Every new year brings new intentions and new goals. Mine for 2016 involves piano lessons. Though I’ve taken plenty of music lessons in the past—thus far I’ve learned to play the flute, guitar, saxophone, and the cello—my reasons for finally turning to the piano aren’t my usual “I love music” or “I want to play the Bach cello suites by the time I’m thirty.” Instead, my reasons are book-related: a character in my Next Novel is a pianist. Research, you know.
Right now, there’s a bright and shiny keyboard in my parlor. (My family has been yearning for a piano for some time.) Our music stand features a variety of beginning instruction books. I’ve even found a conveniently located teacher who offers lessons on Saturdays. I’m excited to begin! Yet this has got me wondering about the skills writers learn for their work. I mean, we all know writers can’t thrive in a vacuum. To hone their craft, they take courses, participate in workshops, and join critique groups. But what about the stuff that’s not quite so … literary?
So I asked. And I found. What follows are four fascinating accounts of The Things Authors Do For Fiction.
From Kirsty Stonell Walker, author of We Are Villains All:
“About half an hour after deciding to make a character in We Are Villains All a Victorian photographer I realised I didn’t have the first clue about the process. After watching a video or two on YouTube I could see how it was done, but it was unsatisfying. How did the glass feel as you tilted it, how did it feel to be in the dark creating these pictures, how did it smell? I needed to know in order to understand Brough Fawley, my fictional photographer of the 1860s. Taking a course at the home of Julia Margaret Cameron meant so much because I was learning the craft in the home of my heroine, literally walking in her footsteps as I hurried back and forth with the plates, focusing the lens, urging my subjects not to move. That sort of photography takes skill, nerve and confidence bordering on arrogance, all of which fed into Brough, making him the talented rogue he is in the book.”
(KW: I must confess to perusing many of those same Victorian photography videos for the Next Novel, which features a Victorian dagueorrotypist. The ones produced by the George Eastman House are especially wonderful. That said, there’s no substitute for personal experience. Brava, Kirsty!)
From Erika Robuck, author of the national bestseller Hemingway’s Girl:
“Ernest Hemingway valued writing from true experience for the purest, most authentic stories. I apply this practice to my work as much as possible, and it has led me to places and activities I never would have dreamt. Inhabiting the lives of my subjects—real or imagined—is a bit like method acting, and the results on the page are more realized characters and richer settings. From a private tour of a hospital morgue to a poet’s haunted estate, from lessons shooting a shotgun to deep water fishing, I have learned over and over again that taking on these experiences allows me to become not only a better writer, but a more empathetic and well-rounded person. I can’t wait to see where my next project will lead.”
From Donna Russo Morin, author of the The King’s Agent, which received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly:
“I confess, the research process of developing a historical novel is often times my favorite part. I love to immerse myself in the culture, the people, and the times I endeavor to recapture. I lose myself for hours, jumping feet first into old diaries, memoirs, biographies, and books older than the country I live in. But I always felt that to truly capture the experience of my characters, I must, in some way, experience what they did. With this notion in mind, I have found myself engaging in what some might say are irregular forms of research.
“For my first book, The Courtier’s Secret, I learned to fence in order to experience the muscular exertions of a woman doing so. I learned the art of glass blowing for my second book, The Secret of the Glass; when I described what it felt like to stand just a few feet away from a furnace giving off heat at approximately 2000 degrees, it was the beads of my own sweat I described. My hands on research for my third book, To Serve a King, about a female assassin in the court of Francois I, brought into my hands a bow and an arrow. This particular research so enchanted me, that I now own my own bow and arrow and shoot targets regularly. (Of course, putting a picture of my horrific ex on the target may have something to do with my precision with this weapon). For The King’s Agent, a story based on the true life of a 16th century Indiana Jones, I learned to dagger fight. My research for my Da Vinci’s Disciples series (book one, Portrait of a Conspiracy, releasing May 10, 2016) found not a weapon, but a brush in my hands. In order to understand the joy of creating and working with paint, I took painting lessons. Unfortunately, I’m far more adept with my bow and arrow, than I am with my brush.
“I adore the research portion of being an historical novelist, and one might say that it has made me not only greater informed and educated, but a little bit dangerous.”
(A little bit dangerous? I love that! But for sheer mouth-watering delectability, I’ll let Kate Quinn have the last word.)
From Kate Quinn, author of the national bestseller The Serpent and the Pearl:
“For my Borgia duology The Serpent and the Pearl and The Lion and the Rose, I ended up learning a LOT about Renaissance cuisine. My heroine was a cook, not just a maker of stews for her family but a dyed-in-the-wool professional who fed the vast palazzo where Pope Alexander VI regularly took dinner with his mistress and children. I not only perused Renaissance cookbooks – why did the chefs back then put cinnamon into everything? – but I cooked dishes out of them, like the walnut and pecorino cheese tourte (above photo) that turns up in Chapter 17 of The Lion and the Rose. Supposedly the recipe dates from the days of Pope Pius II, and it yielded a gorgeous mild cheesecake of the type that could grace any holiday buffet – the perfect dessert for that pesky relative who doesn’t have a sweet tooth.
