I’m newly back from the 2019 Historical Novel Society Conference, and I promise I’ll get my recap up soon–but in case you missed the Koffee Klatch I did with the fabulous Beatriz Williams on how to craft a dual-narrative historical novel, here are the high points.
Why write a dual narrative historical novel?
- FIRST AND FOREMOST–it’s a way to make a less-marketable historical era more marketable. We all know how hard it is to pitch hist-fic that isn’t set in an era deemed trendy, and adding a second timeline set in a more popular era will help. Maybe you’ve seen eyes glaze when you say “It’s a story about an 8th century Benedictine nun in the south of France” but when you add in “combined with a French Resistance tale that links to the past with a long-hidden murder” those eyes may light back up. Think of it as luring readers and publishers into letting you tell the story you actually want to tell by wrapping it in sparkly, on-trend ribbons.
- Your book can be shelved, tagged, and categorized as more than just historical fiction. If your title can also be found under Contemporary, Women’s Fiction, Mystery, Historical Mystery, and any other tag your secondary timeline gives you, then more readers will find it.
- Variety. If you have a grim war-time drama full of rationing and marching, maybe your secondary timeline introduces a shot of glamour or a setting with some sunshine to vary the pace and give your reader a break. Variety is the spice of books as well as life.
Ok, I want to write a dual timeline historical narrative. What types are there?
- A historical timeline juxtaposed with a modern-day timeline. (Beatriz Williams’s Wicked City)
- A historical timeline juxtaposed with a second historical timeline (Beatriz Williams’s The Secret Life of Violet Grant, my The Alice Network)
- Two historical timelines told by the same narrator, generally flipping from Before and After some pivotal event whose details are slowly revealed to the reader (look no further than Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives. Two of the three story threads in my The Huntress also take this route, though told by two different narrators.)
You need a link between your timelines. What creates that link?
- Artifacts are frequently the link between timelines–mysterious photographs, antique objects, a cache of letters (although the “I found a trove of letters in a hatbox in my grandmother’s attic” has been done quite a bit, it feels to me). Examples: Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird or Jennifer Robson’s The Gown.
- Characters can provide the link, often seen as a young person in one timeline and a much older person in the other–I did this in The Alice Network. Family ties count here too, as a younger family member unravels the mystery of a mother or relative–see Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year in Havana.
- Locations can link stories through time as well as space. Stephanie Dray’s upcoming The Women of Chavaniac features multiple generations of women across several centuries who all live at the Marquis de Lafayette’s castle in France.
What are the pitfalls and problems in writing dual narrative historicals?
- Lots and lots of research. If you choose to write two historical narratives in one novel, that’s double the historical research.
- If you have two stories, it is going to be harder to keep your word count to a reasonable length.
- Balancing the stakes in both narratives. Putting two timelines together invites comparison–maybe in a story of her own, your modern-day college student struggling with an identity crisis and the death of her mother would be 100% sympathetic, but when she’s juxtaposed against your secondary heroine starving to death in the Leningrad siege, your reader may be inclined to think “You’re not starving in a war zone, kid, pull yourself together!” and shut the book in irritation. Keep your stakes high in both timelines.
How do you write your dual narratives–each separately or both together?
- You can write each timeline A-Z, then have a braiding session afterward intercutting the two. Advantages: you can keep the voice more distinct while staying firmly in one timeline, and also keep your historical details more consistent if you don’t have to continually ask yourself what era you’re (only after you realize WWII slang has crept across the timelines into your 1880 heroine’s mouth). Disadvantages: It’s easy to over-write if you do the timelines separately, and end up with way more than you need.
- You can write both timelines at once, cutting between them as the reader would in the final draft. Advantages: It’s easier to tease out the parallels between timelines when you’re going back and forth. Disadvantages: Historical detail has a tendency to drift from one timeline to the next when you aren’t firmly anchored in one time and place, see above.
- Ultimately, however, there is no One True Way. Do what feels most natural for you.
The takeaway: A dual timeline isn’t a sure-fire sale, but agents and editors are still buying them, and readers like them. So why not consider it?
I saw this pop all over Facebook, mostly in the Romance genre, and when I made my own list, it got me thinking not just about the writers I’m lucky enough to know, but what I learned from them–what we can all learn from writers as terrific as these, not just about writing but about how to get along in this weird and wacky business. So without further ado…
1 & 2: Margaret George and Diana Gabaldon, whose work I revered, both very kindly taking the time to read my debut novel and offer cover quotes that knocked my socks off. Superstars like this who reach down from their high, high pedestals to give a helping hand are more inspirational than they will ever know.
The Takeaway: You should never get so successful you can’t lend a hand to someone just getting started in the business.
