Saturday, June 28, 2008

Imagine This

My grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Sweeney Robertson, was a fabulous cook. She feed ten children and a hard-working husband all through the Depression. She had to be creative, often times only having in the house a bag of flour and a head of cabbage.

Before I share how her baking relates to writing, I want to share one brief story of her life. One day, during the Depression, a 'forgotten man' knocked on her front door. He was dressed in old clothes. His face unshaven. He told her he was hungry and asked if she had anything to spare. She told him she had just prepared her family's evening meal. But it was humble in the extreme; cabbage sandwiches. He was welcomed to come inside and sit at their table with them, but he declined. Instead he sat down on the street curb and ate his sandwich in peace.

After the Depression, my mother saw a black limousine pull up in front of her parent's Washington D.C. brownstone. A dabber gentleman was let out by a chauffeur, and stepped up to the door. It was the 'forgotten man'. He returned and thanked my grandmother for feeding him that day and restoring in him a sense that there were good people in the world. He offered her a roll of money. She was gracious to him, thanked him but requested that he take the money to the church up on the corner that she attended and give it to the poor.

Her cooking paid off for some unfortunate man and later for some poor parishioners at the church. Grandma Bess attended cooking classes at Betty Crocker's Cooking School. She could make anything taste good. Now, even though she took these classes, she was so keen on what went into a recipe that she could measure out flour with just her hands.

How do I relate this to writing?

Imagine a stout lady dressed in a 1940s floral dress standing beside a world renowned chef who graduated from a prestigious culinary school. Each is to bake a pound cake. Carefully the chef measures out the flour in a measuring cup. She skims the top with the edge of a table knife to get it exact. She follows the rules of the recipe to the tee.

Bess scoops her hand into the container of flour. "One. Two. Three," she says putting it into a mixing bowl. She tosses in some eggs, pours in a bit of vanilla, and whips them in with a pound of butter, adds the flour and pours the batter into a pan.

The chef does the same, except precise measurements are taken.

Bess drops the bunt cake pan on the floor several times to release air bubbles. The chef is appalled. This is just not the rule. How can she dare to drop cake pan and batter on the floor like that! It is just not allowed. It's an example of poor baking, is it not? (I used to think as a child that this is why it was called 'pound cake', when my mother did the same thing.)

Both cakes come out golden brown and delicious. Who was the better cook? Who deserved a blue ribbon? Both.

In writing you have people who follow strictly to the rule book. Others are more creative, less uptight, and are not put off by words ending in 'ly' or 'ing'. Both deserve publication if their story
is good. Both deserve to win writing contests and be called 'author'. Certainly there are some guidelines to writing that should be adhered to, but rules can make a writer tense if they allow them to overwhelm their creativity.

For me the best advice I've ever gotten came from my cousin, Nora Roberts, last year at our family reunion. She told me to always remember that everyone works at their own pace, and to never compare myself, in the speed in which I finish a novel, or in style, to another writer. Also she told me to not allow myself to be paranoid over the rules of writing, because what publishers want is a good story. If you get overly concerned and freaked if you use a 'ly' or 'ing' word, the quality of your writing might suffer by being too technical.

She went on to say that a lot of aspiring authors are so concerned about the rules they forget it's all about the story, and the execution of it. Not about what's allowed. A book can be perfect technically and fall flat because it just doesn't have that spark that keeps people reading.

On Rachelle Gardner's blog, she asks writers to post what was the best writing advice they have ever received. I'd like to do the same, except to ask you what is the best writing advice you ever received regarding the rules of writing. What advice have you been given that has freed you to be creative and to write the stories you have in your heart?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Portrait of a Martyr

Anita Davison wrote a moving piece on the blog site Unusual Historicals entitled Martyrs of Soloway. She shares with her readers the story of the Covenanters of 1685. A widow stood for her faith in the face of execution. A father was forced to chose which of his two daughters would live, and which would die a martyr's death.

Anita included a painting done by John Everett Millais in 1871 of martyr Margaret Wilson. Although he never saw Margaret in the flesh, I believe he captured the essence of her courage.

I urge you to visit Anita's post and read this interesting, yet sad story.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ladies First

Over on the Cross & Cutlass Blog, host Marylu Tyndall posts a piece by Nancy Moser about Martha Washington. This is her portrait. As a historical fiction author, the lives of those who came before us are especially meaningful. The lives of the first ladies of the 18th and early 19th centuries are intriguing, their strength to hold their families and marriages tightly bonded through adverse times is a legacy each woman should ponder.

In my current NIP (novel in progress) there are five female cousins to my heroine, Darcy Morgan. Darcy's name alone is irrevocably early American. Her cousins are all named after first ladies. Martha, Abigail, Dolly, Lizzy, and Louisa. Martha is the oldest, the most controlled of the five. Abigail is more outspoken. Dolly is young and demure. Lizzy shy but interested in gaining suitors. Louisa is reserved and not yet old enough to find affairs of the heart her pursuit. Darcy, on the other hand, possesses all of these qualities.

