Every once in awhile, I start thinking plain ole WordPad and boring tan Windows folders are a silly way to write novels. I can't think why this is, since that's basically all I used for Daniel's Garden ... but my inner tech-geek likes to browse the latest writing software and see what's out there. I mean, heck, if I could somehow do better than Times New Roman and WordPad, I'll try - you know?
But most writing software suffers from an eensy, teensy, little problem:
They don't organize novels in story arcs.
They're so focused on the chapter structure of the story they forget that a story has arcs made of scene sequences that flow from one chapter to the next, interweaving with the subplot(s). A novel is not like a calendar, with one square block followed by another. It is more like a person's life, with chunks of time spent as a toddler, then elementary school, then middle school, then high school, then college, then jobs, then marriage, then kids ... and so on and so forth. Our lives are made of arcs and so are novels.
If I was to design a novel-writing software, it would look like a colorful mass of bubbles that progress on an ever-moving line. This mass would take up about 80% of the screen. The other 20% would be notes for each section of the story, linked to text on the main visual diagram. So, for example, you'd see the main character "Daniel" written on the top, you'd click it and all of his information, including his entire role in the story, would pop up on the side of the screen. He'd have a coordinating colored line that would appear to show his character development throughout the story.
Now that would be the best writing software ever! It would be colorful, interactive, creative, and clearly show the top five things that are the hardest about writing a novel:
1. Gradually developing character over a long period of time
2. Characters' changing moods per scene and scene sequence
3. Adding enough subplot to give the story depth but not so much that it takes away from the main plot
4. Sticking to the hero's journey and regular mythic story structure
5. Setting a great pace - not too fast and not too slow
What do you think? How would you design the perfect writing software to solve your writing problems?
Please come visit me at my new location at Meg North.com! Thanks and see you over there.
Thursday, February 24
Every once in awhile, I start thinking plain ole WordPad and boring tan Windows folders are a silly way to write novels. I can't think why this is, since that's basically all I used for Daniel's Garden ... but my inner tech-geek likes to browse the latest writing software and see what's out there. I mean, heck, if I could somehow do better than Times New Roman and WordPad, I'll try - you know?
Wednesday, February 23
Rose: "When the ship docks, I'm getting off with you."
Jack: "This is crazy!"
Rose: "I know! That's why I trust it."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I'm listening to the Duchess soundtrack (egads, Rachel Portman is such an exquisite composer!) and something crossed my mind today that was quite odd but deliciously exciting:
The less I plan, the more creative I am
Now, this may not work for you, but for me, plans suffocate. They wrap their hands around any future spontaneous moments and squeeze the life out of them! Yes, I'm being overdramatic, but this is something I've struggled with for years. I want my life to be so orderly and continuously productive, like living on a bell curve. One step leads to the next, which builds onto the next and the next until ...
Until what? Until I become what I originally wanted in the first place, I guess. To live in my own light and make each day count in my own silly, quirky, old-soulish way.
Planning actually seems counter-intuitive, and what's more, I have so many examples of times I was truly bone-deep happy and fun-fancy free WITHOUT a single penciled-in thing in my calendar. Times I frolicked in a toga (yes, a toga!) at a historical conference with a bunch of other past-lovers, times I raised a glass and kicked up a heel at a pub, times I looked into the eyes of the sweetest little puppy and said, "yes, I'll take her," times I thought I'd like to see that movie/read that book/listen to that music and was so swept away I forgot who I was ... and just was me.
Planning can create a 'no' before 'yes' even has a chance to get here. No, I can't go to that __________ because I already said I'd do _____________. Now, this is not to say I won't attend any large event that does need planning for the future (like another conference!), but the more vast snowy white space in my dayplanner, the better I seem to do.
And whose square blocks of time am I living in, anyway? My Aquarian nose wrinkles at such blatant conformity, so I shed it and say, "I'm on my own time now, and it's elastic." It stretches to wrap around the project I'm currently working on, which right now is copying old Civil War soldier diaries into a Word file so I can use them for future scenes in the DG sequel. That's what my 'time' is about, anyway. Jane Austen lived within a calendar of six novels. I think that's a great way to measure time.
So, that is my new calendar. Who knows if it's Monday or Saturday, January or May. Who knows if it's two in the morning or ten at night, which happens to be my favorite time. I forego it and leave the planning to other people who like that sort of thing.
Meanwhile, I'll be over here, trusting the craziness of a life with little planning and not feeling any the less for it. Rose learned to embrace life and live each day to the fullest, so I join her and gain strength in the process.
Someday my calendar will close and the square-block days will be over. Before then, I picture a bookshelf with a bunch of great stories. A dayplanner in literary form. It whispers, if you lean in to hear:
Monday, February 21
History is fun, sexy, adventurous, real, and there's no better way to enjoy it than with a historical hunk! "Titanic" was on TV yesterday, and I hadn't seen it in awhile, so it was such a pleasure to re-fall back in love with Jack Dawson, like I always do! He was definitely the historical hunk who helped me not only want to be with him, but want to spend a huge part of my life in his time period (Edwardian and the earlier Victorian).
I love watching period drama montages on YouTube, since it's so inspiring to see how many people really do love history, though they may not know it. All it takes is a historical hunk to speak words that we want to hear, flash his winning smile, adjust his cravat, and stroll right into our hearts.
My love affair with historical hunks began not with a hunk, but with a tortured genius whose music made my heart soar and ache:
I thought I could be the one to reach his fragile inner beauty and be priveleged to know the real him beneath the mask. Sigh! The Phantom is just one of the many 'beast' characters as part of the 'Beauty and the Beast' fairytale, and here's a second example: Edward Rochester. He captured my heart when I first read the story in highschool English class, and the 2009 movie is delightful.