3. Stephanie Dray, who has talked me off more ledges than I can count, helped brainstorm more books than I can list, given more good career advice than I can remember, and scared more waiters and soccer moms in the cafes and restaurants of Maryland (with overheard conversations about historical poisons and murder plots) than I can recall.
The Takeaway: Your friends in the business will save your sanity, so make time for them and it will come back times three.
4. Sophie Perinot, undoubtedly a Tudor queen in a past life, talented and fiery and the best, most ruthless crit partner any writer was ever lucky enough to get.
The Takeaway: Good critique partners are worth their weight in gold, so hone your own skills in that department and treasure the ones you find to whom it comes naturally.
5. C.W. Gortner, who took me under his fabulous Prada-sleeved wing as a wide-eyed newbie at my very first Historical Novel Society conference, and showed me the fun and scandalous side of this business.
The Takeaway: Whenever you’re at a conference, festival, or event, find a newbie hanging shyly on the outskirts and yank them into the middle of the fun.
6. Empress Christi Barth, who not only writes hilarious romance but runs the universe, and kindly takes time to help her friends run their universes when they are floundering.
The Takeaway: Organizational genius CAN go hand in hand with creative chaos.
7. Eliza Knight, who can always be relied upon to bring wine and to achieve daily wordcounts of which I can only dream.
The Takeaway: Learn wordcount tricks from authors who write in other genres, because good advice crosses genre. Also, wine is a life-saver.
8. Laura Kaye, who can diagram scandalous things on cocktail napkins and then dissect Hamiltonian finance reform, while also mapping a complete book launch marketing plan, without turning a hair.
The Takeaway: It is possible to write both serious and weighty historical themes and steamy sex scenes, and to feel entirely justified in upturning a certain finger at those who would find those talents incompatible, inexplicable, or unworthy.
9. Lea Nolan, for demonstrating that even the nicest most people-pleasing writer needs a hard-edged “I will cut you” New Yorker somewhere inside who can come out and say F*** You to the crazy.
The Takeaway: As much as you want to say yes to everything, help out every enthusiastic reader and fellow writer who asks, take on every new challenge and opportunity, you can’t do it all or you will go nuts. Take care of yourself by learning to say “No.”
10. M.D. Waters, whose can mix sci-fi and romance and action-adventure and mystery with a versatility that awes me.
The Takeaway: Sure, branding is important, but you can enrich your stories immeasurably by learning from other genres and mixing their elements.
11. Simon Turney, who is not only a talented scrivener and a helluva nice guy to hit a pub with, but who emailed me some lovely words of praise at a moment I was seriously second-guessing my decision to write something way out of my comfort zone. I still have that email, for when I need a jolt of confidence.
The Takeaway: Take the time to write a nice encouraging email to a colleague. You never know when it might reach them on a day they’re tearing their hair out and contemplating a career move to fry cook or court reporter or anything, anything but putting words on paper.
12. Donna Russo, who can dial any writer conference to a 12 and who keeps writing tales of the Italian Renaissance which I so love.
The Takeaway: Historical fiction does not automatically mean stodgy. It can also mean stilettos and prosecco and the kind of wild, fabulous imagination that plots headlong chases through historical alleyways and makes this genre fun rather than plodding.
13. Kate Forsyth, a story-teller to hold an entire room spellbound like a faerie queen weaving enchantments.
The Takeaway: Telling stories is the oldest art in the world, and when you strip away the externals like Kindle format and dust-jackets and cover copy and deckle edges, it still comes back to a hushed voice that makes people lean in to breathe “What happened next?” It really is magic.
14 & 15: Jennifer Robson and Janie Chang, the best book-tour travel-mates in the world, keeping their cool and their senses of humor even when the travel gods are slinging car trouble, plane trouble, and bears* in our path to keep us from our book signings.
The Takeaway: It’s good to cultivate wry humor and Zen patience because you never know when this business will start slinging bears at you.
*yes. Actual bears.*
What invaluable lesson have you learned from a writing colleague?
There’s a bit in “The Avengers” where Cobie Smulders/Agent Maria Hill asks Robert Downey Jr./Tony Stark “When did you become an expert in thermonuclear dynamics?” and he deadpans, “Last night.” That’s pretty much what it’s like to be a historical novelist: the sinking realization that you need to become an expert in some new historical period, epoch, or event—and this needs to happen immediately, or your next book/next chapter/next paragraph will never happen, either.
As I set about researching The Alice Network (diving into a new historical era means major, major, MAJOR research mode) I realized that there are four distinct research phases involved in writing a historical novel. Each has its own delights and hazards…
The Dog-Paddle comes first. You have a new book idea, probably something rather vague and unformed, and you’re reading everything you can get your hands on about Murano glass-blowers or the reign of Frederick the Great or Finnish lake mythology. This is the stage where you grossly over-use the One Click Buy feature on Amazon as you load up on used research texts to dog-ear and underline; you also make dire use of the “Customers who bought X also bought Y” feature. Your plot hasn’t firmed up yet, so right now everything is grist for the imagination, and blinding flashes of inspiration come from random footnotes. You have no idea what will be useful, so you read it all, dog-paddling in leisurely fashion through an ocean of sometimes only barely connected reading material, daisy chaining from a book about Polish airmen in World War II to the bombing of London to the building of St. Paul cathedral, and realizing that with a single brilliant plot twist you can tie it all together in one smash-hit novel. This is the fun stage.
Stage two is The Deep Dive. You have your book idea; the era and plot are chosen. Now you need to narrow your focus; understand EVERYTHING about the historical period and events you will be covering. This is where you read every account you can find on the Battle of Crecy or the early life of Machiavelli. You want the picture in your mind as complete as possible before you start playing on that historical stage. It’s easy to get lost in the research here, because no historical picture will ever be complete. There’s always more to know. At some point you have to stop researching and start writing.
Stage three is The Fast Patch. This is when you’re in the throes of writing, and hit a road-block. You cannot go any further in this chapter until you have accurately figured out the mechanical innards of a Pe-5, or figured out what boat will get your hero out of Dunkirk alive. So you repair to the books, the web, and the library for a quick research fix. You don’t need to dive deep here, find out every conflicting opinion out there on the building of a Pe-5 or every single kind of boat used at Dunkirk. You just need a fast, reliable bit of historical information that will bridge the gap to firmer, more well researched ground.
Stage four, and most dreaded of all, is The Rabbit Hole. This generally comes in the editing phase, the stage where you are tearing your manuscript apart in a haze of caffeine-fueled paranoia, fact-checking everything just to be sure you are catching every single historical error that could possibly have sneaked in there. This is when you stay up till 3am trying to figure out exactly when buttons replaced ties on women’s dresses. This is when you obsess over whether there were black bears or brown bears in Imperial Rome-governed Dacia. This is when you calculate centuries-old lunar cycles in an effort to see if your heroine really could have been looking at a full moon that night. This is the stage where you vow to take up a career as a clam-digger or a burger-flipper—anything but a historical novelist.
Until the book is off to your editor, and you start thinking about the next book, and a wonderful vague idea hits. Something about Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and the Grail myth . . . and then there you are, one-click buying on Amazon for all you’re worth, happily anticipating when your new research books will arrive, and thinking that you have the best job on earth.
Every day, rain or shine, I throw on a pair of sneakers, leash up the dogs, and go for at least an hour-long ramble in the local park. Even when I’m on deadline and scrambling to give my WIP every possible minute, I carve that hour out. Why? Because it’s the best writing aid in the world, bar none.
Victorians were very fond of long pointless rambles, generally up to some scenic location which could then be penned in endless flowery journal entries, but in the modern era, nobody seems to walk anymore. We don’t walk to the grocery store or the post office; we don’t have time. We don’t let our kids walk to school; too dangerous. We don’t walk for exercise; we drive to the gym and get on a treadmill so we can walk to nowhere and know exactly how many calories we burned doing it. But I’m a big believer in walking as an aid to writers, and here are six reasons why.
1. It gets us outside. When you have the ultimate indoor job, a ramble outdoors means you’re soaking up some much-needed sunshine on what is probably a pasty-white face. Sun may be bad for you, but there’s a reason most early cultures revolve around sun worship: sunlight makes people feel good. Slap on some sunscreen, but get outside; you’ll feel better.
2. It makes us unplug. Even if we take our phones, you’re still getting away from the hypnotic glare of the laptop screen. We all need to do this more often.
3. It’s exercise. Writing is sedentary. Tire your legs out before you sit down for six hours of editing, and you’ll be a lot less foot-jittery. Also slimmer.
4. It will untangle your plot problems for you. Seriously. If you’ve been banging your head repeatedly against the latest brick wall your ms has thrown up in your way, go for a walk. While walking your mind falls into an absent-minded kind of meditation. “Oooh, sunshine . . . Rats, I forgot to put on sunscreen . . . Pretty trees . . . I wonder if “Crimson Peak” is out on DVD yet . . . What should I have for dinner . . . Oh! I know exactly how my heroine gets out of that locked trunk now!” Plotting problems have a habit of unspooling when you let your mind wander in random directions rather than trying to focus hard-core—it’s like one of those trick pictures where you see it clearly only by looking slightly to one side. Not to say we can’t let our minds wander at home, but most of us have to-do lists that start distracting, emails that start pinging, chores silently begging to be done. Go for a long stroll, however, and your mind has no choice but to wander.
