I was recently invited by Elizabeth Caulfield Felt, author of Syncopation: A Memoir of Adele Hugo and The Stolen Golden Violin, to participate in a blog hop requiring me to answer four questions about my writing process. Syncopation is the fictional autobiography of the youngest of Victor Hugo’s children, and The Stolen Golden Violin is a contemporary children’s mystery that takes place at a summer music camp.
Onward to the questions…
What are you working on?
Currently, I’m seeking representation for a completed novel while working on a new one. The former is an 11th-century psychological thriller exploring the legend of Lady Godiva’s naked ride through the streets of Coventry by illuminating the woman behind the legend and the passions that drove her. It is a much darker take on the familiar story, putting at the forefront the sexual tension between Godiva and the Peeping Tom figure from the legend.
Meanwhile I’ve just finished a final round of edits on the first polished draft of a new book. This one is a novel of English resistance and rebellion in the years immediately following the Norman Conquest. For years after 1066, the English waged an underground war that in many ways resembled the struggles of the French Maquis during World War II. As the conflict in my book escalates, a ghostly presence stalks the highways, the villages, and the fenland battlefields, some lingering shade of the pre-Conquest past with a deadly agenda all its own. I’ll be sending this draft off to a group of beta-readers (writer friends and colleagues) later this week, and I look forward to their feedback.
How does your work differ from others in its genre?
My writing focuses very intensely on character, which can sometimes be overshadowed by the Big Events of historical fiction. But, perhaps more significantly, my work differs inasmuch as it often transcends genre or bridges multiple genres. For example, I very much enjoy a structural approach more common in epic fantasy—the weaving together of multiple disparate character threads into a single tapestry. I often take a similar approach when writing historical fiction: in one book I alternate between three characters’ points of view; in another I employ two primary points of view with occasional one-off chapters from a handful of characters at the periphery; etc.
My love for speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural horror) also inevitably leads to elements of the otherworldly creeping into my history. The Lady Godiva book features a character who is unhealthily obsessed with the Welsh myths of the goddess-queen Rhiannon. And of course the story of Godiva’s naked ride itself is the stuff of legend, almost certainly apocryphal, although I sought to strip away its more obvious anachronisms, grounding it firmly in the political upheavals of England’s mid-11th-century regime shift from the conquering Danish kings back to the royal English bloodline. As I mentioned above, in my latest book, a ghostly presence becomes increasingly intertwined with the events of the English resistance to the Normans. In the past, I’ve also written alternate history, deliberately changing the known timeline with an historical divergence point, which can be a lot of fun.
Why do you write what you do?
Basically I write what I like to read. Two of my favorite authors are Bernard Cornwell (I particularly love his Grail Quest series set during the Hundred Years War) and Connie Willis (her Doomsday Book, dealing with the 14th-century Black Death, ranks among my all time favorite novels).
I was once fortunate enough to hear George R.R. Martin give a lecture about his own experiences as a reader, and he indicated that, foremost, he reads fiction (and I paraphrase here) to experience the sensation of falling through a window into a wholly different locale—an environment that can seem as real as the world around us. That succinctly encapsulates why I read and write historical fiction—for the unique opportunity it affords us to travel through time.
How does your writing process work?
I’m always astounded by writers who just sit down and type, having no idea where the story is going to take them. My brain doesn’t work that way. I’m the sort of writer who outlines the story from beginning to end before I start writing. That doesn’t mean there aren’t often huge gaps in my outline, aspects of the story I do flesh out as I go along. My outlines are also never set in stone; more often than not, were I to produce an outline after having finished a book, it would bear only a passing resemblance to the outline I started out with. But some core component of that initial outline always remains.
Once I have my outline, for the most part I work linearly, starting with chapter one and moving forward. But that system, too, usually breaks down. As I continue to think about the book, inspiration often strikes, and a scene from the midpoint or end of the story will coalesce in my brain. In those cases I’ll jump forward or backward to write those scenes, striking while the iron’s hot.
Strangely enough, though, when working on a single chapter (or a single short story, as the case may be), my process is anything but linear. I’ll have a general sense in my mind of what has to happen in the chapter, but I almost never start with the first sentence. When I write a chapter, my process might be analogized to laying a dry paper towel down atop a puddle of spilled wine. A bloom of spreading red might appear first in one corner, followed by another in the middle, a field of blossoms growing across the towel, reaching toward each other until eventually they merge and become one unified whole. That’s how I write a chapter. I might start at a spot in the middle, some bit of character interaction or plot development that stands out most clearly in my mind. I’ll then jump around, adding a bit here, embellishing there, connecting the dots until the written sections all touch, becoming one.
I also find that, chapter by chapter, this process starts out slowly, then speeds up to a frenzied pace. I might spend a couple of days dithering around with a chapter, not really achieving any significant word output, until all at once the whole chapter comes spilling out of me over the course of a morning. Then it’s on to the next chapter. Rinse. Repeat.
I try to set aside a block of time every weekday for writing. Sometimes that means actually churning out words, but at other times it’s revising, brainstorming, outlining, researching, or chipping away at the business side of writing (correspondence, self-promotion, agent queries, website maintenance). As my schedule allows and the Muse demands, I will also sometimes write in the evenings or on the weekends, but that is a far less structured thing.
One last thing I’ll mention is Scrivener, the software I use when writing. I first started using it near the end of 2007, have written three novels and many short stories with it, and can no longer even imagine writing without it. If you’re a writer and you haven’t yet tried using it, I can’t recommend it enough!
My thanks to Elizabeth Caulfield Felt for tagging me to participate in this blog hop; it was fun and will also hopefully inspire me to revitalize my blog, which has languished for about the past year. I’m already at work on a new Zounds! post about Anglo-Saxon beekeeping and a general post about World War II resistance films, which I hope to post in the upcoming weeks…
Read Elizabeth’s answers about her writing process here.
I now hereby tag two other authors to participate in the blog hop: Teralyn Rose Pilgrim and T. L. Morganfield, whose writing processes will be revealed in posts over the next two weeks. I look forward to reading their answers!
On April 7, visit Teralyn Rose Pilgrim:
Teralyn Rose Pilgrim is a historical fiction author with a special interest in spirituality. She is seeking representation for Sacred Fire, her novel about an ancient Roman priestess, and is working on Voodoo Queen, a novel of Marie Laveau. When she’d done with that, she plans on writing a novel about Joan of Arc. She is a homemaker and the mother of a six-month-old daughter.
On April 14, visit T. L. Morganfield:
T. L. Morganfield lives in Colorado with her husband and children. She’s an alumna of the Clarion West Workshop, and she graduated from Metropolitan State University with dual degrees in English and History. She reads and writes way too much about Aztec history and mythology, but it keeps her muse happy, which makes for a happy writer, so she has no plans of changing her ways.