Posts Tagged historical fiction

What you can achieve if you try something a little scary… how I became a memoirist and novelist by @expatapple

Apple Gidley has lived all over the world, has taught English, sold SCUBA gear and negotiated British nationals out of jail when she was the British honorary consul in Equatorial Guinea. Her writing is powered by a fierce interest in the history of the many cultures she’s lived in and her latest novel, Have You Eaten Rice Today, brings to life Malaya in the 1950s.

My first question has to be: how do you get someone out of jail?

By getting to the police station before the person had been processed. No one likes paperwork.

The jungle drums worked fast in Malabo. I grew to dread the words ‘Apple, we’ve got a situation’. Charges were invariably trumped up, with the aim of getting a bribe – not something I ever paid. I think it helped that I’m a woman. I smiled a lot. Reminded the jailer-in-charge that it would be a terrible pity for the press in Britain to hear of Mr Smith being jailed for taking photographs of kids playing soccer, because the minister would look bad. It was blarney really, and I never showed how nervous I actually felt. The adrenaline would keep me going until it was all over, then I’d shake.

Maybe that’s why I don’t get anxious facing a roomful of people. Public speaking is not nearly as scary as dealing with one crabby man with a gun.

And that’s how you became a published writer, isn’t it?

A number of years ago I was a keynote speaker at a conference for families in global transition. It seemed to go well, and people suggested I write the stories down. It became my book Expat Life Slice by Slice.

You’ve continued to write, with another memoir collection and several novels. What has helped you become the writer you are now?

Reading. Reading. Reading. All styles, most genres, though I don’t like horror. And eavesdropping, for dialogue.

Who are the important people in your writing life?

My husband. He is a tough but fair critic. I’ve had to learn to listen. And I’m incredibly fortunate to have a group of five trusted people around the world who are my first readers. Also, I run the Writers’ Circle of St Croix in the Virgin Islands and am hugely supported by them.

I have also had fabulous editors, from whom I have learned so much. I don’t think they get enough credit for pushing us to be better.

How do you refill the well?

Fortunately the well hasn’t run dry yet. If I get stuck on something, I’ll walk the dog or weed the garden – anything rather than clean the house. Since I decided to try my hand at writing, I try to write every day. I get pissy when I can’t.

Where is home?

Wherever I happen to be hanging my hat. Currently St Croix. I suppose I’m a chameleon in that I’m adaptable. My life has been peripatetic, both as a child and an adult. I’ve always been up for trying somewhere new, something different. And you don’t know what you can achieve until you try something a little scary. There are a couple of places I would rather not live again but I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to experience them.

What jobs have you done besides writing (and jail negotiations)?

When I married and we went abroad, I knew a career wasn’t on the cards. I feel immense gratitude that I was able to be at home, wherever that was, with my children but I also always became involved in the community. And I’ve been fortunate to pick up work in most places, if there weren’t visa restrictions.

I edited a magazine for Cheshire Homes for disabled people (Far Eastern Region) while living in Singapore and Thailand. It was a humbling experience. Any bad day I had paled into nothingness compared with the challenges faced by these disabled people. But that did not stop me haranguing them if they didn’t deliver an article they had promised me. My sticking to deadlines perhaps gave people a sense of normalcy.

I ran my own interior design business in Scotland. I preferred commercial work to residential, where we got tetchy exchanges between spouses. Then I sold SCUBA equipment in Texas. That’s a great leveller. No one looks good with a regulator in their mouth.

You are so right. Consider the Bond movies…

When we knew we were heading to West Africa I took a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in case the chance came along to teach English.

While there I wrote geopolitical reports for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which I enjoyed. I suppose it was there I started to consider writing as a possible job.

Your novels are historical fiction, Fireburn, Transfer and Have You Eaten Rice Today?, which is your most recent. What’s the appeal for you of historical fiction?

History has always fascinated me. I went to boarding school in Australia and I’ve never forgiven them for not allowing me to study both ancient and modern history. Instead I had to choose a science, which didn’t interest me at all. Anyway, for the writer, historical fiction involves diving deep into a period – not just the story events but the back story, the dress, the food, the manners, the way people spoke, the way people moved around. It’s fabulous.

Have You Eaten Rice Today? is an enigma. The title is thoughtful, but the blurb copy describes it as ‘intense, drama driven and suspenseful’. What pulls the two aspects together? 

Have You Eaten Rice Today? is a salutation used throughout Asia – a kind of ‘how’s it going?’ The timeframe of the novel is the early 1950s in Malaya when communists fueled general disgruntlement at the slowness of Britain to grant independence, merdeka. The communist terrorists had camps deep in the jungle where discipline was rigid, discomfort enormous and food scarce. Hunger drove many to surrender. It’s a story of misunderstandings and love in this violent period.

In your memoir collection Crucian Fusion, Essays, Interviews, Stories you mix fact and fiction, which can be tricky as readers usually prefer one or the other. How did you decide what to fictionalise and what to keep as truth? What boundaries about this did you set? How did you bring it all together in one work?

Interesting question! You’re right, people do usually prefer fact or fiction but I wrote Crucian Fusion as a thank you to St Croix, the island that has embraced me.

I’ve been writing the essays since I arrived here in 2013 – a diary of events and day-to-day happenings. Then, because I’m nosey, I wanted to learn people’s stories – and everyone has one – so I made a list of people, some of whom I knew in passing, who I would like to know more about. I ended up with eight conversations, which was such a privilege for me, particularly as one chap I spoke to has since died.

The short stories are pure self-indulgence. Three are historical. One brought to light a little-known piece of Crucian history – indentured labourers were shipped from India in the 1860s, a shortlived experiment that cost a lot in human misery and life.

Across all your books, are there recurrent themes and curiosities?

Actually, curiosity lurks in all my books. Without it I don’t think you can travel well. The meshing of cultures, the crossing of bridges literally and metaphorically. Love, death…. you know, all the usual stuff.

In the book I’m currently working on, dementia is a stream, particularly the effect on the spouse. It was also a theme in Transfer, now I think about it, but not up front. I think to suffer from Alzheimer’s, where you are still aware of life, must be the most Godawful thing for all concerned.

What do you like to read?

Historical fiction, of course! Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier, Abraham Verghese, although I guess Cutting for Stone only just scrapes in as historical. All genres really. And absolutely anything by the Trinidadian writer Monique Roffey. I’ve just finished Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, which was terrific.

Also, travel essays – particularly ones that border on philosophical. I love the way Bruce Chatwin wrote – The Anatomy of Restlessness truly spoke to me. As does anything by Pico Iyer – The Global Soul is chockfull of wonderful essays.

What are you working on next?

So here I am touting historical fiction but my WIP is a contemporary novel set in Venice. In my naiveté I believed there would be less research and it would be a faster book to write. Wrong! But I’m thoroughly enjoying the process. Another month and it should be ready for beta readers. Maybe.

Some quick and perhaps frivolous questions…

Rice or bread?

With a book titled Have You Eaten Rice Today? and considering a large portion of my life has been spent in Asia – it has to be bread. I’m kidding. Rice.

Early mornings or late nights?

Late nights with a glass of bourbon, or wine.

Planes, boats or wheels?

Oh, that’s not a fair question. Planes, though maybe not so much now. Airlines seem to have gone out of their way to make the experience cramped and harried unless you’re up front. Although the exhilaration as you land somewhere new is still thrilling.

Boats because some of my best holidays have been sailing in the Caribbean or along the Dalmatian coast with our adult kids.

Wheels, because I love to drive. Especially on my own. That sense of freedom when no one knows where you are. When my children were little we lived in Thailand, and my husband was often away, so I’d bundle them into the car and we’d take off. Wonderful adventures before cellphones could track your every move. I miss that sometimes.

And you didn’t ask about trains….

By all means, give me trains.

I really love trains. A sense of distance, really going somewhere and seeing the scenery as you clickety-clack along the tracks. Europe is great for trains. Maybe it’ll be trains that get me back across the Atlantic.

What’s on your desk?

Clutter. But it’s my clutter and I know where everything is.

Find Apple on her website, on Twitter @expatapple, and on Facebook. Find Have You Eaten Rice Today? here.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Using real people in historical fiction – how much can you invent?

I’ve had this question from M:

I’m writing a historical novel set in Australia in 1872. The fictional events are based on real events or phenomena. A few characters are based on real people, who I’ve researched. One is Thursday October Christian the second, grandson of Fletcher Christian, of the Bounty Mutiny fame. During his life he held positions of responsibility on Pitcairn Island. He is making a cameo appearance, greeting characters as they arrive in a ship.

My problem is this. There is very little information on him, so I am wondering how to describe him. There is information on his father, who was a colourful character, so I would like to model TOC 2nd on him. But what would you do?

No matter what you write, there’s one thing you must assume. Whatever you fudge, whatever you’re inaccurate about, will be found out.

