Monday, April 12, 2021

Words for Writers - So, You Want to Write Historical Fiction

If one of your dreams is to write historical fiction, read on. If it isn’t … well, you’re welcome to continue reading. 

I don’t claim to have all the answers – far from it – but I do know that if you want to write historical fiction, there are three basic questions you need to answer. 


1. What kind of historical fiction do I want to write?

Brilliant, bestselling, award-winning are not the answers I’m looking for, although there’s no doubt that’s what we all hope we’re writing. Instead, I challenge you to identify the category of historical fiction that most appeals to you. There are undoubtedly other ways to divide historical fiction, but I’ve split them into two groups: fictionalized history and period fiction.


Fictionalized History

In fictionalized history, the events of the period play a critical role in the story. Just to further complicate things, I’ve divided fictionalized history into two sub-categories. 

* In the first, the main characters are well-known historical figures. Jill Eileen Smith’s Wives of King David series is a good example of this. 

* You’ve probably guessed that the other sub-category features protagonists who are fictional or less-known figures. Consider Diana Wallis Taylor’s Journey to the Well. Though the heroine is a Biblical character, without Diana’s book we wouldn’t even know her name. I’d call her a less-known figure. 

Regardless of the sub-category, real historical events form the framework of the plot in fictionalized history. 

So, you might ask, what differentiates this from non-fiction? The emotions. Are you familiar with the journalistic Five Ws? Using those terms, readers of fictionalized history know what happened, where and when. The book provides the answer to why and makes the who come to life.


Period Fiction

In contrast to fictionalized history with its focus on real people, the main characters of what I call period fiction are fictional. Historical personages, if any, play minor roles in the story. Similarly, historical events form the backdrop, not the framework, for the story. Most of the historical fiction books currently published by either the CBA or the secular market fall into this category.

The difference between fictionalized history and period fiction is critical, particularly where reader expectations are concerned. While readers of fictionalized history want to delve more deeply into the story of real people, readers of period fiction want to be transported to a different time. They want to learn about that time but from the view of ordinary people rather than historical personages whose biographies they might be able to find in the library or on Wikipedia.

Which category is the right one for you? 

Only you can answer that question. The key is to write the kind of book you love to read. While it’s true that the market for period fiction is larger than for fictionalized history, if the story that’s burning in your heart is fictionalized history, write it!


That leads us to the second question.

2. How much history should I include?

I wish it were otherwise, but the answer is that oh, so frustrating “it depends.”  Readers of fictionalized history expect more references to actual events than do readers of period fiction. In either case, it’s important to remember that you are writing fiction and that the primary focus of fiction is entertainment, not information. If all a reader wants are the simple facts about a particular event, she can find them in the non-fiction section of the library or bookstore. If on the other hand, she wants to live those events through a character’s eyes, she’ll choose fiction.

When deciding which historical facts to include, my theory is that less is more. Include the events that shape your protagonists’ lives and omit the others – no matter how fascinating they might be – unless they have a direct impact on your characters.


3. How do I make my book feel historical?

Although there are numerous techniques, I’d like to suggest three.

* Judicious use of historical-sounding dialogue. Notice the word “judicious.”  Depending on the period you’ve chosen, authentic dialogue might overwhelm the reader or – even worse – slow the book as the reader tries to translate it into modern English. Overuse of “thee,” “thou” and “ye” can become tedious. On the other hand, the occasional “whilst” instead of “while” and “four-and-twenty” rather than “twenty-four” gives the dialogue an historical feel without becoming burdensome to the reader.

* Era-appropriate analogies. If you’re writing a story set in the nineteenth century, you’d hardly describe something as being at “warp speed.”  However, consider the following selection from Vickie McDonough’s The Anonymous Bride.

“They crossed the street, shoulder to shoulder, like a trio of gunslingers looking for trouble.”

With the reference to gunslingers, is there any question that we’re in the nineteenth century?

* Telling Details. Sometimes it’s the smallest of details that adds historical authenticity to a story. I like the way Stephanie Grace Whitson needs only one sentence in Sixteen Brides to bring the nineteenth century to life.

“Button hook in hand, she sat down and lifted Caroline’s foot into her lap, quickly unhooking each of the ten buttons running up the side of the stylish black leather boot.”

Another author might simply have mentioned the button hook, but the inclusion of “ten buttons” and the notation that they’re “running up the side” gives the passage a feeling of authenticity that can’t help but intrigue readers.


Have I confused you or – even worse – discouraged you? I hope not. The bottom line is that while writing historical fiction is not easy, it can be very rewarding. Not only does it give you a chance to bring earlier times to life for your readers, but it’s also a chance for you to learn new things as you do your research. If you’re at all interested in writing historical fiction, I urge you to do so. After all, who can resist the lure of “once upon a time”?


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - April 7, 2021

 

Devils Tower from a distance
Wyomingites are proud of the many "firsts" associated with our state. Being the  first state to grant women suffrage is important, but it's not the only first. The list is extensive and includes the world's first national park (Yellowstone) as well as the first national monument, Devils Tower.

As you can see from the picture above, Devils Tower dominates the skyline, making it one of the prominent features of northeastern Wyoming. 

It's even more impressive close up.

Devils Tower close-up




Monday, April 5, 2021

Words for Writers - Surviving Rejection

 Rejection. As much as we’d like to deny it, rejection is a part of most writers’ lives. Rejection can come from agents, from editors, from reviewers and even from potential readers. A booksigning where customers walk by, possibly chat with us but don’t buy a book is a form of rejection, isn’t it? While there are many forms of rejection, they all have one thing in common: they hurt. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Having someone say our story, which is after all a part of us, isn’t ready for publication or – in the case of bad reviews – should never have been published is painful. 

So, how do we cope with it? Besides eating a pound of chocolate, that is. That’s where SARAH comes in. Who’s SARAH, or more precisely, what is SARAH? You’re probably familiar with Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross’s On Death and Dying, the book that first introduced the idea of the five stages of grieving. Further research indicated that it’s not only people who are facing either their own mortality or that of a loved one who experience the five stages. Any traumatic experience can trigger them. I would argue that being rejected is traumatic, because it’s the death of a dream. 

If we want to survive rejection, it’s important to understand the stages, then identify coping devices that will help us through each stage. Let’s begin.


Understanding Those Oh, So Critical Stages

We’re all writers, so I’m sure you realized that the fact that I capitalized SARAH means it’s an acronym. It is indeed. The five stages of dealing with rejection are:

* Shock

* Anger

* Resistance

* Acceptance

* Hope

No matter how often we remind ourselves that rejection is a fact of life, we’re never truly prepared for it. That’s why we find ourselves in Shock. The important thing to remember about Shock is that a person who’s experiencing it may exhibit unpredictable and irrational behavior. This is probably the most dangerous stage, since we’re not in full control of ourselves.

Next comes Anger. It’s only normal to be angry. How could that agent/ editor/ reviewer – you fill in the blanks – say something like that? Don’t they know that my story is the most beautiful piece of prose in the English language?

Eventually Anger fades and is replaced by Resistance. Some refer to this stage as Denial. In it, our energy is still diverted, because even though we don’t want to think about it, the rejection is hanging over us, sapping our creativity.

Acceptance is the first positive stage. In it we admit that yes, we were rejected, but the world didn’t end. 

And then comes Hope. This is where we tell ourselves it will be different the next time. The next editor will love this manuscript. And if that doesn’t happen, there’s always another story. At this point, the pain has faded and we’re ready to resume our normal lives.


Things You May Not Know About SARAH

There are two important things to know about the five stages of SARAH. First, the speed with which people progress through them varies. Some will race through the first three quickly, spending little time in Acceptance as they make their way to Hope. Others will remain mired in one of the early stages and never reach Hope. 

The second thing to know is that progress isn’t necessarily linear. Although you may have reached Resistance or one of the later stages, it’s possible that a new event will trigger backsliding and you find yourself back a stage or two. Don’t let this upset you. It happens. The key is to know how to cope with each stage so that you’ll be able to reach Hope.


Coping Techniques

So, let’s talk about coping techniques. As I said before, chocolate is always helpful, but it has some downsides, including weight gain, so I advise using it in moderation. There are, however, other things you can do during each stage.

When You're in Shock

Fortunately Shock does not normally last too long. The key here is to stay away from your computer and your phone. The last thing you need is to send the agent or editor a nasty note when you’re in shock. Remember that irrational behavior is a hallmark of this stage. Be careful. Be very careful.

Entering Anger

When you reach Anger, primal scream therapy and journaling are excellent tools. Call a friend and vent. You might even want to write a letter to the person who rejected you, explaining how totally misguided and incorrect the rejection was. As soon as you’ve written the letter, delete it, burn it or shred it. Under no circumstances should you send it to the rejecter. That’s career suicide.

Dealing with Resistance

I’m a firm believer in exercise. A brisk walk, even house cleaning (shudder!) releases endorphins, those wonderful feel-good substances. That’s why exercise is an excellent way to deal with Resistance. So, too, is reading. Escape into a book by one of your favorite authors. You can always claim you’re doing research, but the truth is, you’re helping yourself get through Resistance.

Reaching Acceptance

Do you keep a file of positive affirmations? You should. Whether it’s a favorable review of a published story, your critique partner’s praise or simply a compliment someone paid you, you should store it somewhere easily accessible. Reading those affirmations while you’re in Acceptance will help you on the path to Hope. So too will what I call “a trip to the post office.”  

Edging Toward Hope

Even before you send the manuscript out the first time, you should have a backup plan just in case your submission is met with rejection. That backup plan is a prioritized list of other agents or editors who might be interested in that particular manuscript. As soon as you’ve passed through Shock, send the manuscript to the next person on the list. (I know I’m dating myself, but when I started writing, that involved a trip to the post office. Now a submission is usually as simple as email.)  Getting the manuscript out to another agent or editor is the second most important step you can take to reach Hope.

So, what’s the most important step? Always be working on your next project. (Did the bold italics tell you I think this is critical? It is!)  If you’re in the middle of your next project, your attention is focused on it rather than the manuscript that was rejected. That doesn’t stop rejection from hurting, but it does mitigate the pain and shorten the time to reach Hope.


The Bottom Line

The bottom line of all this is simple. If you let rejection by others defeat you, you’re admitting that they’re right. They aren’t. Don’t ever, ever, ever stop believing in yourself. You are unique. You see the world differently from everyone else. You have a story to tell. You are a writer!


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - March 31, 2021

 

Grand Encampment Museum
Do you remember the two-story outhouse I featured in an earlier Wednesday in Wyoming post? It's one of the most unusual exhibits at GEM, the Grand Encampment Museum, but it's not the only one of interest.

As you can see, the museum also includes old buildings that give you a view of life in an earlier time.

Encampment isn't the easiest place to find, but if you're visiting the Snowy Range or Saratoga, be sure to take a short side trip to GEM.

For more information, here's the link.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - March 24, 2021

 

Tate Museum
Are you a fan of dinosaurs? If so, you won't want to miss the Tate Geological Museum in Casper. It's part of Casper College and is THE place for information about prehistoric creatures.

I was fascinated by Dee the mammoth's skeleton and the whole story of how it was found and excavated. (And, yes, you can see me there reading one of the signs.)

For more information, here's Tate Geological Museum's web site.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - March 17, 2021

 

Carbon County Museum
This week I'm highlighting the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins. The interior of the museum has a wide variety of exhibits, including an entire room dedicated to Thomas Edison. It also, as you can see, has a unique way of advertising itself.

If you'd like to learn more about this well-worth-the-trip museum, here's the link.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - March 10, 2021

 

Fort Fetterman
When you look at the items in this display, do you feel as if you've been transported back to a previous era? I do. 