Another historical hunk who caught my eye truly embodied the adventurous aspect of history as he galivanted after bad guys:
Oh, and the two historical hunks playing Mr. Darcy could stop traffic with their Regency goodness:
Then there's the historical hunk-next-door, the guy who is totally cute and totally loves you:
Or he could pick up his sword and fight to the death for you, if only to be reunited with you after so many years:
Yes, the historical hunk will do anything for the lady he loves, even if he can't prevent fate or his own lowly situation:
So, what historical hunk is your favorite? Have I missed him here? Do let me know ... and keep watching those romantic period dramas and reading good literature - for you never know when you'll see him - and then you'll know. :)
Sunday, February 20
I was just browsing one of my favorite sites of all time - Art Renewal Center and I wanted to share my love and appreciation for this remarkable website. It has the extremely lofty goal of becoming the largest online art museum, it promotes the return of classical painting and classic art styles pre-modern, and to provide a joyous celebration of not only classical art but today's artistic works done in a classical style.
I search this museum constantly for paintings about the 19th century. For me, the 19th century was vibrant and colorful, an impression I don't often feel from antique photographs that are grainy and stark. But when I see something as sensual and amazing as this:
Then I know I'm in the presence of a time that really was as vivid and vibrant as it is in my mind's eye.
Or how about this? John William Godward at his finest, painting Victorians in togas. What a niche subject and he did it so well that I can smell the perfume of this remarkable woman and hear the water flowing:
In this remarkable painting, I can't help but feel the candle glow and see the simple warmth that lights this humble but typical 19th century scene:
Here's a lively scene of movement and color as these ladies journey about their lives:
Of course, there are the great 19th century masters like Monet, van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, and Cezanne: all household names. It would be a less beautiful world without their waterlilies, sunflowers, roses, ballet dancers, and oranges.
The Pre-Raphaelites included some of my favorites: Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Lord Leighton's lovely napping lady:
And so, to Art Renewal, I give a lot of love. Thank you for posting some of the greatest creative expressions of mankind, thank you for inspiring me, thank you for providing beautiful artworks for my computer desktop, and thank you for bringing life and color to my beloved 19th century.
Thursday, February 17
I stopped in to the Maine Historical Society yesterday, chatted with Melissa, the gift shop owner and a great fan of my story, and now I have four copies in the shop! It's the first time this hard-working author has had physical copies of one of my stories in a retail environment and available for sale. "Daniel's Garden" will also be available on the MHS online store, so folks can purchase it from anywhere. And, on my tours this year, if visitors ask about what I do, I can tell them I wrote a book and it's ready for sale!
What a milestone!
I'll even get a few dollars' profit out of it, which won't be huge but it will be something trickling in now and then. Coffee money - or for more books! :)
I also chatted with Allan, who is a fellow tour guide and writer. He said I should call the South Portland Borders and get DG in there, and also I could get it into other Maine bookstores, like Longfellow Books. Since the story is set in Boston, I could also potentially sell it in those bookstores, as well as the gift shops at the battlefields of Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. It's a decent-sized market, really.
Little by little.
Some days I feel as giddy as Jo March must have felt when she got that $100 for her story in the newspaper. Other days I'm a disappointed John Keats after Endymion didn't sell, or Thoreau when he complained about Walden's sluggish sales.
There is so much work for so little material reward, and it has been a major struggle separating my desire for reward from my innate driving desire to write. Sometimes in defiance, I shove the writing aside and say I'll go after this or do that or just sit and pout and hate it for awhile. But then I wake up at 3:00 in the morning with a brilliant insight for that new chapter in "The Heart of a Lie" ... or I'll smack my forehead during my morning shower and say out loud: "God, that symbol is perfect for that story!"
And so it goes. I run back to the work as if to a boyfriend I've recently broken up with, but I don't have to beg for a story to take me back. I just need to re-enter it with music playing and fingers happily tapping. There was one incredible week a few summers ago where I wrote the entire Fredericksburg section of "Daniel's Garden" in one week. Thirty pages in three days, and almost none of it needed editing. If I could plug myself into an electric socket I would, if only to have such explosive output.
But those weeks are rare. Days like yesterday - delivering copies to a bookstore - are rare. They are the days to live for, but they are not the norm. Most days are like every other day: little by little, just keep going. Another page here, another chapter there, another scene done, another section researched, another character motive discovered, another book read, some more research, some more drafting, rinse and repeat over and over and over again. Maybe somebody cynical like Samuel Beckett would say I'm just deluding myself and distracting myself from my eventual mortality.
But I'm not cynical. I'm just as starry-eyed about author fame as I was as a ten-year-old, marveling at how somebody like L. Frank Baum or Lewis Carroll or Louisa May Alcott, dead for decades, could still have the power to inspire, delight, and entertain. Long after I'm gone, the story stays. Is there not something delicious in that fact?
There is, and so I go back to work. I still have a lot to do. But one day, I will walk into Borders and see an entire bookshelf of my stuff. That's definitely something to work for. :)
Tuesday, February 15
In the Create a Character Wardrobe post from a few days ago, I mentioned the astrological signs of several characters:
Esther Perry - TAURUS
Olivia Tate - PISCES
Trixie Snow Blue - SCORPIO
Daniel Stuart - CANCER
I have been intrigued by astrology for years and find it not only fascinating for my own horoscope, but also when building characters for stories. The zodiac gives you twelve personality types from which to help form a character's basic nature. Manipulate those zodiac types and you can also create villains!
