April 25, 2013

A Critique from Dickens

I've been reading David Copperfield this month.  It's one of those books that, if all were right with the world, I would have read years ago; but all is not right with the world, and I went against the flow and chose to read Dickens' lesser known works, like Little Dorrit and Martin Chuzzlewit, first.  I'm not sure why people generally start with either Oliver Twist or Copperfield, but my being contrary and departing from the norm has given me, I think, a different perspective on Dickens.  A Christmas Carol aside, I started in on his darker, more dramatic books first; now I'm going back and reading his earlier works, and I can go about it without the notion that they are gloomy and depressing.  Compared to Bleak House, they're positively comic!

At any rate, as I am coming up on the end of David Copperfield (only a couple hundred pages left - I'm practically grazing the finish line), I've begun to think all over again about my appreciation for his writing.  And then it occurred to me to wonder, whatever would he think of my writing?  I thought about it a little while, rather tickled by the idea, and came to the conclusion that he would probably be horrified by modern day writing in general.  And I don't mean what a book snob like myself considers sloppy writing - flimsy characters and thin prose - the sort of things that are objectively bad no matter what generation you live in; I mean the more subjective Standards.

The size of a novel, and the trend nowadays toward "shorter and easier to read books" - mine are large by today's standards, but they're still dwarfed by Bleak House.  The notion of pared-down casts - Dickens would have had a good laugh over that.  Verbose description being the Devil's own child.  And as for characters...!  If he found Jane Eyre appallingly independent, Regina would have him positively thrashing in his grave.

I thought to myself, as these flitted across my mind: "Oh, I can have some fun with that."  So I decided to write up a critique of myself from Mr. Dickens' perspective, as a parody of the Victorian standards and the modern day standards both.  It is at once laughably arrogant on my part and completely self-deprecating, so you are not allowed to take it seriously on any level.

My dear J—,

The next installment is in progress, albeit slow and, at this time, a little tedious. But Bob will keep me going, and being so near the end I cannot stop now. (Though I have half a mind to kill them all and be done with the business.)

You will by this time probably have heard of that new work, released upon an unsuspecting public a fortnight ago, by the incorrigible Mrs. H. I confess it painful, to my sensibilities, at least, to observe the unbridled pleasure with which that public has already caught it up: I hear nothing, morning, noon, or night, but one or another reference to this work. It glares at me from shop windows, and with such garish looks! It is beyond my ability to comprehend its attractions, and yet only last Friday, when I went out for a walk, I saw no less than four persons with it in hand. One of them had the distinctly mouldy air of a dustman; another was, if you can believe it, Lord R. He hid it beneath his hat when he saw me coming.

I had already heard various scathing critiques of Mrs. H.’s new piece of literature, from friends and family, and I soon made my mind up that I should not touch the creature at any cost. It was only when our mutual friend T. happened to mention, in a particularly unguarded moment, that I was featured in its pages that I yielded to my baser feelings, laid down two shillings, and took away the book. It was a moment of weakness, for which I am sure you can forgive me.

Well, I have all but reached the end of the thing, after pausing several times with wounded sensibilities. Mrs. H. performs feats worthy of legend at a speed wondrous to behold; the tale stops for no man; in a mere two hundred pages, the plot is already coursing forward like an ardent tug-boat, bearing the reader in its wake. I found myself appalled at the thought that such a brief work could capture the mind of the public; that the same men and women who demanded to know if Little Nell was dead have now embraced this.  If Little Nell were not already dead, I would be tempted to kill her out of spite.

As for Mrs. H.’s characters, though I admit they are not altogether bad—I was quite gratified by a certain indefatigable female who passes through the pages early on—though I admit, as I say, that they are not bad, Mrs. H. would need a round two dozen more before the story could be called intricate. And the heroine! She is enough to make your blood run cold; Mrs. C. B.’s own rebellious orphan becomes a saint by comparison.

My own appearance, somewhere near the middle of the book, was thankfully brief. I have not yet decided whether it was intended to be favourable or not; I lean toward the latter conclusion. I seem to recall a letter from Mrs. H. some while ago, the subject of which I have now forgotten, but which was (I believe) congratulatory in tone. I can only conclude, judging by her ambiguous reference to me now, that she was not favourably impressed by Dombey. That is of little consequence to me, but I am now turning over the idea of inserting Mrs. H. in the Current Work—as a dose of retribution. I have little doubt, however, that the esteemed lady would not hesitate to return the compliment.


