Sandra Gulland

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Notes on (surviving) the writing life

Welcome to my blog on writing and the writing life. I also blog on research subjects at Baroque Explorations.

For either one, if you subscribe (see lower left), you will be notified whenever there is a new post. I promise that you won’t be swamped with emails. And, of course, you will be able to unsubscribe at any time.

To see my latest newsletter: click here. (Subscribe!)

Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question: I love to read them.

Quill copy

Sundae Sundries: links worth sharing

“Sundae Sundries” offer links to things on the Net that I have found especially of interest of late. It is intended to be posted every Sunday, but Life is now in pre-daughter-getting-married-mode, so routine has gone out the window. Enjoy!


Links on writing …

• What does “show, don’t tell” really mean? Sarah Selecky is a fine writer and teacher of writing. If you are a writer or aspire to be one, her website is well worth checking out, as are her classes. I subscribe to her emails on writing. Highly recommended!

Links of interest to us flâneurs through history …

A treatise on landscape painting in water colours by UK artist David Cox (1783-1859) and others, published in 1813. This is a rare book, and one I wanted to find because Hortense de Beauharnais, the subject of the novel I am writing, is an artist. I was delighted to find it available for download on Internet Archive.

• Feeling Swinish: Or the Origins of “Pandemic.” This relates to a blog post I wrote: The use of quarantine to prevent the spread of deadly diseases in 18th century France.

Links for social historians … 

•  Gossip, Flattery, and Flirtation: The Art of Eighteenth-Century Letter Writing  Irresistible! I have Richardson’s Familiar Letters  on order.

Defiant Dressing: What Joan of Arc Wore. Because anything to do with Joan of Arc is fascinating.

Links on life …

• I love the blog BrainPickings, and recently, in particular, this post: “How to Merge Money and Meaning: An Animated Field Guide to Finding Fulfilling Work in the Modern World.”

• Through this post I discovered the YouTube School of Life series “How to Live,” which the wonderful writer Alain de Botton is a significant part of. Well! I’m an Alain de Botton fan, so call me Interested. To sample their offerings, watch this short video: How to Find Fulfilling Work.


May 20, 2015 @ 7:21 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A Sundae of Sundries: links worth sharing

Happy Mother’s Day, one and all. This is my first “Sunday Sundries.” I come upon many links on the Net I want to share, and this is a way of doing so.


Links on writing …

• This short YouTube video on The Hero’s Journey is well worth watching. (Read this Brain Pickings blog post for more on Joseph Campbell’s story structure.)

• 10 top writing tips and the psychology behind them.

• How to Meditate When You’re Too Busy to Meditate, and Why You Should Care, a post written with writers in mind.

• 5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing a YA Novel, an essay I wrote for Writer Unboxed.

• The Terror of Last-Minute Revision: Confessions of an Editor-turned-Novelist, an essay for The Savvy Reader.

Links of interest to all us research nerds …

• Just for a smile: Scary hair towers.

• A wonderful historical blog: “All Things Georgian.”

Links for Napoleonatics … 

• Madame Campan’s Academy, a play about Hortense, the subject of the YA novel I’m writing. The opening promotion goes like this:

You think your life is challenging? Imagine your stepfather is Napoleon Bonaparte!

That’s so good. (If only I had thought of it.)

• I love this movie of kids enacting the life of Napoleon.


May 10, 2015 @ 2:51 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

On writing YA fiction, newsletter mysteries and a cup of work

Posts on writing YA fiction and Terror (but not at the same time)

I’ve two guest blog posts on-line now that might be of interest to you. One is on what I’ve learned writing YA fiction, and the other is on a rather unusual approach to writing.

5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing a YA Novel” for Writer Unboxed.

The Terror of Last-Minute Revision: Confessions of an Editor-turned-Novelist” at The Savvy Reader.

Newsletter: a winner, and subscription mysteries

The day before we left San Miguel de Allende, I sent out a newsletter. (Yes, a crazy thing to do at the time!) If you missed it, click here. I’ll be sending off the winner of a book to Cindy today. She’s thrilled!

A reader wrote that she subscribed some time ago, yet doesn’t get the newsletters. I checked, and she is subscribed, but it’s curious that she doesn’t receive them. Are you subscribed, and yet not receiving them? Be sure to let me know.

