Monday, January 31, 2005

Writing my Family History

Yet another project I have in the pipeline. As a historian, I've always been interested in genealogy. Over the last fifteen years I've worked on my own family's history - building a family tree (with the help of some relatives) and scanning photos.

Then a friend in a writer's group to which I belong began reading her family history narrative to the group. Talk about inspiration! Now I'm doing research into organizing and writing a family history as well. But wow, what a lot of work. And I know it will take a lot of time. Still, it's important and definitely worth it.

I'm fortunate enough to be able to travel to Salt Lake City this coming spring where I will attend the Historical Novel Society Conference. The organizers of this conference are extremely canny - fans and writers of historical fiction will likely also be interested in genealogy/family history, so they've arranged for a tour of the Family History Library, with time for private research as well. With the recent acquisition of the marriage certificates of both sets of my maternal great-grandparents, I hope to unearth some more details.

However, just as with any other form of research, genealogy and family history can be extremely addictive. I've been known to spend hours tracking down information on the internet. And it has paid off (in finding the marriage certs), but it's also taken time away from my fiction writing. So I have to learn to balance the two.

I'm working on that. At times the need to devote a lot of time to the family history seems especially pressing. This may have to do with the fact that none of us is getting any younger and I don't want to lose momentum or the opportunity to talk with relatives about their memories and other family history details. But it's not always easy - not everyone wants to talk about these things, nor do I want to give the impression I'm expecting the older generation to expire any time soon.

So I work on it from time to time, while also continuing to write my historical romance fiction.

Tomorrow's topic - multi-tasking!


Saturday, January 29, 2005

Reviewing books

As well as writing historical romance fiction, I read and review books - mostly for the Historical Novel Society, but occasionally for the Ricardian Register, journal of the American Branch of the Richard III Society.

After joining the HNS I decided to try it, just to see if I actually enjoyed it and was any good at it. I knew I could review a book, had learned the process well enough at university. But those were academic works and I had many pages in which to analyse the book or article. Reviewing a piece of fiction in 300 words or less is entirely different. Could I do it effectively? And were there any benefits in doing so?

The answer to both questions is Yes! Though it took some practise, I did learn to summarize books in one paragraph and find ways to give my opinion without being too long-winded. And found the exercise to be quite exhilarating (if a tad frustrating at times).

But there were other benefits. When presented with the list of books to review I started choosing ones outside my own time period and genre, forcing myself to read something different. And have improved my own writing as a result of being exposed to a greater variety of style and language.

So, that's why I continue to review books. Well, that and because I love discovering new authors. Some of my favourite reads of the last year or so have included Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell, A Century of November by W.D. Wetherall, Death in the Age of Steam by Mel Bradshaw, The Hunter's Tale by Margaret Frazer and Nicola Cornick's Lady Allerton's Wager.


Friday, January 28, 2005

My addiction to software

Yep, me, the most unscientific person you can imagine, is addicted to computers and software. It all started when I went taught myself to type the summer before going to university (I'd taken extra history classes rather than typing at high school). After my first year of using a typewriter for essays, I found myself frustrated, but unwilling to shell out to have others type my papers for me.

Then I found out about the university's mainframe system, to which I had access. The English Department encouraged students to use it and sold a manual for the word processing software to help with the transition. The programme, DMSProfs, I believe it was called, was available on any computer on campus. Unlike a regular word processor, it required codes - similar to .html coding, which were outlined in the above-mentioned manual. You could type your essay, print a rough copy on green-line paper for editing, make corrections, then send it to a laser printer for the final copy. That cost .10/page (far less than the $1.50 my roommates were paying others) and produced a clean, professional looking product.

I was in heaven. Yes, it meant many hours spent in the computer rooms on campus, but the ability to make changes so easily, rather than retyping an entire page or messing about with liquid paper, freed me from so much of the frustration that accompanied the essay crunch. Until late in my fourth year, I lived in the computer room in the basement of Mac-Corry (Queen's grads will understand this reference), surviving on coffee, surrounded by research books and madly typing
at all hours. Not always fun, but by this point I was proficient at using the codes and didn't really even think about it much any more, just concentrated on turning out decent work.

Then I started dating someone with a computer - IIRC a little Apple 2E. And learned how to use a WYSIWYG word processor. What a revelation! Though I still wasn't great at using a mouse, I loved the fact I didn't have to code everything (though it took me a while to break the habit). In case you're wondering, I married the owner of the Apple 2E .

My parents were amazed by my computer knowledge, had never imagined that I would take so readily to the technology. For a graduation gift, they gave me my first PC, a Zenith with a 20MB hard drive, one floppy drive and the monitor attached to the cpu. And a copy of WordPerfect 4.1. I still have it. It saw me through grad school, held my thesis and a very early version of my first historical romance ms.

WordPerfect became my programme of choice. And when I went to work for the Canadian Forces I convinced my boss to computerize the various forms we used. We met with resistance at first, but soon upper management saw the efficacy of forms that could be edited easily, rather than retyped several times as merchandise was added to and taken out of a database for store managers. This
introduced me to the wonders of spreadsheets (we used Lotus 1-2-3 - a programme I still miss) and added to my obsession with software.

Then my boss introduced me to the wonders of the internet by sending me a Prodigy kit. I learned how to create a website (html being so similar to that old coding) and once I had my own computer, began playing with software. Research software, family tree software, notepad alternatives, databases for my book collection - pretty much anything! Of course, I learned the hard way that downloading is not always safe and now have spyware detectors, anti-virus
software and a firewall!

Now, how does all this rambling relate to my writing? Well, in 2003 I learned about WriteWayPro and it changed my writing forever. I'm not kidding. The scene templates allow me to plan ahead, then go back and write while my subconscious works on those planned scenes. Now yes, I can do that scene planning on notecards or in a notebook, but I'd forget where I put them. Or one card would slip between the sofa cushions. With WWP, everything is in one place. So, you see, my addiction to software has paid off big time!

Now I'll stop rambling on and open my copy of WWP. Have an ms that needs to be edited and there's no time like the present.


Thursday, January 27, 2005


Ah yes, the bane of every writer's existence. There are so many distractions.Ones that are related to our writing, so they seem ok. But in then end, they still keep us from doing what we're supposed to - write.

I admit to being, at the very least, a Princess of Procrastination. Part of the problem is that, while I get up fairly early most mornings, my brain doesn't seem to completely engage till around noon. Or so I tell myself.

Take this morning, for instance - I got up a little later than usual, then made coffee and started some laundry. Next I sat down to read email and get on with my day. After finishing with email, I turned to my upcoming research column (I answer people's questions) and started off well, staying very focussed. Then I found a site that was related to my family history search. Promised myself just one little click. But before I knew it I was off on a tangent. And there's
really only one word for this. Procrastination.

So, now I've wasted (well, ok, not really wasted, because I do intend to write my family history book one day) at least an hour that SHOULD have been spent finishing my research column and then getting on with manuscript work.

What's a girl to do? Go out onto the internet (again ) and look for articles! And I found quite a few.

Karen Wiesner has written on Procrastination and Goals, while Karen Lee talks about Overcoming Procrastination. Fans of Writer's Digest will be familiar with Sharyn McCrumb - read her Advice on Avoiding Writer's Procrastination.

Are you like me, belonging to lots of writers email listservs? Robin Bayne has some thoughts on this in Writers and E-Groups---Procrastination for the New Millenium? Do you sometimes mix up writer's block with procrastination? Marg McAlister thinks you might. Not certain? See her article Writer's Block - or Procrastination?

Do published authors procrastinate too? You bet! Author Leanne Banks provides A Sneak Peek into Deadline Land.

Looking for a solution? Try some of the tips in Time Management for Writers, by writer Terescia Harvey. And, last, but not least, if you're still not certain if you qualify as a procrastinator, read Rebecca Wade's You Know You're Procrastinating When... and see. (While there, have a gander at her Ten Commandments of Romance Writing - they're great!)

