Posts Tagged historical fiction
‘The sound of a typewriter brings me happiness’ – historical fiction and non-fiction author Cordelia Biddle @AuthorBiddle
When Cordelia Biddle was nine years old, a schoolteacher told her she could never become an author. Cordelia has proved that teacher everlastingly wrong with two works of non-fiction, five Victorian mystery novels and two standalones. Also, 12 murder mysteries written with her author husband. Her latest release is They Believed They Were Safe, set in the 1960s, published at the end of 2022 by Vine Leaves Press.
Let’s rewind to that teacher. What did she say?
She said I didn’t ‘possess sufficient imagination’ to become an author, which was my dream. It’s needless to say that I presented the wretched woman with a copy of my first published novel.
And you teach creative writing now too.
She’s the reason. No one should have a dream squashed. I share that story with my students. Sadly, it often resonates because they’ve also experienced rigid, judgemental educators.
Can you pinpoint where the dream started?
My dad, Livingston Biddle, was an author. He spent hours sequestered in his third-floor office, typing and chain-smoking. The sound of a typewriter still brings me happiness.
Although he wrote novels, poetry was one of his passions, which he passed to me. Many of my parents’ friends were in the creative arts; I’m endlessly thankful for that early exposure.
You describe yourself as a historian as well as an author.
I’m rigorous when it comes to historical research. Every detail must be correct: locales, choices of language, clothing, the creative arts and popular culture. I admit to being a research geek and will pore over archival materials analysing an era’s zeitgeist.
I’m currently working on a novel, I Remember You, told from the perspective of a house (in second person, which is a challenge). The story encompasses 200 years of American history. I want each decade, each cataclysmic historical event to resonate, and I want to place readers squarely within the action.
What an interesting concept. Send a copy to the wretched woman.
I notice the name Biddle in the title of one of your non-fiction works – Biddle, Jackson and a Nation in Turmoil. Do explain!
In the late 1830s the financier Nicholas Biddle – my ancestor – battled President Andrew Jackson over the issue of central banking in the US. The fight was fierce and played out in politics and media. Biddle represented a cultured, educated elite. Jackson was his opposite, a frontiersman who loathed ‘the moneyed aristocracy’ – bankers and their banks. His adherents were self-made Americans, many with little to no education. Rightly, they believed they’d been disregarded within the upper echelons of politics and commerce. Jackson supporters pilloried his opponents and physically attacked voters. One senator carried loaded pistols into the Halls of Congress.
What I found fascinating were the similarities between the 19th and 21st centuries. Yes, banking was the core question, but it devolved into vitriolic attacks that leapt across political issues and polarised the nation.
Give me the complete works of Cordelia Biddle. How many books have you published?
I’ve published two works of non-fiction and seven novels, five in the Martha Beale Victorian mystery series in 1840s Philadelphia. I found the societal issues compelling, as well as dismaying. Philadelphia wasn’t incorporated into the city it is now; it was a compilation of districts and townships, which allowed lawbreakers to escape across internal lines. I created a strong, iconoclastic woman protagonist who must battle classism, racism and sexism while solving crimes and working towards social justice for the oppressed. Child sex trafficking is one of the evils I address, as is the grinding poverty that encouraged it. And, of course, the status of women of all classes.
They Believed They Were Safe, your latest novel, seems a departure from Martha Beale.
Again, there’s a crucial historical aspect: 1962 in a peaceable, small New England college town. President Kennedy’s assassination hadn’t yet cast a pall over the nation, and the northern US existed in a 1950s feelgood haze. I felt compelled to depict the dichotomy between appearance and reality. Mabel Gorne, my protagonist, is naïve despite her age (she’s just entered graduate school) and begins boarding with a seemingly upstanding older couple. All seems blissful, but she carries dark secrets she hasn’t yet acknowledged; and the husband possesses clandestine longings of which his wife is unaware.
What are you wanting to explore?
The novel revolves around sexual trauma. It’s blunt and terrifying. Mabel copes with rape at a time when perpetrators were often excused and the victims blamed – reactions that, tragically, continue to this day.
What makes a Cordelia Biddle book?
My purpose in writing each of my novels is to expose psychological and physical attacks on the vulnerable. If readers cringe, I feel I’ve succeeded. If they respond to their outrage with actions, better yet. The #MeToo Movement provides a vital link to current issues of abuse and ones that had been buried.
All my books are female-centric. All have a moral to impart. One of the reasons I enjoy using differing historical periods is that I can examine women’s lives and allow readers to make connections between present and past. I also love existing within earlier timeframes. I feel as though I’m taking the reader by the hand and saying, ‘Look at what I discovered! Shall we keep exploring?’
You’re the first to hear the news. I plan to continue Mabel Gorne’s story. She survived sexual assault as well as hideous emotional betrayal. I want to discover where life next takes her.
What’s your process?
I start with a barebones idea and follow the characters’ leads. On good days, I feel like I’m taking dictation from these fictional folk. I’m demanding with my wordsmithing, so I edit each morning before jumping into the subsequent phase or chapter. I’m never certain what may occur next, or who will walk into a story, which makes for a thrilling ride. When I finish a first draft, I return and deepen the narrative and then return and return again. My favourite questions are: What if? And: What couldn’t possibly happen next?
You teach creative writing at Drexel university in Philadelphia. What do you think can be taught and what can’t?
Some students have natural gifts; a few struggle but their progress is all the more rewarding for being hard worn. Drexel attracts students from Asian and African nations. Those differing voices and cultures make for a dynamic mix. My goal is to enable intimate knowledge of fictional characters, whether within assigned weekly readings, or critiquing their classmates’ work or analysing their own. I encourage my students to keep writing no matter where their careers take them, and to remember they have a friend and ally who will read future works in progress.
It’s exhilarating when a science major decides writing a novel is a goal. None have published yet, but I’m convinced they will. Hint: look for a riff on Jane Austen set in Lagos, Nigeria.
Have you any formal qualifications in writing?
My training was as an actress. I studied in New York City, and started writing my first novel while appearing on the daytime drama, One Life To Live. I had a tiny part and plenty of time in an empty dressing room. Scripts for the soaps were fairly conventional. I railed against the lack of anything remotely literary and commenced what would become Beneath The Wind – a standalone set on a world tour in 1903. Marital discord, an illicit love affair, a rebellion in Borneo, and the death of a child. I found my voice as an author as well as my love of dark and intricate tales. I still can’t revisit that child’s death without weeping, which makes me wonder whether I invented the story or channelled it. Either way, the scene remains vivid and harrowing.
Acting must surely have set you up for writing…
Acting, I believe, is perfect training for a writer. As authors, we inhabit other characters, exist within their brains and bodies, probe the fears and wounds everyone hides. Authors become playwrights, performers, set and lighting designers; we create the narrative and the physical and emotional mood, but we also live within those complex lives.
How do you decide whether an idea needs to be non-fiction or a novel?
The subject matter makes those decisions easy. I would never have fictionalized the lives of Nicholas Biddle or Katharine Drexel (in my other non-fiction work, Saint Katharine, the life of Katharine Drexel); both possessed drama in abundance. However, non-fiction requires complex characterizations and cliffhangers just as fiction does. I call my approach ‘informed conjecture’. I read personal correspondence, ponder relationships and consider motivations. Why did Nicholas Biddle or Katharine Drexel make certain choices? What brought each joy or sorrow? What infuriated them? In Katharine Drexel’s case, racism made her rage. I felt myself reliving her fury as I wrote her biography.
My latest novel They Believed They Were Safe began as a short story, but the characters pushed me to lengthen the tale, which indicates how deeply I’m involved in the lives of the people inhabiting my keyboard and brain.
You’re married to Steve Zettler, also an author. How does it work, a house of two authors?
I can’t imagine anything better! Our dinner conversation always circles around works in progress. We each provide willing ears as well as useful observations and queries. Because we met as actors, we relish the collaborative process. We challenge each other to grow. His last novel, Careless Love, made me sob at each reading.
You’ve co-written a series of mysteries with Steve under the name Nero Blanc.
Steve and I penned 12 murder mysteries. They’re crossword mysteries, thus the black-and-white themed pen name. In each, readers help solve the crime by doing crosswords alongside one of our protagonists, a crossword editor, Annabella Graham. (Say it fast and it becomes ‘anagram’.) And, yes, our marriage survived. Probably because Steve has a quirky sense of humour and I’m grim. We did, however, discover that we needed a strong outline, a device neither of us employs when writing solo.
Some quick-fire questions:
Writing solo or writing as a duo?
For me, they’re entirely different. Solo is for moodiness and internal drama. Duo makes for a more manageable narrative line.
Three books you’d grab if your library was on fire.
My battered copy of War and Peace, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (signed to me), Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renascence (signed ‘her book’).
The oldest thing on your writing desk.
My mother’s Estabrook fountain pen – useless now, but I can still picture it in her hands.
The thing you do when you’re procrastinating (as a writer).
Extremely nerdy, but I love to read the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. I’d always hungered for a set. Steve found one and surprised me. Forget gold and gemstones. Give me words.
The thing you do to unwind.
Walk through the city and stare into upper windows, imagining previous inhabitants’ lives. I also practise piano (I’m a new learner), and go to the gym, although my motivation is finding time to read. On the bike machine, novel in hand and I’m lost to the world. Woe betide the person who interrupts to ask me what I find so fascinating.
Find They Believed They Were Safe 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.
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?
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.
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.