Zodiac personality types establish a character's core nature, give clues as to what they value and what they want, tell me who they'll be compatible with and why, who they will clash with and why, a description of their physical appearance, and even some story themes.
The Aries character is forceful, confident, pushy, and arrogant. But they can also be tremendous fighters and inspiring leaders. Aries is a fire sign, so anything with heat, speed, or bold colors suits them. Aries main characters are adventurous and daring, with occupations like a soldier or general, gladiator, boxer, pirate, captain, race car driver, cop, Medieval warrior or Amazon queen. Aries Villains are egotistical, harsh, nasty and bloodthirsty - a schoolyard bully, a vengeful warrior, a tyrannical boss or heartless general.
The Taurus character is steady, dependable, a rock, and also sensual. They love nature, cooking, building, and music. Taurus is an earth sign, so they're in their element with flowers, gardening, landscaping, farms and the outdoors. Taurus main characters are the glue that holds their family together, quiet and reliable, with occupations like a farmer, stonemason or bricklayer, bank manager, landscaper, housewife, chef, carpenter or opera singer. Taurus Villains are stubborn and bull-headed, like a tycoon, gluttonous, or pig-headed.
The Gemini character talks fast, moves fast, has multiple interests, excellent manual dexterity and a winsome manner. They love amusement parks, sales, puns and wordplay, whimsy, and anything Lewis Carroll-like. Gemini is an air sign, so they need freedom to roam around and do their thing, like human butterflies or parrots. Gemini main characters add life and sparkle to stories, with occupations like a reporter, news anchor, actor or actress, salesman, magician, comedian or pilot. Gemini Villains are con-artists, thieves and wolves in sheep's clothing, using their ways with words to double-cross and deceive.
The Cancer character is a homebody, an excellent parent, warmly funny, and motivated by security. They love good food, antiques, decorating, babies, their home, and money. Cancer is a water sign, so they are emotional and unusually attached to the ocean. Cancer main characters often appear in romantic comedies or small-town stories, with occupations like B&B caretaking, teaching, crafts, chef, photography, antiques dealer, or running a daycare. Cancer Villains are like Cinderella's stepmother, a dominating matriarch, or Scrooge, a stingy miser counting coins while others go hungry.
The Leo character is a showman, a P.T. Barnum type of glitz, power, drama and warm charisma. They love the theatre, creativity, productions, parades and anything large and full of life. Leo is also a fire sign like Aries, so they have warmth, charm, and tons of energy. Leo main characters often appear in musicals or epic stories, with occupations like actor or actress, CEO, president, king or queen, explorer, entertainer, publicist, agent, gambler or professional athlete. Leo Villains are like kings and queens with too much power - dominating, selfish, cruel and power-hungry. They're also divas!
The Virgo character is quiet, hard-working, conscientious, detailed, clean, and capable. Like Sherlock Holmes, they never miss a detail and can be single-minded when focused. Virgo is an earth sign like Taurus, so they love herbs, green grass, tasteful bouquets and meadows. Virgo main characters can also be verbally quick and critical, with occupations like a nurse, doctor, gardener, chef, secretary, detective, office worker or clerk, food or book critic, decorator, editor or pharmacist. The Virgo Villain is severe, cynical, a micro-manager, and a fussy critic who never praises.
The Libra character is charming, bright, good-looking, romantic, loves to debate, and has a strong sense of fairness. They love beauty and like to wear nice clothes, look at art, decorate their homes, and listen to fine music. Libra is an air sign like Gemini, but they use their natural chattiness to debate and discuss with cutting comments. Libra main characters often star in romance novels or legal thrillers, with occupations like a lawyer, judge, romance writer, model, fashion designer, interior decorator, florist, wedding planner, and the owner of a boutique or gift shop. The Libra Villain is meddlesome, hard-nosed, and has to be right, like a snaky lawyer, scheming coworker, jealous romantic rival or artistic perfectionist.
The Scorpio character is mysterious, driven, deep, sexy, intense, and hard to get to know. They love investigating dark places and are pretty fearless; once they have their eye on the prize, there's no stopping them. Scorpio is a water sign like Cancer, but they hide their seething emotions behind a mask of poise. Scorpio main characters are detectives or wounded souls, with occupations like a detective, surgeon, mystery or horror writer, cave diver, assassin, seductress, femme fatale, film maker, spy or hit man. The Scorpio Villain is vengeful, cold, and unmerciful, striking swiftly and without remorse. They are hurt deeply with pain and anger.
The Sagittarius character is lively, cheery, restless, clownish, an animal lover, and as silly as a puppy. They love travel and often take off without telling anyone for the next adventure, but they can become very wise from seeing so much of the world. Sagittarius is a fire sign like Aries and Leo, with energy, charisma, and natural people skills. Sagittarius main characters are great for action or adventure stories, with occupations like travel agent, tour guide, teacher, jester, clown, animal rights activist, equestrian, veterinarian, mountain climber or boat captain. Irresponsible and absent-minded, Sagittarius Villains neglect commitments and leave others in the lurch, so others have to clean up their mess.
The Capricorn character is responsible, capable, a hard-worker, respectful, and steady climbs the mountain of their career. They live for the office and can find it hard to relax, but have plenty of money and prestige to show for their hard work. Capricorn is an earth sign like Taurus and Virgo, represented by mountains, forests, and earthquakes when they get angry! Capricorn main characters revere history and are extremely tasteful in their habits, with occupations like president, CEO, minister or pastor, investor, sheriff, historian, socialite, antiques dealer, stockbroker, society maven or politician. Capricorn Villains are icy, severely ambitious, and chauvinistic, like a repressed minister, an egotistical father, a frozen husband, a hard-driving boss or an arrogant CEO.
