once owned by Barbara of Austria, Duchess of Ferrara
This is a reproduction of a book that Barbara of Austria actually owned and used. It’s the Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis, or the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Isn’t it beautiful? The original would have been hand-lettered, with the illuminations hand-painted. I look at it and imagine her holding it, turning the pages, saying the prayers.

I want to find a way to work this book into Barbara’s story somehow. Perhaps in the second book. In the first book she’s more concerned with a copy of I Modi, which is a different sort of book entirely.

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10 Jan And Speaking of Seven, Seven Writing Tricks

Here are seven things that keep me going, day by day, hour by hour. It’s a tough world out there in Hopeful Publishing Land and we all need a little help sometimes.

  1. Writing about what I wish I were writing. I just start tip-tapping, stream-of-consciousness style, about what I wish I could write and all of a sudden I realize—surprise!—I can write it. I want to write it. I probably am writing it.
  2. Taking a shower. I always have great ideas in the shower. As a bonus, I get extra-clean. Sometimes I get wrinkly.
  3. Walking while talking to myself. Or maybe it’s talking to myself while walking. In either case I take one of the dogs so I can pretend I’m talking to the dog.
  4. Cleaning. The grittier, dirtier, and more mindless, the better. I think, “I could be writing instead of doing this.” Pretty soon I am.
  5. My writing talisman. It’s a chunk of llanite from the Llano Uplift. Yours could be a lucky hat, a statuette, special pen, a piece of jewelry, an artifact from a historical era. The more you associate it with your writing, the more it will encourage your writing. Really.
  6. Plants. Fill your writing space with as many plants as you can fit in. They clean the air, and cleaner air means a clearer head. You can talk to them, too, if you don’t have a dog. Even if you do have a dog.
  7. Laughter. Find something that will always make you laugh. I like Cute Overload. Laugh good and hard, until your belly hurts. It truly loosens up all those impacted words you’ve been wanting to write but haven’t been able to.

What are your writing tricks? Enquiring minds want to know!

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07 Jan Lists

I love to make lists. I live and die by my daily lists—I have a little gadget on my Vista sidebar where I can make a list with checkboxes, and check things off as the day progresses. Another holdover from my corporate days, I suppose, when I kept comprehensive lists of things to do on yellow legal pads, crossing off and dating things as they were done and saving the pads when they were full, just in case. Those pads came in handy sometimes.

This is just a list of things I’m thinking about at the moment.

  • Christmas decorations are put away, all safe in their beds, for next year.
  • No stargazing for the past few nights—it’s been cold, cloudy and rainy. I miss it.
  • Revisions of Duchess are proceeding apace. Some really good stuff is happening, I think.
  • I’m re-reading The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge. It started to call to me after I wrote up my post about Goudge being part of my fantasy writers group. What an extraordinary book.
  • Time to start thinking about this summer’s garden. Also to order a new rose bush from David Austin Roses. We have a spot where an ancient Peace rose gave up the ghost last summer.
  • Did I mention that revisions are going really well?
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06 Jan The Cumulative Advantage

Skip over the headine about Justin Timberlake. This is a brilliant, meaty article about success (or non-success) in writing and other “cultural industries,” and how it’s a) unpredictable, no matter how much you know about your business, and b) highly dependent on social influence.

“The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called ‘cumulative advantage,’ or the ‘rich get richer’ effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous ‘butterfly effect’ from chaos theory.”

Hat tip to Shrinking Violet Promotions! And all the more reason to just write what you love best.

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03 Jan Writing Sages

Some people have fantasy football. I have a fantasy writers’ group—writing sages who have touched me deeply and who I look to as mentors and models. I’ve never met any of these women in the flesh, but I have met their hearts and minds through the words they put down on paper, and each one inspires me in a unique way. Here they are:

  • Dorothy Dunnett, the incomparable, creator of Francis Crawford of Lymond
  • Rumer Godden, whose luminous In This House of Brede is one of my favorite books of all time
  • Elizabeth Goudge, who wrote with shining grace of England past and present, the countryside, the houses, the families
  • Angela Thirkell, wry and dry and funny and pointed, who makes me long to be a duke’s prosaic daughter
  • Gladys Taber, countrywoman, animal lover, home cook and chronicler of wonderful Stillmeadow
  • Julian of Norwich, fourteenth-century English anchoress and mystic, visionary and eternal optimist

A list like this is revealing—clearly I am a romantic, a bit of an Anglophile, a devotée of history and a lover of nature. If you could choose from every writer since the beginning of time, who would be in your imaginary writers’ group?

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02 Jan The Tale of an Almond

I am working on intensifying the emotion in my story—giving it more fire and concentration and a more satisfying emotional resolution (there, see? I worked the word “resolution” into my post even though I’m not telling anybody my real resolutions, no sirreebob) in the end. It’s an interesting exercise. I’m finding that one way to show emotion is to show a contradiction between what a character says and what he does.

a story in every almondPerhaps he is shelling an almond at the end of a meal. A simple enough action. But he does it with the greatest of care, making sure the shell breaks into perfectly even pieces. While he does that, he is responding to another character’s conversation in an apparently casual manner. But the way he shells the almond is anything but casual, and the disconnect between what he is saying and what he is doing, to me at least, creates emotion. Conflict. Suspense. Yesterday at the party I was watching people, watching for disconnects. They can be astonishingly revealing.

Is there anything in the world more fascinating and—well, just plain fun—than writing stories? Well, possibly one or two things. Sometimes. Heh. But storytelling is definitely top-three.

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26 Dec Revisions and Flames

“You write,” notes editor, publisher and author Arthur Plotnik, “to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”

Let the fire show through the smoke. That’s it, exactly. That’s what I’m doing right now. Barbara and Alfonso and all my other characters have fire burning inside. I have fire burning inside. Now what I have to do is clear away the smoke and let the fire show through.

Alfonso’s historical device was a flame with the motto Ardet Aeternum—“Burning Forever.” Could anything be more appropriate?

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