I am in love with my characters in Beside Two Rivers, and I've missed them lately while working on the final revisions to Surrender the Wind. I am hoping that within the next two weeks, I will return to this novel and write my heart out about a heroine who follows her heart, but not her dreams.

When planning a novel, I have a file of photos and paintings that reflect how I imagine my characters. This gives me a wonderful inner visual. Alongside the pictures I have the names of the characters and a few sentences about their personalities. I find this works better for me than character charts.

I have found one painting of girl that reflects Darcy. Then there is a photo from the movie 'Becoming Jane', that says it all about her character.

Here are the finest portraits of the first ladies. Art has and will always be a source of research for writing historical fiction. These paintings inspire as well as educate a writer on clothing, hair style, and if you look closely demeanor.

Abigail Adams

Dolly Madison

Elizabeth Monroe

Louisa Adams

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Killing Two Birds with One Stone

I don't especially like the phrase killing two birds with one stone, but I don't know any other way to describe this post. I love birds. I have feeders and suet out on my deck and enjoy watching the chickadees and goldfinches. I cringe if my cat brings us a 'present' from one of his hunting escapades.

Since May, I've been working on tightening the writing to my newest novel. By doing so, I'm also bringing the word count down. In May the book was 110,000. As of today I've brought it down to 101,000 words, cutting out 13,000 unnecessary words and phrases since I finished the first draft a year and a half ago. I've caught some redundancies and erased them. I'm hoping to finish up by next week, and then begin submissions. Hello, agents!

When I first began to write, cutting words, especially whole sentences or paragraphs, was hard to do. I could not let go of my beautiful prose. Thank God I grew out of that phase. Now all I want is to have a fantastic novel without all the fat. My long-time friend visited me today and asked how the writing was going. I explained and went on about word count. She said, "Ah, that's why so many books have a lot of fluff. I hate fluff."

First word to the wise. Listen to what readers say regarding their likes and dislikes when it comes to the novels they read. My friend likes page-turners. So do I, and honestly I'm having a hard time getting my hands on a page-turning know, the kind you can't put down. Recommendations are welcomed.

Second word to the wise. Don't be afraid to edit your work, and bring the word count down. In doing so you will have a novel that moves at a faster pace, that draws readers in. In the case of writing, bigger is not always better.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Every Thursday night at a historical inn nestled in the cool woods atop Catoctin Mountain, Maryland, there is a blues jam at the Braddock Inn. How can I resist going there, being a historical fiction writer?

Here is where General Edward Braddock during the French and Indian War passed on his way to Fort Duquesne on April 29, 1755. Later he'd be laid to rest in an unmarked grave near Great Meadows, Pennsylvania. His aid, twenty-three-year-old Lt. Colonel George Washington was honored to receive Braddock's ceremonial sash, which Washington kept with him throughout his life. Wagons rolled over his place of burial to hide it from the enemy.

Not even a half-mile from my house, is the location of Braddock's encampment. It is going to be lost, forgotten, due to development which has made me heartsick. A housing development and a office complex is scheduled to be built. How sad it is to lose a place of such historical significance.

What does this have to do with writing? It may have no meaning whatsoever to you. But for me, I am inspired when I visit historical places and learn the history. It is food for my hungry mind.

My husband is a blues musician and a luther, and jams every Thursday night. After having a huge meal of chicken-fried steak and mashed red-skinned potatoes, topped with a very fattening sausage gravy, we spent the evening listening to some very talented musicians. He played three sets, and I don't mind bragging that he was great.

I sat there listening to them play, and thought how fantastic it is that God has endowed people with talents. Musicans, writers, and artists, love their craft, and it's something we'd rather do than a nine-to-five. . . even when it hurts and frustrates us.

I encourage you to embrace the gift given you, and use it for good. Write no matter what happens. A talent is an awful thing to waste. What if one day you'll be asked, "What did you do with the talent I gave you?" How will you answer?

I know it is hard to deal with rejection. We writers get it from all sides. It is part of our pain, our lot, and you can get through it. When you get a rejection letter, go ahead and mourn, but just for a while. Then pull out your novel in progress, roll up your sleeves, and immerse yourself into the world of your characters.

The industry may be tough. But there is one thing for certain. Whether you are published or not, no one can say you are not a writer, and no one can take away your gift. It is innate---birthed within you. Only you can decide what you will do with it.

