Video Blog: Layering Facts into Your Historical Fiction

DNRS2014

photo by Kevin S. Moul

Recently, I sat down with the folks at ASU’s Piper Center for Creative Writing to talk about writing and revising, and the challenges and joys of writing historical fiction. Here is part 2 in a 4-part series from that interview.

Question 2: What challenges are particular to writing historical fiction? What inspires you about these challenges?

 

Part 1   ~   Part 2   ~   Part 3   ~    Part 4

 

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Video Blog: Writing the Tough Scenes

Recently, I sat down with the folks at ASU’s Piper Center for Creative Writing to talk about writing and revising, and the challenges and joys of writing historical fiction.

Here is part 1 in a 4-part series from that interview.

Question 1: In terms of technique, what is your most difficult writing challenge and what do you do to overcome it?

 

 

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Part 1   ~   Part 2   ~   Part 3   ~    Part 4

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On Generosity, Gratitude and the Writing Community


Writers often lament how much competition there is in this business. They want to become published, yet they fear doing so will be like diving into a shark tank of rivals. They’re looking at it all wrong. Being a writer is more like being adopted into a loving family that will champion and support you, always.

I recently embarked on a small fundraising effort for my church’s youth group. Each year they host a dinner to raise money for their summer mission trip, and items are solicited for an auction. As an author and someone who loves to read, I thought it would be cool to assemble a basket of signed books to auction off.

After church one Sunday, I went to my computer, composed a brief email and compiled a list of authors to approach with my request. A few were authors I had met at writers conferences or who I knew personally. Some were people I had “met” only through social media. Quite a few were big-name authors who didn’t know me from any other chump asking them for a freebie. I explained that I was reaching out to fellow authors for donations. I described the enthusiasm and generosity of our church youth, where they were going this summer, where and how they had served their community in the past. And I asked for one signed book.

You should know, before I continue, that authors are often asked for free books. Quite often, actually. We’d love to say yes to everyone, but it just isn’t possible. We receive a limited number of copies from our publishers, and after that we have to buy our own books just like everyone else does. Heck, even our shipping costs can really add up.

So, I wasn’t expecting a huge response. I thought that if I emailed about 35 authors, I might be able to collect 10 or 12 books to fill a nice basket. I thought wrong.

IMG_5676The response was overwhelming. Twenty authors replied enthusiastically. They ran the gamut from debut novelists to New York Times best-selling and award-winning authors, including the American Book Award, Orange Prize and Pulitzer Prize. They were happy to contribute, delighted to have been asked. Several donated multiple titles. Many included personal notes of encouragement and support for our church youth and their mission to help others.

All told, 30 signed books were donated, enough for three auction baskets (children’s books, novels and nonfiction/memoirs) with an estimated retail value of more than $500. All proceeds from the auction on March 30 will go toward the Paradise Valley United Methodist Church 2014 youth mission trip to Booneville, Arkansas.

It’s difficult to express the full measure of my gratitude. I’m grateful for the book donations, of course. Yet, I’m even more grateful to be part of a community of writers who help one another, without a moment’s hesitation. This fundraiser is just one example. I have dozens more stories about ways in which fellow writers have helped me without expecting anything in return — by featuring me on their blogs, by recommending my novel to friends, by consoling me through countless queries and rejections, by sending an occasional note of encouragement, by emailing feedback on a rough draft or by offering advice for a perplexing research challenge.

Perhaps the best way to express my gratitude is by paying it forward, by championing and supporting other writers when they ask for my help, and even when they don’t ask.

Below is an alphabetical list of the authors who contributed to the PVUMC youth mission auction. Please join me in thanking them for their generosity by visiting their websites and  perhaps by sending a brief note of gratitude, buying a book or posting a review.