A Sundae of Sundries … coming right up

I can’t linger now (the day begins!), but just want to say I’m going to begin posting a weekly summary of links I feel are share-worthy—”A Sundae of Sundries”—on … of course … Sundays.

Snow-birds landing heavily laden

We’ve been back home in Canada four days now: I’ve still got stacks of books to sort, piles of mail to answer, more friends to hug.


A few nights ago my husband cooked a chicken stuffed with the wild leeks he’d picked on the hill behind our house that afternoon. I love our two very-different lives—the one in festive, vibrant Mexico, and the other in our very quiet and somewhat remote part of rural Ontario.

Cup of Work to the rescue

But now for coffee and my Cup of Work. It takes time to get back into familiar daily routines. My Cup of Work is one anchor, no matter where we are, no matter how unsettled.

If you would like to know more about “Cup of Work” —

“I’ll have a “Cup of Work” please—writing on the road plus treasure hunts

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative head space

Enjoy your weekend!

May 8, 2015 @ 9:53 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

What can you get on The good, the bad, and the ugly…

Fiverr is a web site where people offer to do something for $5 — design a logo, perk up a Facebook page, write a song. You name it.

I went on Fiverr looking for someone who could photo manipulate an image I use on this website. I didn’t find anyone for that specific job, but I was amused in passing to discover people offering other tasks, such as traffic biz, who will convert a photo into pop art. I supplied a photo and a caption and … voilá:

pop art portrait through fiverr.

Of course then I couldn’t resist asking Triple Eight for a caricature.

portrait through fiverr.

(It’s a good thing I have a sense of humour.)

Next, this, from kshatriya, a portrait I might actually use:

 portrait through fiverr.

All fairly fun for a grand total of $15.

Now this has me thinking of all sorts of mischief I might get into using photos of friends and family. ;-)

(Or, for that matter, portraits of my historical characters.)

I’d love to see what you come up with if you try

April 25, 2015 @ 10:53 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

The clues to a great story

I very much enjoyed film-maker Andrew Stanton‘s TED talk, “The Clues to a Great Story.”

Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punch line, your ending. It’s knowing that everything you say, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal.

probably the greatest story commandment: “Make me care.”

Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.

The 100-words-a-day plan to a great story

a great story idea

I have been writing every morning, in spite of all that is going on in my life right now. I only aim for 100 words. Heck! Who can’t write 100 words?

This simple goal has opened the treasure chest of storytelling. Each day, I write far more than 100 words before stopping (317, 512, 877, 319, 316, 739, 619 … ), but best of all it has me sparking all day and night with ideas. I’m thinking about these scenes all the time.

And it has made me so cheerful! Writing is a type of euphoria.

If you are in writing doldrums, I highly recommend the 100-words-a-day plan. It’s magic. You’ll see.

Please let me know what you think in the comment section below. Ask me anything! I love getting comments.

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April 22, 2015 @ 9:21 am2 comments already! | Leave a Comment

Tools to help figure out what a story needs

My story is missing something, but what? A novel is a complex creature. At some point in the writing process, I find I must closely re-examine the plot in order determine what the story needs.

Editor Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid method offers excellent tools. (I first wrote about this series here: “The tough nut of revision: on re-examining plot.”)

Seeing your novel on one page will help make story needs clear.

Another basic tool Shawn Coyne offers is the one-page story summary form.

A one page synopsis shows story needs.

It’s well worthwhile to read his blog series from beginning to end. I’ve highlighted quite a bit. For example:

The crisis is the time when your protagonist must make a decision. And the choice that he makes will determine whether or not he’ll get closer to or further away from his object of desires (both external and internal). Often a particular choice will move a character closer to one object of desire while moving him further away from the other… [Link]

A detailed scene-by-scene spreadsheet helps reveal what’s needed.

A third visual on the Shawn Coyne’s resource page is an example of a more detailed breakdown of story, using Excel.

Scenes on an Excel spreadsheet reveals story needs

I’ve evolved the Excel worksheet concept for my own purposes: I’ve cut columns and added others — what a scene reveals, for example, and another for unanswered questions.

I’ve listed scenes down the left, and themes/sub-plots/plots across the top. This makes it easy for me to see if a thread has been dropped and what needs to be picked up.

