Notes on (surviving) the writing life

Welcome to my blog. Please feel free to comment and join in discussions. 

From my office in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

How does my writing process work? The 4th and final question on the Writers’ Blog Tour


I explained in an earlier post what the Writers’ Blog Tour is about. Basically, writers answer the same four questions: 

Why do I write what I do?

What am I working on?

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

How does my writing process work?

I’ve answered first three questions (click links above), and so, for today, here’s the final one:

How does my writing process work?

Ah, process: that’s what it’s all about, and frankly, the process itself is always in process. Here’s what mine is now:

Researching, I make a basic timeline of events. (For details on my research process, click here.)

Using these facts, and creating events as needed, I work for some time on a scene-by-scene plot, which usually ends up on index cards. I consider this stage the imaginative first draft.

Save the cat

Note: Of late I’ve been a fan of the outlining structure set out in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat: the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need. It’s short and to-the-point.

Then I have a close look at the characters: what is each character’s role in the story? Who is a mentor? Who is a villain? For this analysis I am heavily influenced by Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

xWriter's journey

And then, of course, I revise the plot, and then go back to the research, and revise again. Etc. etc. etc.

And then I write the first draft. I set a goal of 1000 or 1500 words a day (less on holidays), clock in with a word count, add the 1000 or 1500, and clock out when that word count is met. At that point I can do whatever I want— revise, research, email—so long as I’ve met my commitment for the day, every day.

This process is very much a crash race to the words, “The End.” Forward momentum is everything. I think of Anne Lamott’s mantra: “I am responsible for quantity; God is responsible for quality.” I’ve found that the scene-by-scene plan is very reassuring, although I often wander off course.

And then it’s revise, revise, revise, which takes years. I like Ariel Gore‘s description of the process as shampoo and rinse, shampoo and rinse. In other words, fatten, then trim. Over and over.

I rarely go back and look at the plot, although I probably should. The story deepens in surprising ways; research, which is on-going, sparks both inspiration and despair (when what is discovered ruins the plot!). At some point, immersion is necessary, I find … in fact, that’s where I am now with the Young Adult novel I’m writing, and hence I’ve been a bit slow to post this last question.

I was invited to join the tour by the wonderful literary writer, teacher, coach and editor  Merilyn Simonds.

And now, in turn, I’ve invited Lauren B. Davis (author of Our Daily BreadThe Empty Room, for starters) and Catherine McKenzie (author of ForgottenHiddenSpin) to come on board. I’m very much looking forward to reading how these two writers answer the questions.

Each writer tagged to join the Tour posts answers to the same four questions on their blog. They might post answers all at once, or one at a time, whatever suits. They also provide links to the posts of writers who came before.

Be sure to read some of these links to the posts of writers who came before.

July 22, 2014 @ 11:02 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

How does my work differ from other work in its genre? Question #3 in the Writers’ Blog Tour


I explained in an earlier post what the Writers’ Blog Tour is about. Basically, writers answer the same four questions: 

Why do I write what I do?

What am I working on?

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

How does my writing process work?

I’ve answered the first and second questions this week, and so, for today, here’s the third:

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

This is an interesting question.

In one respect I am clearly different from my fellow historical fiction writers: I’m slow. But that isn’t the thrust of the question.

I aspire to write literary historical fiction, simply because that’s what I love best to read, but I’m also committed to writing fiction that’s accessible and compelling. (I hope.) My “voice” is perhaps more simple than that of most writers of historical fiction. I’m a fan of plain speaking and try to pare my work down. I’d like to be witty, but I don’t have that kind of brain. I think that my novels are just a little comic, and I tend to go light on political and military history. I am much more interested in daily life, specifically the lives of women.

The next and last question on the Tour is a big one: How does my writing process work?

Once up, I’ll hand the baton to  Lauren B. Davis (author of Our Daily Bread and The Empty Room, for starters) and Catherine McKenzie (author of Forgotten, Hidden, and Spin). 

I’m enjoying this Tour. Be sure to check out other author posts.

