In Canada, I have a tall narrow bookcase of books—one of many I have in our house. This one includes poetry, novels I’m either reading or would like to read, and an embarrassing number of books on writing. I am a collector, apparently, a collector of books on writing.
This morning, as I was drinking my delicious mug of decaf, I took three black binders down from the top shelf. I was curious: what were they?
One was a collection of printouts of writing exercises by the New York agent Donald Maass. Another, a thick, heavy binder, was labelled Truby. In it were printouts from master story guru John Truby. I have a lot of Truby—including a series of tapes and his book The Anatomy of Story (which overwhelms me at the first chapter every time I open it). I recalled that at one time Truby offered interactive story analysis on his website; I think it was free, an amazing offering. All the printouts were from his website.
The third binder, labelled Story Tools, was of a middling size. The first page was a list of Sarah Waters’ instructions on how to write a historical novel. Her wise words are no longer online—at least not that I can find—so here it is, my gift to you. (Click here to see the full pdf.)
In the corner I had written: 6 mos min to write 180,000 words.
I wondered when I had written that note. The second page in the binder gave a clue.
Notes before putting away.
I must have written this after I’d been offered a contract to write the Josephine B. Trilogy. Several months before I had finally completed an acceptable draft of The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., the first novel in the Trilogy. While my agent was looking for a publisher, I had started work on what was to become, nearly two decades later, Mistress of the Sun. On signing a contract for a trilogy, I reluctantly put the project away.
So: all this was Very Long Ago, as I was setting out on this 32-years-and-counting writing adventure.
Sarah Waters’ advice on how to write a historical novel is a treasure. I’ll be returning to it.
The photo at top is of Sarah Waters, 2010, by Sam Jones, as seen in the article in the Guardian on Sarah Waters’ 10 rules for writers (rules which are, of course, spot on).
One of the books I have in San Miguel is A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by Bruder, Cohn, Olnek and Pollack. It was a useful book to consult when writing about actors in The Shadow Queen, but it’s now and again also mentioned as a useful book for writers. This morning, I scanned through it, before returning it to the shelf.
It’s true that many of the passages are relevant to writing. I especially like this one, for example:
The only talent you need to act is a talent for working—in other words, the ability to apply yourself in learning the skills that make up the craft of acting.
With writing in mind, it becomes: The only talent you need to write is a talent for working—in other words, the ability to apply yourself in learning the skills that make up the craft of writing.
Here are some others:
You must understand that acting, like carpentry, is a craft with a definite set of skills and tools. By assiduously applying your will to the acquiring of those skills and tools, you will eventually make them habitual.
It’s as if I …
I found Chapter 2, on Analyzing a Scene, particularly useful. As writers, we “experience” the scene we’re creating. These craft tools for actors are useful for writers as well:
- What is the character literally doing? (i.e. Tackling a man.)
- What is the essential action of what the character is doing in the scene? (The “essential” action is the purpose behind the literal actions, i. e. Physically stopping a horrendous thing from happening.)
- What is that action like to me? It’s as if … (For example, “It’s as if I were trying to stop my baby from being killed.” This third one is key to being able to put yourself emotionally into the character.)
The second step of defining the essential action can have a number of possible answers, and each one will require a different response to the third.
For example, it could go like this:
- What is the character literally doing? (i.e. Tackling a man.)
- What is the essential action of what the character is doing in the scene? (Hoping to get a promotion by proving herself the hero of the hour.)
- What is that action like to me? It’s as if … (“It’s as if I would be fired if I didn’t prove I could do a man’s job.)
Just tell the story!
Here’s another sweet spot:
The crucial thing to remember is that the actor is not on-stage to have an experience or to expose himself to the audience, but to help tell a story.
Converting this to writing: The crucial thing to remember is that the writer is not writing in order to have an experience or to expose himself to the readers, but to help tell a story.
Another bit of advice I like is:
Choose something that makes you really want to act the action you have chosen for the scene. … The better your as-if, the stronger your action, and thus the full strength of your humanity will be brought to the work.
