Mar 5 2014

Fast read, slow read

T and HA couple of things happened to make me think about this topic recently. First there was a Facebook post about the 22 books people pretend they’ve read. Then a few discussions about “old-fashioned” vs. “modern” writing, especially regarding pace and plot. And finally, I actually met someone else who had read The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

First, let me qualify the following by saying that I’ve not yet finished Catton’s book, but I have no doubt that I will for a number of reasons.

The essential question here is whether saying something is a “fast read” is a compliment or not. The answer is not so straightforward as people on either side of the issue might think. Here’s sort of what I mean:

Fast read: the positive take

We’ve all experienced those books that we galloped through, because something grabbed us and simply would not let us go. It’s exhilarating to be so wrapped up in a book that time disappears, and  before you know it you’ve reached the end. These are fabulous reading experiences, no question. I felt that way about the Hunger Games trilogy, for instance.

Fast read: the not-so-positive take

I’m sure we’ve all equally experienced a book that made us turn the pages in spite of ourselves, whose prose is so simple and undemanding that speed-reading is not out of the question, and whose author knows those tricks that prevent you from stopping when you really want to, the cliffhangers, the unanswered questions etc. I rarely read novels that fall into this category all the way through, but I’ve had to read non-fiction that takes this approach, and frankly, I find it excruciating. For a fiction example, I’d go with Dan Brown.

Slow read: the negative take

Books that plod are simply murder to get through. Prose bogged down with excessive description, or with intrusive backstory or uninteresting characters doing things that don’t matter—yuck. These are the books I usually manage not to purchase. A read of the first page or two can sort them out for me, usually. These more than any other make one wonder how they managed to get published, why someone didn’t edit them well. Sadly, they can sometimes be books by well-known authors whose editors don’t intervene very much, depending on the loyalty of the audience, and submitting to the demands of the marketplace for the next book. But that’s a whole different topic.

Slow read: the positive take

Henry James. Herman Melville. Emily Bronte. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Anthony Trollope. Hilary Mantel. Charles Frazier. Kazuo Ishiguro. I could go on. I don’t mean slow because they’re boring or inept. I mean slow because the author is taking time with something, savoring and caring about the words and the characters, luring us into the world of the novel by seducing us with the pure tactile, sensory effect of the writing. These are often the books that stay with you for a long time, perhaps in part because they took time to read.

OK, so where does The Luminaries fit in this rather over-simplified continuum? I haven’t finished it, as I said, so I can’t say for certain. But here are the characteristics I’ve discerned so far:

  • Beautifully drawn characters, but without excessive descriptive passages
  • An incredibly slow moving plot, but of such subtle complexity that curiosity keeps drawing me on
  • The audacity to use antiquated literary conventions, to confront the past by resurrecting Hawthorne-like authorial intrusion, for instance

This book, whether I end up thinking it’s important or just a tour-de-force, challenges me as a reader. And it does so not by being obscure and intellectual, but by telling a story in a daring way. Oddly, it’s the opposite of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which I loved. Mantel uses very modern, almost post-modern literary style to paint a perfect, evocative picture of the life-and-death intrigue in the Tudor court. Any coincidence that they both won the Booker prize?

That one word, I think, sums it up: challenge. I love that people read, and honestly, whatever they enjoy reading it’s all good. But are we losing a taste, as a society, for challenging reading? For books that take time and insist that we pay attention to details—word choice, sentence structure, form? Are the big five publishers afraid to get behind books like this, unless they’ve been anointed by receiving prestigious literary accolades?

I don’t have an answer. I’d love to hear from anyone who does. In the meantime, let me know if you’ve got some of those meaty novels that stretch the mind for me to try. I can’t guarantee I’ll like them, but I won’t give up easily.

And think twice before you mean to give a compliment to a book by calling it a “fast read.” If nothing else, I’ve definitely decided that, in and of itself, that description wouldn’t recommend a book to me.

Feb 23 2014

Not Writing

frustrated-snapped-pencilYou know how I can tell that it’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post? Because my browser didn’t bring up the URL as soon as I started typing.

When I finally got here, I was ashamed to see that my most recent post was September, 2013. What kind of a writer am I?

The short answer is that I’m a writer who lost her nerve for four long months. I had written the first draft of a novel called White Poison, about white slavery in 1910 New York. My critique group was enjoying it, but they had some comments that should have set off alarm bells for me. Nonetheless I sent it to my agent.

He hated it.

Well, maybe hate is too strong a word. But his reaction was like having a bucket of ice water poured over my head, not least of all because I could see that there were many ways in which he was right. I’ve agonized and thought about his comments and reaction, as well as the reactions of my other readers, and taken away what feels right.