5. It’s the best way to talk your way through a new idea. Take a friend on your walk and yatter through your writing problems. Bouncing ideas off a like mind is a fast way to get inspiration for a new project, plan a new book, or unravel that character dilemma you don’t know how to handle. And something about walking-and-talking makes the ideas flow twice as fast; no idea why. I take the phone and call the Dowager Librarian every morning as I ramble; by the time we hang up, whatever plot dilemma facing my daily word-count is solved.
6. It makes the dogs leave you alone. Just try hitting your word-count when you have two pooches staring at you soulfully, informing you that you are a monster on a level with Mussolini for not getting up right now and taking them out to chase squirrels. Once back from the walk, they’ll go to sleep and leave you in peace. Besides, watching dogs chase squirrels is the cutest mood-lifter on earth if you’re a little down after killing 650,000 fictional characters in a mass historical slaughter.
So, grab a pair of sneakers and go for a walk. I guarantee your word-count will thank you.
1. You can name every book they’ve ever written, describe their fictional heroes and heroines down to eye color and childhood traumas, and know their writing schedule as well as your own—but aren’t 100% sure how many children they have. (Laura Kaye—it’s two, right? We’ve only known each other 4 years . . .)
2. You’ve beta-read so many of each other’s rough drafts that your margin notes look like Sanskrit and you have long lost the need to be polite. (Stephanie Thornton’s “The Conqueror’s Wife,” page 337 of the rough draft: “Seriously, another severed head? Does nobody in this book ever bring anything else to a party? Have they never heard of house-plants?!”)
3. Your lunch dates scare the civilians. Because the waiter invariably walks up as one of you is saying brightly “I killed a baby today!” and collecting high-fives and exclamations of “Omigod, so happy for you!” from around the table. Waiter invariably sprints off white-faced before he hears the accompanying “So, this was in Chapter 9 . . .” (Sophie Perinot and I have probably been banned from most of the restaurants in the greater DC metro area.)
4. You’re more accustomed to seeing them in some kind of costume or historical rig than out of it. Especially true of the hist-fic pals. If I ever met Ben Kane, Russell Whitfield, or SJA Turney at a conference where they were in normal clothes rather than Roman breastplates and mail, I’d walk right past ’em.
5. You get the emergency call to show up with ice cream and wine for some serious weeping and wailing. But the drama is all over deadlines, not love-lives. (Eliza Knight and I killed a bottle or two as we cried over our collaborative stories in “A Year of Ravens,” and the impossibility that we would ever get them finished in time.)
6. You’ve had in-depth discussions about everything under the sun, and you each know what the other thinks about life and death, love and work, politics and art, history and pychology. But three years into the friendship you’re turning around in amazement and saying “I had no idea you had a sister!”
7. You know each other’s writing so well, you can eyeball a crutch phrase from a mile away and hone in on that sucker like a sniper. (Stephanie Dray knows I will carp like a fishwife the moment I see the word “tresses.” Christi Barth beats me over the head about not using enough commas.)
8. Your spouses commiserate over deadline stress. My husband and Lea Nolan’s had old home week at the last dinner party. “Yeah, so my wife’s curled in the corner gnashing her teeth this week.” “Why, she copyediting?” “Yep, for two more weeks.” “Yeah, that’s rough at our house too . . .”
9. They’re some of your best friends on earth—and you’ve met face to face twice. C.W. Gortner and Donna Russo Morin and I only see each other at conferences roughly every other year, but we always fall on each other with cries of joy and proceed to gab more or less nonstop for three days.
10. You have standing dates, not for book clubs or lady lunches or anniversaries, but for book-release days. Writer friends can be counted on to keep you away from the Refresh button on your Amazon Sales Rankings. They WILL use handcuffs if necessary.
Thank God for writer pals. There’s no one quite like ’em and without ’em you’d be in the funny farm.
1. Page 2: Hey, this book isn’t so bad.
2. Page 81: That’s the fourth misspelled word . . . and those are just the ones I caught. Wait, how many am I missing?!
3. Start over.
4. Send panicked email to writing buddy begging for one more reread of that problematic eighth chapter.
5. This book is terrible.
6. Realize you said the Roman eagle standard was silver, when Imperial-era eagles were gold. Make change, exhale, then grow cold. That was just the historical error you caught. HOW MANY AM I MISSING?!