The Aquarius character is kooky, curious, brilliant, weird, a tech nerd, has tons of friends, and is a natural scientist. They are like Einstein - absent-minded and creative and a total genius. Aquarius is an air sign like Gemini and Libra, so they need freedom to live their own strange life, but are humanitarians at heart. Aquarius main characters stir the pot, invent crazy contraptions, and shake the status quo, with occupations like scientist, inventor, environmental or animal rights activist, grassroots politician, film maker, science fiction writer, astronomer or astrologer. The Aquarius Villain is the mad scientist, plotting world domination through their nasty inventions, poisons, and mind-control technology.
The Pisces character is dreamy, artistic, sympathetic, passive, kind, a bit mystical, and noncommittal. They love myths, folklore, ancient songs, and seem to have been born in another time. Pisces is the last sign and the last water sign, like Cancer and Scorpio, so they have a penchant for the water. Pisces main characters are compassionate artists and support other characters, with occupations like mystic, holistic healer, shaman or medicine man, artist, hippie, painter, poet, songwriter, therapist, minister or pastor, bartender or fisherman. The Pisces Villain is a shark, turning their compassion to coldness and slipping away into dark waters.
So, now that you've met the twelve signs, you can see a little as to why I chose the zodiac signs for the following characters.
Esther Perry - TAURUS
She's dependable, has brown hair and brown eyes, lives on a farm, loves music and takes care of her family.
Olivia Tate - PISCES
She's dreamy, passive, easily manipulated, has long wavy hair, wears Pre-Raphaelite clothes, and looks like a mythical maiden.
Trixie Snow Blue - SCORPIO
She's confident, intense, opinionated, smart, has black hair and a deep gaze, wears dark clothing, and her story is quite Gothic.
Daniel Stuart - CANCER
He's duty-bound to his family, is wealthy, patriotic, loves his garden and the sea, brown hair and blue eyes, and his story is about home.
Here are some zodiac Villains of my stories:
Lucia Curtis - CANCER
Dominating matriarch, pushes her daughter towards a wealthy man and drives her husband to become a workaholic, lack of love and a distant father have made her overly cold and cruel and too obsessed with money and security.
Maxine Gilbert - LEO
Selfish diva, keeps the heroine from the guy she loves because Maxine wants him for herself, egotistical, power-hungry, has to have the spotlight, loves male attention until it backfires and her reputation is ruined.
The Red Fairy - ARIES
Fire queen, has pushed the real queen off her throne and into submission so the Red Fairy seized her power, put a curse on the land, fights for everything, selfish, arrogant, won't back down or submit.
Erik Stuart - CAPRICORN
Head lawyer, assumes position after his father dies, ambitious and doesn't understand passivity, usurped by a Gemini Villain (Mr. Washburn) who played the 'friend' card but secretly evil, when ruined Erik wants nothing more than his old power and prestige back.
It's fun to create characters based on their zodiac signs. I'm an Aquarius (my 29th birthday was February 9th) and have a couple of kooky Aquarius oddballs throughout my story.
My favorite signs for main characters, however, are earth and water signs: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn, Cancer, Pisces and Scorpio. They are either capable and dependable, or tender and emotional. Fire signs make great villains and air signs make great sidekicks and best friends.
This definitely gets me in the mood to keep creating characters!
Monday, February 14
Every writer has their own ideas about how to organize their miscellaneous writing notes, research files, reference books, and so on. I can't say that what works for me will work for anyone else; that's as individual as you are. I just wanted to share my own method.
My research invariably starts with websites, blogs, You-Tube videos, and Amazon.com books, all of which need to be organized within the huge hulking mass of my Favorites Folder. So, I create a new folder with the novel's title as its name and dump the websites into the folder for future reference. I right-click, select "Sort by Name" and voila - everything is sorted alphabetically. Most of my research is done online, so I need to keep track of the various websites.
I have a "Novels" folder that sits on my desktop. Inside is a folder with each novel's title. Each of these novel folders contain the notes files, image files, and rough draft files. My "Daniel's Garden" folder has more than fifty items. It took a lot of research and a long time to write!
I also search for images throughout the web that can help with my writing. I may find pictures of actual places, paintings, maps, and photos. So, in the novel folder on my desktop, I store the images. I only use my generic "Pictures" folder for images that have nothing to do with stories. While I'm writing a particular scene, I may select that image and use it as a desktop background for an added boost of inspiration.
I actually don't have Microsoft Office installed on my Dell. I use OpenOffice for spreadsheet files and Wordpad for writing. I don't care for Microsoft Word's constant formatting, since I tend to write with sentence fragments and other grammatical no-no's. I write in plain Times New Roman, size 12 or Arial size 14, depending on the story. I always have a Notes file in the novel folder, which is a general catch-all for story notes, like plot, character bios, and reference bits.
Action Outline is a Windows-Explorer type program that cost me about $40 several years ago and is indispensable for organizing story ideas, future stories, and general reference notes like my 'Victorian Names' file. It's a simple program with no crazy formatting and an easy drop-down style that allows me to see what I'm working on at-a-glance. It's the best software program I've ever bought for writing. I can also import the text into an RTF file if I want to.