But all the advice in the world, while helpful, will never completely cure me of my need to procrastinate. I've accepted that. Along with the fact that I'm a multi-tasker extraordinaire. And it works for me, for the most part. The deadline for that research column is still well over a week away, so I didn't lose much by getting distracted this morning. Especially as I did both searches at the same time (I wasn't kidding about the multi-tasking).

The main thing to remember about procrastination is that you have to keep it under control. If you're a procrastinator and know it, work with it. Allow yourself some time, then MOVE ON. That's what I do. Or try to, most of the time. In the end, my characters and career aspirations don't give me a choice.

Now, you might say that this blog is just another form of procrastination. And in part, you'd be right, but it's not. Not really. I tried to do morning pages a few years ago, but couldn't handle the writing by hand (I have CTS). But I always have so many thoughts rushing around in my head that I've decided to try, once again, to do a form of morning pages - using this blog. By getting all these random thoughts out of my head, my writing will be better. And maybe I'll help other writers along the way.


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Why historical romance?

Why historical romance? I often hear that question. It's actually pretty simple. I love history. And crave happy endings. So it just seems natural for me to write stories set in the past that end happily.

But there is more to it, when I sit down and really thing about it. History isn't taught nearly as much as it should be these days. And when it is taught, many students don't connect with it - for a variety of reasons. Fiction is one way to bring history to those who found it "boring" in school. And mixing it with romance is, IMHO, an added draw, as many people are like me in that they like a happy ending.

So it seemed quite natural when I returned to writing fiction after my years of essay/thesis writing at university, that I would pen a historical romance. Ok, so I was also one of those naive people who thought it would be an easy thing to write and sell. I'm a lot smarter now .

History and romance seem to blend naturally in my stories and I hope that when people read them, they'll learn something about the period while enjoying the journey of my characters. Over the years I've learned to avoid the information dump, one of the pitfalls that awaits anyone writing any form of historical fiction. Interesting as certain facts and events may be to you, the writer, your reader only wants to read about things that are related to the story. This doesn't mean I leave historical detail out, I just find ways to include it subtley and try to avoid launching into a lecture on housing in the medieval period or the politics of the French Revolution.

I am one of those writers who does aim to be as accurate as possible. And am one of those readers who does question things (though sometimes I do turn out to be wrong). This is not just because I want my readers to learn something while they read, but because I love to research. And the historian in me craves accuracy (just as the romantic wants a happy ending). Recreating the past is both a magical and frustrating job for any writer - magical when it works and frustrating when you spend hours searching for a small detail. I've learned that if I can't find something out, I rework a scene rather than bang my head endlessly against a brick wall (a cliche, I know, but one that seemed appropriate here). I know I'm not the only historical romance writer who feels this way.

For those who want to write historical romance with a good balance of accuracy and readability, Sabrina Jeffries provides some solid advice as do Anne Marble, and Carolyn Jewel. I also stumbled across an interesting exchange about historical accuracy in romance fiction on Alison Kent's blog.

Well, that's about it for today. Enjoy :-


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Some random thoughts on writing

I've always been a writer. Can't really remember a time when I didn't make up stories in my head. And once I learned to write, I recorded them. Along with poetry. Granted while I was at university, all my writing was non-fiction, but I still wrote. And loved the process - even with a tight deadline staring me in the face.

When asked about why I write, I'm not ever certain how to respond. It's like asking why I breathe. I NEED to. There's nothing more to it. Even when I'm not physically writing at the keyboard or on paper, the story is going on in my head. Scenes work themselves through as I go about my daily business.

At its most frustrating, writing can leave me wanting to bang my head against my desk, yet I can't give it up. And when the perfect sentence emerges or my characters speak through me, I know I'll never stop. No matter the chances of my fiction work being published. That's not why I write. It's part of the reason, that's for certain. But writing is a part of me - always has been and always will be.