Jon Acuff: Start: Punch Fear in the Face (nonfiction)

Jody Hedlund: The Preacher’s Bride (inspirational historical romance) 

Beth Hoffman: Looking for Me (fiction) 

Charles Krauthammer: Things That Matter (collection of essays and writings) 

Mike Lawson: House Blood (spy thriller) 

Lee Martin: Such a Life (memoir) 

Jenn McKinlay: Read It and Weep, A Library Lover’s Mystery 

Sarah McCoy: The Baker’s Daughter (contemporary/historical fiction) 

Laura Munson: This is Not the Story You Think it Is: A season of unlikely happiness (memoir) 

Jolina Petersheim: The Outcast (a modern retelling of The Scarlet Letter

Rebecca Rasmussen: The Bird Sisters (fiction) 

Jewell Parker Rhodes: Sugar (middle grade novel) 

Erika Robuck: Call Me Zelda (historical fiction) 

Timothy Schaffert: The Swan Gondola (fiction) 

Lisa See: Dreams of Joy (historical fiction) 

Rachel Simon: The Story of Beautiful Girl (fiction), Riding the Bus with My Sister (memoir) and Building a Home with My Husband (memoir) 

Conrad Storad: 6 desert-themed picture books (including Don’t Call Me Pig, Rattlesnake Rules, and Desert Night Shift

Natalia Sylvester: Chasing the Sun (fiction, special advance copy, releases June 2014) 

Barbara Anne Waite: Elsie, Adventures of an Arizona Schoolteacher 1913-1918 (nonfiction) 

Ann Weisgarber: The Promise (historical fiction) and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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PVUMC book donations

Novels, children’s books and memoirs/nonfiction titles fill three decorative baskets for the PVUMC youth mission fundraising auction.

What Cupcakes Taught Me about Life and Literature

When I was in the fourth grade, a couple of the moms made several
visits to our class to teach us "life skills." They addressed topics
like how to make new friends, to be kind to others and so on. During one visit
they announced the final week would include a cupcake party, and we were each
to place an advance order so they would know how many to bake. Most kids
ordered chocolate. A handful of us ordered vanilla, and we were promptly
derided. That's boring, the chocolate-eaters said. Vanilla isn't even a real flavor.

CupcakeThe next week, the moms arrived bearing their tasty treats. The vanilla
cupcakes had whipped cream frosting and rainbow sprinkles. The chocolate
cupcakes were plain. And the rumblings soon began. What? No fair! How come you
got frosting? Trade with me.

No trades, we vanilla-eaters gloated. That's what you get for ordering stupid-old
chocolate. We have frosting, and you don't.

The adults let us grumble and gloat for a bit, then put an end to it. Quiet
down and eat your cupcakes, they said. So we did. And a funny thing happened.
The chocolate-eaters soon discovered a delicious surprise. The moms had baked
M&M candies into the bottoms of their cupcakes. A rich, colorful, chocolate
bonus. Huzzah! Chocolate was the best
choice after all, or so the complainers said.

That's when the moms explained their little experiment to us. Explained
how important it is to be grateful for what we receive, even when we might feel
someone else has something better. Explained that sometimes, even when life
seems most unfair, we could discover something unexpected, something wonderful,
something better than what we thought
we wanted.

Blah, blah, blah.

At the time, the message was lost on us kids. We mostly felt
manipulated, used, a bit like lab rats. Yet, their lesson seeped into my
subconscious and stayed with me. They were right, of course. It's not always
easy advice to follow, but they were 100 percent spot on.

As adults, too often, we're not a whole lot more mature than that group
of fourth graders — criticizing, teasing and judging others for their choices.
I've most recently experienced this phenomenon during discussions about books
and the differences between commercial and literary fiction. People are quick
to condemn others' reading preferences. You like literary fiction? That's so boring.
Oh, you read chick lit. Those books are trashy. Is that sci-fi? Why waste your time
reading about something that could never really happen?

Why can't we just say, Hey! You're reading a book. Cool. How is it?

With the explosion of e-books and print-on-demand publishing
technology, books have become much more accessible than they once were. There
are literally millions of books out there. Far too many for one person to ever
read. So why not celebrate the variety? Maybe that so-called boring literary
novel, if you take the time to savor it, just might have a  delicious, satisfying surprise in the end.
And perhaps the chick lit that seems to be all whipped cream and sprinkles just
might satisfy your craving for a happy ending.

Those of us who write for a living, or aspire to, would be especially
wise to heed this advice.