7. Incorporate Chapter 8 changes from writing buddy, who read your pages at 11:30 at night on what was supposed to be a dinner break in the middle of their own deadline crisis. Hit the Vatican website and start petition to have writing buddy canonized.
8. Spend four hours untangling the timeline inconsistencies pointed out by your copyeditor, then realize it’s all because you miscalculated your hero’s age, i.e. you can’t count.
9. Get the shivers when your primary source says the Chapter 19 lightning strike happened fifteen years earlier than you placed it in your story. Ransack research materials wildly looking for that vindicating second source, which is missing. Finally found under sleeping, resentful dog who has not been walked in days.
10. Compose email offering your editor your first born child and a kidney if you can have another week to finish this. Delete email, go back to work.
11. Deadline Day. Writing buddy comes to your house, handcuffs you to the sink, and presses Send for you.
12. Thank writing buddy. Set a date next week to do the same for her when she needs to press Send.
13. Start drinking.
There are a billion blog posts out there about how to write a book, how to market a book, how to sell a book. How to up your word-count; how to make your characters pop; how to hook an agent. There’s not so much about how to be happy as a writer. How to live your life, write books, and stay sane.
I certainly don’t have everything figured out along those lines, but I’ve written six books in six years, and I’m not in the nut-house yet. (Barely. Last book came close.) For what it’s worth, here are a few things I’ve figured out, through trial and error, about keeping a word-count and keeping balanced. Because it ain’t easy.
1. Figure out how you write best.
Forget the people who say you’ll never succeed if you can’t crank out at least 4,000 words a day. Forget the people who say longhand is the only way to go. Forget the people who say writing out of sequence is the key to keeping it fresh. How do you work best? Can you churn out a book in a few minutes here and a few minutes there throughout your day, or do you need a solid block of time? Do you write best with notepad or laptop, at the crack of dawn or the dead of night? Can you manage 2,000 words a day, or does the word-count thing stress you out and you’d rather measure your progress in scenes completed? Figure out what works for you. I’ve found that I work best in the afternoons, need at least five hours, and can produce about 2,000-3,000 words on an average day–but everybody’s different. My system probably won’t work for you, and yours wouldn’t work for me.
2. Now that you know how you write best, arrange your life to make it happen.
Not easy, I know. Especially when you’ve got the demands of kids, family, and day job. I need uninterrupted time to work, and in the days when I had a full college class-load and three jobs, all I could do was carve out my weekend afternoons for writing. I have a friend who writes around three kids, and she’ll whip out her laptop while waiting in the carpool line or the pediatrician’s office. Whatever you need, make it happen.
3. Realize that something’s gotta go.
I always thought that once I was writing full-time, I’d have time for everything: research, writing, housework, two-hour stints at the gym, and cooking gourmet dinners every night. Nope. No matter whether you’re writing around a day job or not, there is never enough time. To carve out that space in your day to write, you will have to give something up. Maybe it’s your Dr. Who marathons that go bye-bye. Maybe it’s that extra hour of sleep in the morning. Or maybe you didn’t see your daughter score the winning goal because your spouse took her to her soccer game so you could stay home and work. But something’s going to the wayside. I have very little social life and the only show I watch on TV is Game of Thrones. So be it.
4. That being said, make time to get outside.
Let’s face it, writers are pretty much glued to their computer screens. We have to make ourselves unplug, and getting outside is a good way to do it, even if it’s just a five minute stroll around the block with the dog. Besides, I’ve found that a brisk walk away from my Facebook updates and stack of emails is just about the best way to think through a knotty plot problem.
5. Hit the gym.
I know this is starting to sound like one of those health-and-wellness posts, but hear me out: working up a sweat can really help your writing. Writers over-think everything; the book is never “off” in your head–but that isn’t always a good thing. Try taking an hour away from that chapter that’s driving you crazy and focus on your sprint time or your downward dog–your brain just might present you with the bingo solution as you’re sluicing off your gym sweat in the shower. It’s like seeing something clearly only when you look slightly away from it. So if you’re stuck, try working out–my friend C.W. Gortner swears by yoga, my friend Stephanie Thornton trains for half-marathons, I like to hit a punching bag. Whatever works for you.
6. Try to physically separate writing from your ordinary life.
Maybe your brain is never entirely “off” when it comes to the work-in-progress, but you’ll find it a lot easier to relax after your daily stint if you have an office or working sanctum to physically exit when finished. Ideally, of course, this would be a wood-paneled private library a la Downton Abbey complete with fireplace, desk the size of an air-strip, and Carson The Butler bringing you fresh coffee whenever you ring the bell. In real life, we make do with what we’ve got: a spare bedroom made over into an office; a corner of the living room with a makeshift folding desk; a laptop designated as work-only. Don’t have even that much space? I’ve got friends who made the local Panera their office. Anything that separates writing from life, so you can close the door on it when you’re done. If nothing else, it’s a helpful cue for family members: the kids will learn very quickly that Mom is not on call to wash soccer uniforms or make Kool-Aid freezer-pops until she is back from Panera or has exited the spare bedroom and shut the door behind her.