This is a Post-it Note type program that came with my computer, which sticks a yellow note on my desktop for daily to-do lists. I keep ongoing projects organized in Action Outline, but the Sticky Note lets me know what to do next. Of course, being the passive agressive rebel I am, I usually ignore it and do my own thing! :) But the Sticky Note helps with gotta-do-it-right-now stuff.
It seems like I'm uber-organized, doesn't it? Well, not really! Haha. I usually 'lose' a few reference materials during the long, long process of novel-writing. It's pretty inevitable. Oh, and this doesn't take into account computer crashes, of which I've had so many I've lost count. For that, I use zip drives to back up my stuff.
Books present another problem to a writer struggling with organization. Even though I'm a fast reader, it's a slow process to read a book when I'm also taking notes for a story. For this reason, I've tried to be as picky as possible when choosing books. I could also spend a fortune on reading material; you should see how many Civil War books I amassed during Daniel's Garden's ten-year odyssey! I even have books on Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln, who don't appear in DG.
In the end, I want to streamline my reference and research material as much as possible to extract the most relevant tidbits for my stories. Sometimes my fishing net gets cast over a huge area in order to grab the most prized fish, but that's part of the fun (and frustration!) of writing historical fiction. There aren't any Victorians walking around to tell me how to operate an 1889 letterpress, so it's time to dig. No Civil War soldiers, either, to tell me exactly what the rebel yell sounded like. My imagination fills in the gaps - but I try to minimize the gaps as much as possible!
The great thing about researching one specific time period is that I've amassed such a natural amount of reference that I can usually write entire scenes without cracking open a book. I know what it feels like to wear a corset, I have an intimate knowledge of Civil War army organization, and I know that the Edwardians may have owned a lightbulb or two, while Victorians almost certainly wouldn't. Thankfully, this is research material I don't have to organize!
Like I said, you will come up with the system that works best for you. But ultimately, the most important thing is getting that rough draft done as fast as possible. Everything else is second to that. :)
Sunday, February 13
Book titles encapsulate the story and give a name to it that must encompass the book's entire 'life,' from page one to page three-hundred. Picking a title is akin to naming a child of mine: I must test whether the name fits the beginning, middle, and end appropriately. For me, the best titles are strong enough to jump out at you from a shelf, subtle enough to convey theme, and vast enough to carry the book's weight in its cradle.
Coming up with titles is sometimes really difficult. Here's a look at several of mine:
The Genesis biblical references, over-arching Paradise Lost theme and central character of Daniel Stuart combine into the title. Although this story predominantly takes place during the Civil War, it's really a memoir of Daniel growing up and leaving his personal Eden. The story is actually an allegory of Paradise Lost, John Milton's epic poem about Adam and Eve cast out of Eden, and quotes are sprinkled throughout the story. The garden refers to both the allegorical Eden and the literal garden Daniel escapes to behind his Beacon Hill home. I came up with this title as a sixteen-year-old and never thought of changing it. It's striking subtle, while not betraying the fact that it's a war novel. Normally, I'd try to include a war-word in a title, but this story is an allegory.
THE MAGIC PEN
Another title I came up with years ago, this time as a ten-year-old. It's a fantasy story, which the word 'magic' conveys. The magic pen could refer to the magical penning of the story, but in this case there is a real magic pen in the story. PEN is also an acronym for Pixies-Elves-Nymphs, which are three magical creatures Trixie, the main character, encounters on her journey. The title marks the story as fantasy, introduces the main object that everybody wants in the story (similar to "The Maltese Falcon"), and also plays into the magical creatures. The magic pen introduces Trixie to the Land of Possibilities and is a central object in the story, so it works as a title.
THE HEART OF A LIE
I deliberately made this title subtle, since the story is a mystery and I didn't want the reader to know the mystery on page one. I read somewhere that "the truth is at the heart of every lie" and thought that would make an outstanding title. Suffice to say, the title works and how it works is revealed at the end, in true mystery fashion. The title is also a bit Gothic and moody, which fits into the mood of the story. This is not a rollicking fantasy; it's a story about manipulative family members, long-lost secrets, buried love, and identity. Esther, the main character, learns about her past in astonishing ways and doesn't know who to trust. The title conveys her confusion and also her pivotal role.
THE CURTAIN FALLS
I'm talking about titles today because "The Tate Legacy," a story I came up with last spring, has recently been renamed "The Curtain Falls." Olivia Tate is the main character and the curtain falls on her life when her father mysteriously dies and she has to live in a theatre garret with her acting mother. The curtain falls obviously also refers to the theatre setting and its actors; also, another character - Julian Sterling - is also living behind a mysterious 'curtain' of a false identity. This story has elements of mystery like "The Heart of a Lie," but the plot is not a mystery plot. It's actually a relationship story between Olivia and Julian. The story climax is a performance, so the curtain falls refers to that, too.
Titles can be settings, like "Mansfield Park," "Northanger Abbey," and "Bleak House." I have three stories that use settings as the title: "Magician Manor," "Plum Nelly," and "Atlantasia." The stories specifically revolve around these three settings, so the titles fit extremely well. Setting titles can be a bit cliche, but if the setting is interesting enough, it works.
Titles can be a character name, like "Jane Eyre," "Emma," "David Copperfield," and "Oliver Twist." I actually don't use this technique with my titles, since I haven't written a Bildungsroman like Bronte and Dickens. In the future, if I decide to write a lengthy and detailed 'autobiography' of a character, then I'll use the character's name as the title.
Titles can indirectly refer to characters, like "Pride and Prejudice," "Sense and Sensibility," and "Little Women." This is one of my favorite ways to come up with titles, since you can play on words. "The Nightmare Brigade," a young-adult fantasy story I've come up with, indirectly refers to the band of central characters. This title works best with ensemble casts.