C. D.

April 17, 2013

Enjoying Research

No matter what sort of book we happen to be writing, sooner or later - preferably sooner - we'll find ourselves needing to buckle down and research.  This is pretty intuitive for those of us writing historical fiction; the era of careful propaganda and make-believe "history" has, alas, gone its way, and now we've actually got to stick to facts.  Ho hum.  For fantasy or science fiction authors it is a little less obvious, but again, at some point you realize that they demand, if anything, even more research than historical novels.  It's just a fact of writing life.

It is not, of course, always a pleasant fact.  Some people really enjoy researching; others find it daunting and unpleasant.  I happen to fall somewhere in the middle: there are times when I love it - especially those moments where a nebulous idea and a concrete fact finally click - and then there are times where I'd rather be doing anything else.  Maybe even scrubbing bathtubs.  And I'm pretty sure that second feeling is more common than the first.

It is difficult to know, especially when you're just getting started, where to start.  There must be books - no self-respecting writer should really on the internet - but what books?  And where do we find them?  And once we've found them, how do we find what we need in them?  Are books our only resources, or are there others?  If there are others, what are they, where are they, and how do we use them?  If you are tackling a particularly big subject, like World War II or the history of medicine, it can seem like there's no resource material; and then it can feel like there's an ocean of material and we're just paddling along on the surface in a little leaky dinghy.  That is what makes research not so fun.

I still get this feeling, whether I'm studying the Age of Sail or astrolabes: I'll confess that right away.  But it is a little less overwhelming when approached with some ideas of organization and method - they keep the holes in the dinghy patched, at the very least.  These are a few of the things I do to make research a little smoother, a little brighter, and a little more enjoyable.

1. make book lists

I like lists.  I like how practical and efficient they are.  When I begin researching seriously, I try to write down all the titles of books that I think might be helpful in different aspects of the novel, big and small.  Often you can find these by merely googling the topic you're looking for, and once you've found one book, you can discover more by following that author's references.  You are pretty sure to find yourself with an extensive list this way.

After that, I'll usually try to track down the book either on Google Books or Amazon and preview it.  If it looks worthwhile, I can sometimes get it from the library; but our library is pretty poor, and at any rate, at some point you've got to give library books back.  They also frown on underlining.  So if at all possible, it is really best to save up and buy the books you need - the ones that look as though they'll be most useful across the board.  It may seem like a dull use of your money, but it really is worth it. 

For those books you can't purchase or that don't look extremely helpful, take note of them and see if they aren't available online.  Many books and original material are.  I was able to use the Naval Documents of the Barbary Wars without paying $500 dollars for it, which was very nice indeed, and I've found numerous other works via Google Books.

2. underline! take notes!

I talked about this in general terms in "More Than Pages Flying By," but it really is a good idea to, at the very least, stick tabs in pages you'll need to reference later.  Don't trust your memory.  It never turns out well.  ("Was it pages 300...?  Or 3...?  I think it was on a lefthand page.  No, no, pretty sure it was right.  Or was it left?")  If you come across a random tidbit of information, or something you want to look into more deeply, jot it down in a handy notebook.  Underline, if you like, and perhaps make notes in the margins: you can do it in light pencil and erase later, if the idea of a pen makes you cringe.  

3. pick out useful bits

You needn't read all the way through every book you get for research.  I think you should read through some, even most, or you will have no cohesive feel for the time period or the topic; but to read from page one to the end in every single work can be both tedious and unhelpful.  Skim through the pages, decide which books will be most helpful, and read those.  Settle yourself in, get a cup of tea, and immerse yourself in those works: they may not be one hundred percent enjoyable, but I think they'll be rewarding.  For the other books, look at the chapter headings (if there are any) and the index and read those sections dealing with your subject. 

4. space research out

Cramming isn't the best method for thoroughly learning anything.  I know some writers like to do all their research before they begin to write, but even with this, I think you should space your reading out over a good long period: don't try to stuff it all into a couple months.  For myself, I rarely know half of what I don't know until I've begun to write, so I spread my research out before, during, and after my first draft.  Whatever works - just don't cram.

5. keep notebooks

I don't do this like I should, but I'm going to be hypocritical and say it's a good habit.  One thing I started doing last year or the year before is keeping a notebook of common British plants, with sketches (flowers are about the only things I can draw, apparently), common names, folklore, and medicinal uses.  It has been helpful on occasion; but immediate helpfulness aside, it provides a pleasant diversion and is something I know I'll be glad to have down the road.  It's good practice, at any rate.  I have another blank notebook ready for common birds, except that birds are significantly harder to sketch than the odd sprig of valerian.

6. don't be narrow-minded

It is easy to hone in on one era or topic to the detriment of others, but that practice is bad for the mind and makes research tiring.  I get bored of focusing on one thing for a long time.  That's part of why I keep my plant notebook: it is something entirely removed from politics and historical events, and that makes it refreshing.  No matter what you are primarily researching, remember to branch out - and to enjoy yourself when you do.  Keep a sketch notebook, if you like; or, if you can't draw, paste photos into a notebook and write your notes by hand, scrapbook-style.  Just the other day I started a Pinterest board for random bits of research and notes that snag my interest and may come in handy: photos or drawings of birds, of plants, of fruit I might eventually need to describe.  I'm not terribly particular about it, but I do have fun with it.

what research methods do you use?

April 11, 2013

Off the Shelf

It has become something of a tradition - if you can make a tradition in just two years - for me to update the photos of my bookshelves around this time.  Not a great deal has changed as far as the big white bookcase goes, since it has all but run out of room width-wise and is even getting cramped height-wise, which makes stacking books a bit of a chore.  However, I've made some alterations to the entertainment unit, introduced a research basket where most of my reference material goes, and bought some new books that managed to squeeze in where I was quite certain there wasn't any room left, so it seemed worthwhile to show off the new look.

The second shelf here is just about the same, although I think I shuffled some Shakespeare around a bit and got a copy of The Tempest.  The tannish-greenish book on top of Jane Austen is an adorable Scribner's, 1925, South Seas edition of David Balfour; it smells of old bookshops, and as far as physical books and not the stories side the covers go, is one of my favorites.  Jenny snitched my copy of The Black Arrow some months ago and I haven't taken the time to get it back yet, but it ought to be lying lengthwise under David Balfour.

I have added more to the top shelf - it was one of the few that still had room.  There's a nice fat copy of Les Miserables being chummy with The Count of Monte Cristo.  There's Nicholas Nickleby (the chap in maroon standing next to Treasure Island, also in maroon but significantly skinnier) and hardbacks of Don Quixote and Quo Vadis?.  The rather ugly lime green clothbound on the right is The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper; the ugliness has put me off from reading it.  Over toward the left is a copy of Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier that I also have yet to read.  And Kidnapped, which out to be spanning the gap between Treasure Island and The Count, is off the shelf.  Again.  I'm pretty sure it was off the shelf last year when I took 2012's photos.  It's a popular one.

Same old, same old around here.  David Copperfield, who ought to be propping up Mary Barton, is currently serving as my downstairs reading.  The second shelf down is the same as always, though I did pick up a copy of Starflower and Moonblood.  I was given another copy of The Hobbit for my birthday, too: it's a little leather one under On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, difficult to spot in this photo.  I also shuffled Mary Stewart over to the entertainment unit to make room for the growing Tales of Goldstone Wood.  Anne Elisabeth Stengl has no compassion on my shelves.

Nothing much to see on the first shelf here, save for that pale blue book towards the far end, which is a rather out-of-place looking Mr. Midshipman Hornblower - move along!  The bottom shelf filled out rapidly when I finished with my research material for the Sea Fever books, and got several new books into the bargain.  The yellowy one far on the right is A Hanging Offense, which was so-so; the one next to it on the left, dwarfed by the chunky The Line upon a Wind, is The Fatal Cruise of the Argus - I've not read that one through yet.

