Tuesday, October 30, 2012

It's Almost Time to Start Writing

On November 1st, I'm going to participate in NaNoWriMo and start working on my novel, Voodoo Queen. Since I'm going to be in New Orleans all day on Halloween, today is my last day to get ready.

A lot of emotions are going through me right now. First, relief. I had the idea for this book in 2006, but I also had the idea for Sacred Fire and ended up writing that instead. Now I can finally fulfill a dream that's six year in the making!

Second, incredibly nervous. In order to start this book in November, I had to cram as much research in as possible over the course of a few months. I might make a mistake that will cost a lot of time and grief. What if I get started and realize I'm not prepared?

In the brief moments I don't feel nervous, I feel confident. I worked hard on this and I'm satisfied with what I've done so far. I am so ready! 

But most of all, I feel excited. There's nothing more exhilarating than working with raw, untouched material. I love how new novels beckon to me, begging in urgent whispers to be written, while plot bunnies make it hard to sleep at night because all I want to do is get back to the computer.

November is my favorite time of the year. Who knows, maybe this will be the best November yet. 

Or maybe it will be the worst. My inner editor has never been so insistent!

No, it will be the best. I know it.

I think.

Who cares? I need to stop thinking so much and just enjoy the ride.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Radical Effects of a Writing Community

What I adore the most about Nanowrimo is the large, supportive community of writers. This last Saturday, all the Wrimos in Hattiesburg met at a local bookstore to chat about our projects. It was awesome.  

Every time I meet with a group of writers in person, I get fired up. It's like all our creative juices are flowing together as one. I met some fascinating people (including a professional bagpipe player and the mother of a nun) and heard some amazing stories. 

It was fun to describe my book and see a handful of people perk up and say, "Are you writing about Marie Laveau? That's awesome!"

I think my book made a better impression than I did. When I told them I lived in Oregon, then Utah, then Starkville, now Hattiesburg, they leaned in like I was about to tell an interesting story. One of them asked, "So what do you do?" 

I waved my hand and said, "Oh, I don't do anything." I wasn't trying to be funny, but they all laughed.

Someone asked what we all wanted to get out of our meetings together. "I'm new to Nano," he explained, "and I'd like to know the value having this support from other writers."

I've always been a big believer in making both online an in-person connections with other writers. His question made me wonder why. Why is being a part of a writing community so important?

I had a sudden flash of brilliance. Bear with me:

I'm reading a lot about voodoo for my book, and one of the religion's main beliefs is you can allow a spirit to enter your body and take possession of it. It's supposed to be the greatest way to connect to the divine. 

Other religions have similar beliefs. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that Pentecostals, Quakers, and Shakers all have experiences where the spirit of God takes over their faculties while they worship in a group, making them "speak in tongues" and whatnot.

In a book specifically about voodoo possession, the author hypothesized that when a group has the same goal and purpose, the individuals become more open to suggestion and lose their inhibitions. His theory was that a group expectation coupled with dancing and music can create an experience that a believer can interpret as possession. 

Now, I hate it when people try to explain away spiritual experiences. It's disrespectful and unfair. But I do believe the author's point carries weight aside from religion; when people are in a group who have the same desires, a mob-mentality takes over. Everyone's willpower becomes multiplied.

(When I was trying to explain my thoughts to the Nano group, it was now that someone asked where I was going with this.)

Being in a group has a drastic influence on your thoughts and actions. Being in a writing group, specifically, makes you a better writer. If an angry mob can make people smash windows and overturn cars, a community of 300,000 writers can help you win Nano.

With enough support, you can do anything.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

My Evil Halloween Prank

When I was a kid, I used to love going to the Portland "Zoo Boo." My family and I would wear our costumes, get our faces painted, see which animals were awake, and ride a train that wove through spooky scenes like zombies attacking a camp site and Frankenstein bringing his monster to life.

The best year by far was when I was twelve... old enough to volunteer. Every night, my mom, brother, and I would show up and be given our various assignments. Usually it involved either screaming or growling as the train went by, depending on whether we were playing a spook or a victim.

Unless we were lucky enough to work in The Maze.