I started all over again. Most of the same characters, the same premise, but completely different POV for a start. Instead of the first person that works so well in my YA novels, I switched back to multiple close third. This is what I used in my adult novels, and it enables me to go into more depth with my characters and create a  more layered story.

I started the action in a different place. Often this can create a breakthrough. In my case, I not only started the action differently, I used a different character’s POV. I used the character whose story is truly at the heart of the narrative instead of one who is looking at her from the outside.

This was, perhaps, the biggest change. I still want to show the stark contrast between upper and lower class women, and what motivated them in early 20th-century New York. I still want to tell the remarkable story of two women who helped the police crack a white slavery ring. But I realized that a part of me hadn’t wanted to get too close to what was actually happening to those young, friendless girls who were sexual slaves. I realized that I was cheating my reader of being able to feel the full horror, the full degree of depravity, that would ultimately allow them to feel the redemption.

So now I’m at just over 10,000 words on the new version. Wish me luck. And courage.

Sep 15 2013

Time and space

My primary mode as a person is doing. If in doubt, feeling agitated or depressed, it’s time to DO something.

That’s the impulse that originally started me writing historical fiction. I found myself unable to get a job teaching at a college, after spending eight years of my life getting a PhD from Yale in music history.

I had to do something with all that knowledge and passion. And I did.

I consider it a bit of a failing that I cannot always simply be. I have just finished the first draft of what I hope will be my seventh novel, and instead of letting myself breathe and think about it, I am a little depressed, feeling that I should now DO editing, even though in my heart I know that a little distance, a little time and space, will be good for it.

No doubt this feeling will pass in the crush of everyday life. My full-time-plus day
job won’t give me a moment to linger over this feeling.

In the meantime I hope my characters are busy both being and doing, and that when I get back to them we’ll get this novel done together.

Sep 7 2013

Communications, 1909 Style

kg-grabaphone-1909-th-300Today I wrote a scene in my work in progress in which my heroine receives a telephone call. The year is 1909. Of course, I knew that there were telephones, and she is from a wealthy family in New York City, so they would undoubtedly have one. But then I wondered how common it was to speak by telephone, and how many households actually had them. I stumbled upon this wonderful encapsulation of the United States in 1909:


  • The average life expectancy was 47 years.
  • Only 14 percent of the homes had a bathtub.
  • Only 8 percent of the homes had a telephone.
  • There were only 8,000 cars and only 144 miles of paved roads.
  • The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.
  • The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower!
  • The average wage in 1909 was 22 cents per hour.
  • The average worker made between $200 and $400 per year .
  • A competent accountant could expect to earn $2000 per year,
  • A dentist $2,500 per year, a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000 per year, and a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.
  • More than 95 percent of all births took place at HOME .
  • Ninety percent of all doctors had NO COLLEGE EDUCATION!  Instead, they attended so-called medical schools, many of which were condemned in the press AND the government as ‘substandard. ‘
  • Sugar cost four cents a pound.
  • Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen.
  • Coffee was fifteen cents a pound.
  • Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
  • Canada passed a law that prohibited poor people from entering into their country for any reason.
  • Five leading causes of death were: 1. Pneumonia and influenza 2. Tuberculosis 3. Diarrhea 4. Heart disease 5. Stroke
  • The American flag had 45 stars.
  • The population of Las Vegas , Nevada, was only 30!!!!
  • Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and iced tea hadn’t been invented yet.
  • There was no Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
  • Two out of every 10 adults couldn’t read or write.
  • Only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school.
  • Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at the local corner drugstores. Back then pharmacists said, ‘Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind,regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health’
  • Eighteen percent of households had at least one full-time servant or domestic help.
  • There were about 230 reported murders in the ENTIRE ! U.S.A. !
  • Read more:

That’s a pretty good snapshot to compare that time to ours in a meaningful way. And yet, it still isn’t enough to give me a sense of how my heroine would feel about getting a telephone call, where the telephone would be in her house, what kind of telephone she would have, or even what she would say when she picked it up and before she hung up. In my mind I pictured the archetypal Candlestick phone. But Rose could have used one of the early “grabaphones,” phones where the mouthpiece and receiver were in one handset. Although dial telephones had been invented by 1909, in New York, the exchange was a manual one, where calls were completed by operators, not by patrons dialing a number. So Rose’s phone would most likely not have had a dial. Then there is the issue of how people used phones. One blog features a series of postcards showing how having a telephone could help one out in any number of emergencies. In these days of ubiquitous cell phones, it is hard to imagine that anyone would need to have the use of a phone explained. Already by that time telephones featured in silent films, in the media, and in the iconography, and the job of telephone operator was well established as a female occupation. I wonder how that came to be, exactly. Perhaps the servility of the job was seen as suitable for women, or there were some who were simply smart enough to see a good opportunity and cornered the market. At the time, textile worker, domestic servant, shop girl, teacher, nurse were the most common occupations. Of course, the story of how Edison suggested saying “hello” instead of “ahoy” to answer the telephone is pretty well known. I can easily imagine people shouting when they spoke, too, not quite believing that the person so far away could hear them. I’ve assembled lots of images of 1909 phones on my Pinterest page. Nowadays, when even the idea of a dial is fairly antiquated, I always find it refreshing to dig around and really try to put myself in the mindset of someone for whom a phone call was a momentous occasion.