July 12, 2014 @ 8:51 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

“What am I working on?” Question #2 in the Writers’ Blog Tour


I explained in my last post what the Writers’ Blog Tour is about. Basically, writers answer the same four questions:

Why do I write what I do?

What am I working on?

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

How does my writing process work?

I answered the first question yesterday, and so, for today, here’s the second:

What am I working on?

Hrtense (francois-gerard-hortense-de-beauharnais

I’m back in the Napoleonic era after more than a decade away, writing about Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense. It’s a familiar world, but it’s also quite new to me, because this is a Young Adult novel. I’m finding it creatively stimulating to be tackling a new genre.

The novel is written from Hortense’s point-of-view during her teen years, and is therefore an entirely different perspective from that of her mother, who is the point-of-view character of my Josephine B. Trilogy

Delving back into a once-very-familiar world has been an interesting—and pleasant—experience. The late 18th century feels so modern compared to the 17th! (The setting for my last two novels.)

Having previously immersed myself in the Napoleonic era for near-on two decades, one would think I wouldn’t have to do very much research. Wrong! There are new books and studies available, and there’s a ton more information on line. Although I have quite a leg-up (a 556-page timeline—single space, small type—for starters, and stacks and stacks of files), there is no such thing as no need to research. In any case, how can one resist?

For a rich exploration of the answers given by other writers to this and other questions, be sure to check out the links here.

Tomorrow: How does my work differ from other work in its genre? This, as you can imagine, is a thought-provoking question!

July 11, 2014 @ 9:00 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

“Why do I write what I do?” Question #1 on the Writers’ Blog Tour



Have you heard of the Writers’ Blog Tour? (Goggle it, and you’ll see all the various writers on the Tour.)

Each writer tagged to join the Tour posts answers to the same four questions on their blog. They might post answers all at once, or one at a time, whatever suits. They also provide links to the posts of writers who came before.

I was invited to join the tour by the wonderful literary writer, teacher, coach and editor  Merilyn Simonds. (If you are working on a novel, consider a one-on-one immersion with Merilyn for a week in sunny San Miguel de Allende this coming winter.)

Merilyn’s answers to the questions on the Writers’ Blog Tour are deliciously inspiring. I especially related to this:

I am a slow writer. Perhaps not slow in crafting words and sentences but slow in worming my way to the heart of the story …

Which is exactly what takes me so long.

In turn, I’ve invited Lauren B. Davis (author of Our Daily Bread, The Empty Room, for starters) and Catherine McKenzie (author of Forgotten, Hidden, Spin) to come on board. I’m looking forward to reading how these two writers answer the questions.

Lauren and Catherine will each invite two writers to join the Tour … who will then in turn invite two writers. Writer power! All the writers will—if possible—post to Facebook and Tweet. (A Twitter hash tag is #writersblogtour.)

The four questions are intriguing:

Why do I write what I do?

What am I working on?

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

How does my writing process work?

I’m going begin with the first:

Why do I write what I do?

I’m hopeless at plot, so I originally thought that by writing historical fiction I’d sidestep all that. Ha! If anything, crafting plot from facts is even more challenging—but it’s a challenge I’ve come to enjoy. I enjoy the puzzle of research, and I find working within the constraints of the historical record irresistible.

In a writing summer workshop I took in my very early days at the Humber School for Writers, taught by the venerable Margaret Atwood, she said, of my work, “You are attracted to other worlds.” And I am. Exploring other worlds is an adventure. I especially love the vocabulary of the lost. Everything is a discovery: imagining a world without reliable clocks, a world without refrigeration, a corner store, telephones.

So: why do I write what I do? Because there are fascinating stories to explore, and there is nothing more otherworldly than the past.

July 10, 2014 @ 3:39 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Waving arms madly and giving lots away: how to have fun giving a reading

cropped 140619_7935

Most of Thursday I prepared for a talk/reading in support of the Killaloe Public Library in my home town. I knew that many there would be friends and family, so I wanted it to be special.

Several times, I paused my talk to give out door prizes. This was so much fun, I’m a convert!

Doug De La Matter took some great shots! (I have more of them up on Flickr.)

Apparently I’m a bit expressive. ;-)

140619_7877 140619_7911 140619_7880 140619_7822 140619_7819 140619_7818



June 21, 2014 @ 5:30 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

The charm of voting in a rural community

2014-04-14 01.20.52

It was voting day today. My husband and I went at 5:30, both of us unsure where we would put our mark (as no doubt many in Ontario felt).

It was a 1-minute drive to the parish hall. The “officiates,” an older woman and a young back-to-the-land sort, were just coming in from a break. We were the only ones in the big room. “Do you know John Gulland?” the young man asked. “Yes, he’s my brother,” Richard said. “He was in earlier,” we were told.

“Do you count?” I asked (meaning the ballots), and he said, “Yes, since I was four,” and we all laughed. Five more voters arrived as we were leaving, two of them good friends.

I remembered going to this same hall with our son, newly old enough to vote. He’s in his thirties now, so this was some time ago. The officiates, two women, made a fuss over him. “Chet’s old enough to vote!”

I wonder how Chet remembers that day, wonder if he thinks of it as wonderfully small-town charming. I also remember seeing a bear cross the road on the way home. It was one of those memorable days.

About the image: I’m sorry, but I don’t know who the artist is. For some inexplicable reason, it feels like it suits. Haunting, isn’t it?

June 12, 2014 @ 10:38 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

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


Richard and I just returned home after a week on the road touring Montreal, Quebec City and the Eastern Townships. Quebec is such a beautiful province! We ate so well, I didn’t want to leave. (Not that we don’t eat very well at home: Richard is a wonderful cook.)

A new goal for me is to write every day, even when on holiday, so I’ve developed what I call a “Cup of Work” each morning. With my morning coffee, I put headphones on, tune in to classical, and write. (Or, as is the case right now, revise.) This way we can travel more, and I can still meet my deadlines—but most of all, I love the feel of this routine.

This morning, I finished the revisions to draft 3.0 of The Game of Hope (working title). I could now print it out and begin draft 3.1, but I think I should make a few more changes. Before we left, I put out a request for research help on the H-France chat group (a large group of historians of French history), and already I’ve had some great responses.

I’ve been meaning to post the highlights of my tour—that will come.

A delicious historical diversion:, a repository of historical images.

I’ve begun reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life: brilliant. I usually have five or so books on the go at a time (I’m an ADD reader), but this novel deserves my full attention.

June 8, 2014 @ 9:08 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Celebrating Josephine

Josephine's tomb, with rose, fixed

Today—Thursday, June 24th—is the bicentennial anniversary of Josephine’s death, 200 years ago.

Special exhibits have been shown in Paris, and there will be a very special event at Malmaison, no doubt.

In the past, Malmaison has marked this day with a concert of classical music in the Music room. I was told by the former curator that invariably, a sudden chill would sweep through the room—Josephine’s spirit, he was convinced, for it happened every time, in spite of the summer heat. This is one time that I ache to be there.

All this week, I’ve been posting to a new Pinterest board I created for the occasion: “Celebrating Josephine.”

In honour of the bicentennial, Touchstone (of Simon & Schuster)— the U.S. publisher of the Josephine B. Trilogy—has designed new covers for the ebook editions.

 Many Lives and Secret Sorrows  Tales of Passion 5.22  Jacques-Louis David Le Sacre de Napoleon - The Coronation of Napoleon retail 1805 - 1807 XIX th Century French school Louvre Mus

I’m thrilled! I love these new designs.


May 29, 2014 @ 6:34 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A historically dressed-up book club gives thumbs up to “Mistress of the Sun”

Tami Grondines, one of the Chapters/Indigo employees who gave editorial feedback on an early draft of The Shadow Queen, reported to HarperCollins Canada that Mistress of the Sun was “very well received” by her book club, and that it scored a “solid 9 out of 10.” :-) 

Some members of the book club dressed up!



I love that there are three editions of Mistress of the Sun in that snapshot. 