The Maze was a room filled with chicken wire and plaster shaped like trees. It looked like you were weaving through a dark forest, trying to find your way out. My mom and my brother hid inside one of the trees and lit a flashlight at just the right moment so passers-by would see their illuminated faces through a screen. 

It was fun to watch people yelp when the unexpected faces appeared. But my job was cooler. Way cooler.

I was behind a wall. On the other side was a mannequin in a coffin. When a spectator got too close, I yanked on a lever and screamed as the mannequin shot up to a sitting position. No one ran away from a tree as fast as they ran away from my mannequin!

I was already having way too much fun when a dad came through with a whimpering 3-year-old boy. At every tree that lit up, he jumped and hid behind his father's leg.

As soon as the boy saw the coffin with the reclining mannequin inside, he shrieked and hid his face in his hands. His dad tried to calm him. "Don't worry," he said. "It's not real. It's not going to get you."

The kid didn't believe him. The father tried to coax him closer. "Look, it's not going to move." Finally, he picked his son up, brought him to the coffin, and poked the mannequin. "It's not alive. See?"

Don't judge me. No one could resist a setup like that.

When I yanked on that lever and screamed, the boy flew out of his father's arms and ran out of the maze hollering before the mannequin had even finished moving. His father half-chased him, half-stormed out in a fury.

An all-too-familiar voice shouted my name: "Teralyn! Come here right now!" I abandoned my post and crawled into the tree where my mother was ready to give me a vicious scolding. 

I knew I would get in trouble before I pulled that lever, and I knew I deserved it. I even almost felt a little bad about it.

It was still worth it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Amusing Experience with My Research Mentor

One thing I miss about being a student is access to research materials. When I wrote SACRED FIRE, I had the nation's second largest campus library at my disposal. Now I'm limited to what I can afford on Amazon.

The most important book for my work-in-progress costs $130 (Ina Fanrich's Mysterious Voodoo Queen). Ugh. The local university has it but only loans out to students and faculty, so I've been going to the library and reading it in the Starbucks on campus.

That's how I met my research mentor. A professor saw what I was reading and stopped to talk to me. Apparently New Orleans voodoo is a hobby of his (the study of it, not the practice) and he hadn't heard of Fandrich's work.

"What class is this for?" he asked.

"Oh, this is for my own study. I went to school at BYU."

"And you're learning about Voodoo?" He shook his finger at me. "Bad Mormon."

I laughed. "Actually, this is for a historical fiction I'm working on about Marie Laveau."

He got really interested and said we should meet to talk about my project.

I was thrilled. I researched SACRED FIRE on my own, but now I had a flesh-and-blood person to talk to! We met in his office and discussed my project, books he recommended, controversies concerning Marie Laveau, etc. 

Somewhere in the conversation, I mentioned a Voodoo festival I was dying to go to - my husband didn't want me to drive to New Orleans by myself and he has work that day - dropping heavy hints that I hoped he knew someone I could carpool with.

"You could take the train," he suggested.

"Sure, but I would be by myself once I got there," I pointed out.

"Nonsense. You have plenty of friends in New Orleans who could go with you."

That was my first clue that there was a misunderstanding between us.

"I don't actually know anyone in New Orleans," I said cautiously.

"Sure you do. You have all the people in your program."

I tried to think of what kind of "program" would be applicable to this situation and came up with nothing. "Program, sir?"

"Yeah. Your MFA program."

Oh dear, I thought. 

It made sense once I pieced it together: first off, I look like an undergrad. No one on my dad's side of the family ages past their mid-20's. (Seriously, I have an uncle who looks younger than I do). There's a theory that we're all vampires. 

Second, when we met I was carrying a bulging backpack and what looked like a bicycle helmet, since I was going roller skating after lunch. 

Finally, I was half-way through reading a master's thesis paper on an obscure topic "for my own research," which most people don't do for fun. I wondered in a panic how he would feel once I told him he wasn't helping a master student, but was in fact wasting time on a civilian.

"I'm not a student here," I explained. My face was probably red at this point.

"Really?" he asked, surprised. "Where are you studying?"