I haven’t filled out the worksheet for the entire novel — at least not yet — but it has helped me to identify the story needs in the opening scenes, which concerns me the most right now. This process has made me a convert to using Excel for working out a plot.

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April 20, 2015 @ 8:33 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

The ABC of SEO in 6 easy steps

Effective SEO will get you noticed on Google.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, which basically means “How I get my blog post/webpage to show up on Google.” Having a website is essential to a writer, but what’s the point if your website isn’t noticed?

I’ve been writing blogs for a very long time, and reading about Social Media and blogging is something of a hobby, but every time I read about how important SEO was, my eyes glazed over.

My curiosity eventually got the best of me and I waded in. It was ugly. Tech talk, tech talk, and more tech talk. Finally, I broke through. I got it! It’s not hard. In fact, it’s kind of fun.

1. Keywords are the key to effective SEO.

Give some thought to what your keywords will be.

To find keywords that are most often searched for on Google, use Google Adwords.

Type in the keywords you’re thinking of using, and click. A chart will come up showing variations of your keywords, how often they are searched for on Google, and how high the competition is. It’s great if there are a million searches a day for your keywords, but not so great if there are ten million other listings.

A high search number and low competition is ideal. For this post, I decided simply on “SEO,” which has quite a high number of searches (673,000), and only medium competition.

Another useful tool, by the way, is Coschedule Headline Analyzer, because headlines are so important.

2. Use your SEO keywords in the first few sentences of your post. 

The closer to the beginning the better.

3. Make headlines in your post that contain your keywords. 

Not every headline, of course, but at least one.

4. Put at least one illustration in your post, and use the SEO keywords in the alternative text (“alt text”) description. 

This is so that Google will know what the illustration is about.

5. Use your SEO keywords a few more times throughout your post.

But don’t make it look forced. Content is key.

6. Before you press “publish,” make sure that your keywords are in your URL.

And that’s it! Other factors that help a blog post rank on Google—in addition to headlines and illustrations—are good content, links and short paragraphs, but the most important thing is your selection of keywords.

If you use WordPress, I highly recommend the plugin WordPress SEO by Team Yoast. It makes this process very easy.

I hope that this post didn’t make your eyes glaze over! Please leave a comment if this helped you, or if you have a tip to share.

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April 19, 2015 @ 4:56 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Sorting your literary archives (otherwise known as paper clutter)

girl pulling out hair copy

At nine this morning there were 13 people in our house, all talking and going about their business. Many of them had showed up at 8:00. We’re having our house painted, some people were here to scope out photo ops (for what, I don’t know), etc. etc. etc.

It’s a chaotic time of year at the best of times. In two weeks we fly back to Canada. Wrapping up a half-year of work and books and notes and stuff always sends me into a spin, but this year it is intensified because we’ve put our house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, up for sale, and are building (and designing) a new one here.


We have been living half-the-year in Mexico for close to twenty years. Because we will be moving, I’ve been pruning my selves and closets. Long overdue, true, but it’s harder for a writer of historical fiction, I suspect, and especially for one (like me) who doesn’t throw anything away. In the last week I’ve sent off five or six big boxes of give-aways of out-dated computer equipment and books I know I will no longer need.

Worse, I have stacks of edited drafts in my office lock-up.


As in stacks!

Clutter—or literary archives?

Long ago, in a Margaret Atwood workshop, she told the class: “Don’t throw anything away.” (Dangerous words to tell a hoarder.)

I recently told my good friend Merilyn Simonds that I was going to have to throw out the papers filling up my lock-up and she exclaimed, “Don’t!”

Both Merilyn Simonds and Margaret Atwood are archived. Their papers are picked up every year—sweet!—to be put into their literary archives, lodged in a university library. This is something I have long intended to look into (more on this later, I promise), but for the time being—and perhaps forever—my “literary archives” are basically clutter in the basement of our house in Canada and in my storage lock-up in Mexico.

 sorting papers for my literary archives

Sorting and labelling the papers this morning so that at least they can be easily moved to the next lock-up made three things clear about my writing process.

  • One: I write lots of drafts.
  • Two: I print out lots of drafts.
  • Three: I am messy as all get out. (Don’t you love that old expression?)