“Some lessons learned from my sojourn into Renaissance cooking:
“1. You don’t really need a timer. If you need to boil an egg, you boil it for the length of time it takes to say the Credo, and voila. Although spouses look at you a little strangely when they walk into the kitchen and find you mumbling “Credo in unum deum” over a pot of boiling water.
“2. Electric mixers are a wonderful thing. When the recipe begins with “Beat twelve egg whites into stiff peaks,” your only hope if you live in the Renaissance was having a kitchen full of young apprentices to pass the bowl to. And if they were beating egg whites into stiff peaks all day, they must have had arms like gods.
“3. Why DID the Renaissance cooks put cinnamon in everything?”
(Why did they indeed? I wonder if cinnamon was the Renaissance equivalent of our twenty-first century fixation with pumpkin-spice-everything. Hmmm….)
So there you have it: four novelists and their adventures in authorly veracity. I must admit that their ambitious pursuits make my piano lessons seem rather tame by comparison. However, their accounts reveal something I truly believe: writing a book transforms an author in unexpected ways. Sometimes it enables us to boil eggs perfectly without a timer. Other times, it helps us hunt an ex like a veritable sixteenth-century Katniss Everdeen.
Above photo: Renaissance-style tourte courtesy of Kate Quinn. Note the surplus of cinnamon.
Photographed recently in my kitchen via the Tintype app. Yes, that is champagne.
When I get like this, I can’t do anything but it. And by it, I mean focus completely and beyond on the project at hand. Which, in this case, the it was completing my next draft for the Next Novel. Hence, my silence here save for the occasional photograph here and there.
But at last it is done and off to my beta readers for feedback.
*takes deepest breath possible*
And now back to real life. What does this mean? For starters, sleep and showering and eating regularly. The niceties. Not being distracted while in conversation because of my mind racing at 90 mph with plot points and character arcs. Taking time to stretch out and not panic at all the things I need to do.
Yet—and yes, there’s a yet—I will miss the all encompassing intensity of being so immersed in the world of it. Of that feeling of clear focus and deep creativity. Though I understand this is only a temporary respite until the next it comes along.
In the meantime, site housekeeping stuff: I’ve rearranged some blog categories and posts to make them extra accessible and relevant. With nearly 800 posts on this blog, it was time. In particular, there’s now a new-and-improved Publishing 101 category filled with advice geared to new authors and illustrators. Subjects include everything from literary agents, book proposals, submitting to publishers, the publication process, and more.
Though some of the posts are several years old, they’ve been updated for relevancy. If you’re new to the biz, I hope you’ll find them useful!
One of my favorite kids’ NaNoWriMo outline—she created it out of post it notes. (If a child can do it, you can too!)
An excerpt from Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic. Because those ideas aren’t going to come to life on their own. Partner up!
November first is around the corner, and you know what that means: NaNoWriMo!!!!!
Long time readers of this blog know I love NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated) with the heat of a thousand blazing suns. Even if you don’t wanna be a novelist, it’s worth doing NaNoWriMo at least once because it teaches the oh-so-important lesson of going forth to do crazy creative things that seem impossible. If you can pull a 50,000 word novel draft out of your gut in a month, you can do anything.
Though I’ve been hunkered down in Chez Art and Words for the past three weeks recovering from foot surgery, and even more hunkered down with book deadlines (more on these below), I’d be remiss to let NaNoWriMo commence without giving it a serious shout out. Here are some previous blog posts regarding NaNoWriMo:
In regards to foot surgery and book deadlines, though it’s never fun to have two bones cut and repositioned in one’s foot, the surgery went extremely well. After three weeks of hobbling in a surgical cast, I am now down to one crutch, and able to walk a few steps here and there. (I am extremely grateful to my family and friends for all their help these past weeks.) Yet, in a weird way, the timing couldn’t have been better, though it sucks majorly to be immobile. This enforced hermitude (is that even a word?) enabled me to get a lot of work done revising the Next Novel, for which my agent has set a deadline. In addition, it seems a long-aborning Secret Project will be coming to fruition, though it’s too soon to share anything more.
In the meantime, I’ll be using the month of November in a manner unintended by NaNoWriMo: to revise the Next Novel, which is currently a 100,000 word draft in need of serious editing, and still missing a few scenes. Hey, I’ll take the creative energy wherever I can find it.
See the three little screws? That’s where my bones were moved. Yikes!
Photographed in Brooklyn on the last official day of Proteus Gowanus. Much wonderful art was made there, as well as many wonderful memories.