Realizing how lame this would sound, I said, "I'm not studying. I'm just researching. I got my bachelor's degree, but that's all."

He was perplexed. "Then what are you doing here?"

"You guys had a library?" I said with a shrug.

"No, I mean why are you in Mississippi if you studied at BYU?"

"Oh. My husband got a job in Hattiesburg. This is the closest university to my house." 

He sat back in his chair. "I don't believe it. I've been telling people about this master's student I met..."

"Yeah, sorry." I wondered if he would feel like I cheated him and this would be the end of our association.

He went to his computer. "I'm going to print off the university application forms. You have to join the Creative Writing program."

"Really?" This was the last thing I thought he would say.

"Absolutely! The department would be happy to have you. Your Vestal Virgin book could be your writing sample when you apply, and your voodoo book could be your thesis paper."

"No kidding?" I never had any intention of going back to school; all I want to do is make books and babies. But it got me thinking about the things I wanted to do in college but didn't and the things I felt unsatisfied with when I graduated. I don't know. Maybe I'll do it, maybe I won't.

Monday, October 15, 2012

How to Prepare Before Starting a Book

Last year right before NaNoWriMo, I wrote a series of posts on How to Prepare Before Starting a Book. As an avid planner, I wanted to show the techniques I use to  get ready for that daunting first draft. 

Trust me, it works. I finished my novel in only 18 days!

Click on the link below to see the articles I posted. I'm going to make it a tradition to repose them every year in October. Enjoy!

Friday, October 12, 2012

How to Speed Up Your Research

If I'm going to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, I'll have to start my rough draft of VOODOO QUEEN after a mere 3 months of research. Granted, that's just about all I've done this summer, but it's simply not enough time.

I'll do a great deal more research once NaNoWriMo is over. Nevertheless, I'm trying to cram in as much as possible. This experience has taught me some excellent time savers.

1. Find the Gold Mines.

Sometimes you'll read a book that's such a wealth of relevant information, you want to highlight every word of it. Keep your eye out for such books. Read them before researching smaller elements of your novel. I recommend reading them multiple times, possibly even review them before each draft.

For SACRED FIRE, those books were The History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome by T. Cato Worsfold and Rome's Vestal Virgins by Robin Wildfang. For VOODOO QUEEN, they were A New Orleans Voodoo Priestess by Carolyn Morrow Long and The Mysterious Voodoo Queen by Ina Fandrich. Every time I read them, I find something new I've missed.

2. Use Primary Sources

Historians are lifesavers. They go out in the field, gather the information, arrange it so it's palatable, and explain it in tidy history books for us to read. They do half our job for us! But sometimes instead of reading their interpretations of history, it's faster to go to the source.

When I researched the Second Punic War for my book Sacred Fire, it seemed like everything I read about the war quoted an ancient Roman historian named Livy. Instead of reading a bunch of books that regurgitated Livy, I decided to just read Livy's work and call it good.

3. Write Your Rough Draft

I usually say finish your research before writing; that will prevent you from basing your plot on inaccuracies. At the same time, you reach a point where research serves little purpose because you don't even know what's going to happen in your book.

I read Livy's History of Rome the first time before I started writing Sacred Fire. It was completely pointless. I didn't know enough about my topic to even understand what I was looking at. Several drafts later, I read it again and was bursting with ideas. Now the war plays a much more prominent role in the book.

4. Read Books more than Web Pages.

Don't get me wrong, the internet is an excellent resource for historical research. It's also a time-sucker. It can take forever to find the page you're looking for, and you're likely to run into the same information over and over. Not to mention there's the temptation to waste time doing other things!

Books, on the other hand, offer a comprehensive and in-depth look into your topic. It might be overkill to read a book on certain aspects of your research - in those cases, web pages are better - but I feel it's better to focus on books.

5. Find an Expert in the Field

Researching the voodoo religion for VOODOO QUEEN can be frustrating because it doesn't have structure, scripture, or a code of ethics. There's so much false information, I don't know what's useful and what's trash. Even the "classics" about voodoo are often nonsense.

