Monday, August 19, 2013

Never Plan, Never Procrastinate

I'm a planner. Big time. I like making long outlines before starting on my rough drafts. I like making goals for my day, my month, my year. After 27 years of this, I'm starting to wonder if planning can be a very bad thing.

When I first found out I was pregnant, I was still in the throes of the rough draft to Voodoo Queen. Being the planner I am, I made a rigorous schedule that would guarantee that the rough draft would be finished (including research) before the baby was born.

Little did I know that I would 1. Be too sick to write for a month and a half, and 2. Get so stuck on my book that I wouldn't know how to proceed. I look at my plan now and laugh, though it's a humorless laugh.

That's not to say it's impossible for my to finish by my goal. I'll never forget writing the rough draft of Fierce in 18 days. I still don't know how that happened. It was like some superhuman power came over me, a power I couldn't have predicted or planned for.

The point is, you can't make plans. Life will hit you with all kinds of obstacles, and in the meantime, you can never predict how well your muse will cooperate with you. 

When I truly understood the futility of planning, another lesson settled upon me: Never procrastinate. Anything can happen tomorrow, and since life is so unpredictable, it's important to milk today for all it's worth.

Don't plan for tomorrow; you don't know what tomorrow will be. Just make today as awesome as you can.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How to Truly Understand Your Historical Characters

Last night, I had a terrible dream. I was at the HNS Conference and found out I had to present a panel that I had completely forgotten about. Frantically I tried to come up with something worth talking about, but by the time I had put it all together, my time was over and everyone left in disgust. Marci Jefferson, one of the nicest people I know, agreed to stay and miss dinner so I could at least present to someone.

I woke up and realized the dream panel I had put together wasn't half bad, so now I'm turning it into a blog article. 

How to Truly Understand Your Historical Characters

When you write history, you can't take anything for granted. All your characters' attributes have to be genuine to the time period; otherwise you end up with a modern hero in an old setting.

Below is a list of what I consider to be fundamentally important in understanding your character. You'll notice I didn't include certain things you might expect, like fashion, hobbies, and entertainment. I feel that while those things are important for establishing a setting, they don't affect the core of a person's being. My clothes tell you a lot about who I am, but I could completely change my wardrobe and still be the same person.

Art

I never liked my history classes in school, but I loved my art history class. Instead of rehearsing dates and who did what when, art history is all about the why. Why did so many people choose the same subject at a certain time? Why did it matter to them?

If you can understand the art of your time period (even if your character doesn't like art), you can understand what was important to people back then. For instance, today we care mostly about the ambience of a room. If you go into a home decor store, you'll find pictures of simple, unassuming things like flowers, trees, landscapes, animals, nonsense colors -- anything that looks pretty but doesn't make a statement.

In ancient Rome where my novel SACRED FIRE takes place, art was abundant and much more meaningful. Statues were just about everywhere you looked. Every wall was covered in a mural, every floor designed in a mosaic, and all of it told a story, mostly of gods, legends, or historical giants. Even their dishes were decorated with stories. Those stories tells me a lot about how the Romans thought and what they cared about.

History

Obviously, we need to understand a character's history if we're going to write a historical fiction. But! Our understanding of history will always be different from our characters'. We have the gift of hindsight. 

We know who the bad guys turn out to be, which brilliant ideas go terribly wrong, who wins and who loses. We don't have the same hope, despair, and innocence that our characters have. For instance, someone living post WWI will have a very different view of Germany than someone living post WWII. SACRED FIRE takes place during the Second Punic War, and even though I know Rome triumphs in the end, the people living at the time all thought they were going to die.

You can't just understand the history surrounding your character; you have to understand how history appears at that exact moment in time.

Current Events

World events affect me, even though I might not think of them. If someone were to write a biography about me they probably wouldn't dedicate a chapter to 9-11 even though it was a big event in my history, but my biographer ought to know I'm worried about terrorists, shootings, health care, abductions, etc. 

In The Heretic's Wife, a novel about the Salem Witch Trials, one of the main characters is terrified of Native Americans invading her home. It might not be important to the story, but it's important to who she is and how she lives her life. 

Code of Conduct

We all have ideas of what we can and can't do around other people, and these ideas differ widely throughout history. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is burdened by so many ridiculous restrictions that she can't be happy. She can't eat too much in public, she has to wear black for years after her husband dies, she can't let people see her when she's pregnant, she even discovers Rhett Butler is sleeping with prostitutes but can't confront him about it because she wouldn't dare admit to knowing prostitutes exist.

We might think our time period is liberated from such restrictions of etiquette, but even if we're more flexible, our restrictions exist. My mother-in-law, for instance, wouldn't dream of returning an item of clothing in any bag besides what it came in, especially if the bag is from a cheaper store. She'll tear the house apart looking for a Nordstrom's bag rather than take clothes back in a Walmart bag. My parents argued constantly over proper codes of conduct because my mom was always coming up with ideas of what just "isn't done" that my dad disagreed with.