Monday, June 9, 2008


This morning over on The Write Soul blog, Chiron O'Keefe writes about taking risks verses putting on the breaks. She asks at the end to see our goals as writers for the week...I replied a bit of the following. I added this to my book journal and added to it for this post.
Chiron's post prompted me to go to the journal I began when I started working a novel. I was shocked to see I wrote a rough chapter 1 in the autumn of 2002, under the title,
Sacrifice. I
put the whole thing aside while working on the edits and publication of two other historical novels. I picked it up again in the fall of 2004, and retitled it Surrender the Wind. I completed a rough draft by December 2005, a little over a year later.

I worked on a submissions package and started querying agents in January 06 after polishing the manuscript. After an agent sugges
ted I bring the word count down and introduce the heroine earlier, I worked on a rewrite. Looking at my journal today, caused my self confidence to plunge. I've read about writers completing books in a matter of months, some a year. What's up with me taking so long? If I worked steady on it, it most likely would have taken a year. Still!

My goal this week is to finish revisions. I think this time is the last.
What I've realized on a positive note is good writing cannot be rushed. And while Sur
render the Wind was being submitted, I began another historical novel, Between Two Rivers. I'd like to share with you the opening paragraphs to Surrender the Wind from the prologue and then Chapter 1.

The Wilds of Virginia

On a cool autumn twilight, Seth Braxton rode his horse through a grove of dark-green hemlocks in a primeval Virginia fo
rest distressed he might not make it to Yorktown in time.

Chapter 1
The Changing of the Will
Devonshire, England 1784

The first thing Juleah Fallows saw when she stepped out of the carriage was a full moon rising above a dark, spear-like chimney belonging to Ten Width. She then glanced at the candle set against the blackness of the ivy-covered walls, glowing inside the window of Benjamin Braxton's bedchamber. A chill swept through her---from the wind, from a
sense of what she might find beyond the frosted glass.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

I'm Waiting

It's four years old, but in the New Yorker Magazine you can read an interesting article entitled 'A Book In You', about literary agent Kathy Lee and her daily touring of blogs in order to find clients. It is an interesting article to say the least.

The responses she has received are very strange. According to the NYM she wasn't finding novelists, or even writers interested in writing more than a daily online journal.

Four years later there are more writers than ever writing blogs, writers that are serious novelists, passionate about their craft. I wonder if Ms. Lee is still trolling for writers via blogs. Writers, like me, are certainly looking for agents who will believe in them.

The purpose of my blog is three-fold. First, it is an outlet for self-expression. Secondly, to inspire writers. Thirdly, to possibly, hopefully, catch the attention of a good literary agent. I have a finished historical novel set in Georgian England and Virginia complete at 105,000 words. I have three novels that were previously with a small press, no longer under contract, that I plan to revise and resubmit. I'm currently writing a historical set along the Potomac River and Derbyshire, England. Then there are other stories yet to be written.

I use visuals to inspire me. This painting reflects my heroine.

All my life I loved books. I can still remember the day I found a dusty box under the basement stairs that contained what remained of my grandfather's library. Hardcover novels such as Kidnapped were among novels by authors from the turn of the last century. Reading sparked my passion for writing. I longed for years to write, but I lacked the confidence.

Then my cousin Nora Roberts handed me a signed copy of one of her novels at a family reunion and talked to me about the joy of writing. She told me 'You can do it', and I embarked on this crazy journey that has been bitter-sweet.

For me the passion for writing is like being in love. My heart pounds and soars. Without the passion what is the point of writing? I don't have the same feelings for the business side of this thing. It's like trying to find the perfect spouse and meeting rejection time after time. It gets frustrating and depressing. It's also like having a bad tooth that has to be pulled. It has to be done, and I'm willing to do it in order to have relief.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Why Does a Writer Want to Be Published?

This morning, over on the BookEnds blog, literary agent Jessica Faust asks writers what makes them seek publication. Why do we go through the pains of seeking the publication of our stories? Why do we throw our shoulders back and plant our feet, knowing we will be getting lots of rejection letters? Sometimes our feet get in the door a little ways when an agent or editor asks to see a partial. Then they reject our wonderful story based on opening chapters and a synopsis. If we are lucky, we may get a request for a full. It's heart-wrenching when it is returned with a 'thanks but no thanks'.

Why do we put ourselves through it?

When I walk into a bookstore and my eyes scan the rows of novels, a sense of awe and longing overcomes me. It is difficult to explain the feeling. I'm sure I'm not the only writer that feels this way. The question that comes to my mind the most is this. How did all these writers get past all the roadblocks and make it to publication? There could be a hundred answers to that question, but one thing is certain...they did not give up.

Author Michelle Moran is an example of not throwing in the towel. She wrote 13 novels before having one accepted. You can read about her writing journey on Stepping Stones Magazine in the June issue. She is one of the most interesting writers you will ever encounter.

Anyway, the writing process is an incredible adventure. But when I write 'the end' and have polished a story, a stark white manuscript is not an end in itself. I can't let that stack of paper sit on my desk collecting dust. I seek publication because I am compelled to see my story as a 'book'.