Aug 25 2013

Suffrage and Marriage

Alice Paul in 1901, aged 16

Alice Paul in 1901, aged 16

There’s no way I can write a novel set in New York in 1909-1910 and not touch upon the women’s suffrage movement. Although it was before the famous march on Washington in 1913, votes for women was a hotly debated topic at all levels of society. There were rallies, petitions, parades and more. Although the early heroines of the movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were both dead by the time of my novel, Alice Paul was honing her skills as a suffragist at the feet of the Pankhursts in Britain and preparing to bring what she learned back to the United States.

Like my heroine, Paul was a college graduate—from Swarthmore. She went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees at Penn, and eventually went to law school as well. And accounts of her describe her as a quiet, Quaker woman, capable of persuading without coercion, utterly dedicated to the cause. She led nonviolent protests here, and was among those imprisoned in the infamous Occuquan Workhouse in Virginia, where she went on hunger strike and was force fed.

Paul lived to the age of 92. Among her many accomplishments was that she was one of the original authors of the Equal Rights Amendment—which has still not made it into law.

One of the many things I cherish about writing historical fiction is how it forces me to delve into history in a way that’s different from simply studying facts and events and biographies to gain a broad historical grasp of their importance. I am forced to discover—or invent—their importance in the lives of my characters, who are very particular individuals who don’t always react the way I would expect them to.

In order to write a story in which my heroine is touched by the major social movement of the time, I have to dig up details that aren’t always available in historical studies. For instance, I have to know not just that women went to prison, but how they were conveyed there, what exactly was the process by which they ended up behind bars. What did they say, how did they act when they were arrested? Was there a women’s prison for them, or were they simply incarcerated in a part of a men’s prison? Or was the workhouse the only alternative? Were the poor women treated differently from the wealthy ones? Are the stories of bravery and self-sacrifice countered by stories of cowardice and fear that have not been handed down as part of the legend? And of course, were there only the famous, recorded

Alice Paul with Helen Gardener

Alice Paul with Helen Gardener

instances, or smaller indignities by local authorities?

I remember a wonderful British series from the ’70s called Shoulder to Shoulder, about the Pankhursts. I would love to watch it again now, but it isn’t to be had anywhere online. Instead, I have contented myself by reading Jailed for Freedom, a 1920 account written by Doris Stevens, in the heady days after women finally won the vote in the U.S. It’s a political treatise, a broad-brushed account, and its documentary tone does not mask the fervor of the author.

That said, it’s a rich resource of the strategies and tactics the suffragists, led by Alice Paul, engaged in. What is truly fascinating to me, and something I was aware of but hadn’t considered recently, was that the woman suffrage matter was deemed to be something each state should decide for itself. It was the then Democratic government’s way of avoiding taking a stand on a hot-button issue. The result was that even when there was no constitutional amendment permitting women to vote, women in several western states were voters, and there were about 4 million of them. The suffragists used the power of the women as voters to put pressure on Wilson’s government.

This reminds me very much of today’s Gay Marriage fight, where it is being left to the states individually to make policy, rather than being debated on a national level. Our own Democratic government is sidestepping the issue. Unfortunately, gaining the right to marry in some states doesn’t automatically give the LGBT community any added political strength, as it did the women. It’s hard to fathom what greater pressure could be put to bear that would hasten the granting of this moral right.

Alice Paul

Alice Paul

Both issues—the right to vote and the right to marry—seem related to me. They are fundamental human rights that a democracy should support. Researching and writing this novel reminds me that many people in the past have fought very hard so that I can enjoy the life of freedom I currently lead. I hope that it won’t be long before people look back at the pre-universal marriage days and wonder how on earth we, as a free, secular democracy, could have justified such a policy.