7. “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Flaubert said that, and good old Gustave was right. I know the pervasive stereotype of a writer’s life is hard partying alternating with all-night writing binges . . . but you’ll be more productive with a steady routine, whatever that routine is. (If blowing off steam at a party relaxes you, then make that part of your routine.) When I was working a 9-5 day job, my routine was “Day job Monday through Friday, write all day Saturday, write all day Sunday. Rinse-and-repeat.” These days it’s “Get up, walk the dog, go to the gym, shower, eat lunch standing up in front of the fridge, go to spare bedroom-turned-office and write for the next six hours. Rinse-and-repeat.” It’s mindless. It’s repetitive. It’s certainly not glamorous. But it’s soothing. Soothing is good for your word-count.
8. Speaking of stereotypes, don’t be the substance-abusing writer.
I know; plenty of geniuses like Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote masterpieces around drug-and-alcohol problems. Still don’t recommend it. Most writers probably have a bit of a self-destructive bent built in–after all, our job is not just to nourish the voices in our heads, but talk back to them. Still, it’s probably wiser to soothe the crazy with routine rather than vices. Stephen King is the most successful author in the history of the published word, and what does he attribute his success to? “Staying sober, and staying married.”
9. Speaking of married: toxic relationships are toxic for your word-count.
It’s tough living with a writer–my husband could tell you all about the midnight scrambles to write an idea down before it fades into sleep; the wild-eyed work binges at deadline time; the fact that some part of my brain is always, always on the work-in-progress. But we’re happy, and happiness = productivity. Nobody should settle for less. If your significant other condescends about your cute little hobby, tells you to get a real job, or just plain resents having to do more of the dishes when you’re on deadline, kick ’em to the curb and watch your word-count rise in your new-found solitude.
10. Make friends with other writers.
Even the most loving spouse won’t know deadline agony quite as intimately as a fellow writer. Friends like this will literally save your sanity, not just by reading your entire 500 page manuscript in 3 days over Christmas week when you really need feedback fast, but by understanding where you’re at. When my last book had me on the verge of a nervous breakdown, my husband brought me flowers, made me dinner . . . and arranged for my nearest writer friend to take me out to coffee and talk me off the ledge. It worked. Whether these people live in your hometown or are a Facebook PM away, know who you can reach out to.
This list is by no means complete–it’s just a few things that help me stay the course so far, and I know I’ll keep learning as long as I keep writing. Because there’s no end in sight. This profession is a race with no finish line. Once you hit one goal (You got an agent! You got published!) it’s instantly replaced by another one. You’re always learning, always working, and there’s no magical point at which it becomes easy. Diana Gabaldon with her millions of readers, multi-city book tours, myriad bestseller lists, and Starz mini-series still had to get up at 4:30 in the morning to finish her galley edits, according to her Facebook update. Margaret George still stresses about getting her historical research accurate. Nobody gets a pass on the ups and downs of this life, no matter how successful. I have days when I cry into my coffee and contemplate a career in burger flipping, and I guarantee you, so does Hilary Mantel or Philippa Gregory or Bernard Cornwell. Just remember to keep an even keel. Keep sane. Keep writing.
What tips help you do that? I’m all ears.
Beta readers: to use, or not to use? I’m a fan, and I’ve found that it’s good to have different beta-readers who you look to for different things. Such as:
1. The Expert. This reader might change from book to book, depending on what you need fact-checked, because this reader doesn’t care about your characters or your pacing, but is reading simply to fact-check you. I had some Roman Army re-enactor types who were good for this. “Make your hero older, it was against Roman regs for a legionary to make centurion before 30.”
2. The Nit-Picker. The person who can be counted on to catch eeeeeeverything little minor mistake. “He can’t wave from the doorway because you already said she saw him *come in.*” I have a goddess named Christi who did this for my last two books.
3. The Language Reader. The reader who hears language like music and will instinctively “hear” where your prose is clunky, where your pacing on a scene is lagging, and hand you the list of verbs you are over-using. For me this is the Dowager Librarian: “Run a word check on `shrug,’ `wink,’ `saunter,’ `shriek,’ and `whisper,’ and cut at least 50% of them.” Yes, Mom.