I'd love to be able to create mittens like these, and the pieces in the quilt make me suspect it was made from pieces of worn-out or outgrown clothes.

Where did I find this exhibit? At Fort Fetterman State Historic Site, near Casper. If you'd like more information, here's the fort's website..


Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - March 3, 2021

 

Old West Museum Cheyenne
For a change of pace, this month I thought I'd highlight some of Wyoming's museums. Some are large and well-known, like this one. Others are small and a bit off the beaten track. What they have in common are some intriguing exhibits.

I'm starting close to home. If you've been to Cheyenne, chances are you've been to the Old West Museum. It's near Frontier Park, the site of Cheyenne Frontier Days, and is famous for its display of antique vehicles.

Can you guess why the coach in the center is painted yellow? Yes, of course. It was used to transport visitors through Yellowstone National Park.



Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - February 24, 2021

 

cottontail in winter
I know many people consider bunnies a nuisance, and I'll admit that I'm less than thrilled when they devour my flowers (which is why some are caged), but I also enjoy watching their antics, including their grooming. 

I'm not sure what this bunny just ate, but it felt the need to wash it paws multiple times. So cute.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Words for Writers - Maps and the Writer

 

I think most of us would agree that maps – whether the old-fashioned, hard-to-fold paper ones or the electronic versions provided by GPS systems – are invaluable tools for getting from Point A to Point B, but I wonder how many authors have considered maps a part of the writing process. 

I’ll admit it. From childhood on, I’ve been fascinated by maps, especially by street maps of cities, but it was only when I started writing that I realized just how valuable they could be for an author.

Science fiction and fantasy writers talk a lot about world building, but those of us who write about the world as it is, or as it was in a specific point in history, need to do our share of world building, too. We need to create settings that ring true to our readers. That’s where maps come in. Knowing the relative positions of two country estates or the street names in a city, whether real or fictional, helps add the authenticity that readers crave. 

 Whether the city is real, as in my stories set in Cheyenne, or fictional like the town of Ladreville that’s the center of my Texas Dreams books, I have a map spread out in front of me while I write. That map’s as important to me as my chapter-by-chapter outline. When I create a map, I begin with street names, landmarks, topography and orientation. Street names and landmarks are self-explanatory. By topography, I mean the presence of hills, forests, rivers or other natural features that might play into the story. Orientation refers to the direction on the compass. Does the main street run north-south? Which direction does the town hall face? 

Once I have that information, I pencil in the location of my characters’ homes as well as the public buildings that play a role in the story. If I’m working with a real city like Cheyenne, I sandwich my characters’ homes and business establishments between actual buildings from the time period. It’s only when I have all the locations established that I start to write.


Why would I or any other writer do this? I view it as a form of research, a case of knowing as much as I can about my characters’ lives before I begin to tell their stories. But it’s more than that. Having a good map is important for three reasons.

1. It increases the book’s accuracy. If you know the compass orientation of the street where your characters are staying and you’re describing the shadows a tree casts at 3 PM, you’ll know which direction those shadows are falling. You’ll also know whether your heroine would see a sunrise from her kitchen window.

2. A map assures consistency. Readers are astute. If your character turns right one time to go from his house to the church but heads left the next time, your reader will notice the discrepancy. It may not stop her from reading the rest of the story, but it will brand you as a sloppy writer. Who needs that?

3. A map allows you to add the details that bring your fictional world to life. Once you’ve created your map, you can calculate the distance between points and can determine how long it will take to travel that distance. You can mention landmarks along the way. And, of course, since you have the map, those details will be accurate and consistent.


Have I convinced you? Then let me add another element: floor plans. Although I’m far from an architect and my scribbles are primitive, I create floor plans of my protagonists’ homes, because – like maps – they allow me to be accurate and consistent in my descriptions. 

If the hero’s house faces the river that flows north-south, he will not be able to see the blazing ball of a setting sun from the same window where he studies the river. If the heroine’s bedroom is on the second floor of a two-story house, she will not hear footsteps above her, but the closing of the front door might be audible if her room were on the front of the house.

To me, maps are a key part of the writer’s toolbox. I love them, and that’s one reason I’m delighted that Revell has included maps at the beginning of many of my books. If you haven’t already done it, I hope you’ll consider creating a map for your next story. It can be a truly useful tool.


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - February 17, 2021

 

snow-frosted trees
Wyoming's winds mean that this isn't a common sight, but when the snow does manage to coat the trees, it's gorgeous. At least I think so.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Words for Writers - Author Beware

It’s Not as Easy as it Seems: Using Real Locations for Your Book’s Setting


What was I thinking? I’d just finished writing the Texas Dreams trilogy and had loved creating the fictional town of Ladreville, so when my editor asked me to propose a series set in Wyoming, why on earth did I choose Fort Laramie and Cheyenne for the settings? Did I have a sudden memory lapse, forgetting that the one time I used a real city as a location for one of my secular romances, I agonized the entire time I was writing it, worrying that I’d get hate mail from a reader, telling me that such and such a street wasn’t cobblestoned at the time of the book?

The truth is, I chose real settings for two reasons. I haven’t queried other authors, but I suspect that if they use real places for their books, their reasons are similar. So, what were my reasons? The allure of reality and increased marketability.

 Let’s start with the allure of reality. “Real” fiction would seem to be an oxymoron, wouldn’t it? After all my Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines fiction as “something invented by the imagination or feigned.” And yet, even though the stories are fictional, I know that readers of historical fiction enjoy learning facts about the time period and that their enjoyment is enhanced when they have the opportunity to read about places that they may never actually visit. 

I could have set Summer of Promise at a fictional fort in Wyoming, but using Fort Laramie, an important and well-known location, gave the book added appeal. That’s the reason I asked that the back cover copy specifically mention Fort Laramie rather than simply saying ‘Wyoming.’ It’s too soon to tell, but my hope is that readers who haven’t picked up my earlier books will be intrigued enough by the Fort Laramie connection that they’ll read it. 

 And that leads me to the second point: increased marketability. Revell has a superb marketing department, but I still think it’s my job to help them. One way of doing that is to get my books into places that wouldn’t normally carry fiction. 

Fort Laramie’s gift shop is a tourist’s delight, filled with books and souvenirs. The books, it should be noted, are mostly non-fiction. I knew it was a long-shot, but I really wanted them to carry Summer of Promise, so I approached the Historical Association. 

The general manager was intrigued by the premise of the story, and she loved the cover. (Note: the background is a scene from Fort Laramie.) But, since we’re dealing with the National Park Service, there’s a rigorous selection process. Not only did several people on the staff have to read and review the book before they could consider carrying it, but the park superintendant asked them to answer one key question: “Are the details in the book authentic?” It was only when the readers could answer ‘yes,’ that the Historical Association could order copies of my books. I have no idea how many additional sales this will mean, but each new reader is important.


 We’ve talked about the advantages of choosing real locations for a book. Now I’d like to debunk two myths. 

“Of course you should use a real location. It’s easier,” one author told me. I disagree. Although it’s true that you don’t have to invent street names and other details about the location, the opposite side of that argument is that you need to know all those details. Simply having a general idea and then fudging won’t work. 

Which is the perfect segue to the second myth: readers won’t catch small errors. Trust me. They will. That’s the downside of increased marketability. Among the new readers that you’ll attract by using a real location are those who are experts on that location. While they might forgive a few discrepancies, chances are that if you make serious errors, they’ll tell you and – even worse – the world. Are you willing to risk having reviewers post your inaccuracies? It’ll happen. And even if your mistakes aren’t paraded for the online world to see, there’ll be negative word of mouth. None of us can afford that.

So, how do you avoid bad reviews and what I call hate mail? There’s no panacea, but I have a few hints.

1. Read everything you can about your location. I find the reference section of the library to be a particularly good source of information, especially when I ask a librarian for assistance. Searching the card catalog reveals many books, but librarians are the experts. They’ve pointed me toward books that I would never have found otherwise, books, I might add, that have proven invaluable. Those included diaries of people from the time period which provided a number of important details, including the weather on specific dates. Readers may not know that my descriptions are accurate, but I do, and that helps me overcome those worries about hate mail.

2. Look for picture books. The adage about a picture being worth many words is true, and never more so than when you’re trying to discover what buildings or streets looked like many years ago. I’ve found the Images of America series to be extremely helpful. Not only are there hundreds of old photographs in them, but the commentary is typically written by local history experts. While I borrow most reference books from the library, the Images books are ones I own, because I find myself referring to them almost constantly during the writing process. (And, no, I don’t own stock in the company.)

3. Visit the site at the appropriate time of year. Although I had made two research trips to Fort Laramie before I wrote the book, one was in late summer, the other mid-autumn. Since my book began in June, I knew I had to return to the fort then. I was so glad I did! Not only did I discover that the grass was green then, whereas it had been golden brown on my other visits, but I was able to see how much higher the river was. Those and a myriad of other details made their way into the story, adding the authenticity that readers expect. I know it’s not possible for everyone to travel to a location, especially at a specific time of the year. If you can’t, search for local residents who can help you with details. Which leads me to my next hint.

4. Enlist local experts. Although I’d read stacks of books about Fort Laramie and had visited it several times, there were still things I didn’t know. As an example, most visitors to the fort are familiar with Old Bedlam, the large white building that served as the bachelor officers’ quarters for much of the fort’s history. The problem was, at the time my story took place, Old Bedlam had been converted to apartments for married officers. I could find no reference to the building that was used as the BOQ at that time period, so I consulted the fort’s librarian. She and one of the park rangers pulled out maps and records, and when they couldn’t find any definitive information, they helped me to choose a plausible location.

5. Don’t make assumptions. This is actually a corollary to my first two points. On one of my visits to the fort, I took a picture of two uniforms displayed in the fort’s museum. One was clearly marked ‘infantry,’ and since my hero was a lieutenant in the infantry, I used that picture as my source, describing the single-breasted coat in great detail. The problem was, once the Images of America book on Fort Laramie was published, I started studying it and discovered that many of the soldiers wore double-breasted coats. Why was there a discrepancy? Again, the fort librarian was of immeasurable assistance. She provided me with a book that detailed Army uniforms during the nineteenth century. Half an hour with that book revealed that the uniform in the museum display was for an enlisted man, while the double-breasted coats I saw in the pictures belonged to officers. My description had to be changed. Would a reader have caught the error? Possibly not, but I’m glad I discovered it.

6. Lastly, if you take liberties, tell the readers. There are times when an author wants to bend history for the sake of the story. There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, we’re dealing with fiction. But if you do decide to stretch the truth, perhaps by placing a real person in a city where he or she might not have been, mention that in a note to readers. They’ll appreciate it, and so will you, because your note will forestall criticism.


If I’ve made using real locations as settings for your stories seem like an overwhelming burden, let me assure you that it’s not. It can be fun to learn the details of a real place and share them with readers. A real location can help you market your book. And it can attract new readers to your books. 

 Would I do it again? Maybe.


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - February 10, 2021

 

jackrabbit in winter
This black-tailed jackrabbit has no question about where it's going to find food. The dried remains of my flowers are a tasty meal for hungry rabbits, which is one reason I leave them there during the winter.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Words for Writers - Trains and Boats and Planes and ... Books?

 

Are you shaking your head and asking what possible connection can there be between forms of transportation and books? Keep reading. I hope to convince you it’s not as crazy as it sounds. 

 I’m an author who’s also a Sagittarian, and for me, travel has enhanced my life as a writer. I’m not going to claim that I believe in astrology – I don’t – but according to the astrology books, being a Sagittarian means I was born with a suitcase already packed. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I do love to travel, and I also love to write, and over the years I’ve learned that travel can spark ideas for new books.

Like many authors, I’ve traveled to specific places to research a book. The odd thing about those trips is that I wound up changing my mind about where the book would take place. I went to Alaska, certain that my setting would be Seward. Imagine my surprise when the scene that lingered in my imagination was the view from a small cemetery near the Tanana River. That place turned into a fictional town that became the setting for two books.

 My Texas Dreams books were the result of a similar experience. I traveled to Texas, believing my book would take place in the south Texas plains, but once I got there, I found myself more drawn to the Hill Country, and so the fictional town of Ladreville was born. And, since I fell in love with the area, one book (Paper Roses) became a trilogy, with Scattered Petals and Tomorrow’s Garden following.

Eventually I realized that one of the appeals of travel is that it exposes me to new ideas, sometimes when I least expect them. After all, who would have believed anyone – even a writer – would be inspired by a highway rest area? Yet, that’s just what happened. Although I had stopped at that particular rest area (the welcome center in southern New York State) dozens of times before, one day I just happened to look into the tourist information room and spotted a carousel horse. You have to admit that that’s an odd thing to find in a rest area, unless you know that the Binghamton, NY area is home to six carousels. Until that day, I hadn’t realized that, but the horse piqued my imagination so much that it ultimately led to the publication of six books with a carousel theme.

 Although I’m now a fulltime writer, for many years I had a day job. One of the good/bad things about that day job was that I was a very frequent flyer. The good part was that I was able to visit a lot of different places, and some of them provided inspiration for books. For example, I was sitting in a restaurant in Phoenix, eating alone (one of the bad things about all the traveling), when the Muzak started playing “Stranger in Paradise.” “What a great title for a book,” I said to myself. (No, I haven’t gotten to the point where I talk out loud and cause strangers to stare.)  That started the whole process of asking questions. “Where’s paradise?” Answer: Hawaii. “Why would someone be there and feel like a stranger?” The answers to that question turned into a book. Even though I changed the title, the story begins in Hawaii and the hero and heroine are definitely strangers there.

I’ve also learned that I don’t have to travel far from home to be inspired. I was struggling with the title for the third of my Texas Dreams books. The original was Winter Garden, but my publisher didn’t like the “winter” part. I kept wracking my brain for an alternative, but nothing clicked until my husband and I visited the local botanic gardens’ annual glass art show. Admittedly, the greenhouse is gorgeous and the stained glass panels were equally beautiful, but who would have thought that one entry – the picture of a couple sitting on a hillside, holding hands and looking into the distance – would provide me with a title?  The artist had named his work “Tomorrow.” When I saw it, I knew I’d found the perfect word. Winter Garden became Tomorrow’s Garden.

The truth is, writers can find inspiration anywhere, but if you’re traveling, I urge you to keep an open mind (and an open notebook). Who knows what wonderful stories may result?


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - February 3, 2021

 

windswept snow
It doesn't matter what the groundhog said yesterday. In Wyoming it's still winter. 

That's not necessarily bad. The snow, particularly when it's sculpted by the ever-present winds, can be beautiful.

Notice how you can see the grass on the lower right side, while other areas have drifts. And then there are the ripples, which remind me of sand dunes. It's a constantly changing landscape, lovely to watch ... unless, of course, you're driving and get caught in a ground blizzard.


Monday, February 1, 2021

Words for Writers - Before You Sign: A Contracts Quiz

 I know, I know. You weren’t expecting a quiz. This was supposed to be a simple blog post about publishing contracts, imparting information but not asking you to do any work. The problem is that contracts are inherently boring, the ultimate cure for insomnia. The last thing I wanted was for you to fall asleep while reading this, so I thought a four question true/false quiz might help keep you awake.

Let’s get started.

True or False: Agents’ and publishers’ contracts are fair.

Okay, I cheated. The answer to this is “maybe.”  A basic precept of contracts is that they’re written for the benefit of the party that drafts them. Since contracts are drafted by agents and publishers, the terms are most favorable to them. I’m not saying that a contract is unfair to the author, but this is definitely a case of caveat emptor. You need to understand everything that’s contained in the contract before you know whether or not it’s fair to you, and if it’s not fair, you need to try to change it. Which leads me to the next question.


True or False: Everything is negotiable.

I’ll admit that I’ve said exactly that, but where contracts are concerned, it’s false. Not everything is negotiable, particularly in publisher contracts. One notably non-negotiable section of every contract I’ve seen is the “warranties and representations” clause. This is the part where you agree that you own the rights to this book, that it’s not libelous, that it doesn’t violate any copyright, etc., etc., etc. This section also stipulates that if the publisher is sued, you’ll indemnify them. In other words, you’re the one who’s on the hook for attorney fees to defend yourself and the publisher. 

Another non-negotiable section is dispute resolution. If a publisher specifies arbitration rather than a suit in a court of law, you’re unlikely to be able to change this. Similarly, the dates on which royalty statements are issued isn’t something a publisher will change for you. They have accounting systems, and those systems are set up to calculate royalties for everyone, not just you, on a specific date. 

The good news is that many sections of both agent and publisher contracts are negotiable. The key is knowing which can be modified. So, how do you know? You might ask an expert. 


True or False: You need an attorney to review the contract.

This is another question where the answer is “maybe.”  In general, agent contracts are simple enough that you shouldn’t need an attorney’s review. Publishers’ contracts, on the other hand, are more complex. The questions you should ask yourself before retaining an attorney are:

* Are you represented by an agent?

If you are and if this is a standard contract with a publisher to whom the agent has sold in the past, you may not need a separate review. In theory, your agent has already vetted the contract and negotiated away the most onerous clauses. In theory.

* How comfortable are you with contracts? 

If you aren’t represented by an agent and you’ve negotiated other contracts and don’t fall asleep reading the seemingly mind-numbing clauses (including those critical warranties and representations), you may not need an attorney. 

* How much money is involved?

The simple fact is, attorneys aren’t cheap, so you need to ask yourself whether the cost of retaining one to review the contract makes sense from a business view. If this is a small publisher paying a minimal advance, you might wind up paying that entire advance – or more – to the attorney. Only you can decide whether the risk of signing a potentially bad contract is worth the expense.

If you decide to hire an attorney, don’t forget that attorneys have different areas of expertise. While they all took contract law classes, that doesn’t mean that they’ve had much real world experience with contracts. And, even if their specialty is contracts, there’s a big difference between contracts for real estate ventures and publishing contracts. If you’re going to the trouble and expense of hiring a professional to review your contract, be certain you’ve found an attorney with publishing contract expertise.


True or False: If your agent has approved the contract, you don’t need to read it before signing.

False. Absolutely, positively false. I was appalled when a New York Times bestselling author who’s also an attorney admitted that she hadn’t read the fine print in one of her contracts and didn’t know that her royalty rate had been reduced. It doesn’t matter what your agent says. You’re the one who signs the contract. You’re the one who’s accountable. You should – no, you must – read and understand every clause in every contract you sign. 

The bottom line is that contracts are an essential part of your career as a published author. They define your relationship with your agent and/or publisher. They establish the rules under which you’ll operate, including how to terminate a relationship that goes sour. They may appear to be boring, but, to paraphrase Robert Frost, good contracts make good relationships. Don’t shortchange yourself by signing a poor contract simply because you’re anxious to be represented by an agent or to have a publishing contract. You deserve the best!


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - January 27, 2021

 

Fort Laramie new guard house
The first building doesn't look ominous, does it? Despite its ordinary appearance, it was not a place you would have wanted to visit if you were a soldier at Fort Laramie. You see, it's the guard house where prisoners were confined. 

They might have found incarceration preferable to some of the other disciplinary measures, including carrying huge logs on their backs, but I'm not sure about that. what I know is that I wouldn't want to spend much time inside the guard house.

In case you were wondering, the second building, which is still in ruins, was the administration building.

And this concludes our winter visit to Fort Laramie. What's coming next month? I haven't decided yet.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Words for Writers - Finding the Perfect Agent


One of the questions I’m often asked by aspiring writers is “how do I find the perfect agent?”

As someone with the dubious distinction of having had (and fired) six agents, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

First of all, there’s a difference between finding an agent and finding the perfect agent. You’ve probably heard that a bad agent is worse than none at all. It’s true. A bad agent can keep you from selling a manuscript, simply by not sending it out or by sending it to the wrong house. 

Secondly, the perfect agent for someone else may not be the right one for you. One of my neighbors thinks her hybrid is the perfect car. Another wouldn’t drive anything other than his full-size truck. Although those are the ideal vehicles for them, neither one suits my driving style. It’s the same with agents. So, here’s my five-step program for finding the perfect agent for you.


Step One – Identify your needs. Before you start your search for an agent, it’s important to decide what you want your agent to do for you. Are you looking for one who’ll edit your work before sending it out? Terrific, but not all agents have the background or the time to do that. Do you want extensive career planning advice? Again, some agents provide that; others do not. There’s no right or wrong here. What matters is what you need or want an agent to do for you. Remember, the agent works for you.

Step Two – Do your homework. Although I know some authors who send out blanket queries to agents, that can be a waste of time and, if you’re sending those queries by snail mail, money. Why query agents who hate mysteries if that’s what you’re writing? 

I recommend a targeted approach, where you learn as much as you can about an agent before querying him or her. How do you do that? Start with the Internet. My opinion, which I’ll admit not everyone shares, is that if an agent doesn’t have a web site, I’m not interested. A well-designed agency web site gives me the answers to key questions at the click of a mouse.

What are those key questions? 

1. Has the agent sold books similar to the one you’re writing? Remember that agents are like editors. They have preferences, and if they’re not enthusiastic about your work, they will not be effective advocates.

2. Have those sales been recent? An agent who hasn’t sold within the last year may be experiencing personal problems or have other concerns that create obstacles to sales. 

3. Have the sales been to your “dream list” of publishers? An agent who’s sold to small or obscure publishers may not fit your career plan.

4. Does the agent represent authors you admire? While that’s no guarantee that this is the right agent for you, it’s one more point to consider.

If the answers to any of the first three questions are ‘no,’ this is not the agent for you.

Step Three – Network. Once you’ve narrowed down the list of possible agents, it’s time to check references. If you happen to know any of the agent’s current clients, ask them about their experiences with the agent. The questions I find most helpful are “What do you like most about your agent?” and “If there were one thing you could change about your agent, what would it be?” Those open-ended questions have elicited some interesting – and revealing – answers and have kept me from making yet another mistake in choosing the wrong agent.

If you don’t know any of the agent’s clients, ask other writing friends if they’ve heard anything. Most of us belong to writers’ organizations. Check with them. When I sent out a request for experiences with a particular agent, I learned that he had a reputation for being extremely slow in paying his clients’ share of advances and royalties. I guess he hadn’t heard “Thou shalt not steal.”  

Step Four – Query your short-list of agents. Now that you’ve culled the long list of agents into a short list of potentially perfect ones, it’s time to send out queries. Odds are some will be ignored, while others will elicit a polite rejection. No matter how discouraging a rejection is, remember that if an agent doesn’t love your work, he or she is not the perfect one for you. Be glad you found that out before you wasted any more time. 

So, what do you do when an agent says, “I love your work, and I want to represent you”? Although your first reaction will probably be a shout of glee, don’t be too quick to sign a contract. There’s one last step you need to take.

Step Five – Do a Style Check. No, I’m not talking about hair or clothing. The agent-author relationship is just that – a relationship – and it’s important to ensure that it will be a productive one. Before you sign a contract with any agency, you need to have a conversation. Even if you’ve been communicating via email, this is time for a talk. Ideally, you’ll be able to meet your agent face-to-face, but if that’s not possible, pick up the phone. Your goal is to determine whether or not you and your potential agent have compatible working styles.

Some questions you may want to ask the agent are:

1. How do you prefer to communicate? If your agent thinks email is the greatest invention of the twentieth century but you prefer the phone, you may not be happy working together.

2. How do you notify clients about the status of their proposals? If the agent normally tells clients only when she’s made a sale but you prefer to know when each publisher has received the proposal and what response was received, even if it’s a rejection, unless the agent is willing to accommodate your needs, she’s not the perfect agent for you.

3. What contract clauses have you negotiated for other clients? Most agents are highly skilled in negotiating those clauses related to royalties and advances, but some are uncomfortable with others, including reversion of rights and non-compete. One of my former agents told me that asking to have some clauses changed was an insult to the editor. Wrong answer! She and I parted ways very quickly. 

The key is knowing your comfort level and making sure that it matches your agent’s. If it does, he or she just might be the perfect agent for you.


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - January 20, 2021

 

Fort Laramie Cavalry Barracks and Hospital
If you've read Summer of Promise, you might recognize the building in the foreground. It's the cavalry barracks, one of the restored buildings at Fort Laramie, and was featured on the book's cover. 

The ruins in the background are of the hospital. I don't know how the soldiers felt, but I would have been relieved that the hospital was located away from the main buildings, particularly given the state of nineteenth century medical knowledge. 

Heroic medicine, as it was called, included bleeding, purging, and other techniques that only weakened the patient. Thank goodness we've progressed beyond that.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Words for Writers - Writing Books in a Series


 First there were sequels. Then came trilogies. Now quartets and even quintets are popping up. It seems that everywhere you look, authors are creating series of books, and more and more publishers are asking for them. If you’re thinking about joining the bandwagon, read on. There are a few things to consider before you get started.


Type of Series

Did you know there’s more than one kind of series? While others may disagree with the terminology, I divide them into two categories: continuing characters and connected characters. 

What’s the difference? In a continuing character series, the protagonists remain the same, while secondary characters and sometimes settings change. Think of Nancy Drew, Miss Marple and, more recently, Harry Potter. In each case, you know who the main character is, and part of the pleasure of reading one of these books is knowing that when you finish it, there will be another adventure coming, featuring your favorite people. 

Plot-driven books like mysteries, thrillers and suspense make ideal continuing character series.

Connected character series are different. In them, when the first book ends, those protagonists’ stories are complete, but seeds have been sown for at least one secondary character to star in a subsequent book. It’s common, but not mandatory, for the protagonists of one book to make cameo appearances in the next one. 

Although settings may vary from one book to the next, it is also possible that the setting itself becomes a character. That’s what happened with my Texas Dreams series. The stories form a connected character series, with the hero of Scattered Petals being introduced in Paper Roses, and Tomorrow’s Garden’s hero making his debut in Scattered Petals. In addition to those connections, the town of Ladreville and a cast of secondary characters form a common thread. 

Character-driven books like romances and general fiction are good candidates for connected character series.


Number of Books

Once you’ve decided which type of series is right for you, the next question is to decide how many books will comprise that series. In the case of continuing characters, the answer is frequently “I don’t know.” That’s because those series are often open-ended. 

Connected character series, however, are typically finite. Since trilogies seem to be particularly popular now, my recommendation is to think in terms of three books. And, if you’re writing a continuing character series, I’d suggest including at least three books in your initial proposal so that there’s no question that it’s a series. 


The Challenges

Although there are many challenges associated with writing a series, for me, three stand out.

1. Maintain consistency from book to book. Readers are intelligent. They’ll remember that Susie had green eyes in Book One, and if those suddenly change to brown in Book Two, unless you mention that she’s wearing colored contacts, your reader will be disappointed in you. I keep a chart with all characters’ ages, hair and eye colors and other dominant characteristics. Unfortunately, I did not include characters’ horses’ names on that chart and, halfway through Tomorrow’s Garden, found myself paging through Scattered Petals to see what I had called Lawrence’s horse. Note to self: include horses on chart.

If you’re using the same location from book to book, I highly recommend having a map that shows where houses, rivers and other landmarks are located. Once again, readers will notice if you change the street names between books. Even if you’re using a real town, it’s important to know where the characters live so that you’re consistent. 

2. Create each book as a stand-alone. I know, I know. We’re talking about books in a series, so why am I suggesting that each one be a stand-alone? For me, there’s nothing more frustrating than picking up the second book in a series and feeling as if I’m a stranger at a party where everyone else knows each other. They’re all talking about people and events that are unfamiliar to me. 

If you write each book with the idea that it can stand alone, you’ll make readers happy. The key is to ensure that each reference to a prior book has a brief explanation, bringing the reader “up to speed.” The challenge, of course, is to not give away key plot points from previous books. Is it easy? Of course not. That’s why it’s a challenge.

3. Make each book as compelling as the previous one. For me, this is the most difficult challenge of all. I’ve read so many trilogies, including some written by New York Times bestselling authors, where the first and third books were excellent, but the middle one fell short that I started asking why. Was this an extreme case of the sagging middles that we’re all told to avoid?  Was it like sophomore slump? I suspect part of the problem is that, as authors, we’re excited about the first book, but when we get to the second, we’re anxious to finish the series, and the second book suffers. Don’t let that happen. 

I wish I could give you concrete advice on how to avoid the middle book doldrums. All I can say is to be aware that this is a potential problem and one that afflicts even bestselling authors. If you have critique partners, ask them whether this book is as good as the previous one, and if the answer isn’t the one you wanted, ask yourself what you can do to improve it. Your readers expect excellence. Don’t disappoint them.

For me, although there are undeniable challenges involved, writing books in a series is great fun. I love the challenge of creating a town and peopling it with interesting characters, then returning to it a second and third time. I love introducing characters in one book, then following them into a second book. I love every aspect of it except one: saying good-bye.

Writing books in a series can be a fulfilling experience. If you’re at all intrigued by the idea, I encourage you to try it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - January 13, 2021

 

Fort Laramie - Laramie River
Cottonwoods, scrub brush, and a river -- what a peaceful setting. 

The river in question is the Laramie, one of two rivers whose confluence (how's that for a big word meaning "meeting"?) marks the site of Fort Laramie. The other river, in case you wondered, is the North Platte.

And, yes, this picture was taken at Fort Laramie.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Words for Writers - When Happily-Ever-After Isn't Enough

 “Nothing happens.” It’s been many years since I received that particular rejection, but I still recall my confusion. How could the editor say that nothing happened?  I was writing short contemporary romances for the secular market at the time, and I thought I’d done everything right. The book was set in an exotic location and was laced with fascinating (at least to me) details of life in a place most of us only dream about seeing. My hero and heroine met, they fell in love, and after resolving a few misunderstandings, they lived happily ever after. What could be wrong? And why did the editor say that nothing happened?

When I recovered from the sting of rejection, I realized that the editor was right, although I still thought she was wrong in saying that nothing happened. What she should have said was that nothing interesting happened. I had written a story of a close-to-perfect romance, and while readers might want to live that story, they don’t want to read about it. Perfection is boring, or as Tolstoi said in his famous opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What was missing from my book was conflict.

I hate conflict. After one of those stress job interviews that used to be popular, the recruiter looked at me as if I were an unknown species. “You’d rather walk around a wall than through it,” he said. Duh! Who would willingly bang her head against a wall?  There’s only one winner there, and it’s not the head. But that aversion to pain and conflict wasn’t helping my writing. If my characters weren’t willing to fight, if I wasn’t willing to put them through pain, then I was going to continue receiving rejection after rejection and hearing editors say, “Nothing happens.”

 I wanted to make another sale, but I hated the idea of torturing my characters, and that’s how conflict felt to me. It seemed like an insurmountable impasse. And then I realized what I had to do. It might seem like a matter of semantics, but the technique worked for me. 

I told myself that I wasn’t torturing my characters; I was healing them. And since I believe in the healing power of love – both God’s love for us and that between a man and a woman – it became easy (okay, a teeny, tiny bit easier) to create characters who were in pain. Sometimes the pain was emotional. Sometimes it was physical. Though I wept and cringed as I wrote some of the scenes, I wouldn’t let myself off the hook. No matter how dark the story was, I knew that eventually I would give my characters – and my readers – what they deserved: healing, followed by a happily-ever-after.

And now, as I give thanks for the people who’ve touched my life, I include the editor who told me, “Nothing happens.”  

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - January 6, 2021

 

Fort Laramie - Old Bedlam
It's not just Wednesday in Wyoming. It's also winter in Wyoming, which is why I'm highlighting winter at Fort Laramie, one of my favorite spots in the state, this month.

In case you don't recognize it, the building is Old Bedlam, the oldest still-standing historic building in the state. It served in several capacities while the fort was commissioned but is most famous -- or, should I say infamous? -- for being the bachelor officers' quarters. That's when it earned its nickname.

What do you suppose those officers were doing to give it that name?

Monday, January 4, 2021

Words for Writers - Mastering Those Dreaded Deadlines

 

Do you hate deadlines as much as I do? I think part of the problem is the word. According to my dictionary, a deadline is “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” What an image! No wonder I don’t like deadlines. In fact, I prefer not to use the word at all. Instead, I refer to them as due dates. Using a term that frequently describes the projected birthdate of a child seems much more appropriate. After all, what’s due on the date formerly called a deadline is another form of creation, a manuscript.

Whether you call them deadlines or due dates, they’re important parts of a writer’s life. Consistently meeting due dates is the hallmark of a professional writer. Whether the due date is for the entry of a manuscript into a contest or its delivery to an editor as part of a contract, it’s important – I’d even say vital – that the date be met. I won’t claim that it’s easy, but I offer four techniques that can improve the probability of meeting your due dates.

 1. Set a realistic date. If it’s already the end of March and you want to enter a completed manuscript in a contest on April 15 but you haven’t started writing, odds are that that particular date isn’t realistic. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Instead, plan to enter the contest next year. Similarly, if an editor calls to say she loves your proposal and wonders how soon you can have the completed manuscript to her, take a deep breath before you answer. Even better, tell her you need to work out the schedule and you’ll call her back. Then figure out how long it will take, realizing that it’s impractical to think you’ll work eight hours every day. When you’ve created what seems like an achievable schedule, add in a couple weeks for contingencies. Trust me, you’ll need them.

 2. Create a picture of your goal. Mental images are great, but I’m talking about a physical picture, one that’ll help motivate you. If your goal is to enter a contest, create a picture of a blue ribbon or a statue with your title on it. If your goal is to send a completed manuscript to your editor, create a picture of a book cover with your name and title on it. Once the picture is complete, make a number of copies. One goes on the refrigerator, another one on the phone, still another on the TV remote. The purpose is to remind you that your goal is your highest priority and that snacking, calling a friend or watching a must-see TV show are keeping you from meeting that goal.

 3. Divide and conquer. By that I mean, divide your project into small, manageable tasks, ideally ones that require no longer than a day or two to complete. By doing that, you’ll be able to determine whether or not you’re on schedule. Like the picture, it’s important to have more than a mental plan. You need a written schedule, showing when each chapter (or scene, if you break it down to that level) must be finished. The critical point here is to know whether or not you’re on schedule, and if you’re not, to take corrective action immediately. That leads to the last point.

 4. Just say ‘no.’  If you’re going to meet your due date, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll need to make some sacrifices. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: writing needs to be your highest priority. That means that email, Facebook and all the other things that take time away from writing need to be put in second place. And, if your schedule has slipped, that afternoon at the mall may need to be postponed until you’ve met your due date.

There’s no doubt about it. Meeting due dates is hard work. It requires determination and discipline. But you can do it. I know you can, because you’re a writer, and that’s what writers do.