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 🙂

TimeLight-Press-logo_05 light