What is in a name?

Like many authors, I spend a lot of time tasting the names of my characters. Do they fit them, do they please me, are they adequate for the period—many, many questions.

Some characters come with names. Matthew Graham popped up neatly labelled as did Alex Lind, a modern woman who gave me a mental headshake before throwing the rather handsome Matthew a surreptitious look. Other characters begin life with one name and then, about halfway through my rough draft, I just change it. Inspiration has struck, which is why Adam de Guirande is named Adam and not Gilbert. (A change I am very happy with)

In a WIP I’ve been working on for quite some years, my female protagonist popped up as Sofia Carolina Rudbeck. Of mixed descent, the Swedish young woman lives in 17th century Stockholm and will spend much of her childhood in proximity to Queen Kristina. Not something Sofia is all that thrilled about, because Kristina is several years older and not always all that nice. Anyway: after like 40 000 words it struck me that my character shared her name with my sister. (I rarely call my sister Sofia, I use Fia instead which explains why it hadn’t struck me before, I guess)

So, could I really use my sister’s name for an invented character? I decided not, so Sofia became Hannah. That worked for a while—especially while I wasn’t working too much on the WIP. But now that I am back to thinking about it, Hannah Carolina just doesn’t sound right. At all. The person taking shape through my words totally agrees. When I ask her for suggestions, she just gives one: Sofia. When I ask the male protagonist, he says the same.
“I’ve never called her Hannah,” he says.
“That’s because you call her your little pigeon,” I tell him.
Jon Crowne smiles. “I like pigeons.”

Where I have vacillated over the name of the female protagonist, there was never any doubt about Jon’s name. Not that it is his real name, but that is between Jon and me—at least for now. And by the time he is in a position to reclaim his real name I suspect he won’t want to. But we shall see: such matters tend to become clearer as the full story takes shape.

I’ve now renamed Hannah. She is back to being Sofia, and ever since I took that decision, other bits and pieces of the narrative are falling into place. I even know how things will end. Well, almost. Still, a major improvement from how things were three or four weeks ago, and all because of a name that chafed and irritated. Clearly, there IS something in a name, no matter that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!

Raquel 800px-Godward_Summer_Flowers_1903

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Keeping it real – sort of

Okay, so I read a lot of romance. A lot. In general, the leads in all these romances are all DDG, i.e. drop dead gorgeous. Rarely does one encounter a romantic hero with a paunch and thinning hair, or a heroine with bifocals, a tad too many pounds round her waist and a preference for flat heels. And yes, I agree that part of the appeal is that while reading a romance I can pretend to be one of those over-represented redhaired beauties with long, long legs and green eyes. I can pretend that the man holding me so tenderly to his chest is six foot something, a lot of muscle and tousle-worthy hair. All very nice.

Still, sometimes I get a tad irritated by all these male leads with ripped abs and bulging biceps, with muscled thighs and pecs to die for. Why? Because they never do anything to maintain their physique! Rarely do we see our leads go to the gym, sweat like crazy and collapse in sheer exhaustion afterwards. Yes, there are books where exercise happens, but usually these mouth-watering men and their female counterparts just are. Like Venus alighting from her sea-shell, they embody perfection without having done much to deserve their physical attributes. Great DNA, one presumes.

As an aside, look at Venus as depicted by Botticelli and consider whether our goddess of love would even qualify as mouth-watering in this age of physical perfection. Neither here nor there, but I suspect Botticelli was actually using a real woman as his model, ergo the softness to some of the curves, the lack of overall athletic tone. Kudos to him, I say.

Most authors gravitate towards type. I do that myself, liking my male leads taller than average and somewhat hunky. But one of them is hunky because he’s a medieval knight and spends a LOT of time perfecting his fighting skills. The other is brawny because he’s a farmer, wresting virgin land from the American forests to convert it into arable fields. Hard, hard work that leaves a man with long, strong muscles, a broad chest and strong arms (and, as he gets older, an aching back). My soon-to-see-the-light-of-the-day contemporary lead is a fine-looking specimen, but him we also see work out. Still: one could argue I should vary myself and have non-descript men as my heroes. Maybe I should—but I won’t. I will, however, try to make their physique the result of some effort.

What I find rather fascinating when it comes to romance heroines is that very often they like to eat—a lot—without this having an impact on their weight. How often doesn’t a romance hero gaze fondly at his soon-to-be other half as she chomps her way through generous portions and desserts and say “I love a woman who enjoys her food”? Argh! Very few women, in my experience, can indulge their appetite and retain their perfect figure. Well, unless they work out which very often romance heroines don’t. Especially if they’re 19th century Regency Romance heroines, seeing as there weren’t any gyms back then, so exercise was often restricted to walks, at times long dramatic walks over rain-drenched moors, at others more of a stroll round the nearby park.