Aug 18 2013

Linear vs. non-linear

1185285_10151665709908347_285380305_nI’ve decided I have to face it: I’m a linear writer. I may have isolated bits in my mind as I write, but I have to get through a draft step by step, in logical increments. That doesn’t mean I see a straight line ahead of me and I follow it. Far from it. I only see as far as a scene at a time, and even then I don’t always know where I’m going until I’ve written it.

This may be especially true when I’m writing in the first person, as I feel that I must discover things along with my protagonist, feel what she is feeling as the story moves from scene to scene.

I know there are writers out there whose approach is totally different, but I can’t really imagine how that works. What would happen if, say, you’re stitching all the bits together, or have decided to insert a scene somewhere, and it doesn’t make sense? I’m sure those writers have ways to deal with that eventuality. And I guess it’s not too big a leap of the imagination to understand that rewriting, for them, is just as much a part of the process, but perhaps one that comes earlier in it than for me.

My joy is in getting to the end of where the story thread and the characters lead me, being somewhat surprised, and then going back and tightening, adding, deepening, when I finally understand what the novel is about.

Aug 2 2013

My Personal Writing Retreat

Inez_milhollandYes, I have been quiet lately. This is not a bad thing at all. I am actually on vacation from my day job, which means that I have the luxury of being able to spend hours a day working on my new novel.

I had hopes of finishing a first draft, but today is the last actual day of my vacation, and I still have quite a way to go. But I got through some really important scenes, and completely revamped the backstory of my protagonist. The bottom line is that I think I will actually finish this novel.

In the course of my writing and research (which is ongoing all the time I write), I have discovered a new, very interesting character, who could have deserved a novel of her own. As it is, she’s currently making a cameo appearance in mine. Her name is Inez Mulholland Boissevain. She was from Brooklyn, went to Vassar and NYU Law school, was admitted to the bar and became a political and social activist. She suffered from ill health, but went on a grueling speaking tour anyway. While on it, she collapsed and died of pernicious anemia.

We all have so little time to do the things that matter. I grow more and more grateful that so many women and men in the past gave their all to causes they believed in.

I’m merely hoping to give my all to writing for a little while longer, before returning to the demanding but rewarding world of non-profit arts management.

Jul 20 2013

Climbing the Mountain

Mt._Washington,_NHI was driving through Greenfield, MA on this unbearably hot day (99 degrees and humid), and found myself behind a minivan that bore a a bumper sticker proclaiming, “This car climbed Mt. Washington.” I hadn’t seen one of those in years, and was immediately transported back to my days at summer camp in northern Vermont, when I went on several mountain hikes (not climbs; no pietons or ropes). I was probably around ten years old.

We’d start out early, canteens full of water, bug-sprayed, but almost never sun-screened. That was back in the days before the real dangers of sunburn/tan were widely known.

The whole group of us would start at the bottom and follow the leader up the path, scampering over rocks, clinging to tree roots, spotting wildlife and wildflowers. Usually there was some crystal clear mountain stream where we could refresh our canteens, carefully, so as not to stir up the silt on the bottom.

Mount-WashingtonSeveral times a climb led us up above the treeline, and suddenly a vista would open up, out over the other mountains, sometimes to a distant lake. Usually there was a tricky scramble over screed and slick boulders until we reached the summit, where we would stop for our lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and oranges. There was always a contest to see who could peel their orange in one continuous spiral and make it the longest. One of the counselors invariably won.

I loved those mountain hikes, and could never understand why someone would choose just to drive up a mountain and see the view. But they did, and very likely still do.

A view from the top of a mountain is something very special. For me, there’s an analogy here, to both reading and writing. When you’ve read a book, you get to the end, and have a clear view back over everything that happened. A really good book gives you that same, satisfying feeling as reaching the top of the mountain and seeing all around, a vista that makes sense of what you’re too close to most of the time to encompass.

mt washingtonWhen I’m writing a book and finally get to the end of the first draft, I feel as though I am on top of a mountain, and able to see at last where everything was going. Then all I have to do is go back to the bottom and fix the path so that my readers can climb up with me.

Jun 29 2013

Strong Women


Anne Morgan

I’ve been talking a lot about craft lately. Craft makes achieving a novel possible, in my view. But before I even get to that point, there’s something else I have to have: Passion.

I have to want to tell a story, I have to feel that the story is not only worth telling, but that I am willing to devote months or years to the process without losing that essential passion.

As any author of historical fiction knows, research is primary and ongoing. If doing the research doesn’t get your juices flowing, then historical fiction isn’t your genre. In fact, when I feel myself bumping up against a wall in my writing, my first instinct is to go back to the research. It’s astonishing how often I then discover some tiny fact, or uncover an event or a historical figure, that begs to jump onto the page and becomes a catalyst to get me to the next plot point, or stage.

