Sandra Gulland

Notes on (surviving) the writing life

A writer’s routine: where to write


My friend asks:

Where do you write?

If in multiple spots, do you find any difference in your quality of work?

Have you tried writing in places that just don’t work?  (I.e. couch, bed, yard, park, coffee shop, etc?)

Do you like having windows to look out?  Or, shut the blinds?

Do you need silence or listen to music?

Are you okay writing with other people or pets in the house, or do you need quiet?

Do you have a special chair?  Writing hat or outfit?

I love having my own office space, and I think I would have a hard time writing without one. That said, the important thing is to feel detached from the world so that I can immerse myself on the page, and this can be achieved in a number of ways. When I’m travelling, for example, sharing a room, or in a busy space, I wear ear plugs and headphones.

I write on a laptop—my beloved MacBook—and usually sit on a couch with the mouse on a thick book beside me. I find that more comfortable ergonomically than sitting at a desk.

If you work at a desk, and even if not, it is important to move, stand, walk, swing your arms—do something—every hour, if not more often. I found this out the hard way. At one point my right hand was in such pain I thought I would have to give up writing. Now I set a timer. It’s shocking how quickly an hour goes by … and also shocking how serious the effects of concentrated time at a computer can be. Move. Change position. Exercise. 

Some writers thrive writing in a public space—a coffee shop or library—but I think I would be distracted. I like having windows—light!—and I prefer being able to come and go without being interrupted. I’m not at the computer then, but I’m thinking. Dreaming is a writer’s work. We mutter and pace. Dickens would have lively dialogues looking into a mirror. I think you have to have enough privacy so that you can mutter and gestulate without embarrassment, which could be a problem in a public place.

I need to feel safe from interruption at certain stages of the writing process. In my early years of writing, I would only schedule home repairmen etc. for Mondays or Fridays, so that I had a run of house-empty days in the middle of the week. I’m fairly strict about protecting my morning hours. It’s important to let your family know when you need solitude.

With time, one learns to immerse more easily, and distractions become more manageable. Professional writers, especially those who are often on tour, learn to write all the time under any circumstance.

A relevant book: The Writer’s Desk, by Jill Krementz:


This from a Paris Review interview of the historian David McCullough, “The Art of Biography, pt. 2“:

“Nothing good was ever written in a large room,” David McCullough says, and so his own office has been reduced to a windowed shed in the backyard of his Martha’s Vineyard home. Known as “the bookshop,” the shed does not have a telephone or running water. Its primary contents are a Royal typewriter, a green banker’s lamp, and a desk, which McCullough keeps control over by “flushing out” the loose papers after each chapter is finished. The view from inside the bookshop is of a sagging barn surrounded by pasture. To keep from being startled, McCullough asks his family members to whistle as they approach the shed where he is writing.”

I was charmed to learn that McCullough doesn’t allow any visitors, with the exception of grandchildren, “the younger the better.”

The ergonomics of writing often dictate where and how one writes. A number of authors—most famously Hemingway—use stand-up desks (some even like treadmill-desks). Lin Enger, author of The High Divide, had this to say on the blog The Quivering Pen:

I wrote most of this novel in a four-by-five closet, standing up. Sitting for any length of time wrecks my lower back, and so I resorted to using for my desk the top of a four-drawer file cabinet I kept in the closet of my study. Why didn’t I move the cabinet into the study itself? Because the isolation of standing in a small, windowless room helped me disappear into the northern plains of 1886.

And, perfect reading for this subject, a book that influenced me decades ago:


A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf.

I’ve long loved this image —


Other posts in this series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?

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

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

{Illustration at top is from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.}

September 19, 2014 @ 1:09 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?


My friend asks:

How many words do you write a day? For how long do you write? How many days a week?

In other words, what’s the production schedule?

This may strike some as a mechanical approach to a somewhat mystical process, but for me and many other writers, it’s key.

Daily goals

The more you write, the better you get. It’s that simple.

The aim of the first draft is to get from the beginning to the end.

Keep in mind Anne Lamott‘s mantra: “I am responsible for quantity. God is responsible for quality.”