Do I even want this known? A good question!

Two things I learned, and which I recommend for your literary archives

1) I am very glad that I include the draft number in the footer of each draft. Here is the format I am using now:

Gulland, The Game of Hope, draft 5.5, started April 1, 2015

2) I regret that I haven’t dated the editorial notes I receive, or noted who wrote them. (Of course I thought it was obvious at the time.)

I was amused to see this title page on draft 9.6 of what is now The Shadow Queen:


The title of that novel went through so many evolutions!

Figuring out how to begin writing again

Mixed in with all this is the ongoing frustration of trying to figure out how to proceed with my ever-so-challenging draft 5.4 (i.e. the 4th draft of the 5th draft) of The Game of Hope.

There are many new chapters, new scenes required—intimidating!—and I decided that since life is chaotic, the solution might be to tackle writing in a chaotic way: I will simply write snippets of dialogue and scenes as they come to me, and piece them together later.

Writing new material is always a bit like inching into a pool of very cold water, and because there is so very much to do in this coming-and-going transition period, I have set myself a simple goal: 100 words a day. Once that’s going, I will inch it up.

Update: 316 words today! This is what happens when you set a 100-word-a-day goal. :-)

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April 16, 2015 @ 3:25 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment

The tough nut of revision: on re-examining plot

I begin a novel by writing a plot. This doesn’t mean listing actions, but tracing the characters emotional arcs as well. The two are intertwined.

I don’t go into detail: I simply describe a scene in a sentence or two. Even so, it comes to 40 pages, and I take it through several drafts.

Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT is a great book on plot.

Save the Cat: a great book on plot

I basically use the guidelines Blake Snyder sets out in Save the Cat: they are simple and straightforward.

I’ve condensed them into a “Beat Sheet Guide” for my own use (click to download), but I highly recommend reading the book. Snyder is funny and to-the-point.

I write the first draft quickly, more or less following the scene-by-scene outline I’ve laid out according to these “beats.”

However, somewhere between the first draft and the last (ninth? tenth?), I find I need to regroup. That is: I need to have another look at the structure of the novel—the bones of it.

The (dreaded) middle of the writing process

This is where I am now, struggling to find firm ground in the “swamp” of the fifth draft of my current WIP, The Game of Hope, working title of the first of my Young Adult novels about Hortense.

Many things change in the process of writing. Themes emerge, characters step into the foreground and other characters prove to be ineffectual and need to be cut. New scenes are required, entire chapters.

It’s a confusing stage of the writing process: taking a novel apart and trying to put it back together again. It’s easy to get lost. For me, this is when I begin to lose faith—in myself as a writer, and in the novel. This is when I lose heart.

This is also when I become a magnet for solution.

A few weeks back I happened upon Shawn Coyne’s blog series: The Story Grid(Soon to come to a bookstore near you.) I’ve been gobbling up the blog posts and making notes. Here are some “plot” visuals from the Resources page of this website.

This first visual is on genre: what genre is your story?  (The visual is a bit hard to understand unless you’ve read what he’s had to say.)


One of the most interesting aspect of Coyne’s analysis, for me, is breaking story structure down into three types: archplot (the standard), miniplot (mostly literary), and antiplot (experimental).

Having been a fan of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces since I was 16 — a very long time ago — , I assumed that archplot was really the only structure. But try to analyze an Alice Monroe story in this way! It simply doesn’t work. Her stories follow Coyne’s miniplot modelThis makes sense.

Too, I’ve sometimes wondered if the archplot “quest” story model wasn’t basically male, wondered if there was a female alternative. (A thought to tuck away for future pondering.)

I’ve an important thing to decide about the novel I’m writing: What genre is it? It’s a coming-0f-age novel, true, but it’s also a romance. As such, it’s missing some key scenes — which helps explain what my editors have been saying.

I’ll be writing more on The Story Grid in follow-up posts, but for now, it’s time to crawl back into that swamp (the WIP).


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April 8, 2015 @ 1:39 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment

All hail The Shadow Queen!

The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

Today, in Canada, a simply gorgeous paperback edition of The Shadow Queen is out!

Frankly, it’s hard to settle down to work. It’s tough being so far away (we’re in Mexico still). I’ve yet to even get my hands on it.

Procrastination #1: I up-dated my paintings page.


April 7, 2015 @ 10:53 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

An author newsletter is key to effective book promotion

author newsletter book marketing

The importance of the author newsletter

In my decades as a published author, I’ve learned a few things about the author newsletter.

First: it is the single most important thing you can do to reach out to your readers. Experts on book marketing say that an author’s newsletter is more effective than any amount of social media (although social media certainly helps).

Fortunately, sending out a newsletter is also one of the easiest things an author can do.

Research by subscribing to author newsletters

Subscribe to author newsletters in order to learn about all the various styles. In this way you will see what engages interest — and what does not.

You can see my latest newsletter here. (Of course, I wouldn’t be professional if I didn’t point out that you can sign up for it here.)

Sign up for an email newsletter service

Decades ago, I started out with a simple email sent to family and friends. I quickly learned that there was a limit to how many emails my computer mail program was willing to handle.

That’s when I discovered the need for an email service. (I use GroovySoup, but many authors use MailChimp.) For a reasonable fee, an email service will provide you with a newsletter template, maintain your email database, and give you statistics (how many opened your newsletter, for example, and which links were the most popular).

You can have a standard template customized. I have the header of my newsletter reflect my website:

author newsletter email book marketing

Feed your email newsletter database

Most everything you do as a writer should be with an eye to gathering email addresses to add to your newsletter mailing database. If you give a reading: pass around a newsletter sign-up form. On your website and blog, be sure to have a sign-up link. This database is gold: these are your core followers.

Offer value

Some author newsletters are formal. Mine is more chatty. I like to imagine that I’m writing to my closest friends and family, so that the tone of my newsletter is close and familiar. Decide what tone is best for you.

I feel it’s important to give nuggets of news: the newsletter shouldn’t be too long, and it should be easy to skim. The headlines, too, should attract interest.

Write about a variety of things: your research, your work, your travels — your news — but also include things that will be of interest to your readers: books you’ve enjoyed reading or a writing tip, for example.

Give things away. With each of my newsletters, a subscriber wins a copy of one of my books.

I revise my newsletter several times over, and before I send it out I have a few people read it and make suggestions. Because it is hard to see one’s own mistakes, I have an editor look at it for errors. This is money well spent.

Use visuals

There should always be visuals in a newsletter. I use Google image search and my own photos. Be sure that the images you use are in the public domain. Wikipedia images are available for use, as a rule. Canva is a site for creating your own custom designs.

Give thought to the subject header

The subject header in your newsletter is very important. Imagine all the email people get. The subject header is what will make someone decide whether or not to open your newsletter. Make it interesting.

How often should you send out a newsletter?

Some authors send out a newsletter once a week, others once a month. I aim to have a newsletter out every three months. I think once a month is considered the most effective.

Do you send out an author newsletter? If so, please link to it in the comment section below. I’d love to see it. What has worked best for you?

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April 6, 2015 @ 9:04 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

“Zeroes on the loose”: a Sunday morning listening to a beautiful poem beautifully read

This is a beautiful poem by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska to begin a Sunday morning, read by Amanda Palmer:


I prefer movies.

I prefer cats.

I prefer the oaks along the Warta.

I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.

I prefer myself liking people

to myself loving mankind.

I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.

I prefer the color green.

I prefer not to maintain

that reason is to blame for everything.

I prefer exceptions.

I prefer to leave early.

I prefer talking to doctors about something else.

I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.

I prefer the absurdity of writing poems

to the absurdity of not writing poems.

I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries

that can be celebrated every day.

I prefer moralists

who promise me nothing.

I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.

I prefer the earth in civvies.

I prefer conquered to conquering countries.

I prefer having some reservations.

I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.

I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages.

I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.

I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.

I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.

I prefer desk drawers.

I prefer many things that I haven’t mentioned here

to many things I’ve also left unsaid.

I prefer zeroes on the loose

to those lined up behind a cipher.

I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.

I prefer to knock on wood.

I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility

that existence has its own reason for being.

Bravos to both Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, and singer and creative force Amanda Palmer for making this possible, not to mention the poet herself, Wislawa Szymborska.

“I prefer zeroes on the loose.”


“Possibilities” is in Poems New and Collected by Wislawa Szymborska.

I just bought a copy, and I bet you will too. ;-)


March 22, 2015 @ 10:34 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Hola, hello, bonjour: my newsletter, a winner, and a shout-out to Leah Marie Brown, a long-time fan


I sent a newsletter out this morning—read it here, if you haven’t yet—and I just had the pleasure of sending an email to the lucky winner of an autographed hardcover copy of The Shadow Queen. (If you get an email with the subject line You won a book (no, this is not spam!), don’t throw it out.)

Catching up on GoodReads, and saw a note from Leah Marie Brown announcing the trailer for her book Faking It (the first in an It-Girl series), which will be out May 12. I know that readers of this blog don’t expect to see a trailer for contemporary romantic comedy here, but 1) this trailer is funny, clever and smart (as I’m sure the novel is), and 2) Leah and I go back a long way.

A journalist with an addiction to travel (specifically France) and history (specifically French), Leah has been one of my most enthusiastic readers. She interviewed me on her blog On Life, Love & Accidental Adventures, writing:

 Ten years ago, I read the first book in Sandra Gulland’s trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte and knew I wanted to write historical fiction.  Her sumptuous novel about one of the more fascinating women in history was so richly woven with setting details and evocative prose, it lit a fire inside my writer’s belly.

She interviewed me and other authors for an article in Writer’s Digest on travel research: “Have Plot, Will Travel.” Her book club read—and enjoyed—Mistress of the Sun. She bid on and won an autographed set of the Trilogy. She has followed this blog and is a friend on Facebook and GoodReads.

Over these many years, she has been writing, and publishing. I predict that her It-Girl series is going to be a hit.

Bravo, Leah!

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March 10, 2015 @ 7:55 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

On process and research—an interview with Beth Powning, author of A Measure of Light


I had the honour to be asked to read a pre-publication copy of A Measure of Light by Canadian author Beth Powning. She’s already an award-winning author, and—frankly—I won’t be surprised if this novel doesn’t garner more. It certainly held me captive and in awe.

Here’s the testimonial I offered:

A Measure of Light by Beth Powning is a spellbinding work of biographical historical fiction, gorgeously written in spare, crystalline prose I found reminiscent of the finest writers of literary historical fiction today. (Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier and Hilary Mantel come to mind.) A brilliant evocation of 17th century England and America, it’s the story of one woman’s search for faith and the horrific sacrifices she makes once she finds it. Grim yet luminous—as well as illuminating. In a word: enchanting.

Believe me, I am rarely so effusive.

Beth Powning portrait

As I was reading the novel, I had questions about the author’s research and writing process, so I was extremely pleased when Beth accepted my invitation to answer a few questions here.

What were the unique challenges in writing about Mary Dyer?

When I first “met” Mary Dyer, I found her actions disturbing, even repellent. How could a mother leave six children for a five year period? Why would she return to them and then dedicate herself to a cause, thus once again removing herself from them? And how on earth could Mary walk into the jaws of death?

Often, what outrages me is like a shiny lure. I could not turn away from Mary’s story, and I realized that I had to find common cause with her: to put myself in her place, try to understand. I learned that it was common for 17th century parents to “farm out” their children with other families. I learned that the Puritans taught parents not to love their children “too much,” else they offend the Lord. And it occurred to me that it was very possible that Mary suffered post-partum depression. I began to understand the depth of Mary’s inner darkness and the consequent power of George Fox’s “measure of light.”

Telling her story became a kind of psychological mystery, a who-dun-it, where I knew the ending, but had to trace the steps leading up to it.

Reading A MEASURE OF LIGHT, I was in awe of the wonderful details of daily life.

Anne lifted bread on a peel from a beehive oven at the side of a hearth. The tiny girl turned a crisp-skinned goose, hanging on a string before the fire. Bloody gut-smell stung Mary’s nose—white hen feathers stippled the floor. (Page 39.)

I’d love to know specifics about your research process, specifically with respect to daily life. What did you find most useful? How did you keep track of it all?

Writing the first draft of a historical novel is a slow process. When I write, I visualize a scene in its entirety. I imagine myself, in a visceral way, to be there; I see, smell, hear. I find it hard to proceed with the writing until I have all these elements in place. Therefore, I must maintain a complex mental balance. I am thinking about the undercurrent of the scene, its meaning and contribution to the novel’s whole; I am working on character, who is there and what they are saying and feeling; I’m conscious of the pacing of both the scene itself and its placement within the text—yet I also need to know whether there’s a fire on the hearth; if the room is lit, and by what; whether there are shadows; what is cooking in what kind of a pot over the flames; if I can hear the rumble of wheels or the neighing of horses.

I had two invaluable books for the details of daily life in the colonies. “Home Life in Colonial Days,” by Alice Morse Earle, was written in 1898. Amazingly, Alice Earle could tap into the living memory of the elders of her time, who still recalled how things used to be. Another book was “Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” by George Francis Dow. For England, I used a marvelous book first published in 1615, “The English Housewife,” by Gervase Markham, filled with recipes and home-making instructions.

I had a few other excellent books about 17th century England. If they could not provide what I needed about details of daily life, I would search the internet.

I have an old-fashioned filing cabinet. In its pull-out drawers, I made major sections like England, New England, London, Puritans, 17th Century General. Within each of the sections, I placed paper files labelled gloves, writing implements, tools, money, jails. I also kept a virtual file on my computer’s bookmarks page, with links to websites. I used both systems, paper and computer, all the time.

I have a large cabinet in my study. In it is a shelf earmarked for books about Puritans, another for the Quakers, one for English history, etc. These shelves gradually filled with books that I either bought on-line or in 2nd hand bookstores. Library books, too, were parked there.

Spiral-bound notebooks fill with “notes on plot,” “notes on character.” As I write, every draft gets its own notebook— “Notes Chp. 1, draft 2;” “Notes Chp. 2, draft 3.” There are notebooks for editorial conversations.

It might sound chaotic, but in fact I keep my office highly organized. I have to be able to find all this stuff, without wasting time rummaging around for it!

Do you plot? How many drafts? When do you research?

In my last two novels (The Hatbox Letters, The Sea Captain’s Wife) I dove in without knowing where the novel would go. A Measure of Light is a true story, but since only the ending and some of the middle of Mary’s life are known, I had to work backwards. I made up Mary’s early story. Even so, I didn’t know exactly how it was all going to unfold. That happens as I write. I didn’t know about Sinny, for example, until I began to write. Then I had to pause and make up Sinny’s back-story. I love not knowing what is going to happen.

I show the first draft of every novel to my extraordinary agent, Jackie Kaiser. Jackie always provides superb feedback at this point, and my second draft is quite different from the first. There is invariably a third draft, which is perhaps the most difficult, because I think that I “got” it in the second. (But no!) Jackie doesn’t show my novel to my publishers until the 3rd draft is complete. The 4th draft is the one I make based on the comments from my editor. (Craig Pyette for A Measure of Light.) I had already done a lot of work before Craig saw this manuscript, but even so he had a great deal of brilliant advice. So substantive changes were made. Together with Craig, I worked through the novel about six more times. The changes, of course, get smaller and smaller. I suppose you can call those drafts, because a slightly changed novel emerges each time; but really, after the 5th draft, the novel is basically “there.”

I start with the research. I read and read and read. I underline in books that I own, take notes from library books; it’s just as if I were back in university, taking a history course. As I study, ideas come to me about how I will transform these facts into fiction. I keep track of my thoughts in a notebook. There is always a moment when the longing to transform the information into a rich, living story becomes acute, and I simply begin to write. Too MUCH research can kill the novel. I become intimidated by the sheer volume of information that exists about the period, and strangely depressed by the historian’s objective voice.

A MEASURE OF LIGHT traverses many places, and over a considerable stretch of time: London (1634-1635), Boston (from 1635 to 1638), Aquidneck (from 1638 to 1651), England (from 1651 to 1655), New England (from 1657 to 1660). 

Even so, it is a fairly spare novel, under 300 pages. How did you grapple with all the shifts in time and place?

Although I don’t plot, I did in fact block out the time periods before beginning. I begin at the beginning, and remain in each time and place until that section’s story is told, writing as much or as little of it as I think is needed. The first section, “London,” was, of course, enormous (SO much information, such a rich period!) and was heavily cut. The next, “Boston,”was the most difficult, since so many crucial things happened in that period, most of them necessary to understanding the rest of Mary’s story. The other periods grew or shrank during the editing process. A section which took place in Barbados was completely cut.

During the early drafts, when I realize that some parts of the story will take place over a long period of time without a lot happening, I simply write a few paragaphs indicating the passage of time and go on. Then I return later and fill it in. As a novel progresses, what comes later effects what came before, and vice versa. It’s like kneading dough. You fold and turn and fold again, working all the elements into one loaf, so to speak!

I always make a time chart, too. It’s a long roll of paper. Along the top are the characters, with their dates of birth. Along the left are the years. So in 1637, say, you can see at a glance what everyone in the novel is doing, how old they are, where they’re situated. I include a column down the left-hand side for historical events, so you can also remember what’s going on in the world. This is done with pencil and paper, not on the computer.

Your prose is wonderfully rich in similes.

Her heart had been smoothed like sand with the waters of other women’s assurances … (page 21)

They did not speak to one another, as if the leaf-scented air was itself a flux binding peace and could be broken by the merest whisper. (Page 76.)

She put fresh wood on the fire and sat reading her Bible in its light, looking up from the pages occasionally, as if listening for a voice she might trust. (Page 116.)

Clearly, you have a poet’s heart. I hesitate to ask about technique, yet I am curious.

I make them up myself. It’s how my brain works, so in fact I am constantly “shutting down” similes. The book could easily have far, far too many. They rise like bubbles slanting through…oops, there I go. In fact, I do work very hard to get them right. I sit with my face in my hands and search my memory bank. One of the things I say to myself is: how is it really. And then: think sideways. What does the bark of an ancient spruce tree REALLY look like? How does it feel to the tips of the fingers? Is there something I can compare it to that will bring this alive for the reader? This, again, is why writing is a balancing act. I’m dwelling on this problem, aware that it is only a beat or two in a large symphony.

“Think sideways”—I like that. Thank you so much, Beth! 

I was delighted that Beth mentioned the work of Gervase Markham. When I was researching Mistress of the Sun, I became so absorbed in The Compleat Horseman—his work on horsemanship—that I began “translating” it into modern English.

Here is the publisher’s description of Beth’s wonderful novel:

Set in 1600s New England, A Measure of Light tells the story of Mary Dyer, a Puritan who flees persecution in Elizabethan England only to find the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts every bit as vicious as the one she has left behind. One of America’s first Quakers, and among the last to face the gallows for her convictions, Mary Dyer receives here in fiction the full-blooded treatment too long denied a figure of her stature: a woman caught between faith, family and the driving sense that she alone will put right a deep and cruel wrong in the world. This is gripping historical fiction about a courageous woman who chafed at the power of theocracies and the boundaries of her era, struggling against a backdrop of imminent apocalypse for women’s rights, liberty of conscience, intellectual freedom and justice.

I highly recommend it!

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March 9, 2015 @ 1:00 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Eyes like a comb-box: in search of 18th century similes

When I get stuck for a simile or metaphor, I sometimes rummage around on Books Google.

Eyes like … ?

What would someone in the 17th or 18th century have said?

Eyes like fish pools.

Not exactly what I was looking for!

Eyes like a comb-box.

I admit: this one intrigued me. What is a comb-box? A quick Google search for “18th century comb-box” revealed a wealth of them.

comb boxes

But nothing whatsoever like “eyes,” however.

Intrigued, I followed the link and discovered The Works of Francis Rabelais, published in 1738. Chapter XXX is a long list of nonsensical (at least to me) similes:

The nape of the neck like a paper lantern.

Spittle like a shuttle. 

The bridge of his nose like a wheel-barrow. 

The windpipe like an oyster-knife. 


This one is perfect, however:

Hair like a scrubbing-brush.

Of course all this led to an exploration of what Rabelais was getting at (an anti-Catholic spoof of sorts), which only goes to prove how diverting procrastination can be.

Now, as for those eyes

For those of you who would like specific steps in using Books Google for this type of search:

Go to

Type in a word or phrase. Click “Search books.”

On the page that comes up, click “Search tools.”

Then click “Any time” and a menu will drop down.

Click “Custom range.” Enter your range and click “GO.”

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February 21, 2015 @ 1:43 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment