Category: The writing life

What’s different about writing historical fiction?

fig26I love my writing critique group. Smart writers, talented, and we are honest in our criticism. None of us are in it for adulation and reassurance. We’re in it to face the firing line, get real reader reactions to what we’ve written, show ourselves as vulnerable on the way to crafting a finished product.

So when I get a similar response from several members of the group about a weakness in what they’ve read of mine, I pay attention to it. (I also pay attention to the individual responses, but they can be more matters of taste and preference.) And this past week, several group members found that I was too wordy, too explaining, adding too much detail in the scenes, that what I’d written would gain in strength by heavy use of the blue pencil.

I’m sure they’re right, and I’ll go in and doubtless find many instances where less is definitely more that I was blind to when I first drafted those pages. That’s so often true, it almost goes without saying.

But one of the members raised the question as to whether the additional detail, or over-elaboration, is something that is expected/necessary because it’s historical fiction (which he doesn’t normally read), and that made me think too.

Basically, historical fiction has to obey all the same rules as any kind of fiction. And yet, we are creating worlds that are unfamiliar to our readers. We want them to be able to picture what we picture, to be in the period.

For instance, a novel set in modern times can assume a lot more than one set in the past (and I suspect that fantasy and science-fiction also share some of this). You can say “She got dressed and went to work,” and we’ll all have a pretty good image of what that would entail. But what about in a past where, in some social milieus, one didn’t dress oneself, where it was impossible, in fact, to do so because of all the fastenings at the back, completely out of reach?

That’s an oversimplified example, but I think it’s a little to the point. I think the same group member questioned why I would specify that my heroine was driven somewhere in her father’s new Pierce-Arrow motorcar, instead of just saying she was driven. I didn’t have a ready answer, but on thinking about it, I felt that automobiles are still so new in 1910 that anyone who had one or rode in one might be hyper-aware of the novelty, and automatically think in those terms.

Of course, the real trick is to convey all that detail, all that evocation of a period and place, and not make the text feel overburdened with words. And then, you have to make sure that you don’t lose the reader for the opposite reason, because she lacks the period vocabulary to paint that mental picture. A crespine, for instance, mentioned as an item of clothing, needs to somehow be put in context as something that goes on the head. In a modern context, there’s no need to explain what you do with a hat.

I think this need of historical fiction, of drawing the reader into a world she’s completely unfamiliar with, is partly why people will read multiple books set in the same time period, or concerning the same people. Over time, they’ve built up a “vocabulary” of images that put them in that place and era, and they don’t have to work quite as hard to find their way back as they had to work to get there in the first place.

The Ladies’ Mile

6thavenueearlyI’ve been dipping in and out of this work-in-progress and have lately gotten back into it. I did a lot of research to start off with, but in my experience, the research never stops throughout the writing process.

The novel is about two young women in 1910 New York, one an Irish immigrant who suffers some reversals and ends up getting into terrible danger, the other a member of the wealthy class who’s just come home from four years of college, and is dealing with the competing demands of her mother’s ambition to marry her well, and her own desire to make a difference in the world. Their two stories intersect in the shadowy underworld of white slavery.

The writing is going well now, but I have started over from the beginning three times now. I began in the first person, then realized that there are so many complicated sides to what was happening that multiple third would serve me better. I also changed the timing of the beginning, and many of the events.

All this meant that yesterday, I found myself researching the department stores in New York in 1910. It was already a commercially thriving city by that time, with big department stores like Macy’s, B. Altman, and Lord & Taylor opening their flagship stores in what was known as The Ladies’ Mile.

The area, now a historic district, stretches from around 15th street up to 24th (extending to 34th when Macy’s store there opened), east to what is now Park Avenue South and west to the other side of Sixth Avenue.

200px-ONeillBuilding-NYC-LadiesMileMapThanks to the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission, most of the buildings are still there, although many have been repurposed into smaller retailers and offices.

Of course, the most iconic of them all is the Flatiron Building, but Gimbel’s and B. Altman had pretty impressive buildings themselves.

These establishments employed armies of shop girls and porters, and supplied the wealthy and the growing middle class with ready-to-wear clothes, fashion accessories, and household goods.

If you’ve been watching The Paradise or Mr. Selfridge, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what retail was like around the turn of the 20th century. Here’s a slideshow with some vintage images to enjoy!

My abandoned children

Children in woodsI am sitting down to start writing. Now that I have two day jobs (one full time, one part time) that old idea about writing every day has disappeared, along with cleaning the house, so this would be the first time I’ve added any words to a novel in progress since exactly a week ago.

It’s my own fault: I’ve made decisions in the past that have led to this, both good and bad. I don’t let myself feel angry that at my age—less than six years from supposed “retirement”—I have as hectic and pressured a life as I have ever had. That would mean wishing all the amazing things I’ve done in past years undone, and I don’t regret a moment of it.

My situation has taught me a lot about myself as a person and as a writer—not that the two are actually separable. (Just then, a thought popped into my head: “Damn! I have to email this person about that…” Focus, Susanne) One thing it has taught me is just that. To focus on being creative, on seeing something through from beginning to end, requires time and space.

I do read every day, however, in those cooling down, mind-clearing moments before bed. One of the things I’ve been reading is Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing. I felt the need to read something about craft to help me bridge the gaps between when I could sit down and write and when I had so many other necessary things crowding my mind.

Big mistake. Don’t get me wrong: Shapiro writes beautifully, the book is engaging and thought-provoking. It just doesn’t provoke the right thoughts for me at this time. Shapiro has a busy life, of course: children at school, a house to run, and we know that those things are time-intensive and much more work and more stressful than those who don’t have such occupations believe. But her angst is all about sitting down at the computer and having a stretch of time in front of her every day that she must fill with productive writing, and the mind tricks and strategies that she employs to get the most out of them.

Can you spell “envy?”

I had to abandon the book for the moment because it was making me feel guilty, angry, depressed, deprived—all things that are not conducive to good work in any part of my life.

And then I started thinking about the writing I am doing. I have three—count them, three—projects on the go at the same time. One is an old novel, the beginning of a trilogy of which the other two novels are already finished, but which have never found a publishing home. One is the novel I’ve been writing about here that takes place in New York City in 1910. The third is a contemporary novel that I thought I couldn’t or wouldn’t want to write, but that’s proving a little more engaging to me than I anticipated.

All three of them are in danger of never being completed. When I work on one, I feel as though I have left the other ones abandoned and gasping for attention. They distract me from what I am writing, add an extra layer of guilt on top of the, “I should be weeding the garden, or cleaning the house, or going to the dump” etc. Shame on them.

I am not one to anthropomorphize my projects normally, not one who sees each precious novel as a child that one is sending out into a cold, cruel world. I see them as creatures of my imagination, though, that would not exist if said imagination did not breathe life into them. Bad reviews, poor sales—these things disturb me, of course. But I don’t feel they constitute a personal attack. A novel, once it is published, has its own existence separate from me.

And that’s the key: once it is published. Until then, that novel is very much a part of my psyche, my inner and outer world. And that is why by doing what I am doing right now, I feel as if I am constantly being a bad “mother.”

If I had six or eight hours a day to put into my writing I might be able to divide up my time and chip away at each of them. But with only—if I’m lucky—that much time each week, I have to choose. It’s my own personal Sophie’s Choice, albeit much less genuinely heart-rending.

So, now that I’ve spent some precious time writing this, which one of my projects will get my attention today, and which others will be left to beg on the street for food to keep them alive until I can nurture them in their turn? And having spilled all this out, can I give myself permission to work the way I have to work, and not feel guilty about it?

I’ll leave you to guess.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.


What Makes a Good Agent?

101119-e-readers-hmed2p.grid-10x2This is a topic my writer friends and I come back to again and again. Now that the publishing industry has basically been turned upside down by the revolution in how people consume books, what is the job of the agent? I’ll start by outlining what it used to be.

1. Act as chief negotiator between author and publisher

An agent, in traditional terms, is the one who offers your manuscript to editors at publishing houses based on his/her knowledge of what different editors and imprints are looking for, and on the trust that has built up over the years between them. An agent is/was a gatekeeper for editors that would otherwise be deluged with submissions to plow through. Your manuscript has/had a much better chance of being contracted to a publisher if it goes through a reputable agent’s hands first.

2. Filter out manuscripts that are not ready for primetime, and foster those that almost are

A good agent (like mine!) not only says “no” to writers who aren’t there yet or who never will be, but identifies the spark of something in a rough effort that needs a little tough love to get it to the next phase. A good agent recognizes a unique voice, or a compelling story, warts and all, and can at least point a writer in the right direction to get a manuscript ready for submission. It’s up to the writer to accept the criticism and do the work after that. I honestly credit my agent, Adam Chromy, with teaching me what really makes a good novel, and forcing me to read and study resources that would hone my writing craft.

In my opinion, these two qualities are still vital in an agent. But there are more challenges now that make an agent’s work much harder, and push the boundaries of what an agent needs to do.

3. Help a writer strategize about the best path to market

This is definitely new. There used to be only one path to market: publishing by a major house to get bookstore distribution and advance reviews. Now—the doors are wide open. This is both exciting and terrifying, especially to the likes of us who have been through the traditional publishing mill before.

Here are some examples of the questions that need answering:

  • Should a debut author self-publish for e-readers and develop a loyal readership first?
  • Should a novel be published in one chunk, or should it be broken up into installments, like a TV series?
  • Hardcover/paperback/ebook—what’s the right combination and the right order?
  • Social media and marketing: more and more, a great strategy even before the novel is sold can make a huge difference. What publisher wouldn’t like to see a ready-made readership?

Now, I’m not an agent. I’m speaking from the point of view of someone fortunate enough to have one who is intelligent and creative about the challenges facing writers today. But I am speaking as someone who, having been published, is now virtually starting again. It’s virgin territory for me out there too.

My point is this. If you’re looking for an agent, of course make sure you’ve got the first two qualifications covered. But don’t be afraid to talk about the industry challenges, and press for ideas about the third qualification.

The ultimate goal for everyone is still the same: bring good books to market, for readers who are as eager as ever to consume them—just a little more varied in their methods.