Here is Tami with The Shadow Queen, pointing to her name in the acknowledgements.



She wrote: “… seeing the changes that Sandra made due to MY feedback was amazing and emotional.”

Thank you, Tami!  

May 12, 2014 @ 5:49 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Happy Mother’s Day … my newsletter


Happy Mother’s Day, one and all.

What a wonderful day I’ve had:

calls from daughter and son, Carrie and Chet


lunch out with my husband Richard

a very long nap

garden puttering (five new plants in and watered)

And I sent out a newsletter:

Now I’m going to curl up with Maeve Binchy. ;-) 

May 11, 2014 @ 8:24 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Reviews and cross-writing: not what you think

I’ve just made summary of links to some on-line reviews of The Shadow Queen. Have a peek. 

Additionally, there are wonderful reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Here is a quote from one review I like very much, by “Curtis” (otherwise known to me as @gariovich on Twitter): 

Athénaïs wields such power over the king that she is referred to as The Shadow Queen. Some may think that the title of this novel is a reference to this, but I would argue the title refers to Claudette. She is the true queen of the novel. She emerges from a life riddled with strife to one of self-determination.  In the end, it is Claudette who has emerged from the shadows of poverty and disadvantage to reign over her own destiny.

I especially like this because early reviews took exception to the title. Now reviewers are interpreting the title less literally, which is how it is intended. (I have written about the title here.)

A few review quotes: “I adored The Shadow Queen right from the first page.” I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Margaret, the reviewer, at one of my readings. 

A bookish affair: “My fellow historical fiction fans will eat it up!”

Trudy Morgan-Cole at Compulsive Overreader: “While the glimpses of court life are intriguing and, as always with Gulland, beautifully drawn, what really fascinated me in this book is the theatre world.” (I’ve been very pleased by the number of readers who love the theatre world of The Shadow Queen.) 

This post is going on too long … . As Mark Twain famously said, “If I had had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”


I learned today that in Jane Austen’s England, the receiver of the letter paid according to how many pages the letter was, as well as by how far it had travelled. People put a very great deal onto one page by “cross” writing.

Imagine writing a novel this way …  Actually, that rather fits. 

Happy Mother’s day, one and all. May there be the gift of time for reading in your day.  

May 10, 2014 @ 9:28 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Fun podcast interview with Tim Knox for “Interviewing Authors”


I very much enjoyed being interviewed about my work by Tim Knox for his series “Interviewing Authors.” (Here is the link to the recording.)

Interviewing Authors is one of the Web’s premiere blog and podcast destinations that focuses on the process of creating, writing, editing, publishing, marketing, and selling an author’s work.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Tim made me feel very much at ease and asked informed writerly questions. It was a fun chat. I love “shop talk.”

I invested in a funny-looking ball of a USB mike for it, thinking that I might like to make podcasts of my own.

(Ya, in my spare time? Well … I just might!)

You may read a print transcript of the interview here.

What you don’t see in the transcript is all the laughter. (Tim got a chuckle out of my brief bio: born in Miami, raised in California, aged in Canada.  I should have added, “like Cheddar.”)


Links, for those of you who are reading this on a non-hotlink site:


May 5, 2014 @ 8:51 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Voltaire multitasking … in a nightcap

Don’t you just love this? 


“Voltaire in his night shirt, putting on his trousers while dictating to his secretary, at his house in Ferney, France”; painting by Jean Hubert, 18th century. 

I especially love the silly nightcap Voltaire is wearing. 

May 3, 2014 @ 8:52 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Mad Men and the review swirl

I’m going to be brief here, because I want to watch “Mad Men.”  :-)

Too, I’ve been reading OVERWHELMED; Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte.

The cover says it all:

Over images

Leisure is important! 

But before I escape into the worlds of Don and Betty, I want to say that I’ve returned to writing (gearing down from promotion-land), and it’s such a pleasure. 

Also to mention that today was an excellent day for reviews of THE SHADOW QUEEN. 

Reading an issue of Renaissance, I came upon a glowing review. It’s not on-line, but here’s the concluding sentence:

This book is a treasure for any lover of literary historical fiction.

The second is from the Pittsburg Examiner, which concluded:

The Shadow Queen will prove to be one of the top historical fiction novels in 2014 because of interesting characters, a unique story, and such attention to detail and research. This is a walk back in time you don’t want to miss!

Of course I’m smiling!

Now to the on-going saga of Don and Betty …  

May 2, 2014 @ 8:05 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

The challenge for historical novelists: sorting out common-law wives, mistresses, courtisans & shadow queens

Hollane etc.

Given the recent revelations about French President François Hollande’s personal life, I think future writers of historical fiction are fortunate. They will have so many details to go on, from photos of President Hollande arriving for a rendezvous on a scooter…


… to tweets sent by the former First Lady, his live-in mistress Valerie Trierweiler.

In writing biographical historical fiction that involves a public figure, it’s often difficult to discover how an intimate relationship evolves. 

While writing my newest novel, THE SHADOW QUEEN, it was easy enough to see how lovers met, but a little more difficult to sort out how, exactly, a more intimate relationship came about—for these lovers were all “in the family,” so to speak:

Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan (Mistress 2) was the good friend of Louise de la Vallière (Mistress 1)—or so Louise thought.

Madame de Maintenon (Mistress 3) worked for Athénaïs (Mistress 2), as governess of her children by the King. 

Claudette des Oeillets—heroine of THE SHADOW QUEEN who has a child by the King (rather a Mistress 3.5)—also worked for Athénaïs (Mistress 3) as her lady’s maid, and one has to presume that this arrangement was with Athénaïs’s approval. 

The Hollande family tree, however, will be as difficult for future historical novelists to sort out as in days of old, and in this respect I don’t envy them in the least. Ms Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former common-law wife, is the unmarried mother of his four children. Ms Trierweiler, his second partner, has three children by her second husband. That’s a family-menage of seven children—way too many to manage in a scene. 

Film actress Julie Gayet, the newest Other Woman, has two children by her first husband, but it’s up for grabs whether or not she will be moving into the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the President of the French Republic. If she does, the international Press, you can be sure, will be watching.

There is a general perception that it is not uncommon for French leaders to have a mistress. Is this, however, fair? In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, having a mistress was almost a requirement for a French, English, Spanish or German king. Understandably, in my view, given that royalty had to marry for political reasons, not love.


Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a rather monogamous adulterer: he usually had only one mistress at a time. His cousin Charles II of England, however, had several mistresses at once. (The most famous was actress Nell Gwynn, who is reported to have once sabotaged a rival by putting laxatives in her food before her rendezvous with the King.)

In modern history, Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 in order to be with his mistress, the divorcee Wallis Simpson. Prince Charles married his long-term mistress Camilla Parker Bowles. And then, of course, we have President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. 

In one respect, I venture to say that the French do take the cake.  A number of French shadow queens were significantly powerful women.

Gabrielle d’Estrees, the Catholic mistress of Protestant Henri IV, helped end France’s religious wars.

King Henri II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, imposed taxes, appointed ministers and made laws.

And, lest you think that the role of shadow queen is strictly sexual, consider Madame de Pompadour, who was King Louis XV’s mistress for almost two decades, despite—I’ve read—being unable to have intercourse. Instead, she provided the King with young women to sleep with.

I admire the French public for considering it none of the press’s business what their leaders do in their personal life … which makes me feel just a little trashy for even mentioning it all here. But then, I’m just thinking ahead, academically speaking. ;-) 

Have you ever noticed how the word “courtesan” has the word “court” in it? From Wikipedia:

“In Renaissance usage, the Italian word cortigiana, feminine of cortigiano (“courtier”) came to refer to “the ruler’s mistress”, and then to a well-educated and independent woman of loose morals, essentially a trained artisan of dance and singing, especially one associated with wealthy, powerful, or upper-class men who provided luxuries and status in exchange for companionship.”

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April 21, 2014 @ 4:40 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment