Monday, May 31, 2021

Words for Writers - The Critical Element


What does it take to be an author? 

If you answered, “talent, desire, a good command of the English language, an understanding of readers’ expectations,” you’d be right. All of those are important, but it’s been my observation that many who want to become published authors and who possess all those characteristics may begin to write a book but will never achieve their goal, because they’re missing the critical element.

What is that element? Grit. Are you laughing? It’s all right; go ahead and laugh, but then keep reading. 


Of Oysters and Authors

My dictionary has a number of definitions for “grit,” the most important of which for writers is “sand or gravel.” At this point, you’re probably either wondering if I’m crazy or asking yourself what sand could possibly have to do with authors. The answer lies with oysters. Like oysters, writers create pearls, but just as not all oysters produce pearls, not all would-be authors produce a book. Grit makes the difference. 

To understand why, let’s talk about pearls. They’re formed when a grain of sand enters the oyster’s shell and irritates it so much that the oyster coats the sand with layer upon layer of nacreous material, all to stop the irritation. Eventually that coated piece of grit becomes a pearl. Quite simply, without irritation, there would be no pearl. 


The Importance of Irritation

I propose that without irritation, most books won’t be written. Inspiration is important, but it’s irritation that keeps authors writing until they reach “The End.” Just as an oyster forms a pearl not because it wants to but because it has to, irritated authors have to write.

So, what constitutes irritation for a writer? It varies by the individual, but in each case, what’s important is that that irritation is strong enough that the author feels compelled to write, because that’s the only way to ease the irritation.

For me, irritation has included:

* Characters whose story must be told. A minor character from a book I’d just finished woke me in the middle of the night, announcing that he needed a bride. I agreed, but oh, did I make him struggle to win his bride. That was the price he paid for disturbing my sleep.

* An unforgettable location. This is a corollary to the first form of irritation. Several months after moving to Wyoming, my husband and I visited Fort Laramie, and I was so fascinated with it and the fact that it bore very little resemblance to my idea of a western fort that I couldn’t forget it. That trip became the impetus for my Westward Winds trilogy. I simply had to tell the stories that started whirling through my brain that day.

* Personal goals. For almost as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. At first my goals were nebulous, but as a teenager I set a goal of selling a novel before my thirtieth birthday. That seemed so far in the future that I only wrote sporadically, but a month before I turned twenty-nine, I realized that if I was going to meet that goal, I’d better get serious about writing. That was the irritation I needed. And, yes, I did sell my first novel a week before my thirtieth birthday.


I urge you to look deep inside yourself and see what irritates you. If it’s strong enough, it’ll sustain you through the inevitable difficult times between the first line of your book and “The End.” That’s the power of grit.


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - May 26, 2021

 

Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne WY
Rounding out our second month of museum visits is one very close to home for me, the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne.

In addition to permanent exhibits, the State Museum has periodic special exhibits, including this one from several years ago which featured Shakespeare's First Folio.

With something for just about everyone, the State Museum should be on your "must see" list when you come to Cheyenne.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Words for Writers - The Art of Great Beginnings

 “It was a dark and stormy night.” “Once upon a time …”  Those are two classic ways to begin a book. While they’ve become clich├ęs, they are effective beginnings. Why? Because they set the scene

The first one tells us we’re not reading a romantic comedy. Instead, there’s likely to be at least something sinister about this story. The second one makes it clear that the tale will take place at some time in the past. It also has a leisurely feel to it, signaling readers who are seeking fast-paced contemporary stories that this isn’t the one for them. All this in just one line. That’s part of the art of a great beginning.


But there’s more. Not only should the first page tell readers what to expect from the rest of the book in terms of tone and timeframe, it should also intrigue readers enough that they simply cannot put the book down. 

How do authors do that? By asking more questions than we answer. I don’t mean that we necessarily begin with a literal question, although a line like, “Why couldn’t you at least have tried to hide Wayne’s body?” would probably intrigue readers enough that they’d continue.


Rather than use actual questions, I try to begin my books with sentences that will pique readers’ interest and cause them to ask themselves questions like, “Why did she say that? What does that mean? What’s going to happen next?” That’s why I began A Tender Hope this way:


She was free.

 Thea Michener smiled as she checked the harness, then climbed into the buggy. Within minutes, she would be leaving the only home she could remember. As much as she loved Ladreville, whose half-timbered buildings and Old-World charm made visitors declare it to be one of the prettiest towns in the Hill Country, it was time for a change.

While others might have trembled with fear over the thought of leaving family, friends, and all things familiar, the prospect filled Thea with relief. A new town, new possibilities, a new life beckoned her. A year ago she would not have dreamt of leaving, but that was a year ago. So much had changed in the past year, most of all Thea.


Here’s what I hoped to accomplish in each of the three paragraphs.  The first paragraph, which is only three words long, is designed to make readers ask, “Free from what?” 

The second names the heroine and sets the time and place. The references to the harness and buggy signal that this is an historical, while “the Hill Country” tells readers that the book is set in one of the most beautiful parts of Texas. 

The third paragraph gives us a few clues to our heroine and the story itself. She’s clearly leaving home, and her reaction to that isn’t necessarily commonplace.  Instead of being apprehensive, she’s excited. Why? I don’t tell readers that yet, because I want them to keep turning the pages, asking why Thea wants to leave and what changed her so much that she wanted to leave.


Did I succeed in creating an opening that raised more questions than it answered and that intrigued readers? You tell me.

 


Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - May 19, 2021

 

Fossil Country Frontier Museum Kemmerer WY
Where can you find high-button shoe equipment and a two-headed calf as well as exhibits about coal mining? The Fossil Country Frontier Museum in Kemmerer, WY.

And, if you're in the area, you won't want to miss the J.C. Penney homestead and mother store as well as Fossil Butte National Monument.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Words for Writers - A Conference Quiz

 As the weather improves and travel is less challenging, it seems as if conferences are springing up as quickly as the dandelions in my yard. Should you attend one? Probably, but before you invest your time and money, why not spend a few minutes with my simple five-part quiz? The questions – and their answers – may give you a different perspective.


Let’s get started. The statements are designed for a “true” or “false” response.


1. The primary reason to attend a conference is to meet agents and editors. False. While an agent or editor appointment can be extremely valuable, in part because it might shorten the query process, your primary reason for attending a conference ought to be to learn more about the craft, marketing, or simply the state of the publishing industry. This is a learning opportunity. 


2. To get your money’s worth from a conference, you should attend every possible workshop. Since I told you that the reason for attending a conference is to learn, you might think that the answer to this is “true.”  Not so. While I urge you to attend many workshops at each conference, you also need to consider the very real possibility of brain overload. 

Take time to relax and absorb what you’ve learned. Sometimes this means retreating to your room. Other times, a few minutes chatting with other attendees might be enough. Be careful not to overdo. The last thing you want is to return home exhausted, with all the workshops starting to blur in your mind.


3. The larger the conference, the better. If you were expecting me to say either “true” or “false,” I’m going to disappoint you. This is a “maybe.”  While it’s true that larger conferences typically offer more tracks and, therefore, more workshops from which to choose the perfect ones for you, if the thought of plenary sessions with thousands of other attendees makes you cringe, you’d be better served by attending a smaller conference. Consider your comfort levels before you make any decisions.


4. It’s not easy being a newbie at a conference. Definitely true. Many conference organizers make a special effort to identify first time attendees and ask their members to include them in conversations, at meals, etc. But the reality is that most writers are introverts, which means that facing hundreds – perhaps thousands – of strangers is daunting. 

The best way to avoid this problem is to ask one of your writing friends to attend with you. Sometimes, though, that’s not possible. What to do then? Look around. You’re likely to see others who are sitting or standing alone. Why not approach them? One time when I did that, it became the start of a friendship that’s spanned decades. 


5. Every workshop you attend will be valuable. Oh, if only that were true!  I’ve attended a number of workshops where the blurb sounded fabulous, the speaker had outstanding credentials, and I found myself nodding off from boredom. My first reaction was anger, as in “What a waste of time and money,” but then I realized that the problem was mine. I’d set unrealistic expectations. Not every workshop will be perfect for you, just as not every conference is the right one for you. 


What should you expect from a conference? My new criterion for judging whether or not a conference was worthwhile is this: if I learn one thing or make one good contact, it was a success. I can’t remember a single workshop I attended at the conference where I met the woman who became my friend and critique partner. In fact, I remember returning home and telling my husband that it was at best a mediocre conference. And yet, meeting Diane made it one of the best conferences I’ve attended.


So, my friends, consider what you hope to gain from a conference, calibrate your expectations, choose carefully, and then have fun. Because, when it’s all over, what you’ll remember is whether or not you enjoyed your time at the conference.


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - May 12, 2021

 

Fort Laramie Museum
Last week I highlighted Fort Bridger. This week's featured museum is at the opposite end of the state and is part of a National Historic Site. Yes, we're at Fort Laramie.

This is one of my favorite places in Wyoming and one I highly recommend for anyone who's interested in history.

As a side note, it was a picture in this museum that inspired my Westward Winds trilogy. You never can tell where or when inspiration will strike!

Monday, May 10, 2021

Words for Writers - The Challenges of Writing Contemporary Fiction

When aspiring authors tell me they’re writing contemporaries because it’s easier, I do my best not to laugh. The reality is, a contemporary is just as difficult as an historical, although the challenges are different. Let’s talk about a few.


Challenge #1: Location – Are you planning to use a real or a fictional location? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Real locations engage readers immediately, but if you choose one, be certain you’ve got all the details right. The last thing you need is a reader telling you there’s no bakery at the corner of Fifth and Main. (While real locations in historicals face this same challenge, there are fewer people who can say with certainty whether or not that bakery existed at the time you set your book.)  

Fictional locations give you more flexibility. You decide what building is on which corner. The downside is that you have to do more work to create a fictional location. If you a choose a fictional location, I strongly recommend creating a map of it.


Challenge #2: Date – Will your story be set in a specific year or in what is sometimes called the ‘timeless present’? The advantage to using a specific timeframe is similar to that or choosing a real location – reader identification. The disadvantage is that, depending on how many details you include that are date-specific, your book may feel outdated within a couple years. 


Challenge #3: Technology – How much technology will you include? This is a corollary to the second challenge. If you’ve chosen a specific date for your story, there is no reason not to include references to all the current technology. Readers who pick up the book twenty years from now may be amused by what seems antiquated to them but was state-of-the-art in 2015, but they’ll know that they’re reading a period piece. On the other hand, if your goal is to create an evergreen story, you’d be better served by minimizing references to things that will likely be dated. The same advice applies to pop culture references.


Challenge #4: Research – Do you think contemporaries require less research than historicals? Repeat after me: all writing requires research. It’s true that research for contemporaries is different from historicals, but it’s still essential that your details are correct. If anything, readers are more critical of contemporary authors who get their facts wrong because it’s so easy to get them right. 

Do you have a scene involving a fire investigation? Interview a fire chief to make sure you’ve used the correct terminology and have properly described the procedures the investigators use. 

Is your story set in a real location you’ve never visited? Besides studying the related web sites, you might call the Chamber of Commerce to learn little known facts that will give your story added authenticity. 

Research, research, research. Yes, it takes time, but your readers will thank you.


The bottom line is simple. Writing is hard work, whether the story is set in contemporary or historical times. The key is to ensure that you’re writing the book of your heart, the one that wakes you in the middle of the night. That’s the book you’re meant to write.


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - May 5, 2021

 

Fort Bridger museum

Continuing our discussion of Wyoming's museums ... 

If you're ever in western Wyoming, I highly recommend a stop at Fort Bridger. The collection of historic buildings which includes some bright orange and black garage camp cabins, is well worth the stop. And the museum itself is filled with fascinating displays.

In case you were wondering what garage camp cabins are, they're motel units with attached garages, making the early years of travel by automobile more pleasant ... at least for the cars. While the cabins had electricity, there was no running water.



Monday, May 3, 2021

Words for Writers - Avoiding the Pitfalls of Historical Fiction: Part Two

Welcome back! I’m delighted that you’re here for the second (and last) part of the historical fiction pitfall discussion. There’s no quiz today, because I’m certain that when you read the next selection, you’ll know immediately what’s wrong. This is the more than slightly modified opening scene of Paper Roses, the first of my Texas Dreams books.

March 1856

“It’ll be all right.”  Sarah Dobbs wrapped her arms around the child, wishing with all her heart that she could believe the words she’d uttered so often. The truth was, it didn’t matter what she believed. All that mattered was keeping Thea safe. And so Sarah knelt on the hard-packed dirt of San Antonio’s main street to wipe the tears from her sister’s cheeks. The child was hot, tired and excited by the unusual sights, a combination that turned normally sweet-tempered Thea querulous. 

Thea was too young to appreciate San Antonio’s rich history. The original Spanish settlement of San Antonio de Valero, named for the Viceroy, was founded in the same year as the French began New Orleans. Located just below the Balcones Escarpment, it had the advantage of a mild, dry, healthful climate; plentiful water and an abundance of limestone for building. In 1721 Valero himself sent a force of 54 soldiers to build a strong fort, what many would call a presidio, nearby. They named the fort San Antonio de Bejar, in memory of Valero’s brother, and by 1726 more than 200 men, women and children inhabited the area. Indians, of course, were not included in that count, although by the middle of the century, each of the five missions in the San Antonio region had more than 200 Indians.

The dominant tribes in Texas were the Apaches and the Comanches. The Spaniards were never able to conquer the first, and the second gave them the greatest defeat they ever suffered at the hands of natives in the New World. But all that had occurred over a hundred years ago. Now the city was part of the great state of Texas, the state that would soon be her home and Thea’s.

Are you yawning? Or did you decide that this was what a friend calls a wallbanger, a book that’s so bad that you hurl it against the wall rather than read it? I’ll admit that I’ve exaggerated the problem, but I’ve judged enough contests to know that including too much history is a common problem. 

It’s easy to understand why it happens. We do extensive research and we find so many fascinating details that we want to share them with readers. Unfortunately, heavy-handed infusion of history has the effect of boring readers, including those critical first readers: agents and editors.

      

So, how do you know what details to include and when? There are undoubtedly other ways to make that decision, but I suggest following three rules.

1. Remember that less is more. When you include historical facts, select the ones that are most critical. In many cases, these will be little-known facts that you’ve chosen to weave into your plot. If one of Sarah’s ancestors was one of the 54 soldiers who’d built the original fort, that would be the fact that I would have included, but rather than simply inserting the fact, I would have followed rule #2.

2. Ensure that each piece of history affects the character in some way. One of the problems with the passage above is that the paragraphs of historical facts have no tie to either Sarah or Thea. Consider the difference if I’d said, “Thea was too young to appreciate San Antonio’s rich history, but Sarah couldn’t dismiss the thrill that ran up her spine at the realization that she was only yards away from the fort her great-grandfather had helped build. Mother had raised her with tales of how Great Grandpa was one of the 54 soldiers the Viceroy had sent to build the presidio.”  In this case, there was a reason to have included that particular detail, and so the reader doesn’t feel as if she’s being force-fed history. 

3. And, most importantly, remember that you’re writing a novel. Your primary goal is to entertain. Readers do not expect a history lesson. As you edit your manuscript, look at each piece of research you’ve included and ask yourself, “Will the story make sense without this?”  If the answer is “yes,” delete it.

      

There’s no doubt that there are challenges involved in writing historical fiction and pitfalls to be avoided, but from my perspective there’s nothing quite so enjoyable as being transported to a different time and place. 

If you’ve always dreamt of telling stories about times gone by, I encourage you to make that dream come true. I’m looking forward to seeing your books on the shelves!