Partly this is sod’s law. Your book will find the one reader who knows this obscure thing. But actually, it’s more than that. If you’re writing about a particular time, or a particular geographical place, or a particular exciting profession, you’ll attract readers who love that special story world. They’ll be geeks for it. If they spot something inaccurate, they might shrug and forgive you – or they might lose confidence in you altogether.

So even though we’re making things up, we have to be as respectful of reality as possible.

Also, we need to be careful about sources. Wiki is a good start, but it’s not necessarily the oracle. Double-check anything you find there. You might even have to be wary of experts. I’ve just seen a post on Facebook from a writer friend who’s researching Jane Austen’s plotting methods. She says: ‘A historian states something I know to be wrong, but it’s so often repeated that it’s now taken as fact.’

I know. That way madness lies.

But when, like M, you’ve done all the research possible and haven’t found what you need, what are your options? How many liberties can you take?

M is caught in a classic historical fiction conundrum: how strictly should she stick to the facts if she’s fictionalising?

Libel

First, is there a danger of libel? Not in M’s case. She’d like to use TOC 2nd because of the historical timing, and model his personality on his father, who seems interesting and memorable for readers. Both guys are long dead, so there’s no legal repercussion. And it sounds like the portrayal would be harmless and even a bit flattering.

How big is their role?

More importantly, this character’s role is incidental. You’d need to worry more if he had a more major role – and if he did, you’d probably find it easier to invent your own character so they can do all the things you need them to do – and speak as you need them to. But in M’s case, there’s probably little harm in splicing the personality of one TOC to the personage of the other. But M knows it’s not accurate.

More research you can do

That’s where I’d do some more research. Find out how much these particular facts matter.

How protective are historians about fictional portrayals of this character? How protective are his actual descendants or his cheerleaders who are alive today? (You’d be surprised who has cheerleaders, at least in the UK. Go to any tiny town and you’ll find there’s a local historical celebrity who invented pencil lead or washing powder.) I’d look for past instances where a portrayal of this guy might have rubbed people wrong.

It’s the same principle for writing stories about issues and cultures beyond our own lived experience. We might use sensitivity readers or specialist beta readers to ensure we’re accurate, authentic and respectful. So look for common misrepresentations and misconceptions.

You might find there are things you simply can’t do. Perhaps because of facts you’ve found. Perhaps out of good manners. Whatever you have to change, it’s not a setback. Constraints often give us much better ideas because they force us to be more inventive. I learned this while ghostwriting – many dead ends eventually became surprising breakthroughs. You might even find that a trivial moment becomes a pivotal character scene.

Not a setback after all

For instance, if M finds she must make her TOC bland and colourless, she could use her own disappointment. She could transfer the anticlimax to some of the characters and have them discuss their expectations. (‘Really? He was descended from Fletcher Christian? I hardly noticed him.’) Choose some characters who need to show their colours in some way – with a humorous bonding moment, or a falling-out (‘I hate the way you’re so judgemental’), or some other moment that drives the narrative onwards. Something new might develop because they talk about this. A straw might break a camel’s back.

You have remained accurate – and you’ve also found a way to advance the plot or character development. (Big hint: if the incident doesn’t drive the narrative onwards in some way, it shouldn’t be in the book at all. Maybe that’s the revelation – you needed to learn it isn’t interesting enough.)

On the other hand, you might find no problems with your plan. The chances are you’re safe to discreetly invent whatever feels true to the situation. If you feel the need to clarify, you could include an afternote that explains your sources and any assumptions you’ve made.

Also, remember that you’re writing fiction. The reader expects fiction; if you’re hamstrung by history and reality, they expect you to find ingenious ways around it. That’s what you do; you make it up while being faithful to what’s known. It’s what fiction writers of all hues do – we write convincing stories with a combination of research, empathy, respect and understanding of human nature.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Literary and historical novelists – your first pages: 5 more book openings critiqued by @agentpete @mattschodcnews and me!

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s longtime members, Matt Schofield, an award-winning war correspondent who now writes fiction.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)

As you can see, there is oodles to learn from the chat room comments alone. The audience might not always know why something does or doesn’t work, but they know when they’re engaged, or confused, or eager to read more. Then your trusty hosts discuss the whys and hows.

This time the submissions had a theme – literary and historical, so in our discussions we aimed to define the characteristics of these. We discussed how literary blurbs are not like genre blurbs, and how a blurb can create the wrong impression about a book or give away too much. We discussed how you might create a coherent literary work out of a story with many points of view. We looked at how an author might unify a novel by setting it in a short space of time or a particular geographical place. We identified a fantastic example of showing instead of telling.

