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 in Brooklyn on the last official day of Proteus Gowanus. Much wonderful art was made there, as well as many wonderful memories.
Warming up the cards for a friend.
As I mentioned Friday, my guest for today’s Creativity Friday post is author Lynn Carthage, author of HAUNTED, a young adult gothic historical novel. My daughter Thea is currently reading it, and thoroughly enjoying it.*
More about HAUNTED:
Sixteen-year-old Phoebe Irving has traded life in San Francisco for her stepfather’s ancestral mansion in rural England. It’s supposed to be the new start her family needs. But from the moment she crosses the threshold into the ancient estate, Phoebe senses something ominous. Then again, she’s a little sensitive lately—not surprising when her parents are oblivious to her, her old life is six thousand miles away, and the only guy around is completely gorgeous but giving her mixed messages.
But at least Miles doesn’t laugh at Phoebe’s growing fears. And she can trust him…maybe. The locals whisper about the manor’s infamous original owner, Madame Arnaud, and tell grim stories of missing children and vengeful spirits. Phoebe is determined to protect her loved ones—especially her little sister, Tabby. But even amidst the manor’s dark shadows, the deepest mysteries may involve Phoebe herself.
As for Lynn, she has a secret—and it’s a good one. Under her real name, Erika Mailman, she’s published two highly praised historical novels for adults; HAUNTED is her first YA novel. I first met Erika at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2013. We instantly hit it off, and have stayed in regular contact since. (The real reason I go to HNS: to meet lovely writers who share my obsessions with women’s history and the gothic. ) When I learned Erika had decided to write for young adults under a nom de plume, I was eager to learn more about the why and how.
Without further ado, here’s Erika’s guest post about her alter ego Lynn, and the differences between writing for the YA and adult historical market. I hope you enjoy it!
Kris, thanks for hosting me today. You invited me to talk about my alter ego, and the difference of writing young adult historical fiction versus adult.
Under my real name, Erika Mailman, I’ve published two historical novels. The first, Woman of Ill Fame (Heyday Books 2007), is a historical thriller featuring an unapologetic Gold Rush prostitute narrator. You can right away see why I had to choose another name for publishing young adult fiction; I didn’t want teens to read HAUNTED, google me, and find that book.
Call me innocent, but I think kids grow up so fast these days…they have a lifetime of being sexual, so I wanted to provide a firm line between my adult fiction and my young adult fiction.
My second novel, Witch’s Trinity (Crown, 2007), is probably appropriate for a teen audience, but I can’t send readers there without them also seeing the “shameless hussy” book LOL. It’s about a medieval woman accused of witchcraft by her own daughter-in-law, at a time when women faced burning at the stake.
Which brings me back to HAUNTED, the young adult novel that came out from Kensington in February. I love historical fiction, and although the book features a contemporary setting in England, the mansion where the story takes place has a foreboding history and a connection to the palace of Versailles.
In fact, Book 2 of the series, which hits in February 2016, is set almost entirely in Paris and Versailles, and features timeslipping back to days when there was still a monarchy in place.
It’s been fun to merge historical with contemporary, with my heroine Phoebe Irving wandering the halls of the 1700s Arnaud Manor in England and over time learning tidbits about its history. I know a lot of readers enjoy historical fiction, but this sort of tactic may be more accessible. Phoebe has a modern perspective and can be an effective filter for the events of the past.
As to the differences in writing for teens versus adults: yes, I’ve had to take some language out of HAUNTED. For instance, a character named Miles exclaims, “No shit!” and I was encouraged to take that out. I did, because some big-box stores won’t carry books with that language, and to maximize my potential to someday have the book be carried there, I elected to listen to my editor’s sage advice.
I’m also keeping the romance between Miles and Phoebe lingering and drawn out … half the fun is in the suspense, right? And of course we have to have some complications that keep them swinging back and forth, towards and away from each other.
Finally, for those who are older, there’s been all kinds of data suggesting older people read YA fiction, with middle-aged women showing up as a high population readership. And I’ve had men email me praise for HAUNTED; will it help that Book 2 is narrated by Miles, a male?
If you enjoy a good ghost story, a dark and forbidding English manor setting, and characters who valiantly fight to protect their siblings, you might want to give HAUNTED a try.
Thanks for hosting me today, Kris!
My pleasure, Lynn-Erika—and thanks for a wonderful post! You can learn more, read an excerpt, or purchase HAUNTED here.
* Review coming soon!
(A side note: If you’d like to download the above graphic to share on Facebook, Twitter, or a blog, I’d be ever so grateful. An author can never have too much advance book publicity.)
Transforming THE LOVER’S PATH into an e-book has been a long and involved process. It’s a strange thing to go back into a long-finished project and reinvent it for a new media. The good news: because I’m no longer constrained by the financial considerations of a printed book, I was able to enrich and expand my original vision of Filamena’s journey along the lover’s path. As a result, the book is a much richer, more immersive experience. So hooray!
As I write this, I am immersed in that tunnel vision that occurs at the end of a big creative project. If that isn’t enough, I’m also finalizing the first third of my new novel to share with my literary agent. (Yes, I heard back from my beta readers. And they rock—but that’s a subject for another post.) Frankly, I feel like I’m pregnant in a figurative sense with twins. I’m so close to the finish line that it’s hard for me to break away to deal with the Real Life of eating, sleeping, and cleaning.
So, deep breath. Almost there.
Before I head back into my studio cave, I’ve good blog news: next Friday my author friend Lynn Carthage will be here to talk about her new YA gothic novel HAUNTED. She’ll have lots to share about her creative process, and the differences of writing for YA versus an adult audience. If that’s not enough enticement, my daughter Thea will be making her blogging debut reviewing HAUNTED. So far she’s thoroughly enjoying it.
I hope you’ll check back then!