For one thing, reading a wide range of genres expands our minds,
introduces us to new ideas and teaches us about good writing (or, sometimes,
about not-so-good writing, but that's also a beneficial thing). A voracious
reading appetite just might lead us to discover something unexpected, something
wonderful, something better than what we thought
we wanted from a book. That makes us stronger writers.

For another thing, having respect for all kinds of readers empowers us
to break barriers and attract fans to our stories that we might not have
anticipated. My debut historical novel, for example, was marketed as women's
fiction. Yet, I've received several amazing, thoughtful reviews from male
readers who were moved by the book's multiple perspectives on slavery and
freedom, and its universal themes of self-reliance, perseverance and hope.

It's just like those bakeries that have sprung up all over the place
that serve only cupcakes. You know
the ones. Dozens of flavors and combinations. Red velvet, pumpkin, peanut
butter chocolate, lemon-ginger, you name it. It blows my fourth-grade mind.

Eat whatever cupcake you want, and read whatever book you like. Don't
judge others for their choices. And don't be afraid to sample something different
once in a while. Have a chai latte cupcake with your historical fiction, or try
a rocky road cupcake with your paranormal thriller. It's all good.

 

p.s. A shout-out and long-overdue thank you to my fourth grade teacher
at Madison Park Elementary School, Mrs. Kuzmanoff, and the moms, Mrs. Free and
Mrs. Lawson, who took the time to share their talents and insights (and
cupcakes) with us kids.

 

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Charting a Writing Career Path


little girl on the roadBlogger Karen Randau recently interviewed me about my
professional writing path and my thoughts on publishing with a small press. She
did a wonderful job of distilling our conversation into a helpful article for
aspiring authors. I invite you to visit her blog to read the article, “Get
Your Foot in the Publishing Door Through a Small Press
.”

 

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Winning the What If Game

 

Phoenix Zoo, 1973

Daddy, what if the bridge breaks and the alligators eat me? My dad, brother and me at the Phoenix Zoo alligator exhibit, 1973. (Mom stayed on solid land and snapped the picture.)

All throughout my childhood, my parents had a mantra they’d
say to me when I’d get worked up and worried about the future. “Nothing
happens until it does.” It’s ironic, because they worried about things all
the time and still do. It’s sound wisdom, though, and I make a daily effort to
embrace it. It’s especially salient for fiction writers when it comes to the
“life” portion of “the writing life.”

As writers, we love to play the “what if?” game.
We’re relaxing at the coffee shop or waiting in line at the post office or pulling
into the parking lot at the day job. Then it strikes. What if that guy who just
bought a vanilla latte is secretly in love with the barista? What if the woman
in line ahead of me is about to learn she has an incurable disease? What if the
people sitting in that parked car are plotting to overthrow the government?

It’s how good ideas and compelling fiction are born.

We writers get so practiced at playing this game, that it often
invades our writing pursuits in less-fun ways, too. What if I spend years
writing this novel and nobody reads it? What if I pour my heart into this book
and then somebody else publishes one just like it before mine is complete? What
if my writing sucks?

Sure, all those things could happen. Absolutely. Or not. Nothing happens until it does. Don’t let
the fear of failure paralyze you or even slow you down when it comes to chasing
your dreams. Just write. Write the best damn novel or short story or magazine
article or poem or (insert your dream here) that you can. Study the craft.
Enjoy the process. And see what happens when it does.

Start asking yourself more positive questions. What if I
spend years writing this novel and everybody loves it? What if I work hard on
this novel and people say it’s one of a kind? What if my writing shines?

One of my favorite quotes is from prolific
writer and New York Times bestselling
author Laurence Shames. He said, “Success and failure. We think of them as
opposites, but they’re really not. They’re companions.” He’s spot on. Every
day, I write something. Every day, I fail at it. And, every day, I improve as a
writer. I see my shortcomings. I revise my prose. I succeed.

Here’s a “what if” question for you, one you can
print off and pin on your wall. “What if I work hard on this novel and I learn
something important about writing, about myself and about life?”

What if, indeed. 

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