We considered openings that were thematically effective but seemed to need a more human centre. We considered titles – the risks of using a name as a title, and a title that gave the wrong message about the tone of the book. We also discussed awkward phrasing – which led us to identify another hallmark of literary work, the author’s control of language and nuance.

We also discussed Matt’s own fiction, which is emerging – in various guises – from his phenomenal experiences reporting on four wars. How do you make real life into fiction? What about transitioning from journalism to fiction writing – are there stylistic habits that journalists have to unlearn? (Spoiler: yes there are…)

Find the full show here. And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

There’s a lot more about beginnings and genre/non-genre notes in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How to use research to build an authentic story – interview with @Tomokarres at #booksgosocial

How do you use research to build a plot? If you’re writing beyond your own personal experience – and most of us are – what details make a difference? How can you use your actual experience as a starting point? What are the absolutes to cover if you’re writing historical fiction, or fiction set in a special world?

Today I’m at BooksGoSocial, talking about this to Tom Burkhalter. He writes World War II novels created from meticulous research and deep understanding of his subject – indeed he’s often complimented on his flying experience, which he admitted to me was 90% research. And I have wide experience of writing what I don’t physically know, from my years as a ghostwriter and now with my own novels. Just for my most recent novel, Ever Rest, I learned two special worlds – music and mountaineering.

We also talk about how to organise material for a novel and how to teach yourself revision techniques that are effective and rewarding. If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you’ll know I’m zealous about revision – for me it’s one of the great creative processes. Do come over.

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How I made my writing career – award-winning novelist and short story writer Ann S Epstein @asewovenwords

How do you end up as a fiction writer? Some people learn to use their word skills for a career, then also discover a strong creative calling. My guest today, Ann S Epstein, wrote psychology papers for many years and then discovered joy in writing fiction. Now she has a solid catalogue of published short stories, a Pushcart Prize nomination for creative nonfiction, the Walter Sullivan prize in fiction, and an Editors’ Choice selection by Historical Novel Review. Her fourth work of longform historical fiction, The Great Stork Derby is released this week. We talk about this – and many other moments that slowly added up to Ann S Epstein, author.

Ann, was your family creative in any way or are you an outlier?

I didn’t grow up in a creative family, although my mother taught us to appreciate art and music. My father liked to make things for our small Bronx apartment, but these were primarily utilitarian: radiator covers, storage chests, and step stools. (I come from a line of very short people.) As a child, I loved to draw and write, and continued these activities long after my friends abandoned them. However, the arts were seen as a “hobby,” not a means of livelihood.

My brother and I both became social scientists – he an anthropologist, me a psychologist – and we each produced a lot of professional writing, but not creative writing. And yet, at some point later in adulthood, he began to write poetry and I started to write fiction.

Tell me more about that.

I thought it would be fun to try writing fiction when I retired. Then I asked myself, “Why wait? Why not give a go now?” So, I did, and I loved it.

Have you taken formal instruction in writing?

I’ve taken a couple of classes and several workshops, but most of what I’ve learned has come from being a long-time member of two fantastic critique groups. We’re supportive and encouraging, but also honest in our feedback. Our participation stems from a need to improve, not to be patted on the back. (Or skewered.)

I learn as much by reading and giving thoughtful feedback to others as I do from receiving their input about my work. We celebrate one another’s successes and, perhaps best of all, commiserate over our inevitable rejections.

I’ve also learned from developmental editors who make me think about what I’ve written. Their ideas and questions push me to go deeper and wider.

You also have a PhD in developmental psychology and an MFA in textiles. What fulfils you about these disciplines?

My 40-plus years as a developmental psychologist were extremely gratifying. I was a researcher and curriculum developer at an educational nonprofit foundation whose mission was helping at-risk children and their families and teachers. One of my books, The Intentional Teacher (published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children) remains a bestseller in the field, and has been translated into several languages. I still hear from readers around the world about how the book affected their relationships with children and the adults who work with them. Knowing that the foundation’s work, and my contribution to it, made a significant difference in the quality of their lives reassures me that my chosen career was meaningful.

I actually got my MFA 10 years after my PhD. As I said, I never stopped making art. In addition to drawing, I loved working with fibre. While I was in graduate school in psychology, macrame was the big thing. (I’m still doing penance for creating knotted and beaded jute wall hangings and planters.) The local YMCA offered a class in weaving. I signed up and immediately knew I’d found my medium.