Anyway: I can forgive the handsome hunks (of course I can) and the lucky lady with the constant hourglass figure, no matter how much she stuffs her face. What I do have a major problem with is when the obstacles our couple have to overcome become too inane. Misunderstandings are ok, but when the protagonists lose all communication skills overnight, thereby making it impossible to have that one conversation required to clear up the mess, I generally groan. Loudly.

Skilled writers usually complicate things by creating a misunderstanding followed by a separation in place, i.e. he never gets the opportunity to explain he wasn’t flirting with another woman because he is abducted by the villain of the book. Or she rushes to tell him she didn’t mean to kiss Handsome Harry—in fact, he forced her, the bastard—and is abducted by the villain of the book, a.k.a. Handsome Harry. Or he is called away to the deathbed of his father. Or she is afflicted by measles and almost dies (which creates an excellent opportunity for the dashing hero to brave the germs and sit beside her as she twists and tosses in a high fever, repeatedly calling his name. Awww…)

Whichever version, at some point our DDG hero is going to a) escape and brain Handsome Harry while doing so b) rescue her and brain Handsome Harry while doing so c) hasten back from the deathbed once Papa has passed and punch Handsome Harry in the face before declaring just how much he loves his redhaired beauty d) fall to his knees when she finally wakes and beg for forgiveness for being such a cad last time they were together.

There are also those variants where it is the determined heroine who saves her hero from the clutches of the evil Handsome Harry. At times, she does this by sacrificing herself (free him and I will be yours) but fortunately once HH has complied, our hero returns to save his sweetheart. Alternatively, our heroine grips a poker and defends herself… I rather like ladies who rely on themselves rather than their man.

The interesting thing about romance is that even if we all know there will be a Happily Ever After in which the dashing hero rides off into the sunset with the glamorous heroine, good writers still manage to create sufficient tension and novelty. How? Mostly be developing the characters and giving them quirks and unique personalities – and keeping them real. Or at least realish. Which, dear peeps, means that IF you have a glorious hunk strolling across the pages of your novel, please, please make all that musculature feasible. Give him a rowing machine (or a row-boat if we’re back in time). Give him a gym membership or a tough fencing master. Give him something!

That weird head-hopping stuff.

Writing a book is about establishing a connection between the reader and the character in the book. No matter how excellent the historical details, how correct the description of everything from how to dismantle a gun to how to perform emergency surgery in the wild, unless the reader is invested in the characters, the read will leave them at most lukewarm. Unless, of course, they read the book precisely to find out how to dismantle a gun, but generally expectations on a work of fiction are somewhat higher than that.

To establish that connection, the writer has at their disposal person and POV – point of view. Person is usually a choice between first person and third person. I once attended a very interesting lecture about using second person, i.e. “you” throughout a book and came away with the conclusion that this  a) was difficult to pull off without sounding patronising/hectoring  b) would never create that sensation for the reader of being inside the character’s head, seeing as the writer was always talking TO the character rather than THROUGH the character.

First person is not a favourite with me. Yes, there are a number of books written in first person that are very gripping, but in general I feel first person is rather restrictive. However, there are some books in which a combination of first and third person are used in an excellent fashion, and there is one book in particular where an initial third person bleeds over into a first person that I find quite amazing. This is a story about a woman afflicted by dreams of the early 13th century, vivid dreams in which she effectively sees the past through the eyes of a person living in the past. As the dreams become increasingly more vivid, as the lines between reality and dream become more and more blurred, our protagonist drifts from third person narrative to first person narrative and I, as the reader, am thereby dragged along into her obsession/that distant past life.

Many first person books end up being flat. There is a lack of depth in reactions, reflections, emotions as they’re often sifted through one very subjective view. (The obvious exception are intense books roiling with personal feelings where first person may well be the only choice as it is the subjectivity of the reactions that define the book and the character) Once again, some writers overcome this hurdle with ease – but far more do not.

Some books have multiple first person POVs, but those I tend to find rather confusing.  What I really detest about books written in first person is the “how do I fit in a description of my character now that I’m writing in first person” issue. Studying your own reflection happens a lot. Strange sentences such as “I dragged the brush through my long, golden locks” make me cringe, as rarely do we think of our hair as anything other than plain hair. Or “My blue eyes teared up.” Urk.