The through-line is the one action that all the individual actions serve.
You must decide what your ultimate goal is and then construct each individual action to bring you a step closer to achieving that goal.
That through-line is often difficult to discern when it comes to writing a novel. Margaret Atwood once described it as the skewer running through the meat and veggies that make up a shish kebab. That’s a very useful image to keep top of mind.
Where have I been?
When we arrived in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) over five months ago, I went on a blogging spree. I was inspired, in part, by the refreshing wonder of fast internet. A month later, I stopped writing blog posts, getting down to the business of writing the keynote speech I was to give at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference mid-February.
As well, The Shadow Queen had been chosen as the Conference’s “Big Read” and an event was organized presenting it to book clubs. The event ended up including a video interview of me on writing The Shadow Queen, two lively short lectures by experts on the historical period, and a dramatic performance from the novel—plus champagne and authentic French beignets.
Being an all-or-nothing sort of person, I got very involved in scripting the film, which you can see here. Denis Lanson, the film-maker, did a wonderful job.
The short dramatic performance was my suggestion (in lieu of a reading). I discovered that it was quite a challenge to write. Wonderful actor friends Marilyn Bullivant and Rick Davey performed it. We went through several rehearsals (necessitating rewrites) together with Karen Kinney, head of the committee (a creative committee from heaven, IMO).
In short, a good part of December, January and early February was entirely taken up with writing the keynote, preparing readings for several Conference panels, and scripting the film interview and dramatic presentation of The Shadow Queen. All very exciting!
On stage before my keynote.
The Conference went wonderfully well. I still glow thinking of the reception to my keynote—a standing ovation from an audience of about five hundred—this in addition to the thrill of so many people reading The Shadow Queen. It was a highlight of my life as a writer.
In the weeks that followed, I struggled to get back to work on the WIP, an increasingly curious little novel about a young falconer in Elizabethan England. I went through all the stages of the writing process, including the requisite, “This is garbage, I should just retire” phase. (“What! You’re on Chapter Four already?” one writer’s husband would say whenever she voiced that thought.)
I made a self-appointed deadline mid-April to deliver an outline and character “bible” to Allison McCabe, the wonderful editor of historical fiction who worked with me on The Game of Hope. I delivered it Saturday morning, then celebrated with a lunch margarita at Casa Blanca, one of our favourite restaurants in San Miguel this year.
The working title of the WIP is now Raptor Wild, which I rather like. The “outline” is a mix of bare-bone scenes (mostly dialogue) and narrative plot points, weighing in at a hefty 14,392 words. The character “bible” is simply a page or two on each of the thirteen main characters, including a gyrfalcon and an elderly English Water Spaniel. A significant number of the characters die or are killed off rather early on in the story—somewhat too grim for a YA, I suspect.
“Beauty,” one of the WIP characters.
Although this was only an outline, I developed all the usual symptoms of being in final draft mode. Invariably, at that stage, I become obsessed. I get little sleep, cancel all activities that are not work-related, and become convinced I have a fatal illness. That’s when I think: Ah, almost there. How wonderful to send files off and experience a miraculous cure!
Now that Raptor Wild has been wrapped up (for now), it’s time to prepare to leave San Miguel—never easy. I love getting back home to Canada, but I hate leaving Mexico, too. We’ve had a wonderful winter here this year.
Next up, the paperback release of The Game of Hope, all gussied up in a beautiful new cover!
I’ve been quite busy this last month preparing for an event launching The Shadow Queen as San Miguel de Allende’s Big Read. (See my recent blog post about it here.) I wasn’t going to be able to be at the event myself,* but I worked closely with Karen Kinney, head of the committee organizing this event. They did a fantastic job! The event was held last Monday and judging from a number of emails I’ve received, it was a smashing success.
Part of the presentation was this video by film-maker Dennis Lanson, an interview of me on researching and writing The Shadow Queen.
This was followed by two short lectures on 17th century France and a dramatic reading from the novel by wonderful actors Marilyn Bullivant and Rick Davey. Live, period-authentic music, champagne (which was accidentally invented at that time) and beignets (a sweet French treat featured throughout the novel), rounded out the evening.
I wish I could have been there, but we had made holiday plans a year before on the Pacific coast of Mexico, which is where we are now. :-)
Last night’s sunset: spectacular!
My next event will be giving a keynote at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference on February 14, Valentine’s Day. I’ve been reading my talk out loud — honing it, timing it — while walking the beach. It’s a lovely way to rehearse.
My father became an avid “listener” of books at the end of his life as his eyesight gave out. The player and an endless supply of books on tape (in his category of choice) came to him free of charge thanks to an association for the blind in California. It was a lifesaver! My father liked to boast, “I’m a slow reader, but a fast listener.”
I’ve become an avid “listener” of books now as well. I listen to them while exercising, driving in the car, doing chores, and as I’m falling to sleep (see below).
Where to buy audiobooks
I mainly buy my books from Audible.com and listen to them on the Audible app on my iPhone. One nice thing about Audible.com is that you can return a book if you don’t like it, so I’ve become more experimental in my choices. (To return, go to the help menu on their website. It’s easy.) I’ve recently discovered AudioBooks.com and its app, and like it very much, as well.
Falling to sleep to an audiobook
I’ve become fond of listening to an audiobook while falling asleep. (I use a Bluetooth eyemask.) To listen to a book before sleeping, set the app to turn off after a period of time. I usually choose 30 minutes. Ideally, I will fall asleep before it clicks off. Often, the next day, I will backtrack back to a point I remember.
For falling to sleep, it’s important to choose a book that isn’t too dramatic and that has a soothing narration. For me, it’s best to choose books I’m already familiar with.
The most popular audiobook of the year?
No surprise here: it was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale.
My personal top ten audiobooks
All these are great books, but listening to an audiobook edition adds another dimension of pleasure to the experience. Some I end up buying in print as well because I want to savour the book on a sentence-by-sentence level. I also like being able to share a book I adore with friends.
I listened to dozens of audiobooks this year, and it was difficult to cull it down to only 10. Here they are, not in any particular order:
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, narrated by the author.
This is my current fave to listen to while falling asleep and the first from AudioBooks.com I’ve ordered. I’ve read the book once in print and once as a Kindle e-book, so it doesn’t matter if I gap out now and then. Macdonald has a wonderful voice.
All Things Consoled; a daughter’s memoir by Elizabeth Hay, narrated by the author.
I adore this memoir about Hay dealing with her ageing parents, and her voice is low and soothing. It’s a good one to fall to sleep to, but you might want to listen to it twice, in order to catch every word. Hay is a wonderful writer.
Becoming, by Michelle Obama, narrated by the author.
Frank, honest and inspiring. This is a good falling-asleep book, but you’ll want to repeat chapters you missed.
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar, narrated by Juliet Stevenson,
I love most any book narrated by the actor Juliet Stevenson; her voice is golden! This is a knock-out historical novel (with just a little fantasy). It’s one of the ones I ended up ordering in print, as well, because I loved it so much.
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty, narrated by Juliet Stevenson.
This mystery novel of sexual obsession is unusual for Juliet Stevenson — and me. Not recommended for sleeping, however!
Calypso by David Sedaris, narrated by the author.
I’m a Sedaris fan, and I think Calypso is his best yet. He’s a charming reader.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, narrated by Cathleen McCarron.
Room With a View by E. M. Forster, narrated by Juliet Stevenson.
I listened to this twice and plan to listen to it again. It’s a beautiful novel and an excellent audio edition for falling asleep.
Note: there are a number of audio editions of this classic. Be sure to choose the one narrated by Juliet Stevenson.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, narrated by Juliet Steveson.
Another Juliet Stevenson recommendation! Henry James is certainly the last author whose work I would describe as compelling or gripping, but this novel is both. I could finally understand why it’s considered a masterpiece.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, narrated by the author.
I adored this memoir about the science life — and learned a lot into the bargain. Eccentric, moving, extremely well-written. The author is an excellent narrator.
Happy listening! What were your favourite audiobooks this year?
The Baroque era in music generally spans 1600 to 1750. Mistress of the Sun and The Shadow Queen fall in what is called the “High Baroque” period (1650-1700), when French music rose to one of the peaks of its own unique expressive style.
Today, the best-known French Baroque composers are Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) and Jean-Phillippe Rameau (1683-1764).
Lully, a dancer and violinist born in Italy, became the court composer to Louis XIV in 1661, and a personal friend of the King. For over twenty years, he created the soundtrack underpinning all great occasions during the Sun King’s reign, including church music, operas, ballets, and much, much more.
YouTube has free excerpts of French Baroque music performed by ‘period’ ensembles, or groups that play using instruments and styles similar to those used at the time.
This excerpt of Lully’s brilliant opera Armide (1686), performed by Les Arts Florissants, directed by William Christie, gives an idea of the beautiful sounds of this period. This excellent group regularly plays and records French Baroque music. Also look out for Le Concert d’Astrée, directed by Emmanuelle Haim, and the work of Le Concert des Nations, directed by Jordi Savall, amongst many others.
Charpentier’s life was not so charmed. Labouring in Lully’s shadow, but arguably of equal talent, Charpentier never succeeded at getting an all-important court appointment, but depended largely on the support of the powerful Jesuits. Even after Lully’s death in 1687, groups of Lully’s fans decried Charpentier’s work, insisting it was ‘too Italian’ to be truly French music. This hindered his success in his own lifetime, but his music is extraordinarily beautiful: you can listen to a live performance of a sonata for eight instruments here, played by the orchestra of Les Folies Françoises. Charpentier’s operas, like Médée, and oratorios, like David et Jonathas, are well worth seeking out on CD, but they’re best of all in live performance!
Where Lully was France’s greatest composer of the seventeenth century, Rameau was the giant of the eighteenth: he began his career as a celebrated music theorist and teacher and a composer of keyboard pieces, like the Pièces de clavecins (here played by Blandine Rannou).
Rameau only started writing opera at the age of 50, but they astonished the Parisian community, and immediately caused great conflict with the conservative fans of the sounds of Lully. He still met with great success, and collaborated with many fine authors, including Voltaire, to produce brilliant opera. ‘Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux’ is just one song from his opera Castor et Pollux; the video contains French and English subtitles, as well as glimpses of the musical manuscript and stills from the 2006 film “Marie Antoinette.”
You might also enjoy …
Although not necessarily a perfect historical or geographical fit, I enjoy the following YouTube links for background listening. (You might notice that they have a somewhat different sound from the examples above. Most of these are played on what we think of as modern instruments, whereas the examples above are played on “period” instruments, and are, therefore, closer to the original sound.)
The Best of Baroque: with renowned harpsichordist Ed Clark, violinist Brunilda Myftaraj and cellist Kathy Schiano.
Baroque Garden for Concentration — No. 7
Airs de Cour — French Court Music from the 17th Century.
From the “High Baroque” period in Venice:
Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto in D Major, RV429, played by the Accademia Montis Regalis.
Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto in G minor, ‘La Notte’, Op.10/2, played by Europa Galante.
‘Winter’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, played by the excellent Il Giardino Armonico.
For an educational overview, I recommend Best Baroque Music Composers, French Baroque (a lecture on “High Baroque” style plus recordings) and My favourite Baroque music.
A CD recommendation:
A beautiful CD, should you wish to purchase, is Chorégraphie, Music for Louis XIV’s dancing masters, by Andrew Lawrence-King.
Most all of the knowledgeable information on this page is from Dr. Katie De La Matter, a scholar and performer of Baroque music. Thank you, Dr. Katie!