What do people expect of your character? What does your character expect of others? What happens in your time period when people do the unexpected?

Religion

You can't fully understand someone without understanding that person's spiritual beliefs. A person's religion is about much more than how he spends his Sunday afternoons; religion determines a person's perspective on the purpose of life and the value of human beings. It is the motivation behind many of our actions.

Buddhists, for example, have a very pessimistic view of life. They believe existence is about suffering and that true joy comes from attaining a state of almost non-existence called Enlightenment. Mormons, on the other hand, believe the purpose of being on the earth is to find joy in this life and that God is intimately aware of and willing to help with even the simplest of struggles. A Buddhist's motivation is very different from a Mormon's.

Language

I didn't understand how rich with meaning language can be until I studied Shakespeare in college. As much as I love Shakespeare, he's frustrating; you have to study for a lifetime to even understand what he's talking about. His work is full of figures of speech, political jokes, historical references, old vocabulary, and even household items we've never heard of. Even if you have a phD in Elizabethan history, you can never understand Shakespeare as well as his original audience did.

That's one thing I hate about historical fiction; the language can never be as rich as regular fiction. You can't spend years researching exactly how people spoke because your readers haven't done the research so they wouldn't understand it anyway. Your characters have to talk like us, but not seem like they're talking like us.

It's a dilemma, but an important one to resolve. Language isn't just about accents and unusual grammar; it's about what your character finds important, how he expresses himself, how he makes sense of the world. You can never be perfectly accurate with language because it will make the text unpalatable, but you can use language to understand your character.

Moral Code

This is perhaps the most important, and the most often overlooked. Your characters do not have the same moral code that you and I do. They might be racist, intolerant of other religions, unsympathetic to slaves, and yet somehow still be good people.

In Lonesome Dove, for instance, all the cowboys saw prostitutes on a regular basis. They had no reason not to. In The Queen's Vow, Isabella of Castille had a moral code I know for a fact the author disagreed with (including homophobia and anti-semitism), yet she's the heroine of the novel. These authors decided to be accurate instead of comfortable, and it adds great richness to the text.

The sad truth is most of us believe what society tells us. We may have differing opinions, but all the same, our point of view is built up from an intricate system of experiences. People very rarely have revolutionary ideas of morality that go outside of their experience. If your character is pre Civil War Southern and she refuses to own slaves, you better have a good reason for her to feel that way.

What tools do you use to help you understand your characters?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Working from Home: My Expectations versus the Reality

My year of writing from home hasn't been what I expected. It's not better or worse, just different, with completely unexpected pros and cons.


Unexpected Cons

It was easy to foresee most of the challenges I would go through. I knew it would be hard to wake up in the mornings at first and that I'd have to resist Netflix, naps, and other forms of procrastination. 

I didn't realize I would actually be less productive than when I was sitting in an office with nothing else to do. I'm so glad I didn't wait until conditions were "perfect" before working on my books, because my best work happened when conditions were horribly imperfect.

Part of that is because of the want-what-you-can't-have mentality. When it was hard to fit writing into my day, finding time was an exciting challenge. Now I can write anytime, and "later" always seems as good a time as any.

But those things are nothing compared to the greatest disadvantage of all, the one I expected the least and am struggling with the most:

The lack of recognition.

It might sound stupid, but the fact that I'm working just for myself is really wearing me down. When my husband tells me about praise he receives at work (and he seems to get a lot of it), I think about my book no one has read and feel jealous. Even when I was underappreciated at my old jobs, at least I was paid. Now if finish my book or I don't finish it, who will care?

It makes me chuckle to think that in four weeks, I'll have a new job -- being a mother -- which is supposedly the second most thankless job in the world (the first being unpublished author, of course).

At least when I'm busy with the baby, "later" won't be a crutch for me anymore.

Unexpected Pros

I love the fact that I'm always doing something. Rarely have I ever had a job where I kept busy. I had a custodial job that gave me four hours to clean a building that only took one, a call center job that wouldn't get a call for a good 45 minutes at a time, an office job that was full-time but only took up two hours of my day, and I even had a job writing a user manual for a computer program that wasn't finished. My boss told me just to come into work everyday and I would start writing once the program was completed. (It never was.)

Now, I never have to twiddle my thumbs or pretend to be busy ever again. If I'm bored, I just need to find a creative way to fill my time. You have no idea how exhilarating that feels!

I also love having the time to cook meals and clean the house, instead of coming home at six too tired to do anything. I'm sure some of that will fall by the wayside once the baby is born, but being here makes my apartment feel much more like a home.

What I Can Take Away From This

When working for myself, I have to always, always enjoy what I'm doing. If I ever pour on guilt or too much pressure, or if my passion isn't in the writing, I might stop and ask myself, "What am I even doing this for, anyway?" When I write just because I love the work, that's when the work gets done.

So, after my year of writing from home, I've discovered the secret to being a productive writer: 

Love what you do.


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