Luckily, a professor I'm working with referred me to a historian in New Orleans who recommended a few books on the subject. She saved me a ton of time! Now I don't have to search out legitimate information and analyze it for accuracy; I know the books she suggested will be sufficient. When I finish them, I can call her for clarification on anything I didn't understand.

6. Be Organized

Highlight books, take notes in Word Documents, use a table of contents in your notes, make timelines, print web pages, site every source including page numbers in your notes and even the text of the novel. Don't waste a second searching for information you've  already read!

I hope that helps all you historians out there.

Do you have any other useful tips on making your research more speedy and efficient?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

My writing mentor and beta extraordinaire Kris Waldherr invited me to an online game called The Next Big Thing. I answer ten questions about my novel SACRED FIRE and then tag other writers to do the same. I'm not going to tag anyone, though, because it seems like everyone I know has already done it.

Thanks for the invite, Kris! I never pass up an opportunity to talk about my book and the Vestal Virgins.

What is the working title of your book?

Sacred Fire

Where did the idea for the book come from?

In my Art History class, my professor mentioned a group of Roman priestesses who guarded a fire for the goddess Vesta, which had to burn constantly. They were so revered that everyone had to bow to them and give them the seat of honor at public events, but if one of them ever lost her virginity, she was buried alive.

The Vestal Virgins instantly struck a chord with me. I think it was the fire that intrigued me the most.

What genre does you book fall under?

Historical fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

You know, I’ve actually put a lot of thought into this and can’t come up anyone. It’s probably because my characters go from children to adults in this book, so I’d have to find actors for every age group!

I want Jason Isaacs for the Pontifex Maximus, though. He’s a very cold and cruel priest (think Lucius Malfoy in a toga).

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A priestess of Vesta struggles with her faith until she is accused of losing her virginity; now she must perform a miracle to save her life.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m looking for an agent now. Wish me luck!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Longer than I care to admit. Minus the research and revision, writing the first draft took about three years. (In my defense, I was a newly-wedded undergrad when I started.)

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I try to avoid doing things I’ve seen done before, bit Sacred Fire is most similar to Memoirs of a Geisha. They both focus heavily on ceremonies and follow an important woman’s rise to power from childhood to adulthood. It also has a lot in common with The Red Tent.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

This might sound crazy, but I actually identified with the Vestal Virgins because I’m a Mormon. We also have strict guidelines on modest dress and behavior, and we have to be chaste until marriage. Since we’re taught to be an example of Christ in everything we do, I even identified with the feeling of always being on display.
That, combined with the uniqueness of the priestesses and the potential for a great story, welded me to the idea.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The novel is based on a true story. Tuccia was a Vestal Virgin accused of losing her virginity, and she proved she was favored of the gods by carrying a sieve of water from the river Tiber to the Temple of Vesta.

This particular priestess had a very eventful life. She lived through the Second Punic War, which almost destroyed Rome; another Vestal Virgin was found guilty of being unchaste so she was buried alive and her lover was publically flogged to death; the fire of Vesta went out for the first time in recorded history and caused mass panic. All of these events – and more – take place in my novel.

Friday, October 5, 2012

What Makes a Blog Post Popular

Today I went to my Blogger stats to see which posts were the most popular and analyzed what made them so popular. Surprisingly, most of them had little to do with writing quality articles.

At the same time, there were articles that got popular just because I did my job well, such as Describing Emotions, Author's Notes that Ruin a Novel, and A List to Focus on While Line Editing. Those articles were popular because the subject matter was relevant, the titles were descriptive, and the posts were interesting.

But! Even though those are good articles (if I do say so myself), I couldn't have made them successful on my own. All of them were retweeted, shared on Facebook, or mentioned on blogs.

Besides SEO and intriguing images, there are two things to take away from this - two "tricks" that, when all is said and done, will make your blog popular.

