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!