Titles can refer to something intricately connected to the main character, like "The Scarlet Letter," "Moby Dick," and "The Red Badge of Courage." These titles are physical things, like an embroidered 'A' and a whale, and also represent larger themes that add depth and weight to these novels. I do this with "Daniel's Garden" and it's sequel "Daniel's Lions." The garden is a central theme and also a physical place that means so much to Daniel.
Titles can be a funny play on words, like "As You Like It" and "Much Ado About Nothing." Shakespeare was a master at punning and his comedic titles are quite funny. This works best for comedies, so I did this with two light-hearted stories. "Motorcars and Mayhem" is an alliterative title that introduces the adventurous aspect of the story. "Typeset" refers both to the letter press in the story and the 'types' the two main characters are attracted to.
I've come up with hundreds of titles. Sometimes it's easy and sometimes it isn't! Here are some titles I've created that I may or may not use in the future:
For My Country - this one tentatively belongs to a Revolutionary War story I've started and set aside.
To Measure a Match - some future romantic story, with both 'measure' and 'match' having double meanings.
Stitching Our Stories - poetry/short stories based on 19th century quilt patterns, like Log Cabin, Shoofly, Bowtie, Wagon Wheel.
Noir Nouveau - one of my favorite titles, either a title for a Gothic romantic story or a collection of dark poetry.
Requiem for a Rose - another Gothic story involving a Victorian ghost girl and a childless couple.
The Dream-Matcher - fantasy story about a gypsy who matches people's dreams, meets a girl with a magical gift about dreaming.
The Constellation Garden - children's story about a garden filled with plants that are also found in the heavens: sunflower, cosmos, moonflowers, star flowers.
The Kettle and Pen - Gilded age comedy about a tea shop/gentlemen's club where women congregate and gentlemen articulate. Three or four couples involved.
Saturday, February 12
I wish I had more than one lifetime to pursue my many passions! And, oddly enough, one of those passions is fashion. Um, not the jeans and T-shirts of today (though I adore being comfortable), but historic fashion!
When creating characters for my novels, one of the first things I do is start imagining what they would wear. Clothes make the man, as they say, and nothing gives more punch to historical fiction than describing the clothes. It's a pity Jane Austen delves so seldomly into describing those fabulous Regency Empire-waist dresses, for I dearly would have loved to know what Lizzie Bennet's favorite color to wear was .... If I'd been penning that story, I'd at least have put such a spunky heroine in rich blues, greens, and yellows. Earth tones with pep, so to speak.
However, I'm not Jane Austen and so I do like to talk about what my characters wear in their stories. I couldn't believe my own personal transformation once I put on Civil War hoops and I felt so beautiful all glammed up on my wedding day. Dresses are important and so are fashion extras, like little bags, parasols, button-up boots, stockings, corsets, mitts, gloves, hats, and jewelry. There's so much!
ESTHER PERRY -
My heroine from "The Heart of a Lie" changes her dresses to suit her economic status. It's 1869, so hoops are starting to fall out of favor and are not used around the house as much, especially on a rural farm in Maine. Esther is a practical, steady Taurus girl with a good head on her shoulders; her literary ancestor is Elinor Dashwood from Austen's "Sense and Sensibility." In the first chapter, her mother passes away, so she trades her farmgirl browns and blues for black mourning. Upon arriving at the fancy upscale Curtis house in Portland, her regular rural wear will not do, and so she is encouraged to wear fancier dresses with lace, crochet, and less mud. But Esther will not trade her practical self for someone dignified and so remains true to herself by wearing plain blue and brown calicoes. Later in the story, she goes to the fabulously wealthy Vallencourt mansion, where her wardrobe immediately gets a boost and in the most pivotal scene in the book, she wears a rich green silk that makes her rather unnoticeable features glow. Esther will never be anything other than who she is, but it doesn't go to her pretty head. Thank goodness!
OLIVIA TATE -
In contrast to self-assured Esther, Olivia in "The Curtain Falls" is meeker, quieter, and more feminine. She and her mother are dirt-poor, living on handouts and holed up in a drafty garret above the Portland Stage Theatre. Olivia is a dreamy Pisces, trapped in a Cinderella-esque situation with a drug-addicted mother, so she must do all the chores. She wears cast-off costumes and mended hand-me-downs from her best friend Hetty, that she's embellished with bits and baubles from the costume shop. Her wardrobe is Pre-Raphaelite, and she wears her wavy auburn hair long with circlets and loose braids. She looks like a long-lost medieval heroine or an artist muse, an early version of a Bohemian. But by the end of the story, she has received some money and also some backbone. Her dresses become more fitted and less glitzy, she walks more self-assuredly, and the pale lavenders and pinks have given way to earth tones. In her final scene, she wears a cotton blue dress and an oatmeal wool shawl, looking less like a lost heroine and more like a woman of integrity and grit.
TRIXIE SNOW BLUE -
"The Magic Pen" has a Gothic edge, so its heroine's wardrobe is predominantly black, gray, and brown, with a single red ribbon featuring a cameo for a choker. This young Scorpio is also quite the know-it-all, similar to Hermione Granger but without an ounce of tomboy-ness. Her plain dark dresses match her confident personality and she has no problem finding her way around the craggy bleak landscape of the Land of Possibilities. But by the time she reaches Sandalphon Castle, her wardrobe has lightened to gray and tan. And, by the end of the story, she wears white and cream, a visual shift in both temperament and story tone. I use Trixie's changing wardrobe as a clue that the land is healing. As the Cynic's Curse is lifted, Trixie's dresses change color. Also, in the beginning she is represented by the blackbird and in the end by the dove.
DANIEL STUART -
Yes, it's important for guys to also have defining wardrobes! What would Sherlock Holmes be without his tweed and pipe? Daniel's long journey in "Daniel's Garden" began in the upper-crust world of Boston, so he wore immaculately tailored suits with white kidskin leather gloves, hats, and a walking stick. At his mother's birthday gala, he wears a fine hand-made tuxedo suit. But at war, his civilian clothes and handkerchiefs disappear, replaced by a shapeless blue wool sack coat, sky-blue wool trousers, and clunky uncomfortable leather shoes, called brogans. His gloves and walking stick are replaced by a canvas haversack and rifled musket, and his hat is now the Union blue forage cap of a private. I included plenty of references to the clothes he wears, for it's such a telling detail in the shift of his life. By the end of the story, he can't remember what it was like to wear nice clothes and his war wardrobe reflects his inner transformation as well. Oh, and by the way, he was a Cancer, the sign of home and family. :)
I use clothes to show personality. Practical characters wear earth tones like blue, brown, and green, with plain fabrics like wool and cotton. Dreamy or wishy-washy characters wear pastels with floaty fabrics and impractical details.
I use clothes to show story arcs and character growth. A character who is 'in the dark' or villainous may wear dark colors and concealing clothing. An innocent character will wear lighter colors and softer fabrics.
I also use clothes to show economic status. Calicoes and rough wool belong to characters that live on farms or are servants. The rich wear lustrous silk, satin, and heavy jewels.
Obviously, I use clothes to show time period and a sense of what it was like to live in the 1800's. Rough wool, calico cotton, corsets, lace-up boots, parasols, gloves, and stockings aren't really worn any more. Our modern clothes are full of synthetic materials designed to make them comfortable. Clothes in the 19th century really weren't that comfortable.
I love creating character wardrobes and it's one of the most helpful tools as a writer.
Friday, February 11
With my own novels, the greatest influence has been the theatre. It was on stage that I first beheld the 19th century in the form of musicals - Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera.
Although Les Mis has a somewhat happier ending than Phantom, it tells a remarkable epic story with a love triangle in the middle, and several plots. The main plot is between Jean Valjean and Javert, one of the greatest literary villains of all time. Javert is the policeman and he hunts Valjean through the years. He is driven, ruthless, and an absolute authority in his position. Valjean is cunning, compassionate, and does the right thing, if not always with the outcome he expects. He saves both Cosette and Marius from different fates, helps out on the barricades, becomes the mayor of a town, helps the destitute factory worker Fantine, and saves that man from the runaway cart. Even though he evades the law for years, he does so many good things that he is the hero of the novel.
The Phantom Erik, by contrast, is a typical Byronic anti-hero, the Heathcliff pining for his Catherine. He is both blessed and cursed - the gift of music and the disfigurement of his face provide two facets of his personality that are immediately recognizable and that shape his entire life. He secludes himself away beneath the Paris Opera House, preferring to be a ghost with power over his managers. But he is cruel, and murders several people throughout the story. His aching love for Christine is the main plot of the story, with Raoul’s innocent love providing the secondary plot to keep the main plot going. The Phantom manipulates his managers and Carlotta into giving Christine certain roles, propelling her towards stardom. But he can’t let her go and wants her for himself, to hide away in his dungeon forever. If there is a hero in the story, it is probably Raoul, but his personality is very cookie-cutter romance novel-ish, not as fascinating, complex, or deep as the Phantom’s. But the Phantom’s persona of ghoulish murderer is quickly stripped away, to be nothing more than a mask to hide a lifetime of hurt, rejection, and betrayal.
Les Miserables is a story standing on its own, but the musical has certainly cemented its immortality. Otherwise, it might be just another semi-read half-forgotten chunky Victorian novel that people have heard of, but most have no idea what it’s about.
The Phantom of the Opera is a sensation novel from the Edwardian age, a melodramatic pot-boiler thriller that is written with all the pulp of a literary comic book. It does not profess to be great literature, and the pomp and circumstance of the musical certainly plays upon that with its overly dramatic scenes, lavish production stage shows, and epic overture. Even without the musical, its 1920’s film adaptation with Lon Cheney is enough to secure its place in the minds of all those familiar with the story. But the musical kicked life into it in a way that only theatre can - by taking the music out of the imagination and making it real.
With Les Miserables, the music helps tell the story; in Phantom the music is the story. Without the Opera House, there is no story. Without the sound of the Phantom’s voice, the story loses something. Without his voracious organ-playing, his erotic score of Don Juan Triumphant, his singing lessons with his protégé, those character traits are gone.
It is music that gives an emotional depth to a story that otherwise doesn’t exist. If Les Miserables had been just a stage show, it would be different than having all the songs and the constant musical themes running through the show. If the Phantom had been just a novel, then perhaps it might still be just another old-fashioned pulp story. But with both stories, the music and the visuals of costume, props, and sets propel the viewer into the 19th century world of Paris in a way that no history textbook can hope to attain.
If I was a history teacher and we were doing a unit on 19th century Paris, then I would show both musicals. In fact, an entire course of study could be conducted around them both. How do they show Paris? What can we glean from 19th century life from these musicals? What is present? What is missing?
As a child of five and six years old, I drank it in with fervor. I have given up trying to figure out which has been my favorite. They have both influenced me and continue to do so. Neither one is better. Neither, in my life, is complete without the other.
Thursday, February 10
I would have loved to be a writer of the 19th century, scribbling away by candlelight or oil lamp, no typewriter or laptop in sight. But I admit it would have been pretty dull to not have music to write to.
To say I love music is kind of like saying I love my husband or I love my dog. It doesn't encompass the feelings I have for the way music makes me feel. I've come up with scene ideas and entire new sections to my stories based on a song or a single instrumental track.
When researching or doing mundane tasks, I like to listen to melodic singers and musicals. I sing along with them and have accomplished many boring things thanks to the power of their voices.
But when writing, I listen to soundtracks and instrumental New Age and classical. Something about the sweet lilt of Mozart and Thomas Newman or the epic pounding of Beethoven and Hans Zimmer or the fantastical whimsy of John Williams and Danny Elfman adds life and heart to what I'm working on. There is true emotion there, and I can tap into it in no quicker a fashion.
It's extraordinary how deep and vast I feel when I put on "Hymn to the Fallen" from the Saving Private Ryan soundtrack, or that amazing marching melody of "Glory." All at once I'm there with the soldiers, feeling what they felt or dreaming what they dreamt. Gabriel Yared's "Anthem" and "Ada Plays" from the Cold Mountain soundtrack are responsible for some of the dearest scenes in "Daniel's Garden." I couldn't have tapped into that tenderness, love and sacrificing heartbreak Daniel feels for Mary without those melodies.
With the Pirates of the Carribbean and Harry Potter soundtracks, I'm off on an adventure to battle evil wizards and sea monsters. I could dash off a fantasy novel with a playlist filled with Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, and Peter Pan tracks. I've also fallen in love with the rich pounding and epic scope of the Inception soundtrack. That movie was incredible, too! "The Pelago Legacy," "Magician Manor," "The Nightmare Brigade," and "The Magic Pen" will be written in no time thanks to these rollicking soundtracks.
Yet for light and homey stories like "Fields of Lavender", "Plum Nelly," and "Typeset," nothing beats the Jane Austen film soundtracks to 2005 Pride and Prejudice and 1995 Sense and Sensibility. Such sweet English country melodies that remind me of verdant pastures and Regency homes. The "Little Women" soundtrack, so dear to my heart, also evokes the feel-good emotions of these stories.
The richer and more Gothic stories of drama and intrigue, like "The Heart of a Lie" and "The Tate Legacy" deserve full-bodied minor chords to go with their plots. "The Heart of a Lie" is evoked by Chopin nocturnes, the Moonlight Sonata, and a great Gothic piece called "A distance there is." The "Titanic" and "Back to Titanic" soundtracks brings the sweeping nautical themes and the aching love story from "The Tate Legacy" to life.
I think I'll add a page at the top for writing playlists, because I think it's important. I couldn't write as well as I do without the music to help me go deep inside myself for the emotions I need. Writing is hard because it requires all of me. I can't hold back.
My deepest thanks to the amazing composers of my time and centuries earlier. I owe my stories to you.
And now, since I am working on a new Civil War novel, I need a track to help me go there. Help me turn back the years and find the heart of this time period.
This one will do just fine:
Wednesday, February 9
I've started researching the sequel to "Daniel's Garden," called "Daniel's Return." I found the following two diary entries online, which helped enormously in writing DG.
Hutchinson's diary gives a general overview of the 11th Massachusett's movements throughout 1862 and 1863, ending with the Spotsylvania campaign. His diary is useful for a broad spectrum as to where the regiment was stationed and under whom.
Blake's diary is much more colorful and details abound, such as what he thought of officers, comments on the weather, and fun facts like calling heatstroke 'sunstruck,' the 19th century term for it. And many did suffer from sunstruck, especially marching into Gettysburg in the summer of 1863.
"Daniel's Return" picks up in May 1863, just after Chancellorsville. Daniel has been wounded at the end of "Daniel's Garden," so the first scenes take place in the field hospital outside of Chancellorsville. Luckily, his bullet was completely removed and his abdomen is healing. But, troops are on the move again and Colonel Blaisdell, the leader of the 11th regiment, says he'll go with them.
At the end of DG, Daniel made a promise to his friend Andrew that he would find him and bring him back to the 11th. He was captured by Confederates during Chancellorsville. I'm not sure which Confederate regiment they were fighting, so I've dug out my excellent book on the battle: "Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave," by Ernest Furgurson. This is one of the best books on the war, let alone the battle.
On the early morning of May 3, 1863, the night after Jackson's famous push against the 11th corps, Daniel's regiment, the 11th Massachusetts, was stationed next to the Chancellor Mansion. They watched its destruction as it was shelled by artillery.
The 11th Massachusetts was part of Sickles' corps and faced a part of the Stonewall Brigade, mainly the 30th North Carolina and the 12th Georgia as part of Paxton's brigade.
I'll need to read it, but I found another diary account of a Union lieutenant who was captured at Chancellorsville and then taken to Libby Prison. We'll see how it goes!
Researching the Civil War is time-consuming not just because of the vast amounts of reading, but also the logistics. It's hard to figure out when and where troops were at a particular time or even in a single battle. The same regiment could move from one end of a battlefield to another in a single day. So, tracking troop movements has been an extraordinarily huge part of my research.
Luckily, diary entries REALLY help with logistics. I may not be able to locate their exact position without cross-referencing, but at least the best diary writers give noticeable and unique landmarks. Thanks to both Blake and Hutchinson, I knew the 11the Massachusetts's exact whereabouts for 2nd Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, the mud march, and, of course, Chancellorsville.
Their help is invaluable!