My Blogging Advice to You
  1. Write well.
  2. Make friends.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Check Out My Cool Book Cover

Of all the forums I've been to, I like Nanowrimo the most. One thing people do there is offer to make covers for other writers. I asked someone to do one for Voodoo Queen, and check out what she sent me: 

I wish I had mentioned that Marie Laveau was black... Other than that, it's pretty cool, huh?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

NaNoWriMo: Whether or Not to Participate in the Writing Challenge

I've participated in National Novel Writing Month twice now, and each time was an amazing experience. Writing 50,000 words in only 30 days was a fabulous challenge, and taking part in the forums and local events made it loads of fun.

Every year, I push the event on my blog, and 2012 will be no different. However, I can't decide whether or not I will do it this time around.

Usually I scoff at all the excuses not to do Nano... You don't have the time? Pah! That's nonsense. You think it will hurt the quality of your writing? Humbug! You think it's too difficult? Don't be ridiculous!

But this year my book will be a historical fiction, and in my opinion, that's a whole different ball game.

You see, some historical inaccuracies are easy to fix. If I have my ancient Romans eat tomatoes when there weren't tomatoes in Italy until later, it's no big deal. I can wait to deal with those details when the challenge is over.

Other inaccuracies, on the other hand, might determine the plot of my novel. When that happens, I have no choice but to keep the inaccuracy or start from scratch.

For example: In my WIP Voodoo Queen, a character becomes the sex slave of a rich Creole business man. (Usually that would be too intense for me, but since black Catherine Henry had mulatto children, it's pretty obvious what happened.) 

I had this dramatic scene planned out of Henry Roche going to a slave market, seeing this gorgeous African queen, and falling so deeply in love with her that he bought her on the spot. Sadly, I discovered shortly thereafter that Henry Roche owned Catherine's parents. She grew up in his household. 

That changes their entire relationship, and by extension, Catherine's whole story. Now Henry is an aloof slave owner who pays no attention to little Catherine until she becomes a woman. Her mother has to watch him take an interest in her, knowing all along where his interest will eventually lead.

This is why I don't start writing my stories until after all my research is finished.

When I think about finishing a draft for Voodoo Queen only two months from now - after sitting on this idea for six years - you  have no idea how much joy it brings me. On the other hand, when I think about spending so many hours on crap I'll just throw away, it makes me very unhappy. I only have 28 days to decide!

This is indeed a dilemma.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? What about it appeals to you or doesn't appeal to you?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Historical Figures are More than Just Dead People

I decided to dedicate each of my books to the person the book is about. Without people like Tuccia, Marie Laveau, and Joan of Arc, I wouldn't have a career. (Or the potential for a career, anyway.)

Someone pointed out to me that it's odd to dedicate a book to a person who's dead. It's not like that person is ever going to read it.

I answered, "What are you talking about? Of course they're reading it." When I pass on,  I'll want to read everything people write about me. Goodness knows I'll have the time for it.

Having an eternal perspective makes me look at historical fiction differently. Because I believe all these people are still alive as spirits, I believe I'm going to meet them someday. 

My "characters" might approach me and say, "You know, I really don't appreciate what you wrote about me." Or, "You got it all wrong!" Or, hopefully, "I'm so glad you took the time to tell my story."

When I heard Margaret George speak at the Historical Novel Society Conference, she said she writes her books as if the main character were peering over her shoulder. I believe our characters really do peer over our shoulders. They're eager to see how they'll be remembered.

What if you don't believe in a hereafter? If people cease to exist after they die, your responsibility toward the dead is even greater. The stories we tell are then the only thing left of them. They will never have the chance to defend themselves or tell their side of the story. That's really sad to think about.

Having an eternal perspective also makes me feel pressured to be accurate. I don't know if this is a Mormon thing or a Christian thing, but I believe when I die I can see everything that's happened in the past. 

In fact, a friend of mine said whenever her dad doesn't know who to punish for a misdeed, he says, "I can't wait until I go to heaven and find out who did this!"

One day, I'm going to go over my characters' lives like watching video tapes and I'm going to see everything I got wrong. My guess is I'm going to feel like an idiot. Not only will I see all the inaccuracies, but I'll get all these ideas for things I could have added to the book if only I had done my research.

After all, I believe a person's real life is more interesting than we could ever make it seem in a book. Most writers don't seem to feel that way. Perhaps I'll write an article expanding on that idea some other time.
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