Do they find their way into your writing?

Psychology and art certainly do. My character-driven stories explore relationships between parents and children, siblings, friends, co-workers and even the nameless people we cross paths with who make us wonder about their lives, and our own. I’m intrigued by the challenge of making an “unlikable” character sympathetic by humanizing them.

My immersion in art makes me attentive to imagery. And I love textiles because of how fibre feels passing through my fingers. The act of weaving — feet pounding on treadles, heddles clanking up and down, shuttles flying back and forth — establishes a noisy whole-body rhythm. Each type of yarn, plant or animal, has its own smell.

Ultimately, in art or writing, I try to make the disparate pieces coalesce into a satisfying whole.

What non-writing jobs have you done/ do you still do?

In college, I worked summers at an office and a bank. In graduate school, I was a research assistant and a teaching fellow. After I got the MFA, I changed my schedule at the nonprofit to four, 10-hour days, and used the fifth weekday (and weekends) to make art. I exhibited my work in dozens of shows, and sold several large pieces to corporate clients. Later, when I began writing, I kept the same schedule and shifted some hours from creating at the loom to the keyboard.

I’m also a firm believer in (unpaid) community service. In high school, I was a Junior Red Cross volunteer. In college, I was active in the civil rights movement and tutored youth from low-income families. I currently serve on the board of my Jewish community centre.

You have four novels and a solid catalogue of short stories. What makes an Ann S Epstein work?

My work is character driven, both inner and relational, but I’m also attentive to plot as the driver of each character’s arc. The people I write about might be called underdogs or outsiders, those who are discriminated against because of poverty, religion, race or ethnicity, gender, immigrant status, handicap or other otherness.

My characters come from diverse backgrounds (gender, religion, race and ethnicity, countries) and ages (very young to very old). I favour ambiguity over tidy endings; I want readers to keep writing the story in their own heads. I’m not a nihilist or pessimist, but I accept that people are flawed. Yet I believe that hope is a renewable resource.  Many of my works are historical.

Any signature periods or settings?

They are set in the years from before WWI to after WWII, but bear messages for today. The novels often span several decades so that parts are more contemporary. I love researching the periods I write about, but my emphasis is on fiction, not history. Other than being a stickler for certain details (I abhor anachronisms), I invent people and events as long as they’re consistent with the time, place, and culture I’m writing about. I’m delighted, after finishing a manuscript, if I can no longer remember what is real and what I invented.

On your website you have a quote about Susan Sontag. To paraphrase: becoming a writer is a long process of apprenticeship and failure. You comment that you find this reassuring as you look at your own evolution as a writer. I can certainly identify with that. The first novel of my own that I published (after I was a ghostwriter) was a book I’d been incubating for about 18 years. I sent it to publishers and agents, who were encouraging, but really I was trying to write something I wasn’t ready for. Eventually I wrote that novel properly, and it taught me to be the writer I am now. So that’s what ‘apprenticeship’ looked like for me – and of course apprenticeship never ends. What did apprenticeship look like for you?

In the two decades I’ve been writing fiction, perhaps the greatest change was having the courage to write about things that were NOT part of my own experience. My early stories were inspired by the people and events that populated my childhood. However, I quickly learned the freedom of writing from my imagination, not my memories, although I’ll draw on the latter to add details.

Not having formally studied creative writing, my apprenticeship has meant incrementally mastering the craft, including how to write dialogue, where to start a story (endings are easier for me; beginnings are harder to nail), and when to kill my darlings. Like every writer, I’ve learned the importance of (re, re, re) revision.

Me too. I’m a total reviser. Revision is where I do my most creative work.

I also read differently than before I began to write. I’m not overly analytical (that would drain the pleasure), but I’m more aware of the mastery behind a passage that makes me stop in admiration, awe, and (I admit) an appreciative twinge of envy.

How did you end up at Vine Leaves Press?

In December 2015, I saw a call for submissions in Poets & Writers and sent a query for On the Shore. Two months later VLP requested the full manuscript and the following month they wrote that they wanted to publish the novel and included an amazing review by Peter Snell.

The bookseller Peter Snell! We’re good friends! I might even have introduced him to VLP/ (BTW, I feel I should mention our radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer…)

Peter has also given the go-ahead to my two other VLP books, Tazia and Gemma and now The Great Stork Derby. Pending the response to this third book, VLP has also accepted a fourth. So, I’m among those fortunate authors who can laud and thank Peter for being our gateway to VLP publication.

An unexpected benefit has been joining the international VLP community. Not only do its members connect with a group of talented writers and staff, we support one another through every stage of the publication process, and cheer our individual and collective achievements in the literary world at large. I’m in awe of what Jessica Bell has created and continues to innovate and build upon.

Amen to that. And here’s an interview with Jessica herself.

Ann, tell me about your latest release, The Great Stork Derby.

Based on a bizarre but real event in Canadian history, The Great Stork Derby begins with a husband pressuring his wife to have babies to win a large cash prize. In 1926, an eccentric millionaire leaves most of his estate to the Toronto woman who has the most babies in the 10 years following his death. Emm Benbow convinces his wife, Izora, to enter the contest. His ambition becomes an obsession and Emm ends up disappointed by his large family and alienated from his children. Fifty years later, and now a widower, Emm is told by his doctor that he can no longer live alone. He can either go to a dreaded old age home, or move in with one of his disaffected offspring. The novel follows Emm as he tries living in turn with each of his adult children and attempts to learn that the true value of fatherhood is not measured in big prizes, but in small rewards.

That’s quite a concept.

The idea came when I stumbled on this weird event. As often happens with me, I knew there was a story, but the question was “What?” Or more accurately, “Whose?”

To find the heart of a story, I must first decide whose point of view to tell it from. An idea may incubate for years before that “aha” moment. My original short story covered the 10 years of the stork derby itself, written from the wife’s perspective. When I envisioned the novel, I knew it had to be from the husband’s viewpoint. As I said, I love the challenge of turning an unlikeable character into a sympathetic figure and Emm put me, and I hope readers, to the test.

The period from 1926 to 1976 was also fascinating to research. It encompassed the Depression, WWII, post-war boom, and emergence of the women’s and gay rights movements. So, another challenge was imagining how these societal developments affected the development of the Benbow parents and siblings. I had lots of threads to interweave in this book.

You’ve also written memoir essays. Has your memoir informed your work in fiction?

Both memoir and fiction involve storytelling. Character drives both. And creative nonfiction employs the structure and rhythm of fiction, that is, character(s) follow an arc or trajectory. They have desires, face setbacks, make discoveries, and either evolve or fail to change.

How do you think creativity operates in non-fiction if it must be based on fact?

I think of fiction as construction and memoir as reconstruction. Both mix fact and fiction. Fiction has elements of fact (such as details of time and place, the truth of human nature). And memoir is not strictly factual, but rather an honest attempt at recall. Writers and readers of memoir sign a contract in which they agree to accept that the events and people are described ‘as best remembered’.

To me, what makes memoir interesting is not a mere recitation of what happened, but the writer’s reflection and analysis. Unearthing what lies below the surface, letting the mind play with the message underlying the facts, makes the piece creative. And meaningful — to write, and to read.

Do you teach writing in any form?

For many years, I taught workshops on grant-writing, which I was very successful at; I brought in millions of dollars (public and private) for the nonprofit I worked for. The people who attended my workshops tended to be from small agencies in search of operational funds so they could serve their target audiences: children and families from low-income, minority or immigrant backgrounds.

I taught by putting students in the position of the people deciding who to grant the money to. I distributed five sample proposals that I had written, each with strengths and weaknesses, then had them debate who to grant the award(s) to. They learned from sitting on the other side of the table. I see this method as analogous to my saying we learn as much from critiquing others’ work as we do from getting feedback on our own.

You seem prolific as a short story writer. What’s your working routine like?

I don’t have a routine in the sense of sitting from X to Y o’clock at the computer, or producing a minimum number of words a day. That said, I write — or do writing tasks such as submissions or critiquing — pretty much every day, including weekends. Quite simply, I like to work! I’m an early riser, so I get an early start. I’ll usually knock off mid- to late afternoon to work in the yard, go for a walk or read. Around 5:00 PM, I head two blocks east for my daily playdate with my grandsons, aged nine and five. I keep paper and pencil handy during dinner (also at my bedside) to jot down thoughts that pop up. I think a writer’s mind never stops churning.

I mentioned I’m short. My work space where my laptop sits is an old oak kindergarten table (with child-size chairs) and I’m writing by hand at a child’s roll top desk (also antique).

Do you have any tips for submitting to literary publications?

Perseverance! You never know when something you’ve written will resonate with a reader or editor. I’ve submitted some stories dozens of times before they found a home. That said, don’t submit blindly. Learn what type of work each journal publishes and if/when you have a piece that fits (or are inspired to write one), send it in. And every time you get a response that says “Your submission wasn’t the right fit this time, but we’d love to read more,” take heart. I keep a folder labelled “Encouraging rejections.”

What question about writing do you find hardest to answer?

‘Where do your ideas originate?’ Occasionally I can trace when something I read or heard ignited a spark, but the path to the endpoint is too circuitous to pinpoint the exact source. As I craft each character or scene, I often ask myself, ‘Where on earth did that come from?’

No wonder the Greeks invented muses. Dipping into the creative well is like dunking a bucket blindly and seeing what you pull up. Thank goodness, my bucket has never come up empty.

An easy question, often asked by new writers, is how to go about writing. Should one write every day? If so, how many words? Is it best to knock out a first draft and revise it later? Should one make an outline or follow wherever the writing leads?

My answer is that there are no ‘shoulds’. My colleagues each employ a different method that suits them. So, I say, experiment and find what works for you.

Also on your website is another quote I love – from a personal essay by Peter Schjeldahl, which (in your words) ‘captures the “Did I really write that?” sensation. Writing is a present/absent process. One is at once fully immersed in the act, yet also removed to another plane’. Now you’re leaving The Great Stork Derby behind, what are your feelings? Do you want to linger with the characters and world?

My characters never leave me. Once I enter their world, I continue to occupy it. I think that’s why those with whom I’ve become deeply embedded migrate from a story to a novel. (And why they were great company during my solitary pandemic lockdown.)

However, once I complete a novel, while I may stop in to say ‘Hi’, I rarely linger. Recently, though, I pondered writing a prequel to a book I finished not long ago. The completed novel, which follows the seesawing friendship of two women from their teens to their 70s, touches on their traumatic childhoods as WWII orphans and I’d love to explore those early years in depth. The Great Stork Derby has a large cast of intriguing characters.  Maybe someday, I’ll write about Emm’s death and the continuing lives of his many children over the next 50 years.

Find The Great Stork Derby here. Find Ann at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter @asewovenwords

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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A world in a word – 3 ways your vocabulary can increase reader belief

I had an interesting comment from a reader of my novel Lifeform Three. She was curious that I’d described a horse’s coat as ‘fur’. Surely the more usual term, she said, is ‘hair’.

She’s not wrong.

‘This might worry readers,’ she went on, ‘who will think you don’t know one end of a horse from the other.’

We’ll return to that in a bit.

The writer’s deception

Fiction writers are, of course, the ultimate fakers. We write experiences we haven’t had. In places we haven’t been to, about people who never existed. And we must make it real. Readers want to believe. Even if they know we can’t have been alive in Victorian London. Or on a fantasy planet.

Vocabulary is one of our tools for this.

1 Vocabulary is occupation, profession

A bomb disposal expert has to sound like a bomb disposal expert. And not just in the way you describe the activities of their work, with technical language and insider shorthand. Their work will give them a life outlook too. Any occupation will add to a character’s slang vocabulary, and even their humour style. Think of medics and their distinctive black humour.

2 Vocabulary is culture and time

Vocabulary shows the culture of the book’s world – the way characters think, the way they behave with each other.

Fantasy authors are a good example. With every word choice, they’re casting the spell of the setting, letting us know we’re not in the everyday. If their world is quasi-medieval, they might choose terms with an archaic or courtly quality.

Historical fiction authors have an additional concern – they mustn’t introduce words or phrases that are inappropriate for the times.

This brings me to character attitudes. Attitudes come from the culture. In our own time, social attitudes change wildly within a decade. Put another way, each era has distinctive values that affect how characters behave to each other. A major bugbear of historical novelists – and readers – is character attitudes that are anachronistic, especially 21st century snark and rebellion. There’s nothing wrong with rebellion, but it must be a kind of rebellion that fits with the times. (Aside: if you want to put ‘bugbear’ in your historical novel, you’re good. It entered English in the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster.)

3 Vocabulary is individual character

Language also shows character, especially in dialogue and first-person narration (and close third where we follow the character’s thoughts and feelings).

Characters will have different ways of thinking, which come from their education levels, their occupations (or lack of them) and their personalities.

Characters will have their own lexical signature. How they curse. What they say when impressed or upset. Even, how they say hello or goodbye. What they call their parents – Mum and Dad, Mom and Pop, Mummy and Daddy, Mater and Pater. Perhaps one parent is a warm word (Mum), the other is severe (Father). Perhaps they use first names. (There’s loads more about this in my characters book.)

Fur again

Back to Lifeform Three. Of course – of COURSE – I know the correct term was hair, not fur. So why did I use such a weird word?

1 – Temporal setting – Lifeform Three is set in the future. Terms might have changed. My odd choice of word is a cue to the reader; take notice, this is not your time.

2 – Cultural shift – at the time of Lifeform Three, people don’t encounter horses very much. Or any animal. ‘Normal’ terms are created by communities. Dog owners of the 2020s know what to call everything because there is a long tradition and expertise. They talk to each other, read books, write blogs, go to vets, buy gear. All of that creates a shared vocabulary for talking about dogs. If no one does any of that, there is no shared vocabulary.

3 – Character – the narration is from the point of view of an artificial human, who has to invent his own terms for everything.

As I wrote that scene in Lifeform Three, I felt the term ‘hair’ would be wrong.

My perceptive reader noticed. Wondered why. Which is what I wanted.

And should readers be concerned about my grasp of horse lore? In a superb irony, the idea came from a weird comment by a riding instructor. ‘Ram your outside hand into the horse’s neck,’ she called, ‘right into the fur’.

‘Fur?’ I thought. ‘You always pick such peculiar words.’ Peculiar words were one of her tics, bless her.

Years later, about to type the word ‘hair’, I stopped and thought, is ‘hair’ the best word for this character, in this time? Would another word serve me better?

Sometimes, the strange word is the right word.

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at @Litopia

Last Sunday I guested again at Litopia, an online writers’ colony and community. Every week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two (this time we had PR agent Kaylie Finn @kaylie_finn ).

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then talk about how they’re working – exactly as an agent would think about a manuscript that crossed their desk. This time we had YA post-apocalyptic fiction, a World War II spy thriller, a farce set in the world of British TV, a literary post-apocalyptic adult novel and a Cold War memoir. Issues we discussed included introducing a world and characters, stylised language, versatility of tone, orientating the reader so you don’t lose their attention, introducing a character with a peculiar problem, writing comedy, believability of a story concept, what makes a YA novel YA, ingredients for a historical novel, and how to get a toehold in the very competitive market for special forces memoirs.

Fascinating stuff – as ever, I talked loads, and I also learned loads from the responses of Peter and Kaylie. (That’s Kaylie and Peter in the preview pic.)

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

And meanwhile, here’s what’s happening to my own much-edited manuscript, plus a few other writerly tales

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‘Rubble-strewn streets and lost souls’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, SD Mayes

It’s been a while since I’ve had an Undercover Soundtrack guest, but that doesn’t mean it’s muted forever. I’ve been writing, and the soundtrack collection for my own book is almost as tall as its namesake (Everest). Meanwhile, I’ve bumped into a few people who would be perfect guests and this week you can meet the first of them – SD Mayes. Her novel is called Letters To The Pianist, which you’ll probably agree makes her the perfect first act for the second act of this series. Letters To The Pianist is set in the London of World War II and draws heavily on the author’s own family history. Music was a route map for the key emotions of the characters – from fantasy escape, feelings of teenage inadequacy and the feelings of wild abandon that come from communion with an instrument. Hop to the Red Blog to hear more.

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‘Dance gave me the rhythm of my novel’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Claire Scobie

My guest this week might be familiar to you. I  featured Claire Scobie a few months ago in a story about crowdfunding, when she was campaigning on Unbound to get her novel The Pagoda Tree published. I’m thrilled to say she hit her targets, and I went to the launch a few weeks ago in the very beautiful Daunt’s Bookshop in Marylebone. While her supporters chatted under its high glass roof, a violinist sat in the gallery and played sweeping, sultry traditional Indian music – the kind of music the novel’s protagonist would have heard as part of her daily life. Needless to say, it’s the kind of music Claire listened to as she wrote the story, about a temple dancer in Tamil Nadu in the 18th century. But Claire’s Undercover Soundtrack also includes some unexpected modern touches from James Blunt and Adele. Anyway, do drop by the Red Blog for her post.

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‘Cyclical melodies, beginnings and endings’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Nicole Evelina

I had a hard time this week picking just one pull-quote to represent my guest’s work. She’s a writer of two halves – historical romantic fiction and contemporary romance. And she’s now also venturing into biographical historical fiction as well. The common thread is always music. A song by Sting that evoked for her a sense of an untold angle for the Arthurian legend. Or a friend who recommended music by The Civil Wars that gave her the opening and closing lines of a modern romance. What could be more fitting for the week of Valentine’s day? Drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Nicole Evelina.

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