Coming down the shelf to the left, I crammed in all my particularly useful books: Edward Preble, dull but incredibly helpful; Dawn Like Thunder, also marvelous; Stephen Decatur and The Barbary Wars, which were rather meh; and then a few on naval warfare that had been lying flat in last year's shot.  The green hardback to the right of The Barbary Wars - I don't know if you can see it - is a pretty copy of Rudyard Kipling's The Seven Seas, a collection of poetry. 

Mostly mysteries down here on the lower shelf of the entertainment unit, with a very big, very heavy, very highlighted (and not by me) Pelican Shakespeare to boot.  I picked up some Agatha Christie novels and was given The Secret Adversary, the first Tommy & Tuppence, for my birthday.  Sherlock Holmes is getting a little tipsy over on the right.  Lying flat on top are The Red House Mystery, an enjoyable murder mystery by that wonderful fellow called A.A. Milne; another Holmes; and a Wodehouse.  I have two Jeeves novels, but I just finished reading the other and he hasn't gone home yet.

Top shelf!  This has obviously filled out since last year.  Of The Thief series, I only had the first one this time last year; I picked up The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia (lovely hardback, too) in the interim, but have not yet read the latter.  There's Howl, looking very creased from getting passed around the family so many times.  I Capture the Castle and Peter Pan are being green together.  There are a couple more Peter Pan books that I've not yet read, a few Costain novels (Ride with Me and High Towers) that I really only picked up because of their looks, and a fat N.C. Wyeth-illustrated The Scottish Chiefs.  The little book on top is one I just got a few weeks ago, The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein.  

In the back - you can just see them - are some of my Christian books (which sounds ridiculous, but I'm not sure what else to call them).  Anna gave me Mornings with Tozer.  There's Charity and Its Fruits, and The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, and the pale blue one on the right is God with UsThe Mind of the Maker is playing coy on the left and barely made an appearance.

Here is the aforementioned research basket, which is actually getting alarmingly full.  The big red book is an atlas of the ancient world.  The fake, Celtic-knot book came with tea in it and is now used for collecting rejection letters (yay!).  It leans rather forlornly against a Smithsonian bird book; two books on ancient astronomy that I just added two days ago (Echoes of the Ancient Skies and In Search of Ancient Astronomies, by E.C. Krupp); and three Country Diary books, full of watercolors and nature notes by a Birmingham lady in the early 20th Century.

And this is my too-large stack of books that are either being read or that just haven't made their way back home.  On the right stack are an old copy of Wordcrafter; two writing notebooks and a general notebook; Gleanings from Paul (there to make me finish reading it); and the currently-being-read Signs Amid the Rubble.  Which is splendid.  I confess the first two lectures were a little taxing and it was difficult to tell where he was going, but by the time I came to the third, I was having to restrain myself from underlining every other passage.  Excellent book - do read!

On the left there is Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, which I just began last night; The Inimitable Jeeves, finished the other night but still kicking about; and Kidnapped, which really should go back to its spot now.  The absolutely massive book is a book on Cromwell - I'm not sure why it's still there.  Below that is an Arthur Custance work, and then Red Moon and Black Mountain, and then another notebook.  I should clear up this mess, but I get so used to seeing all the books there that I just never do!

what are your shelves looking like this spring?

April 8, 2013

Imitation, Inspiration, and a Thing Called Voice

I'm not sure if The Trouble with Imitation answered any thoughts writers may have on the subject of inspiration, but I do know it raised more questions!

Joy sent me a sort of follow-up email this week on the subject of, well, "imitation, inspiration, and a thing called voice."  These are all fairly elusive terms - I'm still not sure I could define 'voice' adequately if someone put a gun to my head and insisted on it (although you can bet I would try) - and ones I'm pretty sure we've all wondered about.  I don't know if I will be able to answer all the questions, but I'll give it a shot in the hopes of clearing up some of the muddle that comes with literary talk.

Joy asks...
...I have also been mulling over the trouble of plagiarizing and copy-catting too much the books we cherish and authors we respect vs. going to the other extreme of not reading at all so as not to let our writings be unduly influenced! ...Sometimes I struggle with the whole art of learning from ‘The Greats’ and imbibing the skills and virtues they were masters at, without messing up with my own style and voice and especially the genre I am writing in. 
 And as for my answer, her second question, and my answer to that, you will have to toddle over to her blog.  Be sure to leave a comment if you have a spare moment!  She and I are both very fond of hearing from readers.

April 4, 2013

When You Don't Want to Write

We're writers.  Thus it is, or ought to be, a given that we write.  But we don't write all the time, any more than a farmer farms or a painter paints or a poet poems all the time: we have periods where we can't write, and we have periods where we just don't feel like writing.  In those latter times we tend to rattle around like a pebble in a can, not knowing what to do with ourselves.

What do we do, then, when we don't feel like writing?

And no, this is not going to be one of those cheeky posts in which the author says, "Just keep writing! SURPRISE!"  It is absolutely true that we should not give in every time, or even half the times, we feel the inclination to wander away from our work: if we have the ability to write and yet put it off over and over again, we're cultivating a spirit of laziness, which is no more acceptable for us than it is for a farmer.  But all the same, there are times when it is acceptable to take a break, to rest the mind, to gather creativity once more for another foray into our books.  So,

what do we do when we don't feel like writing?

1. Clean.  I think Jenny may have mentioned this at one point on The Penslayer, but there are few things that rejuvenate the mind as well as a good round of cleaning house.  As writers we tend to be fairly inactive - I know I do, at least - and it is good for the body and the mind to get moving and do something like scrubbing a bathtub or mopping a floor.  (I like bathtubs as well as the next person, I'm sure, but scrubbing them is horrible.  Its misery is only outdone by the task of formatting manuscript chapters in the body of an email.) 

But at any rate, no matter how clean your home or your writing area is on a day to day basis, you can always find something to clean: it's a law of nature.  If you find your creativity running dry, vacuum a few rooms!  Dust bookshelves!  Turn on a little music and scrub dishes!  Honestly, they could do a government study on the creative properties of suds.

2.  Organize.  This may come from being a fairly organized personality, but I find the practice of organizing helps to cheer me up and get my mind working again.  If you have a wardrobe or a closet, spend some time rifling through the clothes and sorting out things you don't wear: it is a productive task and has absolutely nothing to do with writing, which can be very nice. 

Or, on a more literary note, tidy up research material so it isn't tumbling all over the place.  This year I got myself a wicker basket - from Hobby Lobby; wonderful place, that - for some of the books that I use frequently and don't fit on shelves: The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and W. Keble Martin's The Concise British Flora in Colour; an atlas of the ancient world; a Smithsonian Handbook of Birds of the World; a box of rejection letters.  It helps keep the room nice, and a clean room, I think, is far more peaceful than a chaotic one.

3. Exercise.  I'm pretty bad at this one: I find exercising incredibly boring.  But again, we tend to be inactive, and this is a good habit to inculcate no matter what your vocation is.  Turn on the music again - preferably sprightly tunes - and do some aerobics or some weight-lifting or whatever it is you prefer.  Go out for a walk, if you can, or just toddle out to get the mail (there might be books in it!).  It is not always much fun (though it can be), but it is good for you!

4. Read.  Some people find their reading increases when their writing is in a bit of a rut; I generally find that both flounder at the same time.  But at any rate, if you find yourself with more time on your hands, allow yourself to settle down with a good book.  Whether it is new or well-loved is not critical, although for myself I find that light reading is best.  I can't say David Copperfield has been terribly beneficial, but The Inimitable Jeeves seems to be doing wonders at present.  I think there have been splashes of Wodehouse in this post, actually.

5. WorkWriting doesn't compose the whole of our work: there are other facets of being an author that can be turned to when the actual business of scribbling has slowed down.  If you have reached the stage of pursuing publication, take this time to work on query letters and research agencies or publishers.  (I know for myself I have no inclination to do this when my current book is coming along briskly.)  Spend a little while researching: more on that to come in a future post, I hope.  Respond to emails or think about marketing.  Edit a previous work, if you have the energy for it.  You can generally find some neglected bit of work that wants doing when your creativity is sparse!

Just because we aren't writing doesn't mean we cannot be productive in other ways.  There is nothing wrong with resting from one labor and turning to another for a time.  Laziness is not acceptable, but a timely break can be both well-deserved and helpful.
meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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