Many writers set daily goals. Mine are usually 1000 to 1500 words on work days, 100 words on “off” days (sick days, travel, family, and commotion days).

At the challenging beginning of a project, or after a time away, I will start with modest goals: 100, 200, 300 words a day, building up to 1000 or 1500. Be gentle with yourself, but persevering.

I clock in first thing, using “word count” to record the number of words in the manuscript file. I write this number on a calendar (a small Levenger notebook I buy for this purpose), write down my assigned allotment for the day and record the sum. Circle it. That’s the word count I must meet.

When I’ve met or exceeded that word count, I calculate how many words I’ve added to the manuscript. Write that down. Put an exclamation mark or smiley face beside it if I’ve done well. All those grade-school things.

This method encourages me to write new material every day, move the manuscript forward. Once my daily goal is met, I may go back and edit, fuss, cut, rewrite to my heart’s content.

Some days I’m like a tired factory worker and stop the instant I hit my goal. On other days I will write hundreds of words more without even noticing.

What about burn-out?

My friends also asks:

Are there times when you have burnt out on writing?  If so, how hard were you pushing and what did you learn from that experience?

Getting to the end of a draft, getting a novel ready to send out, is completely exhausting. Crossing that finish line! (Some have asked, “How do you know when you are finished?” Exhaustion is the clue.)

It’s okay to exhaust yourself at the end—but it can derail you in earlier stages. Pacing is important. You are an athlete.

In setting your daily writing goals, it’s important to under-estimate what you can do in a day. It has to be achievable.

And, as I will say over and over: writing daily is key.

Not all stages of  writing can be measured by word count. Working on a plot counts as “writing”; so does dreaming scenes, research and revision.

I like to keep the pressure on (I am my own task-master), so I will devise some appropriate daily goal or deadline—i.e., so many pages revised a day, an outline of two chapters, one character sketch—in order to keep moving forward.

Pushing through resistance

It’s important to realize that the first stage of writing is resistance to writing. Stage two is finding a way to push through that resistance.


For overcoming resistance, I recommend Walking on Alligators, a book of meditations for writers, by Susan Shaughnessy.

Still having trouble? I’ve become a fan of Jerry Seinfeld‘s “Don’t break the chain” method for motivating myself to do something daily. (It has succeeded in getting me to exercise daily, a small miracle.) For a year-at-a-glance continuous calendar, click here, or click here to download my own.

Websites on this very effective system:

Don’t Break the Chain

Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret

Other posts in the “writer’s routine” series so far:

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

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

Illustration at the top is from BibliOdyessy.

September 16, 2014 @ 12:33 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?


Pantster or Plotter?

Writers often talk about whether it is better to be a “pantster” or a “plotter.” (Google “pantster or plotter” and you will get some idea.) A pantster is someone who writes “by the seat of their pants”—that is, without an outline. A plotter, of course, is someone who begins with a plan.

Alison PickWriting Tips:

I myself am a firm believer in having some kind of plan. The late great Alistair MacLeod used the analogy of a carpenter, who does not just take a bunch of random nails and two-by-fours and start banging. She knows, first, what she is trying to build. …

Virtually everyone detests making a plan—which might be a fifty-page detailed outline, a one-page summary of plot-points or a loose pile of index cards. Most beginning writers resist making a plan, citing the many fine writers who work without one. These writers are also experienced and take a very, very long time to complete a project.


Robert Olen Butler‘s book From Where you Dream is excellent on the pros and cons of working with or without a plan. See Chapter Five: “A Writer Prepares.” His conclusion is that working with a plan helps get a book written faster.

A plan helps getting that first draft on paper. When I was first starting out, I assembled clumps of index cards for each scene: character notes, details, plot points. Now I spend months evolving a scene-by-scene plot before I begin a first draft. Either way, I basically know where I’m headed each day.

Alison Pick: Writing Tips:

Having a plan doesn’t mean the plan isn’t flexible. It will change—dramaticaly—by the time it is transformed into an actual book. But a plan gives me confidence. It steers me in the right direction. Knowing loosely what has to happen in each chapter divides the process into baby steps. I can think of the book as a series of small tasks rather than one enormous one.

Books on plot

On plot, I highly recommend books for scriptwriters.


Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder is short, amusing and to-the-point.


Another great book is The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

Vogler’s story structure is similar to that outlined by Blake Snyder simply because we are hard-wired for story (as originally explored by Joseph Cambell in Hero with a Thousand Faces).

Vogler describes character archetypes—the mentor, the trickster, the shadow, etc.—defining the roles of the various characters in a story.

Examining your story in terms of the classic story cycle and identifying the archetypes your various characters play will help you to refine it, make it stronger … and get it written faster.

Other posts in “A writer’s routine” series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

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

A writer’s routine: evolving what works


{Illustration at the top is from BibliOdyessy.}


September 14, 2014 @ 12:13 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

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


My friend asks:

Does it take you some time each day to immerse yourself in your writing?  If so, any tricks to ease into the creative headspace?

Writing has stages: a first draft is dream-like, immersive, while subsequent drafts are part cerebral/part immersive and often involve gnashing teeth, pulling hair, and moments of despair interspersed with joy.

Whatever the stage, you need to show up—daily.

For the early, intense and immersive writing stage, some recommend not speaking, talking or reading anything on waking, and to begin writing while still half-asleep. Others use a meditation practice to reach that imaginative space. Some write to specific music or look at an image chosen for a project. Many (Jane Smiley, for one) swear by a hot shower, or long walks. If there are distractions, I will use ear plugs as well as headphones.

Because the imaginative space can be so illusive, writers often try out different techniques. It’s hardest when you are new to writing, but it can be hard even for experienced writers, especially at the beginning of a new project. Over time, it gets easier to shut the world out, to concentrate, to lose yourself in a fictional world.

A writer needs to occupy an imaginative space for many months, perhaps even years. Touching base with it daily, even if only for a half-hour, is key. In my experience, one day away equals at least two days lost in trying to get back into that fictional world.

Some writers are night-time writers but most work in the early hours. If you begin first thing in the morning, you will be unconsciously thinking of your story all day.

The more you give yourself to your work, the more immersed you will become, and ideas will come to you in dreams or at unexpected moments. Many a writer has holed up in a bathroom at a party to note down thoughts.

Always have a notepad with you as well as one by your bed, so that you can write down the ideas that come to you on the fly. (A friend’s daughter calls these fly-by ideas “art attacks,” and dives for the closest paper and pencil.) Some writers use a dictation device that is always with them.

The important thing is to respect these thoughts. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you will remember them.

Proust‘s notebook:

New Yorker cover, NY Proust's notebook

At a critical point in the writing process—often nearing completion—a writer will seek some form of retreat, move into an isolated space in order to be able to concentrate fully. Over the years, I’ve checked into motels, B&Bs, silent monasteries, a snowed-in cabin.

The next question in “A writer’s routine” series: How do you conquer writer’s block?  What do you do when you are looking for inspiration for your work?

Essential reading: Chapter 5, “Harnessing the Unconscious,” in Dorothea Brand‘s wonderful book Becoming a Writer

These two books demonstrate how individual the writing process can be:

How I Write: the Secret Lives of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe: so that you re

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey.

Another post in “A writer’s routine” series: Evolving what works.

{The opening image at top is from “A most delicate art” on BibliOdyessy.}

September 12, 2014 @ 2:53 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: evolving what works


A friend has just quit his day job in order to devote full attention to writing. He has a number of interesting questions about writing, and especially about writing routines. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, so this is a subject very much on my mind.

Here is his first question:

What does your typical writing day look like broken down?  I know you mentioned you write first thing in the morning.  Do you wake up and start writing immediately (open eyes at 6:00 am and writing by 6:05 am), or do you take time to have breakfast and shower first?  

Do you write 2 hours, then have breakfast?  Go for a walk halfway through day, etc.  

Every creative (writer, artist, composer) finds, by trial and error, a routine that works best, but here is mine:

I wake, usually around 6:00 am, make myself a mug of coffee and go directly to my computer. I glance at email (I can’t help it), and then begin the writing of the day. I call this my “Cup of Work,” and I hold to it daily, even while travelling.

It’s important for me to be in a private space, but if that’s not possible I wear ear plugs and headphones so as not to be distracted.

At around 8:00 I break to eat, dress, chat with my husband and plan the day. At 9:00, I go back to work, usually until 11:00, when I break to exercise, lunch, read, and attend to the chores of life, including the many non-writing tasks that are a necessary part of a writer’s life (correspondence, research and social media, for example).

I retire early, often around 9:30, and read for pleasure.

And that’s my day: it amounts to about four hours a day devoted to writing. On non-work days, I will at least have my Cup of Work first thing, although it might only be for a half-hour.

As a beginning writer, I used some tricks that might be of help. The day before, I would put notes by my computer, indicating the scene I was heading into. Because I was a mother of two youngsters, I had to rise before they did in order to get a jump on the day. I programmed the coffee pot to start perking so that when my alarm went off, the smell of the coffee lured me out of bed.

There is no single way to be a writer. The most important thing to do is figure out what works for you.” — Alison PickWriting Tips

Next up, the question: “Does it take you some time each day to immerse yourself in your writing?  If so, any tricks to ease into the creative headspace?” Stay tuned …

Doris Lessing

From Doris Lessings acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature:

Writers are often asked: How do you write? With a word processor? An electric typewriter? A quill? Longhand?

But the essential question is: Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?

For more of Lessing’s acceptance speech: In search of the imaginative space: wise words from Doris Lessing.

Also relevant: An amazing writer at work …  my blog post on the daily routine of power-writer Joyce Carol Oates.

{Illustration at top is from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.}

September 9, 2014 @ 8:07 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Sweet as a … cow? Historical simile searches on Books Google


The “flowering” stage of the writing process is a pleasure. I love making historical simile searches on Google. Such a search can provide a sweet detail for a historical scene, that telling detail that reminds the reader that we’re in another world. 

1) Go to Google and type the lead-in to the simile in quotes. For example, “as sweet as a”.

2) Under More select “books.”

3) Click Search tools, and select the time period you want. I select “custom” and type in between 1600 and 1800. 

Here are the treasures that resulted, images that tell you quite a bit about daily life hundreds of years ago.

  • as sweet as a Parsnip
  • as sweet as a Nut
  • as sweet as a Cow (!)
  • as sweet as a Jordan almond
  •  as sweet as a Lark
  • as sweet as a Pistack Nut
  • (smelled) as sweet as a nosegay
  • (smelled) as sweet as a per- fum’d Spanish Glove
  • as sweet as a wild Fig
  • as sweet as a thin syrup
  • Her Breath is as sweet as a young Fawn’s
  • Her Breath is as sweet as a Grecian Captain. (?)

And, of course, a rose. 

Here are some more:

  • as slender as a Crow’s- quill
  • as hungry as a Church-mouse
  • as hungry as a hawk
  • as tall as a May-pole
  • as tall as a wild-Goat
  • as small as a cobweb
  • as big as a Goose’s egg

I find these simply delightful.

Some recent posts to Baroque Explorations, my research blog:

Happy 376th birthday, Louis XIV!

Honey, figs and red dove feet: cosmetic secrets of the Middle Ages


September 7, 2014 @ 9:36 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

How to approach a writer for a review or testimonial of your book

I often receive email pitches from publicists, asking for a testimonial—a “blurb”—or offering to send me a book to review or mention on this blog. (My little blog!)

Recently, there were two on the same day. One was a model of a successful pitch, and the other an example of what not to do.

I’ll begin with the NOT:

The letter begins: I’m are writing to you about …

Say no more!

The second publicist knew my work and had chosen to approach me for a reason. She included a short description of the book, several glowing blurb quotes, plus a Q&A with the author. It was enough to get me interested.

I only wish publicists would also include an attachment of the opening pages of the novel. That would be all I need to judge if a book might be one I’d like.

That said, I rarely accept. As for all writers, I have a frightening pile of books I am supposed to be reading. Plus, I’m slow: the last WIP I agreed to read for a very good friend took me over a month, even reading it every day.

It takes quite a bit of time to read a novel, so an indication of a book’s length is important, as well as the deadline, should a quote be needed before publication.

What to include

In summary, a pitch for a quote or review should include:

  • why the book might be of interest to me
  • the opening pages
  • the cover
  • the deadline (if applicable)
  • book length

Nice extras would be:

  • publication details (i.e. promotion plan, print run)
  • advance review quotes, if there are any
  • a Q&A with the author


Later, as a courtesy, an autographed copy of the published book should be sent with thanks to those who have taken the time to read and craft a testimonial or review. An appreciative note from the author is always nice. It’s surprising how rarely this is done. I understand! It’s expensive, for one thing, but most of all, it’s time-consuming.

Shadow Queen high res front

Come to think of it, I’ve yet to finish sending out my own “thank you” copies of The Shadow Queen. (Reminder to self: do it today.)

September 6, 2014 @ 5:34 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Sentence Swoon: the wonderful Laurie Colwin


What I love most in a novel are bright, witty sentences.

Here is one from the delightful novel Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin:

To ward off the cold, she wore as a cape what looked like a series of horse blankets with exposed seams. In the yarn shops, she did business briskly. Otherwise, she was a study in manifest chaos.

“Manifest chaos”: c’est moi.


This novel is one of few I’ve reread. If you are in the mood to be charmed by a love story with a difference, I highly recommend it. Actually, it’s two love stories, and what’s different about them is that the women are selfish cads and the men emotional wrecks who fall at their feet in worship of every little nasty thing they say. Refreshing! And very, very sweet.

September 4, 2014 @ 11:25 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

25 Rules of (in)Civility: a guide to bad behaviour


George Washington studied Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour based on a work by French Jesuits in 1595. In showing what people should not do, I find such guides helpful in defining bad behaviour. For example, based on these rules, you would: 

1) be disrespectful,

2) put your hands on some private part of your body,

3) sing to yourself with a humming noise,

4) drum with your fingers or feet,

5) cough, sneeze, sigh or yawn,

6) fall asleep when others are talking,

7) spit into the fire,

8) gnaw your nails,

9) bedew someone’s face with your spittle,

10) kill fleas or lice ticks in company,

11) turn your back to someone who is speaking,

12) puff up your cheeks or loll out your tongue,

13) read letters, books or papers without asking leave,

14) laugh too loud and too much at a public spectacle,

15) look men of quality full in the face,

16) run in the streets with your mouth open,

17) ask someone how they came to have a blemish,

18) laugh in the presence of a superior,

19) scratch, spit, cough and blow your nose at table,

20) use your greasy knife to take salt or cut bread,

21) blow on your hot broth,

22) spit out the stones of a fruit pie onto your plate,

23) throw something under the table,

24) drink and talk with your mouth full,

25) clean your teeth with a table cloth napkin, fork or knife.

Number 9 is especially annoying, don’t you think? And don’t you just love the word “bedew”?


July 27, 2014 @ 4:50 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

The cat sat on … the dog’s mat

I’ve not been blogging very much, mostly because I’m crashing through a 3rd draft of The Game of Hope, the working title of my YA novel about Hortense de Beauharnais.

But I’ve also been slow to blog because has been suddenly problematic, requiring me to insert (horror!) code before publishing a post. For a code nerd, it would be nothing—but for me it’s a pain. Fingers crossed that the next upgrade of WordPress will solve the problem.


But for now, I’m just dropping by to post a quote I liked in a wonderful book: Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon. I’m going to be passing it on to friends in my book club. I recommend it!

Here’s something else worth noting, re. structure (credit to Emma Coats, formerly at Pixar):

Once upon a time, there was _____.

Every day, _____.

One day, _____.

Because of that, _____.

Because of that, _____.

Until finally, _____.

And so, in the spirt of sharing/showing my work, I finished making the changes to draft 3.1.1 today and have printed it out. I love seeing that big stack. Tomorrow morning, I’ll begin to read it through. I’m already trying to talk myself into not getting too picky. I want to skim for flow, identify the problematic sections and write a new chapter or two. But “picky” is my middle name, so that might be a problem.

I got the draft cover for the paperback edition of The Shadow Queen: I like it!

Here’s the quote:

“The cat sat on a mat” is not a story. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is a story. —John le Carré


July 25, 2014 @ 5:07 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

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

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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. ;-)

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