The benefit with first person books is that the POV is very clear. People writing first person rarely head hop – indicative of the fact that we generally do not know what the person we’re talking to is thinking, nor do we feel their emotions, be they anger or irritation or joy or whatever. Our first person character might see their reactions. “His face lit up” would indicate the person is pleased. “I watched with trepidation as his hand bunched into a fist,” indicates some sort of conflict. Our first person can guess at what they’re thinking/feeling. “To judge from how X kept his eyes on the plate, he had no desire to continue this discussion.” It might have nothing to do with an unwillingness to continue the discussion: maybe X was struggling with mirth and did not want to hurt the protagonist by bursting out in laughter.

Third person narratives (and I prefer those with various POV characters) somehow offer more depth – at least to me. They do, however, require that the writer sticks to the chosen POV throughout a scene/dialogue, this so as to avoid confusing the reader. Head-hopping, i.e. the writer’s tendency to leap-frog from one person’s thoughts to the other, not only causes confusion, it also causes distance, as the reader is thereby expected to bond with multiple characters simultaneously.

“Why would I do that?” She crossed her arms over her chest. No way. Never. It was wrong, heck, it was probably illegal. (Here we are in HER head)
“Because I want you to,” he replied, amused by her stance, by how she lifted her chin. He had to hand it to her: she had guts—and a moral compass. Wouldn’t help her much, though.
(What? And now we’re in HIS head?)
“I won’t do it,” she said, setting her jaw. She glared at him, hating the way he smiled, the way he looked utterly unfazed by her refusal.
(Back to HER head…)
“Oh, you will. Eventually. You have to, you know that.” He took a step towards her and she backed away, her eyes wide and dark. She licked her lips. He liked that.
(HIS head. Somewhat sinister, isn’t he?)
“Dream on,” she snapped back, trying to inject determination in her voice.
(Oops! Back to HER, so I can’t continue exploring his sinister side. Pity…) 
“No dream, sweet-pea.” He crowded her back against the wall. “I tell you to do something, you’ll do it. Now.” He ran a hand down her arm, enjoying how she shivered under his touch, the muscles in her forearm bunching when he tightened his hold. He ran his thumb up and down her skin. Soft, slightly damp skin. Not only because of the damned heat, he supposed, bending down to brush his lips down her cheek, down her neck. She smelled nice. He kissed her just below her ear. She tasted nice too. She softened—for an instant, before yanking free and ducking under his arm, marching towards the door. A futile gesture. The door was locked and he wasn’t about to let her go until she’d done as he told her to. He could wait all night if necessary.
(All in HIS POV. Quite the relief after all that preceding back and forth) 

Okay, so the reader gets the above. He wants her to do something, she doesn’t. He is clearly attracted to her, whether she returns the favour is unclear. But the reader does not need to develop more than a shallow bond with the characters – the writer is telling the reader just what each speaker is thinking with each line of dialogue, which is a far cry from how things are in real life. Far more importantly, this writing technique means the reader is missing out on how the POV character reacts to what the other person says or how she/he reacts – in itself an illumination of the POV character.

So if we were to write the above purely in her POV, it might read like this:

“Why would I do that?” She crossed her arms over her chest. No way. Never. It was wrong, heck, it was probably illegal.
“Because I want you to,” he replied, the corner of his mouth twitching. Damn him for looking at her like that, as if she had no choice but to do as he asked!
“I won’t do it,” she said, setting her jaw. She glared at him, hating the way he smiled, the way he looked utterly unfazed by her refusal.
“Oh, you will. Eventually. You have to, you know that.” He took a step towards her. She scrambled back, not wanting him too close. Or maybe she did. She licked her lips. His smile became a grin.
“Dream on,” she snapped back, trying to inject determination in her voice.
“No dream, sweet-pea.” He crowded her back against the wall. “I told you to do something, you’ll do it. Now.” He ran a hand down her arm. She shivered, the muscles in her forearm bunching when he tightened his hold. He ran his thumb up and down her skin. Too intimate, too gentle. His lips, brushing her cheek, her neck, and she leaned into his solid warmth, his gentle touch. He kissed her just below the ear and she bit back on a moan. No, no, no! What was she doing? She yanked free, ducked under his arm and marched towards the door. A futile gesture, she knew that. He wasn’t about to let her go until she’d done as he told her to, and to judge from his expression he could wait all night if necessary.

What we get from this is that she is conflicted. She is attracted to this man, but she is also angry and intimidated.  This makes her an interesting character to the reader, we sort of like conflict, don’t we? His behaviour – as analysed by her – would indicate he is attracted to her, but not to the point of letting her off the hook.

We could also write the scene from his POV:

“Why would I do that?” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Because I want you to,” he replied, amused by her stance, by how she lifted her chin. He had to hand it to her: she had guts—and a moral compass. Wouldn’t help her much, though.
“I won’t do it,” she said, setting her jaw. He just had to smile. His princess looked about as dangerous as a determined poodle. How fortunate he was here to keep her safe.
“Oh, you will. Eventually. You have to, you know that.” He took a step towards her and she backed away, her eyes wide and dark. She licked her lips. He liked that.
“Dream on,” she snapped back, and he heard the quaver in her voice.
“No dream, sweet-pea.” He crowded her back against the wall. “I tell you to do something, you’ll do it. Now.” He ran a hand down her arm, enjoying how she shivered under his touch, the muscles in her forearm bunching when he tightened his hold. He ran his thumb up and down her skin. Soft, slightly damp skin. Not only because of the damned heat, he supposed, bending down to brush his lips down her cheek, down her neck. She smelled nice. He kissed her just below her ear. She tasted nice too. She softened—for an instant, before yanking free and ducking under his arm, marching towards the door. A futile gesture. The door was locked and he wasn’t about to let her go until she’d done as he told her to. He could wait all night if necessary.

Well, maybe he isn’t that big a jerk. He is attracted to her and admires her and the use of “his princess” indicates he cares for her. He still has no intention of letting her off the hook, but after reading his POV the reader can toy with the idea that maybe there’s a valid reason behind his insistence. Maybe. Once again, we have been given deeper insight into the character than in the original head-hopping scene. This generates more interest from the reader.

Note that the changes are subtle. The dialogue as such doesn’t change, the overall conflict (he wants her to do something she doesn’t want to do) remains unchanged. But the persuasions behind their actions become somewhat clearer, indicating a complexity to their characters.

As an aside, I find it helps to write crucial scenes in various POVs as this tends to shed light on the various characters, thereby giving me, as the writer, a deeper understanding for their motivations.

Some writers—notably those who do it—feel head-hopping is no big deal. Some say well-known, established authors do it (and yes, sadly some do). Some even go as far as saying that adding the inner reflections of their various characters to their every line of dialogue enriches the reading experience. Hmm. Nope, not to me. Instead, I am highly irritated by head-hopping as it indicates that the writer is either a) unaware of some of the basics of writing, or b) a tad lazy, as it is much harder to refrain from head-hopping than it is to do it. Besides, every time the writer head-hops, there is a risk that this will yank the reader right out of the character and the story. What could have been a deeply satisfying read becomes nothing but a distraction, potentially enjoyable but forgettable. Seriously, what writer wants their books to be classified as that?

No discipline, no output

Writing is a very creative process. In the initial stages, there’s not much discipline around as I’m so caught up in developing the story I often forget both to cook and shop, causing me to survive on copious amounts of tea and too much chocolate. This stage is exhausting – productivity is at an all-time high and I am burning energy as if there is no tomorrow, especially as I also have a pretty demanding day-job.

Some writers love this part of the process. I don’t, uncomfortable with the way I am engulfed by the creative side in me. You see, in all other aspects of my life I am VERY disciplined. I write lists. I plan dinners a week at the time. I am a structural fascist. Having my brain taken over by my characters—and a loud and opinionated lot they are—is way out of my comfort zone, however exhilarating it is.

Fortunately, once the first draft is in place, I can resort to structure. This is when I rewrite and revise. Historical fiction authors come in all sizes. For some, the human-interest angle overshadows everything else, and a couple of historical errors is neither here nor there. For others, the historical facts must be as correct as they can be. I belong to the latter category, and my penchant for lists and structure—discipline—come in handy when I double-check my facts. Or when I chase up little details such as on what day exactly was there a full moon in April of 1328. Or spend hours studying what medieval maps I can find of the various towns in which my story takes place.

I think this is my favourite phase of the writing process, lovely hours spent organising my work, comparing my research notes with the story and the settings. This is also when I discover that perfect scene in which my heroine is staring out towards the west and the setting sun has to go as the castle she is in would not offer all that much of a view to the west. I sigh mightily at having to cut the scene—but pat myself on the back for having the fortitude to do so. After all, facts are facts.

Mind you, a historical novel without human-interest would be pretty boring. Especially, if like me, you’re into searing love stories, intense love scenes and some sort of HEA (Happily Ever After). So while the discipline—fact-checking, plot-structure, realistic character arcs, revised grammar & spelling—build the foundations, it is the creative whimsy, the actual people, their lives and loves, which make up the icing. And who wants cake without icing, hey? Not me, at any rate!

My latest release is set in 14th century England: An inept king is forcibly deposed and replaced by his young son; the queen mother and her lover Roger Mortimer take over the actual ruling and the barons of England don’t like it one bit, to be lorded over by an adulterous wife and her bit on the side. This is all historical fact, hours of research laying the framework for the story. A story with plenty of human-interest as it stands, but to really spice things up I’ve added the fictional character Adam de Guirande, torn between his love for his young king, his former lord Mortimer—and his wife.

The end result is (I hope) quite the heady brew of medieval intrigue, treachery and passion. But it is the disciplined approach to historical facts and trivia that help build the setting and atmosphere. It is through discipline that I build my medieval world, lacing it with sufficient details to transport the readers right into the draughty guest hall of the Priory of St Mary, one very cold December day in 1327.

It had been decided that the former king was to be buried at St Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester. Some days into December, the court was slowly making its way across a sodden and gloomy England, the king preferring to ride apart with his young companions.

They arrived in Worcester in a squall of rain and sleet. Kit had never entered Worcester from the east before, having always approached from the west and over the bridge spanning the Severn, but once through the gate, the town was very much as she remembered it—albeit surprisingly empty of people, which she took to be due to the freezing weather. They made their way towards the river and the huge whitewashed church of the priory of St Mary’s, stark against the grey skies beyond. By the time they were ushered inside the priory’s guest hall, they were muddy and cold to the bone.

Kit settled herself in a corner, waiting for the bustle to settle. The queen insisted on private accommodation, and the little prior bowed and scraped, hands twisting nervously as he assured his lady queen he would do everything to fulfil her wishes.
Kit pulled her damp cloak closer and suppressed a shiver.
“Cold?” King Edward sat down beside her.
“And wet.”
So was he, his hair plastered to his head. A day of constant wind and rain had left him with windburn, he had a streak of mud under his right eye, and his boots squelched when he moved. And yet it wasn’t that which moved her to place a hand on his face—it was the shadows under his eyes, the uncertain set to his mouth.
“It will be over soon, my lord.”
“Will it?” He pulled off his gloves, rubbing his hands. “I am not so sure, Lady Kit.” He scraped at a scab on his hand, studying the little beads of blood intently.
“Once he is laid at rest, things will be easier.” She used her sleeve to wipe his hand clean of blood.
Edward grunted, no more, sinking into a heavy silence. Kit cast about for a somewhat cheerier subject.
“Looking forward to your wedding, my lord?”
The king blinked. “My wedding?” His mouth curved into a soft smile, and he nodded. “She will be on her way soon.” He gnawed his lip, throwing Kit a look from under long, fair lashes. “I hope she is as pleased as I am.”
“Oh, I am sure she is.”
“Truly?” He smiled again, briefly. He made as if to say something, broke off. Kit waited. “I…” He turned troubled eyes on Kit. “I have never…er…deflowered a maid.”
“I am glad to hear that,” Kit said, laughing silently at his discomfited expression.
“Will I hurt her? I don’t want to, but Montagu says it always hurts the first time for a woman.” He leaned back against the wall, long legs extended before him.
“It doesn’t have to.” Kit recalled her own wedding night. It had been uncomfortable as Adam had been convinced she was no virgin. But he had made amends, loving her with far more tenderness the second time around.
“Lady Philippa will have been told two things: that it may hurt, and that she must lay back and bear it—as any good wife must.” She rubbed at her belly. In response, the child within kicked. “If you want a happy marriage, you don’t want her to lay back and bear it, my lord. You want her to enjoy it.” From the amused look in the king’s eyes and the heat in her cheeks, Kit suspected she was presently the bright red of rowan berries, but she pushed on. “You must…well, I suppose you have to…” She glared at him. “Why don’t you ask Adam instead?”
“He’s not a woman.” The king studied his hands. “I have to touch her, don’t I?” He cleared his throat. “Everywhere.”
“Yes.” Kit fiddled with the clasps of her cloak. “Touch her and kiss her until she strains towards you.”
“What if she doesn’t?”
“Then you’re not touching her boldly enough.”
The king grinned. “Can I hope for some demonstrations, Lady Kit?”
“Most certainly not!” She stood. “If you want further guidance, I suggest you ask someone else.”
“Like Adam.” Yet again that broad grin. “He must do everything right, to judge from your bright face, my lady.”
Kit grinned back, patting her belly. “As a matter of fact, my lord, he does.”

Cracking the whip

writer“No inspiration,” I sometimes sigh, while staring at the screen which remains enervatingly blank. And yes, inspiration is a must when it comes to writing—if nothing else as the igniting spark—but there’s another component which is just as important: discipline.
“Of course,” my very own muse, Ms Inspiration says. For the day, she’s wearing a rather scary outfit—all black & red leather—and out of nowhere a whip materialises. She smiles—one of those smiles that is all teeth no warmth. When she’s in this mode, Ms Inspiration is frankly quite frightening, and I have to suppress the urge to stand up and run, reminding myself repeatedly that Ms Inspiration is not real. She’s a figment of my imagination.

“Ouch!” I jump like half a metre when she cracks the whip over my back. For a figment, she sure has quite the hand on her.
“You have work to do,” Ms Inspiration tells me. She nods at my very long to-do list. “Get cracking.” She chuckles and cracks the whip in the air a couple of times before fading away. I have no doubt she’ll be back to plague me if I don’t comply.

That to-do list of mine is full of stuff that requires discipline rather than inspiration. Things I do once I have a first draft to work with – once that initial conflagration of inspiration has burned down a bit. After all, the first phase of any writing project IS creative, inspirational. I dive right into my escapist bubble and end up so caught up in my developing story I often forget to cook and shop, surviving on copious amounts of tea and too much chocolate. This stage is exhausting – productivity is at an all-time high and I am burning energy as if there is no tomorrow, especially as I also have a pretty demanding day-job.

Some writers love this part of the process. I do and I don’t, torn between the exhilaration of seeing my story, my characters come alive, and being uncomfortable with the way I am engulfed by my creative side. You see, in all other aspects of my life I am VERY disciplined. I write lists. I plan dinners a week at the time. I am a structural fascist. Having my brain taken over by my characters—and a loud and opinionated lot they are—is way out of my comfort zone, however exciting.

Fortunately, once the first draft is in place, I can resort to structure—which in my case results in the to-do lists. Lists with things like “double-check how many blows to the head it took before XX died” or “MANTEL, not MANTLE!!!!!” or “time from Northampton to Leicester by horse?” or “top speed for a Tesla?” (and yes, obviously these are examples from different books). This is when I rewrite and revise, when I go back to my research notes to verify my facts.

Now, historical fiction authors come in all sizes. For some, the human-interest angle overshadows everything else, and a couple of historical errors is neither here nor there. For others, the historical facts must be as correct as they can be. I belong to the latter category, and my penchant for lists and structure—discipline—comes in handy when I chase up little details such as on what day exactly was there a full moon in April of 1328. Or spend hours studying what medieval maps I can find of the various towns in which my story takes place.

metsu_writerI think this is my favourite phase of the writing process, lovely hours spent polishing my work. This is also when I discover that perfect scene in which my heroine is staring out towards the setting sun has to go as the location she’s at would not offer all that much of a view to the west. I sigh mightily at having to cut the scene—but pat myself on the back for having the fortitude to do so. After all, facts are facts.

All of this requires discipline—and an eye for details. Fact-checking, tick, plot-structure, tick, grammar & spelling (MANTEL, remember?), tick, All those ticks build the foundation of the final story. Ultimately, though, it is the inspirational bursts, the characters and their lives and loves, which add the icing to the story-telling cake. And who wants cake without an icing, hey? Not me!
“Done yet?” Ms Inspiration reappears in a swirl of red and black leather. I proudly hold up my list. Write post is now neatly ticked.
“Well done.” She peers at the list (she’s seriously myopic but is too vain to admit it). “Only nineteen items to go.”
I groan. She cracks her whip. Here we go again…

When the creative juices flow

And let’s hope they keep on flowing! A post I wrote some years ago seems just as valid today 🙂

ANNA BELFRAGE

imagesOG7LVEQ1 Me sitting down to chat w me…(Sargent)

Every now and then, I sit down to have a serious one-to-one chat with yours truly. Okay, so the conversation is generally one-sided, as I haven’t progressed to doing different voices for different sides of my personality, but the purpose of these little tete-a-tetes is to remind myself why I write. Primarily for me. You see, sometimes I forget that my main source of inspiration and energy is the desire to write what pleases me.

These meetings tend to be quite the hub-bub. Some of my more vociferous invented characters will take the opportunity to remind me that very much of what I write affects them – and they really want a say in it. Not about to happen, I remind them. After all, life is usually a long sequence of surprises (big or small) no matter if you’re living in the real…

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When life sucks the words out of you

IMG_0093Sometimes, things happen that sort of whack Ms Inspiration senseless. It may be too much work (but that rarely fazes my Ms Inspiration, who just snorts, shakes out her long and colourful skirts and tells me not to whinge but get on with it) it may be life in general. Or, in some cases, Ms Inspiration decides she needs a long vacation and scoots off somewhere else entirely. Knowing Ms Inspiration, she’s likely hiking the Annapurna ring or paddling up the Amazon or doing some mountaneering in the Rockies. (Ms Inspiration is not only my muse. In some ways, she’s my alter ego, all the way from her long, dark curly hair to her dainty Victorian half-boots)

Whatever the case, there are times when the words just dry up. There I am, eager to get cracking, and I stare and stare at the cursor, trying to come up with one good sentence. When I’ve written the equivalent of “once upon a time” ten times, i know it is best to give up – for now.

Thing is, for me, words are a way to handle my reality. So when I can’t express myself,  there’s a lot of stuff roiling round in my belly and generally generating quite some discomfort. Especially when things are happening in life. Difficult things, that require to be processed. Elements of guilt, of frustration, of feeling utterly helpless – all of this tumbles round and round and is at most expressed in a succinct “Shit.” Not much help in processing things, let me tell you… Plus, Ms Inspiration is of little help – unless she finds a way to translate my personal experiences into fiction. Knowing her, she will. Once she’s back from Tibet or the impenetrable jungles round the Congo river.

I guess all writers draw on their own experiences when writing. We are also a bit like magpies: we steal other people’s experiences, gestures, ways of speak and incorporate them into our work. We watch those around us avidly, we register mannerisms and laughs, the interaction between friends and lovers. “I spy, with my little eye” – that’s a writer for you, entranced by the everyday drama of human interaction around us. So all of you (us) who have writer friends, best beware: at some point, something you did or said will end up in a novel. The important thing, of course, is to anonymise what you steal. The girl who decorated her hair with lacquered chopsticks will never recognise herself when she pops up in one of my coming books, neither will the rather gorgeous young man whom I once saw comforting his weeping girlfriend in Hyde Park.

gabriel-metsu-writingWhat any of the above has to do with my lack of words, I don’t really know – beyond concluding that by writing about this, I suddenly seem to have recouped some of my capacity for verbal expression.
“See?” Ms Inspiration whispers in my ear. “Sometimes, it’s just a matter of sitting down and putting one word before the other.” I glance at her: she’s sporting a lovely tan and has eschewed her normally so dark clothes for a creation in burnt orange and green, reminding me of a vivid tiger. “You’ve been gone for a long time.” Long enoght to sunbleach her hair and cover her nose with a smattering of dark freckles.
“Yup.” She shakes her forearm, and her multiple bangles jingle. “Did you miss me?”
“Not much.” Liar, liar pants on fire. Ms Inspiration arches her brows, no more.
“Okay, a little,” I tell her. Her brows rise all the way up to her hairline. I press my lips together. I’m not giving her more than that, not when she’s left me stranded and wordless for weeks and weeks. Ms Inspiration smirks – I always forget that as she lives inside my head, she hears all my thoughts. But she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she wonders what I think of the following:

She was soft and round and so short she had to crane her head back to look at him. Big dark eyes in a face that still retained the softness of childhood, dark hair that spilled unbound down her back, and a plump lower lip that bore the indents of her teeth – she must have been biting it just seconds before. A child, he reflected, trying to recall just how old this bride of his was. Fourteen? She didn’t look fourteen, but when his gaze dipped lower it encountered a promising swell over her chest, so maybe she wasn’t quite as immature as he had first thought. He smiled. She blushed, but did not avert her eyes, studying him as intently as he was studying her.

It seems the words are back, peeps. Or at least Ms Inspiration is!

The art of description – better too little than too much!

Whenever summer comes around, chances are I’ll be slouching in the shade reading a Lee Child novel. There is something very comforting about reading his books. Jack Reacher always survives, is always on the side of good, and the pace is fast and gripping. It is also a relief to read something outside my own genre, as the reading experience becomes more relaxed when I don’t go “Ooooo, that was an elegant insertion of historical detail” or “OMG: I wish I had written that!” or “That can’t be right, can it? A match in the 18th century?” (turns out it was – sort of).

So I read Lee Child to relax – except I don’t, because Mr Child is an expert at succinct descriptions, a few word sufficing to paint a person, a location, a situation, and I read and reread, because seriously, to describe your characters is an art. As a writer, I have a very clear picture of what my protagonists look like – but the moment I turn them over to the public in a published book, I’m also inviting the readers to form their own images, and to do so I must describe some things but not all things.

Take, for example, Adam de Guirande, tall and rugged 14th century knight. Now I know exactly what he looks like – all over.
“No you don’t,” Adam objects. “It’s not as if you’ve seen me stark naked.”
Umm…I sure have. I’ve seen him in the bath, I’ve seen him curled up in a dungeon, I’ve seen him hoisting his little son up in the air, I’ve seen him kissing his wife. More importantly, I’ve experienced his fears and hopes, lived through his rushes of adrenaline, felt the indescribable pain of having a mallet slammed through his foot (my toes curl) felt his heart beat faster when he sees his Kit, cried with him for Roger Mortimer when he’s dragged off in chains, hated Hugh Despenser as fervently as Adam does – the whole gamut of emotions experienced by an adult man torn apart by his loyalties in a time of severe unrest.

In each and every one of these situations, I know exactly what my fair-haired knight looks like. I know if he’s unshaven, if he has bags under his eyes, if there’s egg-yolk on his tunic (“Never,” Adam says, sounding quite offended. He’s wrong. A weakened man does not always eat as neatly as he’d like.) But I don’t impose all these visuals on my readers. I just drop some details – his scruffy hair in one scene, a vulnerable set to his mouth in another, a narrowing of his grey eyes in a third.

Other than Adam being tall, fair, grey-eyed and with a thin scar running down his face, I leave the rest of him up to my readers’ imagination. Does he have a long nose? Is there a dimple on his chin? Do his brows grow bushier towards the temples? I know, obviously, but I’ll allow each and every person who develops a relationship with Adam to decide those things for themselves. That way, they can make Adam their own. Well: He’s mine, but I can share him. (So as to avoid having my eyes scratched out by Adam’s wife, Kit, I hasten to add that ultimately he is her man, not mine. Of course.)

Lee Child has perfected a similar approach. After twenty odd Jack Reacher books, I dare say all readers have their own impression of what he might look like, and the only thing the avid Lee Child readers will agree on is that he does not look like Tom Cruise. At all. For starters, Jack Reacher is big – like very, very big. And then…Ah: that’s right, we don’t know much more than that, do we? More to the point, we don’t need to – we all have the imagination required to fill in the details.

Right: and with this I must leave you. Jack Reacher calls, and I just know that unless I keep an eye on him, he might end up in trouble. Come to think of it, Jack Reacher is ALWAYS in trouble.

As to Adam de Guirande, Timelight Press has published two out of four books in the series featuring him. The King’s Greatest Enemy is set in the 1320s and is the story of Adam, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published in 2015. The second book, Days of Sun and Glory, has just come out. Both books have been awarded Readers’ Favourite Five Star Seals, and Days has been selected an Editor’s Choice by Historical Novel Society. So, if you’re a fan of historical fiction (and selective descriptions) I urge  to enter a world of political intrigue, watch my protagonists navigate a world in which loss is certain and life is not.

A light in the dark

IMG_0323Wandering through the past has similarities to walking through the forest on a summer night. There is enough light to make out the general shape of things, the odd boulder, the stand of rustling oaks. The water of the distant lake shimmers in the ambient light, and a streak of orange hovers to the west – enough to illuminate the general contours that surround you.

The details, however, hide in the shadows. Something crunches benath your foot, and in the dark you have no idea whether it was a twig or the fragile shell of a bird’s egg. All you know is that something broke.

Writing historical fiction requires dragging those hidden details out into the light. In some cases, the author will fill in the gaps with plausible events – at least according to that author. But what is plausible for one author, is impossible for another, and so we can have two equally competent writers writing about the same historical person and depicting that person very differently. The classic example is Richard III, elevated to the heroic victim of whispered calumnies by some, presented as a ruthless murderer of innocents by others.

Some writers allow themselves the pleasure of presenting the same historical character differently in different books. One such example is Tony Riches, who in his book about Eleanor Cobham presents her husband, Humphrey of Gloucester, in a far more favourable light than he does in his book Owen, which features Owen Tudor and his secret marriage to Catherine Valois, Henry V’s widow (and Humphrey’s sister-in-law). Of course, neither of these depictions is correct – should Humphrey materialise before us, he’d probably be quite surprised by how he has been represented, as would Richard III. And Henry VII. Maybe not so much Henry VIII – although I suspect he would loudly claim he was the victim of a character assassination. From Henry VIII’s perspective, it is unfortunate that so much documentation from his reign has survived. Richard III, however, can give us a toothy grin and ask us just what sources we would base our assertion that he murdered his nephews on.

Things become even more diffuse if you choose to write about people who did not figure on the central stage – maybe who did not exist at all. Obviously, in this latter case you can ignore all need to research the individual’s timeline – you make it up as you go – but for the sake of plausibility, there is no getting away from the need to shed some light on the historical darkness. You need context. You need details. You need a setting that comes to life, whether through the draught that filters through the slats in the shutters or the endless sequence of meals that consist of pottage.

Actually, an author ALWAYS has to illuminate the setting. Whether contemporary or historical, sci-fi or dystopian, a writer aspires to anchor the reader in his/her world, with his/her characters. Readers can forgive a sloppy setting if the characters live and breathe. (The other way around doesn’t work – ever). But readers remember the books that transport them to whatever corner of the universe, in whatever time the writer has chosen to set the story in.

All of the above influenced me as I considered what to name my imprint. Yup. MY imprint.  Allow me to introduce Timelight Press – a little light in the endless oceans of time – and space 🙂

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