4. The Big Picture Person. The one with the big-picture eye for story and character development, who can tell you where your story is slowing down or where it needs to be paced up, and who can tell you that your heroine’s turnaround needs to be better set up. Also the Dowager Librarian, for me, as well as Stephanie Dray. (And yes, if you are lucky you will get a Two For One or even Three For One special with some of these beta readers.)
5. The Ideal Demographic. The reader who might not give you much in the way of concrete feedback, but who represents the exact demographic you are trying to hit. For me that’s dear friend Kristen: a voracious bookworm with a solid grounding in history and an enthusiasm for my genre. If she raves about a book of mine, I knowI’ve hit the target. If she’s “It didn’t quite resonate like your last one” I know I’ve got work to do.
6. And finally, The Dark Side. The reader who pushes you to think about going further, whether with your characters or your plot. You’re thinking of writing about an arsonist? This reader suggests a murderer. You want your hero to get beaten up? This reader wants your hero lose a hand. You want your heroine to cheat on her fiance with his friend? This person will suggest she cheat in a threesome with TWO of his friends. Sure, maybe you won’t end up taking the advice. But you’ll consider going further than you ever did before, and it will lead you interesting places. For me, that’s the hubby.
Do you use beta readers?
“Write what you know” is probably some of the worst advice for writers ever. Even authors of modern-day fiction have their problems with that old chestnut. Tom Clancy may have set all his books in the same 20th century America in which he lived, but he didn’t write about writers, he wrote about spec-war operatives, even if he’d never been one. And historical novelists do a special kind of hair-tearing when we hear “Write what you know” because we really don’t know what we write about. No amount of research will make me know what it’s like to watch prisoners die in the Colosseum, and Margaret George will never know what it’s like to be Helen of Troy either, and that didn’t stop either of us from writing about it anyway.
I sometimes like to think “Write WHO you know” instead. As long as I can remember, I’ve indulged in an idle game called “When Should They Have Been Born?” Any serious fan of historical fiction harbors the conviction from time to time that we were really born in the wrong century. So whenever I was bored to tears in class, or weekly meetings, or family gatherings (which was most of the time), I’d go around the room deciding what century everybody really belonged in, according to their personality. And boy, did the book ideas start flowing.
My acerbic librarian mother who prefers dogs, books, and herbs to the company of people? A Benedictine nun in medieval England, brewing up herbal tinctures and illuminating manuscripts and breaking her vow of silence to coo at the dog she isn’t supposed to keep in her monastic cell. A great character for a Middle Ages novel.
My husband, a Navy sailor who’d have made a great Viking raider, swinging a sword over one shoulder and taking his longship out to the edge of the known world and never, ever getting seasick. A made-to-order hero for an epic battles-and-blood Norse tale.
My long-deceased feminist grandmother with her paisley scarves and her wry wit: a born reformer who should have been a 1912 suffragette. She’d be chaining herself to the railing of Number 10 Downing Street and going on hunger strike at Holloway Prison; a dowager in a fabulous hat and a Votes For Women banner who could have mentored Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey.
My much-tattooed kickboxing instructor has a streak of benign sadism that could definitely have belonged to a Roman centurion . . . my other grandmother is one of those Depression-era Steinbeck matriarchs in black and white who keeps her family together through disaster after disaster . . . my jazz musician father could have doubled for a handsome court musician under Empress Maria Theresa . . . how many book ideas have I gotten, just from looking around at a family gathering or a gym class?
Now, I may not end up writing all those books. I don’t really see myself writing a blood-and-battle Viking epic, largely because Bernard Cornwell with his Saxon Stories (among many others) has already covered it so well. But sometimes you do get a solid book idea out of a real person. Case in point, my husband’s grandmother: a fiery Sicilian whose cooking could make angels weep, and who would absolutely smack you on the head with a wooden spoon and threaten excommunication if you committed the crime of breaking the pasta into the pot instead of folding it. I had a eureka moment and transplanted her personality more or less intact to Renaissance Italy. My husband’s grandma ended up personal chef to the Borgia Pope in my last book–and she may be in her nineties now in the 21st century, but she’s absolutely tickled to think that in some alternate life she got to cook for a Pope, defraud a convent, and have a one-night stand with Cesare Borgia.
Don’t write what you know–write who you know. Look around you at the next boring board meeting or family gathering. What century do these people really belong in? Maybe you’ll find the hero of your next historical novel.
Before the Internet, there was a very simple unwritten contract that existed between writers and readers. That contact went simply:
“I, The Reader, will read whatever books take my fancy. I am free to disparage the books I don’t like/gush about the books I love to everyone I meet. If my love or hatred for a book exceeds all bounds, I am free to write a letter to the author, which will be sent through the post. As long as I continue to read books, I will abide by these rules. Signed, Readers Everywhere.”
