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My Writer's Journal

Ways to Write A Historical Novel

Most of the novels I've written have been based on a well-known historical figure: Mary Tudor (aka "Bloody Mary") was one of the first, followed by various Tudor relatives and other female European rulers. Because a lot is already known about them, coming up with a plot is not terribly difficult, once I've figured out where to begin (the end is easier; most of my queens end up dead). VICTORIA REBELS was a piece of cake, relatively speaking--all those diaries she kept! The bigger challenges are developing the character and finding her unique voice. Determining the pacing and filling in the details are all in a day's (or month's, or year's) work.

Sometimes, of course, very little is known about my main character, and all the secondary characters, and then the project gets a lot trickier: CLEOPATRA CONFESSES, for example. With only a handful of known facts, I had to invent the rest.

Another approach, and much harder for me, is to work with a particular time period or a certain event and to invent the characters AND the plot to tell the story. WHITE LILACS, written in 1992 (and recently published in Korean!), was set in Texas and based on an actual series of events in the 1920s. It's still one of my favorite books, because it was so difficult, especially the narrator's voice.

BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER: The Story of Helen of Troy and Her Daughter Hermione, coming out in Fall 2013, was another big stretch. It's based on ancient Greek myth, rooted in history that goes back 3000 years. I relied on Homer's Iliad and a number of plays by long-ago Greek playwrights. But challenging as it was, it has made me want to take on another project set in ancient times. We'll see.

Meanwhile, another novel is in the works, set again in the 1920s, nearly all of the characters my own creation. (See my comments above on that kind of challenge.) At the same time I'm back on safer ground, working on a new book on a familiar subject, and struggling to find a different approach to a story that's already well known. More on both later--I'll keep you posted.  Read More 
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Speaking of Money...

After I posted a somewhat whiny blog last week about my inability to write best sellers, one of my readers asked, reasonably enough, "You make a decent living, don't you?"

The answer to that is "Yes and no." And you never know which it's going to be. Here's how it works: Once a manuscript, or a viable idea, is accepted by a traditional publisher, negotiations begin, sometimes through an agent (and I have a terrific one). The publisher makes an offer of an advance--money to be paid up front against future earnings, which are anybody's guess, based on a percentage of the cover price, known in the trade as a royalty. (There's nothing ROYAL about it, in my experience. How did they come up with that term?)

Typically, a book might be priced at $17 and the percentage might be 10%; the royalty on each book would be $1.70. The more copies sold, the higher the percentage; sell 10,000 copies and the royalty might go up to 15%, or $2.55 each. The publisher makes a guess on how many copies are likely to sell. Let's say they hope to sell 5000 copies in the first year after publication; in that case, they'll offer an advance of $8500. You (or your agent) try to bargain for more. Maybe somebody will want to make the book into a movie! (Fat chance, but it does occasionally happen.) Eventually the writer and the publisher arrive at a figure, and a contract is signed. Often half the advance arrives a few weeks or months after signing; the second half arrives after the manuscript has been accepted for publication, a process that can take months of revisions and rewrites. You've been working on this book for over a year. The agent, if you have one, takes a percentage--usually around 15%. You put your check in the bank but you can't run out and spend it all, because you'll eventually have to pay income tax on it.

At last the book is in print and in bookstores. Most publishers calculate royalties twice a year, Dec 31 and June 30, and make payment some four or five months later, sending a report to your agent, if you have one. If your book comes out in January, the report covers sales to the end of June, and you get that report sometime in October or November. But guess what! Records show that only 2000 copies have been sold; you've earned $3400, but since you've already collected an $8500, you get no money this time around. Six months later, you learn that another 2000 copies have been sold, but there have been some returns, and the agent had some expenses sending copies to foreign publishers, and your earnings are only around $3000. Still no money due.

Meanwhile, you're working on another book. You're convinced this one will do better. The publisher isn't sure. They hedge their bets. They offer only $7500 this time. They wonder if maybe you shouldn't try something different. (Vampires? Paranormal? Dystopia?)

The good news is that books often stay in print and sell for years. Only a few days ago I got a statement from a major publisher for a book published more than thirty years ago. The royalty statement says "no money due." In fact, it seems that I now owe the publisher 47 cents. But I'm not discouraged. I'll be getting a few more statements in the next month or so. Then I can answer the question, "You make a decent living, don't you?" Read More 
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No Vampires for Me

I'll never write a book like THE HUNGER GAMES, because I don't much care for dystopic fiction, or TWILIGHT, because vampires and werewolves hold no interest for me. I'll never write science fiction or fantasy, because I'm not very good at making up stuff from other worlds.

My family would like to see me try. They think more people want to read such novels than want to read historical fiction, and if I'd just pay attention to what the publishing trends are, settle down and try something different, I might actually become a very popular writer. They think I've got the ability, they know I work hard, and they worry that I'm not famous. I'm sure they'd love it if I actually became rich.

Sorry, kids, it's not going to happen. Not that I'm stuck in the past--just that I really love imagining what the lives of people must have been like long ago, and then writing about them and bringing them to life. And as long as there are at least some readers out there who love it too, I'll keep on doing what I do and leave the vampires to others. Read More 
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What I Like/Dislike About Writing

I love it when I get a new idea. I'm excited when I do enough research to recognize that it's a good idea, even more excited when an editor says, "Tell me more." I love doing the basic research, enough to start writing, and then more advanced research as the project becomes more complicated. I'm hyped when I see the story unfold, taking off in directions I hadn't expected. I'm happy when I see it all coming together with the end actually in sight. I'm glad when the first draft is done and happy when I see what I need to do in the next draft.

I feel good when I send the ms. to the editor. I feel even better when the word comes back that the editor likes it but sees need for improvement. I'm energized when I jump into that complete rewrite, and I'm even glad when there are more questions, more problems to be solved and I can figure out how to solve them.

I DO NOT LIKE to get the ms. back from the copyeditor (CE)with dozens upon dozens of queries and suggestions for small changes; when the CE disagrees with my research, questions my conclusions, or goes to sources different from the ones I've used. I know that's what CE's do. But I don't like it.

This week BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER arrived, and I've spent the past few days going over all those queries. It's the CE's job to question things. We both want the book to be accurate, the grammar to be correct, the spelling perfect. Today I've struggled with the correct spelling of Pharsalos, a small, remote city in ancient Greece where Hermione spent some very unhappy months. The CE has changed every single reference to Pharsalus--"us," instead of "os"--which is a more modern spelling of the name. The CE is wrong. But now I have to find evidence to prove it.

CE says her sources say it's "Lion Gate;" my sources call it "Lions Gate." We're both right--but I want it my way.

Sometimes, of course, CE catches some bloopers--I've made a few--and for that I'm grateful. But this is the one part of the process of writing and publishing that I definitely do NOT enjoy. Fortunately, it will be finished soon. By the end of this week I'll be doing something I really love--working on a new novel. Read More 
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The Blog Tour

I have no idea how many book-lovers are out there blogging about the books they enjoy, but there must be a bunch. I decided to do a blog tour to promote VICTORIA REBELS. Some of my writer pals have organized their own, which seems to involve an awful lot of work, just to set it up, and so I opted to enlist the services of a bright and ambitious young woman, Gabrielle Carolina, who has a blog of her own, The Mod Podge Bookshelf. We decided to run it Feb. 18th to Mar. 13th.

I left on Jan. 9th for Paris and Spain, using my iPhone to check my email periodically, and toward the end of the trip (which was wonderful, by the way) the schedule and the interviews began to pop up. By the time I got home a week ago after more than 24 hours without sleep and a heavy cold coming on, all but one of the 18 bloggers who had signed up for the tour had sent their questions. On Monday, surrounded by Kleenex, I began answering.

The ones I enjoyed most were the "character interviews," in which I pretended to be the interviewee and actually made up my own questions or edited the ones submitted, and then I answered them in the character's voice. Most fun was answering in the persona of the villainous Sir John Conroy.

The hardest were the Top Ten lists. What were Queen Victoria's ten favorite things? Well, after her dog and her horse, the color blue and boiled eggs for breakfast, I began to run out of things. Even more difficult, what were MY ten favorite things about the Victorian Era? Hey, I love the hats and the gloves and the gardens! But then what? I struggled most of all with what seems like an innocuous question: My ten favorite or most influential books. I couldn't come up with even ONE that I'd put on such a list, and so I dodged and described the sources I used to write VICTORIA REBELS. Personally, I think that's much more interesting, and I hope the blogger agrees. Meanwhile, I keep thinking about what has really influenced me. Read More 
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Panic Mode

I'm always this way before a big trip: rushing to get work finished, making long lists to myself, worrying that I'll leave something major undone. First, there were the holidays and lots of time spent cooking. Then the launch party on Wednesday for VICTORIA REBELS. I put together a slideshow of photos, and my hairdresser, Cathy, brought her 4-year-old, Gia, and replicated the braids on the cover. Brilliant!

The next day the electronic manuscript arrived for more "tweaks"--dozens of them--on BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER. Just got that finished.

And I've been putting together some notes to collect that headful of ideas I brought back from NYC in mid-December.

Now, in three days, we leave for a few days in Paris and then on to Spain. Find the passport, call the credit card company, cancel the daily paper, figure out how to pack one small carry-on bag for 18 days of winter travel--and for goodness sake, don't leave anything rotting in the fridge.

But I've got to find an hour or so to write up some of those ideas before they vanish in the fog. Read More 
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Between Books - Part II

Four months ago I posted a journal entry with the same title. And I think I did manage to take a weekend off, before I dived (dove?) into my next project, updating my old Hotline series to publish as e-books. That turned out to be much more time-consuming than I anticipated. It wasn't just the physical chore of actually re-typing four entire novels from four yellowing paperbacks; I had to rethink big chunks of the stories and keep my ear tuned for dated dialogue. But I finished the job; three are now available on amazon.com and bn.com, and the fourth is almost ready to go live.

Done!

Then BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER came back from Editor Julie; I was moaning about that at the end of November, but I finished it, too, hoping that Julie would be able to look it over before I arrived in New York in early December.

Done!

Then it was time to leave. With a clear mind and an (almost) clear desk, I took off for Denver for a family visit that included a visit to the wonderful Van Gogh exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. Then to NYC where I managed in three days to have a breakfast and three lunches with various editors and one agent, went to three museums for exhibits of Picasso, Matisse, and Beatrix Potter, and saw two outstanding plays (not Broadway shows; just very good plays).

Finished off with a train ride through the beautiful Hudson Valley, winding up in Rochester for another family visit. And flew home after 11 days on the road with a headful of ideas. I won't be "between books" for long. Read More 
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On Rewriting

I'm not a good writer. My first drafts are wretched. Not unreadable, really, but not anything you'd actually WANT to read. Honestly. But I fortunately have a very patient editor. She reads what I've sent and after a few weeks, sometimes months, I get a letter that almost always begins the same way: "Dear Carolyn, I have read (fill in the blank) and I love most of what you have written." MOST??? I want her to love all of it! But she does not. It takes me a little while to adjust to this news. I'm always surprised at what she doesn't love. I feel wounded. I can't at first imagine how I will ever turn these unloved pages into something we can both live with.

But here's the good news: I am a very good REwriter. I catch on fast. Once I get over my injured feelings, I get to work, tear the thing apart, perform major surgery and minor cosmetic facelifts. I obsess over it. I nurse it back to health. I begin to feel hopeful as my wretched draft begins to look and sound good. I read it aloud. Sounds good, too! Maybe it will work.

Last evening, after several weeks of obsessing, waking up in the middle of the night, I finished the rewrite of BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER and sent it off to Editor Julie. Shortly after, I received an email from another editor, forwarding the first review of VICTORIA REBELS, to be published January 1st. "This absorbing, fictionalized first-person of Queen Victoria's early life..." it begins, and goes on, glowingly, from there.
It's good to remember that the early draft of that novel was pretty much of a mess, too. Read More 
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Haunted

This isn't really about Halloween. This is about long-ago projects that occasionally come back to life: call them Undead Books.

This week I got an email from someone named Billy, who is a member of a band and wants to use some of the illustrations from my book titled MASK MAGIC, published in 1978, 34 years ago, my seventh book. The illustrator was Melanie Gaines Arwin. I never met her, had no contact with her, and have no idea where she is now. Billy writes, "I was struck by the strangeness of the illustrations when taken out of context." He wants to use some of them as part of the band's new album packaging. Imagine that! Of course that sent me off in search of my only surviving copy of MASK MAGIC. And Billy is right--the illustrations are wonderfully strange. I'd love to have them come to life again.

Yet another book comes back to life: WHITE LILACS, published much more recently (in 1992) and now used as the basis for a student's film project in Denton, Texas, where the story was set. Follow this link to view the film:
http://www.edmodo.com/file?id=9153fd9bd8d42a7c1453e8cec581ef98  Read More 
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Morning Walk

The goal is to be out the door before 6:30 a.m. In the elevator I meet Dave, on his way to Starbucks with his two little dogs. Karen is cleaning the lobby and greets me in Spanish; sometimes we manage a rudimentary conversation. On weekends her 13-year-old daughter, Angelica, helps her. It's still dark, temp in the 40's, light breeze.

Turn west and greet the guys in the day-glo yellow jackets, cleaning up litter outside the nightclub. At the Gold Street Caffe the manager is setting up the outside tables; by noon it will be warm enough to sit here in the sun. Farther on, outside the Federal Building, the flag is already up. Duran, the security guard, waves and wishes me a nice day, and the guy who tends the flower bed near the flagpole calls out greetings. People are on their way to work; the bus stop here is busy.

Two blocks on and I'm out of the Downtown business district and into a quiet residential area. No traffic, a few people walking their dogs, several bicyclists, a couple of runners, lots of cats. The cats ignore me, but the dogwalkers, bicyclists, and runners all wave. We see each other often. The smell of roasting coffee floats down from Java Joe's, one street up. I pass Danny's house. He's a slam poet, and he's been talking about moving to Portland. I haven't seen his old car and wonder if he's gone.

I reach Kit Carson Park and turn right; almost half way. The sky is light now, the sun will be up soon. One long block and I turn right again, now heading east. The gardens that were so lush during the summer are faded now, but a few people have put out pots of fall flowers. Another right turn and then a left. Last year I watched the daily progress on a big house remodeling project. Now the owner jumps rope in his garage in the mornings.

The lights are on at Peggy's. A teacher, newly retired, she was often working in her garden, and we've gotten acquainted. Someday, we promise each other, we'll get together some afternoon for coffee. Through the years I've made several friends on my morning walks, and we DO get together occasionally.

The attack chihuahuas at the corner of 11th and Gold are not out much now. Too cold, I guess. At 8th Street cars continue to run the stop sign. The woman who works in the North Valley at a plant nursery walks fast to the bus stop to catch the express; she's carrying a brown bag, probably with a scone from the Flying Star.

I pass June, who comes in by bus from the East Mountains every morning. For 8 months we waved and said Hi, and then one day she stopped to talk, and we made plans to go out for lunch. She's walking with her neighbor, Harry, who for some reason I called George until June finally corrected me.

Giuseppe's Coffee is open now, and a few men in suits and ties are eating breakfast at the Gold Street Caffe. The sun is up. Another block and I'm back in my building, grabbing my Albuquerque Journal, reading the headlines while I ride up in the elevator. Tony is still asleep. It's 7:30. I've walked 3 miles. I feel good. A shower, breakfast, a look at the paper, and I'm ready for the day. Read More 
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