Creativity Friday: Now with Summer-Inspired Writing Prompts!

Posted on Jul 25, 2014 in creativity, news & muse, stuff I like, the Next Novel, the world around me

Ever since Thea started elementary school, summer has become delineated in our house between the last day of school and the first. By this standard, we’re nearly halfway through the season.

Thus far, my summer has included the following activities:

~ Travel to beautiful lakes in faraway places.

~ Take Thea to camp in various parts of Brooklyn.

~ Pick up Thea from camp in various parts of Brooklyn.

~ Gardening. (This includes sub-activities involving wildlife, such as obsessing over raccoons attacking the water lilies I’m raising in a tub outside*, and squeeing over the sparrows at the bird feeder.)

~ Eating herbs and vegetables from our garden. (Can’t get more locavore than this.)

~ Design schtuff.

~ Writing the Next Novel.** (I am deep into my first draft, which I’m hoping to finish up by the end of the year. Now with added intensity and gothic romanticism!)

It’s this final activity which brings me to writing prompts, the subject of this post. ”What’s a writing prompt?” you might be asking. I think of writing prompts as a way to subvert your inner critic, like playing the party game of Charades on a blank page. They’re also useful for dealing with writer’s block because it takes the pressure of  deciding What To Write About out of your hot little hands. It’s a very simple two step process:

Step one: Someone besides yourself suggests a subject to write about.

Step two: You write for a specified amount of time. No excuses.

See? Easy-peasy!

Now that we’re deep into summer, my intensely creative writer friend Anca Szilagyi, a fellow at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, has thoughtfully posted a list of summer-inspired writing prompts over at Ploughshares. They range from five minutes prompts such as “describe the physical sensation of sunburn” to more involved twenty minute ones.

So, what are you waiting for? Go forth and write!

waterlilybuds

*Water lilies budding in my garden. I’ve saved them several times from curious raccoons. The tiny circles in the center will grow to become blossoms. Amazing, no? 

** If you live in NYC, I’ll be reading from the Next Novel and the Novel Formerly Known as The Lily Maid on Tuesday, July 29th in Brooklyn. More information here

Creativity Friday: Writing Process Blog Tour

Posted on Jun 20, 2014 in creativity, friends and colleagues, news & muse, the Next Novel

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Notes for my “novel bible” for the Next Novel. More below about this.

True confession time: besides being an occasional blogger, I’m also a procrastinator when it comes to fulfilling blog tour requests. So, way back in April, when my lovely critique partner Teralyn Pilgrim tagged me in a writing process blog tour, I intended to partipate promptly. Truly. Really.

I didn’t.

*Hangs head in shame.*

In retrospect, I had several reasons for not doing so. First off, I was in the throes of finishing up several work deadlines and was plain overwhelmed and overscheduled. In other words, business as usual. Secondly, I simply wasn’t ready to share much about the Next Novel. Though I’d been incubating the manuscript for nearly a year in starts and spurts, it still felt too fresh, too precious. I didn’t want to jinx my creative process.

However, opportunity knocked a second time. This time it was  Margaret Peot, author of the ever-so-inspiring THE SUCCESSFUL ARTIST’S CAREER GUIDE, who tagged me. So, time to pony up!

Without further ado, here the questions and my answers.

1. What am I currently working on?

The Next Novel. (Yes, I’m being coy about the title.) Here’s my log line: In 1851 England, a widowed photographer is thwarted in fulfilling his dying father’s last request by a mysterious woman whose tragic past curiously mirrors his own. Other elements in the mix: post-mortem photography, a missing poet, and a forbidden love affair. In other words, the fun stuff. Because the structure of the Next Novel involves a nested story— a story within a story—I’ve been comparing it in some ways to THE THIRTEEN TALE. Though, of course, my book is completely different.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The main difference between the historical novels I write and those of my colleagues is that all of my characters are fictional. I’m not writing about Catherine de Medici, Josephine Bonaparte, or world-changing events that occurred in  history. I’m drawn to using historical settings for color, rather than narrative structure. (Does this make sense?)

3. Why do I write what I write?

I know it’s a cliché, but I do believe the subject chooses you. Every book I’ve created, from my picture books to DOOMED QUEENS to THE LILY MAID, arrived in a flash of inspiration that only made sense at a later date. For example, THE LILY MAID was written during the aftermath of my mother-in-law’s unexpected death; a major plot thread explored my protagonist’s mourning her recently deceased father.

That written, I’ve noticed some commonalities with my books: they usually explore feminine archetypes, and they often reference fairy tales, history, or mythology.

4. How does my individual writing process work?

When it comes to writing fiction, I’ve reluctantly accepted that I am an intuitive, non-linear thinker. Ie, a pantser of a sort. I don’t sit down and decide, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to write a book where my protagonist does x, y, and z? And it works out this way at the end?” Instead, my novels start with a scene that comes in a flash. For THE LILY MAID, it was a dream in which a young woman was escaping on a river barge, like the Lady of Shalott; the Next Novel, a young woman arguing with a man in a small room lit only by a fireplace. From there, the deluge begins: over days, weeks, and months, I’ll see snippets of scenes, hear exchanges of dialogue, and imagine characters, all of which I immediately write down before I forget. It’s like a flood from the subconscious. Or, as I prefer to think of them, visits from the muses.

(In my family, my daughter has another term for these sudden inspirations that must be recorded before they flit away: art attacks. She’ll say, “Oh, I’m having an art attack. Where’s my notebook?” whenever she has an inspiration for a story or a song. That’s my cue to stop whatever we’re doing until she writes it all down.)

Finally, once these brainstormed snippets reach critical mass, I print them out (see above) and try to arrange the notes into some semblance of a story. These are cut and pasted and placed into a giant novel bible. And then the fun begins in earnest. It can take a while before my notes make sense, and the narrative takes form. For the Next Novel, I had over 25,000 words of accumulated notes and 35,000 words of manuscript drafted before I figured how it was all going to come together. It was like a giant puzzle. 

Oh, and I do a lot of research: books, art, music, poetry, history. I especially love traveling for research purposes. For example, for THE LILY MAID, I visited a former Victorian asylum. For the Next Novel, I’m planning to travel to the George Eastman House to take a workshop in nineteenth century photography techniques.

Lisa Hunt, author and illustrator extraordinaire, is tagged in turn. Also, if you’d like to share your creative process, I’d love to hear it. Feel free to post in the comments below!

Creativity Friday: Interview with Kirsty Stonell Walker, author of A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL

Posted on May 30, 2014 in creativity, friends and colleagues, interviews, news & muse

*As I mentioned Wednesday, my guest today is the author and Pre-Raphaelite scholar Kirsty Stonell Walker. Kirsty has loved and researched Pre-Raphaelite art for almost 20 years, and is the author of STUNNER: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth. Her new novel, A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL, is based on the life of another Rossetti model, Alexa Wilding. It follows Alexa she experiences the madness, glory and beauty of Rossetti’s circle. A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL presents a bygone world where truth is reliant on who is painting the picture. I was fortunate to have beta read her novel, and found it a thoroughly enjoyable and immersive experience. Short version: if you’re as obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelites as I am, you’ll love A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL.

I first discovered Kirsty’s writing via her wonderful blog, The Kissed Mouth. (The title of this blog refers to Bocca Baciata, an oil painting by Rossetti.) Frequently hilarious but always thought-provoking, The Kissed Mouth casts an incisive and often political eye upon the PRB and their circle. Walker’s post on how fat is a PreRaphaelite issue is worthy of a standing ovation.

Without further ado, here’s my interview with Kirsty Stonell Walker. I hope you enjoy it!

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A Curl of Copper and Pearl

Kris Waldherr: Your first book STUNNER: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth was a biography about one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s most important muses. However, your second book, A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL is a novel about Alexa Wilding, another of Rossetti’s models. What inspired you to turn to fiction after writing a biography? Was there an “aha” moment that led you to decide to write a novel about Wilding?

Kirsty Stonell Walker: Simply put, I wrote the biography of Fanny because nobody else had and it seemed unfair.  Before it, during it and after it I always wrote fiction but never got very farin terms of publishing, with endless, endless rejections from publishers and agents.  I don’t know why I never gave up, I suspect I am extremely bloody-minded and delusional.  That usually helps.

I was going to write a straight biography of Alexa, but her life as so much shadow, so much unknown and seemingly unknowable.  This fed into a thought I had about writing a novel about Fanny, but Alexa seemed a perfect person to experience the world through because no-one knew her, no-one had any preconceptions.  I could become Alexa and slip into the world unnoticed.

KW:  So much has been written about Rossetti’s relationships with Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal: his affair at Kelmscott with Morris, his exhumation of Siddal’s coffin to retrieve his poems, and so on. These stories have become staples of Victorian folklore, so to speak. Yet many of Rossetti’s most famous paintings were modeled for by Fanny Cornforth and Alexa Wilding. Did you find yourself wanting to write about Cornforth and Wilding to redress the imbalance of coverage, so to speak? Or was there something else that drew you in?

KSW: The topic of stunners is dominated by Jane and Lizzie, there is no getting away from it.  Both women had fascinating lives and are definitely worth attention, but I felt sorry for Fanny because she always ended up being the jolly tart with a heart, the cockney prossie who is a comedy diversion.  As for Alexa, well she never got a look in at all.  Something about the ignored status of the women made me want to find out more, to give them voice.

I was asked once whether I over-identified with Fanny, being a plump, jolly woman often not taken seriously, and I have to admit there is a bit of that.  I do have to control how defensive I get about Fanny because I need to remember it’s not about me but then people do say the most curious things that ends up making it seem personal.  I got a comment recently on the blog from someone saying that they found Fanny the least attractive of any of the Pre-Raphaelite women, that was purely their point.  I felt like saying ‘I’m not sure she’d give you the time of day either!’

KW: While reading A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL, I was especially struck by the depth of your research. I really felt like I was with Alexa at Tudor House and Kelmscott amid the Pre-Raphaelite milieu—a very immersive experience! What were you most surprised to learn about Alexa while writing your novel? Were there any preconceptions you held about her and Rossetti that were proven false?

KSW: I was surprised that she had gone to so many places and met so many people.  I was surprised she went to Kelmscott, but then I was flabbergasted that Rossetti took her off to Bognor when he and Jane were ending their relationship.  There are two ways of reading that situation – he either cared about Alexa and couldn’t be parted from her, or else he viewed her as a prop for his painting and her being present at the emotional crisis of his life was incidental, just as the presence of a vase would be.

Alexa’s love life was a revelation.  I remember the first time I found the birth certificate for Maria, who was born in the late 1860s.  There is no explanation, no father listed, just Alexa.  Rossetti’s complaint shortly beforehand to Boyce that ‘Miss W-’ had vanished out of town and how inconvenient it was suddenly made sense.  She had gone to give birth and no-one knew.  What on earth was going on in her life?!  When we visited her house in London, the affluence of the street was just puzzling.  Fanny lived in some nice places but they were modest in comparison.  Alexa had a man paying for her, had children, had a life that was beyond that of a butcher’s lass.  That is interesting.

I’m not sure if I believed she was as stupid as she is said to be, thanks to Rossetti’s comment about her being ‘dull’ (which I quote in the book because it is one of the few things he said about her personality).  I always assumed it was said in jest or spite, but I was intrigued to find that she did not leave any of her own voice behind in the form of letters.  Well, not that have been discovered so far….

KW:  When I first discovered the work of the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1980s, they were decidedly out of fashion, judged as too sentimental, too concerned with beauty for the sake of beauty. Today, the Pre-Raphaelites seem more popular than ever. Why do you think their art and stories speak to us now? What initially attracted you to them and led to you writing your wonderful blog, The Kissed Mouth?

KSW: I discovered the Pre-Raphaelites in the first year of my degree.  I took a course on Victorian culture and there they were in all their glory.  I immediately took a shine to Fanny because everyone was praising Elizabeth and Jane to the rooftops but not much was said about this glorious, blush-cheeked woman with a saucy look on her face.  I read Jan Marsh’s works on the women in a mad rush to know more and took it upon myself to be Fanny’s champion because a woman that smart, resourceful and beautiful should have someone on her side.  I began the work that led to Stunner when I was 20 and it was finally published over a decade later.  Fanny has been a big part of my life for longer than I have known my husband, it’s impossible to just walk away from someone once you have dedicated that amount of time to them.

I published Stunner in 2006 and then did not know what to do with the knowledge I had gathered.  It was only with the popularity of blogs, which over here in England didn’t seem to blossom until much later than in the States that I thought I could find an outlet for just chatting about pictures, people, themes and the suchlike.  I didn’t think anyone would read it!

I think there are a number of reasons why the Pre-Raphaelite community online is so popular and vocal.  Obviously, the works are beautiful and at a slight tilt from what we see as the norm for Victorian art.  Their love of romance, morbidity, lust, beauty resonates with us as clearly as it did for them, maybe for different reasons.  I also think there is an element of rebellion in our love of these beautiful, figurative works of art when ‘good taste’ dictates we should like modern art, abstract art, the stuff that is approved of.  I remember being told over and over again on art courses that the Pre-Raphaelites were a dead end, a cul-de-sac of art.  I have been told by friends that what they did was inferior to the strides Impressionists were making, but when something grabs you heart and mind and refuses to let go, you cannot dismiss it.

KW: Can you tell me about your writing process? How long did it take you to write A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL? Did you outline before you began to write? Or did you dive right in?

KSW: I suppose it took about three years from idea to publishing.  After I relaunched the second edition of Stunner in 2011, I wanted to be brave enough to publish some fiction.  I’ve written stories for as long as I can remember, poems too.  I have a Winnie-the-Pooh note book at home from when I was about 6 filled with stories.  Some of my poems were published in a literary magazines when I was a teenager.  Having taken control of Stunner and made it into the book I wanted to be known for, I thought I ought to do the same for my fiction.

Curl came fully formed in a way – I had the story of the people around her, I just needed to weave Alexa into their lives whilst giving her a place of her own.  I wrote a few scenes before really having the story settled as it helped me get hold of the characters.  The two scenes that really haven’t changed since I first wrote them are the scene where Alexa firsts meets Fanny in Rossetti’s studio and the scene when she comes back from Kelmscott and sits with Fanny while she is cutting up plums.  These two scenes helped me see Alexa and Fanny very clearly indeed and fed into how I progressed into the rest of the story.

KW: What advice would you give to beginning fiction writers? What do you know now that you wish you’d known before writing A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL?

KSW: Be brave.  Writing is an act of courage because you are putting the contents of your head out there for everyone to see.  In some ways I cannot see how anyone can write a book unless they have to because it is such an all consuming emotional experience for me.  But then I write to entertain myself and so I love to create my own cure for my ills.  When I am stressed, when I am sad, I reach for one of my own stories, my own characters to hep me through.

A vital thing is to finds friends who are like you.  I could not do what I do without my network of writers who are there to help, advise, encourage and generally not let me get away with giving up.  I think of them as my writing family and all but two of them were met on line through Stunner or the blog.  My ‘alpha reader’, the person who gets first crack at anything I write, is my inestimable friend, Miss Holman, and I value her brutal honesty.  We often have to combine her response to a first draft with a trip to our local cake shop to soften the blow, but every writer should have a Miss Holman to tell them when something doesn’t work, is self-indulgent or just boring.  Again, it’s an act of bravery to let people read something then tell you what they think but if you intend to be a writer then people will do that anyway once it’s published.  Trust me, it’s better to have someone tell you a home truth over a slice of lemon drizzle cake and you go away and fix it then it be shown to the world in an Amazon review.

The thing I wish I’d known is that it ends!  In the publishing process I got to the point of just hating myself, the book, everything, because it wasn’t finished, wasn’t over and therefore might not be the best it could possibly be.  I also was so desperate for people to like it that I was crippled by fear.  A rational part of me merrily trundled on, getting my preview copies out, getting author postcards printed, writing blog posts, while the other part of me sat whimpering in the corner braced for impact.  Then it was published and life went on and you move on to the next thing.

KW: Finally, what are you planning for your next book? Will you return to writing nonfiction? Or do you have another novel in the works? Will it be Pre-Raphaelite inspired? Or another era?

KSW: It was a tricky decision to know where to go next. I want to write more fiction because my non-fiction needs are met through my blog.   I had four different ideas and so I picked the one I couldn’t let go of. I am returning to the Victorians but not the Pre-Raphaelites.  My story concerns a poet and his best friend, a photographer.  I have two time threads, one in the 1860s when they are young and one in the 1890s after a terrible event has taken place.  The poet has a muse who he keeps at a distance and she in turn likes to imagine the poet is the man of her dreams without having to know him better.  The reappearance of the photographer into the poet’s life brings with it the repercussions of their earlier friendship and threatens the very careful reputation the poet has built up over the years of their separation.  It’s written in the third person, from the view point of the poet, Max Wainwright and his muse, Maud Blake.  Maud is mainly in charge of the 1890 thread and Max is our eyes in the 1860s.  I want the reader to see the difference between the Max we get to known in the 1860s and what Maud sees in the 1890s, but as the threads run side by side then we don’t find out why Max is the way he is until later in the book by which time the echoes of that event are being felt in his present.  I hope to have it finished for somewhen later in 2015, as long as all my characters behave themselves!  With Victorians, you can never tell.

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Thank you, Kirsty, for a wonderful interview! You can learn more or purchase A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL here.

Creativity Friday: Meet My Main Character, Sandra Gulland edition

Posted on May 2, 2014 in creativity, friends and colleagues, interviews, news & muse

As I mentioned Wednesday, internationally bestselling author Sandra Gulland (THE JOSEPHINE B. TRILOGY, MISTRESS OF THE SUN) has agreed to participate in the “Meet My Main Character” blog hop. Featured today: Claudette, the protagonist of her new novel THE SHADOW QUEEN, which has just been published in the US by Doubleday. It’s been praised by author Melanie Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife) as “an epic feast for the senses,” and by Tasha Alexander (Death in the Floating City) as “masterful.” Having been fortunate to have read an advance copy, I concur!

Shadow-Queen

More about THE SHADOW QUEEN:

From an impoverished childhood wandering the French countryside with her family’s acting troupe, Claudette finally witnesses her mother’s astonishing rise to stardom in Parisian theaters. Working with playwrights Corneille, Molière and Racine, Claudette’s life is culturally rich, but like all in the theatrical world at the time, she’s socially scorned. A series of chance encounters gradually pull Claudette into the alluring orbit of Athénaïs de Montespan, mistress to Louis XIV and reigning “Shadow Queen.” Enticed by the promise of riches and respectability, Claudette leaves the world of the theater only to find that court is very much like a stage, with outward shows of loyalty masking more devious intentions. As Athénaïs, becomes ever more desperate to hold onto the King’s favor, innocent love charms move into the realm of deadly Black Magic, and Claudette is forced to consider a move that will put her own life—and the family she loves so dearly—at risk.

Without further ado, here are Sandra’s answers about Claudette:

1. What is the name of your main character? Is she fictional or a historical person?

My main character is Claude (dit Claudette), and she is a historical person. That said, there is very little known about her, and so my (re)creation of her is in large part fictional.

2. When and where is the story set?

THE SHADOW QUEEN opens in 1651, near the town of Poitiers in southern France, when Claudette is 13. It ends 33 years later, in 1684, in Claudette’s country chateau north of Paris. In the years in-between, her journey takes us to Paris, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Versailles, but mostly to Paris.

3. What should we know about him/her?

sandraphoto

Claudette was the daughter of actors; the world of the theater is in her blood.

Also you should know not to believe half the things that are written about her.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?

Claudette has a hard-scrabble life, and she is the one who has to look after her mother and special-needs younger brother, even as a teen.

She becomes obsessed with Athénaïs (known to history as the infamous Madame de Montespan), who leads what to Claudette is a dream life, a life of incredible wealth, respectability and privilege. Enchanted, she falls under Athénaïs’s spell.

Athénaïs’s life, however, is far from a dream. She will do anything to hold favor with her lover, the Sun King.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

On a practical level, Claudette wants only one thing: security for her family. On an emotional level, she longs to be among “the blessed”—someone the Church approves of, someone respected by society—but lovely clothes, jewels and a bountiful table are powerful lures as well, as is an intimate relationship with the most powerful woman in France, the mistress of the King.

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Thank you, Sandra, for a wonderful interview! To learn more about THE SHADOW QUEEN and Sandra Gulland’s other books, visit her site here.

Creativity Friday: Meet My Main Character

Posted on Apr 25, 2014 in creativity, friends and colleagues, news & muse, The Lily Maid

As I mentioned Wednesday, I’ve been tagged by historical fiction author Nancy Bilyeau in a writerly blog hop. Without further ado, it’s time to tell you more about the main character of my novel THE LILY MAID.

Waterhouse_Lady_of_Shalott

1. What is the name of your main character? Is she fictional or a historical person?

Elizabeth Sirini, known as Lizzy to her close friends and family. She is fictional, but her story is very loosely (and I do mean loosely!) inspired by the lives of several artists’ muses of the nineteenth century: Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris, and others. My description of Elizabeth’s appearance is based on the Waterhouse painting of The Lady of Shalott.

2. When and where is the story set?

The setting is 1888 London during the height of the Aesthetic Movement—aka “the Cult of Beauty.” Think Oscar Wilde, absinthe swilling, crooked spiritualists, scandals, and decadent artists:

“The newspapers even gave their artistic endeavors a collective name: the Aesthetic Movement. Unlike the Pre-Raphaelites, who’d aimed to depict the realities of nature and society some thirty years earlier, the Aesthetes valued beauty as a corrective to our less-than-gilded age of Victoria. Art for art’s sake….”

3. What should we know about him/her?

Elizabeth was studying the new science of psychology before her life fell apart. (More about that below.) She is determinedly rational in her personal life, yearning to find the “veracity of things” beyond the surface. She’s also very beautiful, but disdainful of the notice her appearance brings:

“Unlike others, I refuse to lie to myself—I yearn to see things as they really are, not what I wish them to be. I know what others see when they look at me: they don’t see me. Nor do they see my regrets. They only see my mother’s gold hair and my father’s northern Italian blue-grey eyes, which always appeared startled to me, as if I’d been caught in some secret transgression. These rested above a slender nose and wide mouth that, someone once told me, resembled a Renaissance madonna. However I took little pleasure in the attention my appearance brought. Even then, I knew beauty was a trap. I’d seen it sentence my mother to the sorrows of losses and small coffins pressed into churchyards, weighing my father in remorse. After all, it was my mother’s beauty that had attracted his admiration all those years ago; he’d been so dazzled he never noticed how her parents disapproved of his immigrant status, or that he bore little in common with my mother beyond love and rebellion.”

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

When Elizabeth’s father unexpectedly dies, a chain of tragic events results in her ending her engagement to her true love. As a result, she’s forced to provide for her invalid mother, which leads her into modeling for a notoriously scandal-prone painter as the lovelorn Lady of Shalott. And that’s just the start of my main character’s troubles.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

Elizabeth craves to return to her “normal” life before her father’s death: to return to her studies, to love again. This, of course, is very complicated.

6. Is there a working title for this novel and can we read more about it?

The working title has been THE LILY MAID. That written, my novel in the semi-secret process of being retitled—my agent and I have tentatively settled on the new one, though I’m not ready to announce it. I was strongly advised to retitle it after workshopping with legendary editor Amy Einhorn at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat last year. (When Amy Einhorn gives advice, you take it.) I’ve set up a page for my novel here and have been posting about it here.

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

I’m hoping late 2015, fingers crossed.

The next authors whose main characters you will meet:

Kirsty Walker, author of the Pre-Raphaelite-set novel A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL

Vicky Alvear Shecter, author of CURSES AND SMOKE: A NOVEL OF POMPEII