What does this have to do with strong women, you ask? I guess because when I look back at everything I’ve written, my books published or not yet published, I see that common thread. Whether I’m writing for adults or young adults, showing women with courage and who dare to stand up for what they want, or stick by their friends, or try something they’ve been told is impossible for them—this is what fuels my passion for writing.

Elisabeth Marbury

Elisabeth Marbury

Not that I don’t also want to people my novels with men who make a difference, who push the boundaries themselves. Pierre in Liszt’s Kiss is a dedicated doctor in cholera-ridden Paris. Marc-Antoine Charpentier in Emilie’s Voice seeks musical perfection in Louis XIV’s court. And Zoltan in The Musician’s Daughter risks everything for the sake of the Hungarian serfs in 18th-century Vienna.

I like to create strong female characters, flawed perhaps, but capable of growing. This creation is fostered by uncovering strong, iconoclastic women who really lived in history.

My new novel in progress takes place in 1910 New York City, a time when labor unions were on the rise, women were working in factories and in department stores, and fabulously wealthy industrialists were creating their empires.

Elsie de Wolfe

Elsie de Wolfe

Against this backdrop, I’ve found three amazing women who have roles to play in my novel: Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan; Elisabeth Marbury, and Elsie de Wolfe. That Elisabeth and Elsie were in all probability gay, and possibly Anne Morgan as well, is interesting, especially at this time when social boundaries are being broken down. I wonder what they would think about the Supreme Court’s decision to call DOMA unconstitutional? They’d undoubtedly be thrilled.

Stay tuned for some great tidbits about this women who led lives of passion and accomplishment at a time of ferment and change.


Jun 22 2013

Structure and Pace

01-thecrookedhouse-thumbI do a little editing work now and again. Not much, because I don’t have very much time, and I’m very choosy about my clients. What I prefer is someone who has the basics—voice, a good story, believable characters—but who needs a little help getting a manuscript ready for submission.

What’s left? you ask. Something that beginning writers seem to struggle with more than anything else: structure. And with structure, pace. A “good story well told” is more than just finding the perfect words to express a sentiment or to underline tension. It’s knowing how much to say when, where the breaks need to be, and how to build the tension so that your reader keeps turning the pages, desperate to know what’s happening next.

I think those things are important whether you’re writing a mass-market thriller or a literary masterpiece. The difference is the tempo, the expectation you set up in your reader concerning the literary time you take them through.

This is all top of mind because I’m helping a writer I admire and like with her second novel. She has all the tools: a strong, likable voice, a main character who draws our sympathy, and humor as well. But she is struggling with the bigger picture. And I’m struggling to help her sort it out, to explain what I mean by that hard-to-define structural underpinning and instinct for drawing the overarching line.

I guess that’s what people call “story arc.” But it can be bloody difficult to step back far enough from your own writing to see it sometimes.

Here are a few basic suggestions:

1. Use a program like Scrivener.

What difference does a program make, you ask. What Scrivener does that Word and other such programs don’t is give you a bird’s-eye view of your manuscript. You divide it into chapters and scenes, and you can drag them around easily to change where something happens. Scrivener also gives you an area to store research, including importing Web pages. And there are character and place sketching areas.

2. Pay attention to how movies are structured.

The directorNot everyone is a proponent of Robert McKee’s Story, But much of what he says holds true for novels. Think in scenes. Where would a director cut? How much do you put in or leave out to satisfy your reader? How much can you see from your character’s point of view, and what is told by everything that’s out of view?

Even the good old Victorian novelists, working before film, used these techniques. Just read Dickens if you doubt me. The pace is more leisurely, the use of an omniscient narrator more frequent, but there is still a need to keep people engaged with what they’re reading, and to make them feel at the end that it all coheres and tells a great story.

3. Don’t be afraid to rethink.

When you’ve spent weeks-months-years on a novel and it’s still not right, it can be very discouraging to have to pull it all apart. It reminds me of knitting a sweater, and getting to the end before you realize that the front is longer than the back, or the sleeves don’t fit. Unraveling and starting over is always disheartening.

11unravel_lgBelieve me, I know. I’ve done it. But sometimes that little bit of destruction can lead to an insight so revealing that it renews your enthusiasm. It can be something as little as, “My main character doesn’t want x, she wants y,” or changing some key point about the setting. For me, it was moving my time frame a year earlier in history, allowing me to overlay the real-life drama of a cholera epidemic on the basic story, creating the character of a young doctor, etc.

Some writers have a natural instinct for structure and pace. Some writers start with structure by writing copious outlines. For the rest of us, it’s something that can be learned, with a little determination and humility.