Why do I want to be published? Perhaps to affirm that what I'm doing, all the time I've put into writing, is worth it. Perhaps it is to scratch out a bit of a living. But more so, it is because I want to take people away from their daily grind to an imaginary place where they can escape the world for a while.

I want to have the same effect on readers as Charlotte Bronte had on me when I first read Jane Eyre.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Platform Building: Part 2 - Cultivating a Fan Base

The most important aspects of an author's platform is readership and networking.

The following is a list of how to build your platform in order to gain a wide readership (fan base) and a network ( both fan base and sphere of influence), two groups of people that will follow your career and anticipate your work. To a publisher, this is a plus that you have a broad audience waiting for your next release, which translated means potential book sales. The larger your platform, the larger the sales, both nationally and internationally.

Now I realize the following seems like marketing. But when it comes to building a platform, it is really promotion. Marketing is getting your work into the hands of readers. Promotion is building a name.

Ways to Build Your Platform

  • A fantastic website that reflects your genre, that is graphically attractive to fans of the genre. It is more important than most realize that your site is pleasing to the eye. Just as a reader will judge a book by its cover, often times so will a visitor to your site judge it the moment it comes up on their computer screen.
  • Writer's Blog: Think outside the box. What would your readers want to read about on your blog. What would writers want to read? I skip blogs that are more like a daily diary. Your readers may not be interested in what your cat did today, or what your baby did, or the details of a meeting with your child's teacher, or your crazy boss. Instead they want to read about your writing journey and the craft.
  • Additional web pages and social networking sites: There is MySpace, ShoutLife, and others. However, I find that Ning networks work best for me. They have an abundance of singular networks and you can create your own. They are small and easy to manage. You can set up your own pages on Ning sites. I have found sites on Ning geared toward my genre such as Historical Fiction, Writers of Distinctive Fiction, Writers Interrupted, and the network I created for Maryland Fiction Writers.
  • Contributing writer on other blogs and writing related sites
  • Author Interviews: Lots of bloggers are looking for authors to interview. Some put up interviews daily. You can conduct your interviews as well, and use your byline. Ask for a link.
  • Email Newsletter: Keep it simple and be sure people on your list want it. Otherwise they will think it is spam.
  • Conference Attendance: This can be expensive so choose wisely.
  • Invite readers to sign up for your 'readership list'. This can be down in a few different ways.
    1. At book signings have an attractive sign-up sheet on the table. 2. Sign up link from your website. 3. Add to your email signature a sentence about signing up alongside your email address.
  • Ask Other Writers you know to put up a link to your site. Ask bloggers to include your blog. Always reciprocate the kind gesture. The more popular the author the more potential you will have.
  • Influencers: Send out an all mailing to readers and writers requesting 'influencers'. You provide them a free copy of your book with the understanding if they like it, they will pass it on by word of mouth, through their website, or write a review.
  • Business Cards: These can attract people to your website.
Think Locally
  • Speaking engagements
  • Library Book Talks
  • Arts Festivals
I hope this article has helped you, dear writer. If you have any other ideas to add to the list, let me know.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Perservance & Platform Building

This is a tough business and it seems not a day goes by that writers are not asked to do more, follow another rule or guideline, promote harder and find innovative ways to do it, and then grin and bear the tough road we tread. I hope this article helps, or at least encourages you to persevere and to enjoy the journey.

For the majority of authors, writing a novel is a rewarding experience, a joy, a burning desire fulfilled. The other side of the experience involves promotion and marketing. Marketing is getting your book into the hands of readers. Promotion is building a name. It's like having a toolbox. In order to build a house, you have to have the right tools to do it. The same applies for writers building their careers. You must have the right tools in order to succeed.

One tool in the toolbox is a platform. In today’s world of competitive publishing, the writer's platform mainly applies to non-fiction writers. If you glance over the non-fiction titles in bookstores, you will find celebrity names galore. It is their name, their fame that initially sells their books. Who they are is the foundation of their platform.

What about fiction writers? Can they build a platform in order to attract an audience of readers? Certainly. First, the writer needs to know what the author’s platform is. The Webster’s Dictionary defines platform as 'a raised flooring or stage for performers, speakers, etc.' For the writer marketing their work and promoting their name, the platform is an imaginary stage, where the author is in full view of a target audience of potential readers. It is in a word a circle of influence.

For the fiction writer the platform is not so narrow except in the area of genre. Most people would like to read a good yarn. The platform therefore is broader. It's like throwing a stone into a pool of water, causing a rippling effect. Say your genre is historical fiction. The center of the ripple is readers that prefer historical novels above all other genres. The writer targets that group, and word of mouth advances in ripples. The writer can then branch off their platform to influence other types of readers by having a platform that promotes a good story.

What does a platform does for you as an author and what kinds of things do you do to grow your platform?