Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When Authors Should Tell Lies

Readers often like their historical fiction to be factual, and they expect authors to be as accurate as possible. The more true-to-life a novel is, the greater their appreciation of it. 

Yet sometimes an author has to tell an outright historical lie, not for the sake of the story or out of laziness, but because a lie is necessary to create the illusion of truth.

You see, the problem with historical fiction is readers rarely know what's true and what's not. I wish books could be like Horrible Histories (a deliciously quirky British show that makes fun of history). Whenever the characters mention a fact that is too crazy or ridiculous to believe, a little rat walks across the screen holding a sign saying, "TRUE."

Instead, we authors have to be careful not to write anything too crazy or too far outside of a reader's knowledge. It doesn't matter whether or not we're right; what matters is whether we look right. 

For instance, a long time ago I read a book about Vestal Virgins where the author placed the temple of Vesta inside the house of the priestesses. I scoffed at the author's ignorance. If you look at a map of the Roman Forum, you can clearly tell the temple is out on the road, completely separate from the vestals' house. I  spent the rest of the book searching for other inaccuracies because let's face it; finding inaccuracies makes us feel smart.

Later I discovered the temple of Vesta was inside the vestal house up until AD 64. Both structures were rebuilt numerous times due to fire, and each time the vestal house grew in size until finally they were separated. 

Since my book takes place around 200 BC, it would be more accurate for me to depict the house the same way this other author did. But I didn't. Enough people have been to the Roman forum and few enough people know how the house evolved that if I described the house exactly the way it was, readers will think I made a mistake. The lie makes my story feel truer.

The House of the Vestals. Red lines indicate how the house looked before AD 64
Here's another example: once on Facebook a friend mentioned she wanted to use a word in her novel that sounded modern but was actually true to the time period. (I can't for the life of me remember what the word was.) All her beta readers complained about the word because they didn't know she was right for using it. 

When she asked if she should be able to include it, I said absolutely not.  The word might be accurate, but it would destroy the illusion of accuracy. The illusion is more important.

If you do decide to include facts that seem strange or contrary to what most people know, it's important to develop trust between you and the reader. Books that successfully do this are shocking, fascinating, and great fun to read. Such trust can be complicated, however, so it's a topic I'll save for a later post.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Finer Things Book Club: Sarah's Key

For the month of January, my book group discussed Sarah's Key. We had a great group! A lot of people came and everyone loved the book. Here's a summary:

Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

The host for this month made a gorgeous door prize for one of us to win. She posted pictures of it on Facebook (which effectively encouraged people to come).

One of the advantages of having different people host the group every month is each host tells all her friends about it, so it's an easy way to spread the word.

One of us got to take home the wreath
The hostess asked people to bring French food, so we had chocolate mousse, baguettes with cheese, strawberries, grapes, and little toasted sandwiches on baguette slices.

After chatting and eating, the discussion commenced. I wanted to watch an interview with the author and with a holocaust survivor (YouTube has a ton of them), but we ended up not having time. 

The hostess asked me to lead the discussion. I don't know if I'll do it every month, but it makes sense to designate one person for every meeting if she's willing and good at it.

If you want to see the questions we discussed, click on "Read More" at the bottom of this post. They spurred a lot of interesting thoughts in our group and hopefully will inspire yours.

If you're a fan of World War II literature, here's a list of other books you might be interested in besides Sarah's Key:

The Book Thief
The Hiding Place
The Gurnsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society
Diary of Anne Frank
The Bridge of Scarlet Leaves
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Catch 22
Slaughterhouse Five
Number the Stars
The English Patient
Sophie’s Choice
The Boy in Striped Pajamas
Schindler’s List

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Books I Read in January

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

In this sequel to Shanghi Girls, Pearl travels to Communist China to rescue her idealist American daughter and bring her home.

Lisa See is perhaps my favorite author. I love her attention to detail, her fleshed-out characters, and the variety of her Chinese-based stories. While Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan are still my favorites, Dreams of Joy did not disappoint.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

While Death goes about his grisly work, he becomes fascinated by a German girl who steals books during the upheaval of World War II.

This book is long and slow, but the writing is fantastic and Death is a superb narrator. (He is by leaps and bounds the most interesting character in the book.) I wish Death had chosen a more interesting story to tell, but all in all I was pleased with this novel.

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

When soldiers take Sarah and her Jewish family away from their homes in the middle of the night, she locks her brother in a closet with a promise to come back for him, not knowing she would be taken to a concentration camp.

This is a sad story in which sad things happen and everyone gets sad. The characters then either get divorces, commit suicide, or act mopey. It's good for people who watch Lifetime.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Pain of Writer's Doubt

Writer's doubt feels a lot like this

I mentioned before I'm taking a brief hiatus from VOODOO QUEEN due to creative difficulties. While I'm waiting for the answer to my dilemma to magically come to me, I decided to start revising HUNGER.

As a recap, HUNGER is a paranormal romance by my alter ego, Catherine Swift. I wrote it for Nanowrimo two years ago and at the time thought it was marvelous to the point of being intoxicating. I remember days when I'd try to work on it and would end up reading it instead, in wonderment at how incredible it was.

Needless to say, I was pretty optimistic when I opened the document to work on it for the first time in years.

Imagine my disappointment when after reading the first page, I realized it was the worst book ever written.

Obviously you can't expect a masterpiece when you write the rough draft in only 30 days, but still, there was so much to fix that I didn't even know where to start. I felt so overwhelmed I ended up closing the document in despair.

It's no wonder artists are known for being emotionally unbalanced. I think every writer goes through this despair at least once (if not multiple times) for each book. It doesn't just suck. It's downright painful.

Luckily, I felt better the next day and didn't feel too bad about myself as I worked on the first four chapters. Then I sent the chapters to a beta reader. I got so depressed by her edits that I cycled right back down and haven't touched it since.

Now I have a hurdle to clear: opening my book again and diving into the scary edits.

One thing gets me through the dreaded rough draft. I try to focus -- sometimes with great effort -- on my original vision of the book. In my head, it's still a masterpiece. If I have faith that I can put what's in my head on paper, I can use that vision as a motivation to continue.

No matter how much it hurts.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Harsh Truth About Self-Publishing

I'm starting a writers' group in my area. It's super exciting! I miss my excellent group where I used to live, and since I can't play roller derby until the baby is born, I need more social interaction.

It'll be held at a local bookstore in the area. The owner and I met for about an hour, just to work out logistics and get to know each other. Surprisingly, there was one topic the owner wanted to talk about extensively:


It took me a long time to figure out why she even brought it up. The owner talked about how often self-published authors come in trying to sell their books to her and how she had accumulated shelves full of them.

"And I'll probably be stuck with them for the rest of my life," she complained. "No one's buying them. I can't sell them at a discount. I can't sell them at cost. I'm just wasting money because I can't get rid of them."

I asked her if she couldn't just sell them back to the authors. "Sure," she said, "If I wanted to contact every single one of them."

Later on in the conversation, we talked about hosting events at her store. Self-publishing came up again.

"I used to host a lot of book signings for self-published authors. I can't do it anymore. From now on, I'm going to start charging $300 to do a signing if the author is self-published. Otherwise after the marketing and setting up treats and buying the books, I lose lots of money." She rubbed her forehead, as if reliving the disappointment.

She's had the bookstore for decades, and never once has she made a profit on a self-published book.

"I just can't do it anymore," she said.

I was about to leave when she brought me over to the self-published section to show me just how many books she's stuck with. Finally, I had a guess as to why she kept mentioning self-published books.

I told her, "If any of the writers in my group are self-published, I'll be sure to tell them you won't sell their books or host any signings."

You know what she said? "Thank you, I appreciate it."

Self-publishing is often our go-to fantasy when things aren't going well with agents. We imagine ourselves being our own person, having complete control over our books' contents and covers, sitting proudly at book signings we set up ourselves, and basking in the glow of being a real writer.

Let's not forget the cold, harsh truth: self-published books are the red-headed step-children of the publishing industry. Most bookstores won't even accept them, and when they do, the books gather dust.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Have You Ever Stolen Something?

Re-posted from December 9, 2010.

I stole a duck. I was 23 years old, and of all the things I could have stolen at a store, I willfully took a little yellow stuffed duck and put it in my bag. I feel no remorse.

I had no choice.

You see, it was the night before Easter, and I thought it would be nice to buy treats and gifts for the family I would spend Easter with. I went to the store at 11:00 pm because I thought it would be empty by that time.

It was pandemonium. Procrastinating parents madly grabbed mismatched baskets and broken chocolate bunnies because that was all there was left to get their kids. I had to squeeze through the mass people just to walk down the aisles.

After a lot of elbowing and searching, I found everything I wanted and stood in the long line that stretched through the frozen food isle. By the time I finally got to the do-it-yourself check out register, it was 11:50 pm.

I rang up a box of Cadbury eggs, and I heard a groan behind me. I rang up a stuffed rabbit, and I heard another groan. The groan happened every time I pulled something out of my basket. Curious, I turned and saw two college boys waiting behind me, glaring at me with intense annoyance. They hissed at each other in loud whispers about all the obnoxious people that dared shop in front of them.

When I saw their shopping cart was loaded with beer, I understood. I lived in Utah at the time, and it’s against the law to sell beer on Sundays. They had less than ten minutes to buy their drinks, and apparently, they wanted their drinks very badly.

At last I took the last item out of my cart; a stuffed yellow duck. But when I tried to ring it up, there was no price tag.

If I had asked someone to do a price check, an already overworked employee would have had to run all over the store through a mob of irate customers to find where I found it and how much to charge me. I looked at the fuming college boys and feared for my safety. So, I stole it.

The family loved all my gifts, especially the duck, and to this day I have never told them it was stolen.
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