“I, The Writer, will write whatever books take my fancy. I may get fan mail or I may get hate mail, but I have no way to reach my readers unless they contact me first. As long as I continue to write books, I will abide by these rules. Signed, Writers Everywhere.”
Now that the Internet has come along and redefined everything, I think we need some new rules. Or at least a new addendum to the existing contract, with separate clauses for various online institutions. I’ve never been to law school, but I am a lifelong reader and writer, so I feel fairly qualified to tackle this problem.
Readers: please use sites such as Amazon, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. to discuss books, exchange book lists, give opinions of the books you’ve read. Good grammar and spelling really are a must, however.
Writers: for God’s sake, don’t just spam about your book. Yes, writers have to market shamelessly, but if all you do on any online space is list your titles, drop a lot of links saying “Buy My Book Here,” and then swan off never to be seen again, this will bite you in the ass. If you want to talk about your book on Amazon or Goodreads or anywhere else, hang around for a while and earn your cred talking about other people’s books first.
Readers: All readers keep a blog nowadays about the books they read, love, and hate. Just don’t expect everyone to read it.
Writers: All writers keep a blog nowadays because their publisher told them to. Try not to let the blog interfere with your actual job, which is writing books.
Readers: feel free to post critical reviews on Amazon.com of the books you love/hate. But if you hate a book, simply posting “This bk sux” is not helpful to anybody. Tell why you hated the book, and do so in clear concise prose. Such reviews are far more likely to be taken seriously–the ranting ungrammatical ones, I assure you, are quickly dismissed by the author, who soothes the sting of your vitriol by reassuring themselves that you undoubtedly live in your mother’s basement festering over a drawer of unpublished manuscripts. And for those who like to post grammatical but venomous reviews–really, there is no need to be so nasty. Internet anonymity does not give you the right to behave badly. Keep your criticism honest but fair–not for the writer’s sake, but for your own. You probably think your eloquent nastiness makes you quite the Dorothy Parker, but you just come across like an envious nit.
Writers: read your negative reviews if you must, but don’t comment on them. Keep your snide remarks about the negative reviewer’s lack of taste, experience, or personal hygiene off the screen, unless you want be labeled an unprofessional hack. You published a book in a public sphere, and these people are entitled to their opinion of it. Don’t ask your friends to post good reviews to help you out–there are people out there who make it their life’s mission to “out” the fake reviews written by friends and family, and they will be vocal in their condemnation. On the other hand, it would be nice if such people would realize that writers have no control over what their family and friends say online. Don’t shun me or my work simply because a reader later identified as my best friend shot down your one-star review. Believe me, I couldn’t stop her.
Readers: The internet has made it much easier to get in touch with the authors we like. An email or PM or Tweet to a favorite author to express how much you liked their book is always much appreciated. An email or Tweet or PM to express how much you hated their book, or a request that the author please recommend your unpublished manuscript to their agent, is not quite so appreciated.
Writers: Fan emails or PMs or Tweets are like wedding presents–receiving either one means you should send a thank-you note in return. If you are Kate Middleton or J.K. Rowling and receive more wedding presents or fan emails than you can possibly answer yourself, then you are rich enough to hire a team of personal assistants to do it for you. Though do feel free to ignore emails/PMs that are rude, insulting, or overly personal–there is a limit to politeness.
Readers: You read enough by your favorite author and you start to feel like you know them. And these days authors aren’t just faces on the back of the book–they’re out there in cyberspace, doing blog interviews, posting Facebook updates on their book tour schedules, Tweeting about their plot problems. They’re everywhere, they’re accessible . . . but they are not 100% answerable to you. They don’t owe you a personal explanation why their second book took four months longer to write than expected (Jim Butcher); they don’t have to answer the questions you posted on their website asking about their religious beliefs (Bernard Cornwell); they don’t have to take the abuse you heap on them for daring to mention the football game they watched on Sunday instead of working 24 hours a day on the book you can’t wait to read (George R.R. Martin).
Writers: The web is everywhere, and anyone can get on it to look you up. You might not be accountable to your readers for every single thing they want out of you, but you are accountable for every word you write. Including that snippy Facebook post you put up at 2am, shooting back on that reader who posted a snide comment about your book. Before you can get up in the morning to re-think what you’ve said and maybe take the post down, it’s gone viral. Think before you type.
And finally–the last clause in the contract, not a word changed from the original which has been in existence ever since there were readers and writers in the first place.
“We all love books here, or we wouldn’t be in the business of writing/reading them. So let’s all try to be polite and act like adults, shall we?”
Please sign and date here: