Machine Without Horses: a beautiful historical novella by Helen Humphreys

Machine Without Horses: a beautiful historical novella by Helen Humphreys

The two reviews I read of Helen Humphreys newest publication, Machine Without Horses, were somewhat negative, claiming that the combination of memoir and fiction simply do not work. Humphreys is one of my favorite writers. She never fails to please, and so I was curious.

I’ve just now finished it and I beg to differ. I found this to be an innovative and inspiring work.

Machine Without Horses is billed as a novel: therein, I think, lies the problem. The first half of this “novel” is a memoir of the author researching and thinking through how to write about her subject, Megan Boyd, a famous fishing fly maker from Scotland.

I particularly love the author’s thoughts on writing. Coming from Humphreys, these are gold. Here are some examples of her thoughts on character development:

The beginning of a life is often the start of the story. Character is formed from the early incidents and accidents, from sudden trauma, or reassuring constancy. These are more important than aspects of personality because they are the ground on which the inherent nature of the person blossoms or is stifled. (Page 7)

I particularly like this because it jives with my current thoughts on character development. (See my thoughts regarding the book Story Henius.)

When I set about making a story, one of the first things I think about is the motivation of the main character. What is it that they want? What are they driven by? Story is created from combining a character’s motivation with their circumstances. (Page 16)

In this section of Machine Without Horses, the author taking lessons on making fishing flies.

“Anything will help,” I confess.”I’m trying to work my way inside her mind before I write about her.”(page 24)

Her teacher Paul asks, “How do you get inside someone’s head to write about them? Especially someone who was a real person?”

This is the sixty-million-dollar question, and one that I don’t really have a definitive answer for because I’m constantly shifting my thinking about how to accomplish this kind of transference. It is hard enough to be oneself. How can we effectively become someone else? (pages 26/27)

This quote pertains especially to writing biographical fiction:

The trouble with writing a novel is that there are so many ways to make mistakes that you just have to give up on the idea of getting it right. Instead, you have to choose a few aspects to remain faithful to and do your best to make everything else as believable as possible for the reader. (page 33)

I especially love this passage:

A writer must slowly build a story and characters, as though they were making a machine, with each part intersecting snugly, each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next. You must lean the way they lean, have the understanding they have, never step outside the limits you have determined for them. You cannot just kill them off with no real warning. It will feel unbelievable to readers and they will stop trusting your story. Fiction is measured and reassuring in a way that life isn’t, and perhaps that’s why we read it, and also why I write. (pages 89/90)

Throughout this section, there are now and again descriptions that echo fly fishing, i.e. “each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next.”

Starting a novel is like starting a love affair. It demands full and tireless attention or feelings could change. Commitment takes time, and so there must be a rush of passion at the beginning. This means that the other life of the writer, the “real life,” has to fade into the background ground for a while. (Page 11–12)

Not exactly like being in love, however:

When I’m working on a book, I just wear the same clothes day after day, eat the same food with no variation. Novel–writing and depression have a great deal in common, as it turns out. (page 41)

This is a spare book, only 267 pages, and this section on Humphreys preparing to write about her subject accounts for more than half of it. The last 120 pages is the work itself, a beautifully spare biographical novella about Helen Boyd.

Exquisite.

On the evolution of The Game of Hope

On the evolution of The Game of Hope

On November 2, 2011 (the day before my birthday), my agent, Jackie Kaiser, called to tell me that I’d been made a very tempting offer by Penguin to write two YA novels. One was to be about Josephine’s daughter Hortense, and the second was to be of my choosing.

My husband and I were in Mexico at the time, and two nights before I’d told him that I would never again contract to write a book “in advance.” I simply found it too stressful.

So the timing was a bit ironic. After Jackie’s call, I told my husband, “I’ve just been made an offer I can’t refuse.” Jackie had emailed me a photo of the box the offer had arrived in. Inside were the contract details and chocolates. How charming was that?

Even so, I thought about it carefully for two months. It takes me years (and years!) to write a novel, and I have to feel passionate about it. I have to fall in love with it. So I reread books about Hortense and covered our dining room table with plot points on index cards, considering. I needed to see if there was a story there, an enchanting story about Hortense’s teen years.

And there was. And it was one I very much wanted to write. By February 9, 2012, I had made up my mind. I would accept the offer. I would write a Young Adult novel about Hortense …

… although not immediately. I was on draft 6.1 of what I was then calling This Bright Darkness, soon to become The Shadow QueenPlus, as I noted in that blog post of Feb. 9:

Somehow, I feel that I can do all of this all at once: finish This Bright Darkness, begin another adult novel set in the 17th century, write two YAs and a short novel for GoodReads, as well as launch my own e-book imprint.

(Reality has never been my strong suit.)

The Shadow Queen was published and my e-book imprint launched, but the “other adult novel set in the 17th century” had to be put on the back burner and the short novel for GoodReads was regretfully abandoned. Writing a novel requires full attention.

Soon I was carting research books on Hortense back and forth from Mexico to Canada.

I organized my plot cards, shuffled and re-shuffled them.

I researched like crazy.

I bought a deck of The Game of Hope and began exploring. (Fun!)

On November 2, 2013, a full two years after receiving the offer from Penguin, I began the first draft.

This is draft 1.7 — that is, the 7th draft of the 1st draft.

Over the next four years, I made two research trips to France.

Here I am at the gates to Mortefontaine, the country estate of Napoleon’s brother Joseph.

This is a statue of Hortense at her home of exile in Arenenberg, Switzerland, overlooking Lake Constance, now a delightful museum devoted to her memory.

This is a photo of what remains of Madame Campan’s wonderful school in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Over time, I had the requisite stack of nine drafts it takes me to write a book.

During the four years it took to write The Game of Hope, it went from being a novel told in the present tense to (at a fairly late stage) a novel told in the past tense. The title changed many, many times, and settled, finally, and happily, on The Game of Hope. The cover changed many times as well.

The Game of Hope, Hortense’s story, is now a book. For real. I’ve yet to hold it in my hands, but I will soon, in Toronto on May 1, the official Canadian publication day.

The amazement I feel about this long and magical process never grows old.

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A Question Readers Often Ask: What’s next?

A Question Readers Often Ask: What’s next?

Readers often ask, “What’s next?” The answer to that question depends on when the question is asked, of course. What follows is an evolving diary, begun many, many years ago.


A reader wrote some time ago:

Are you going to write more stories about the court of the Sun King?

Yes!

You did such a great job with the historical details and as I have studied Louis XIV and his court— there are plenty of interesting stories to tell (including the adventures of the Princess Palatine, even La Grande Mademoiselle and Lauzun, a couple that united even after a prison term and old age only to break up over greed).

Indeed! By the way, I love La Grande Mademoiselle, but have yet figured out how to tell her story.

You could even do a trilogy of Louis XIV’s Mistresses— you’ve done La Vallière, next could be Montespan, then Maintenon (the king’s mistress, then second wife).

I believe she’s onto me.

Or a novel on Princess Henrietta as she has a tragic back story with her father being killed, her brothers Charles and James, and she had several romances during her marriage to her cousin Monsieur that are interesting reading, including one lover who was her husband’s boyfriend who falls for Henrietta and became a master of disguise to see her at any cost (De Guiche–who visited her as a fortune teller, a litter bearer and in a domino so he could romance her in Philippe’s presence at a masked ball).

What wonderful suggestions these are. Henriette would indeed be a fantastic subject.

I especially love the De Guiche stories, and in fact wrote many scenes of him hiding in the fireplace and disguised as a fortune-teller, etc., but these scenes, like many, many others, now reside in my cut file.


What I wrote in answer to this letter above:

I am considering writing a novel about Athénaïs (Montespan), but it might focus on her first engagement more than her relationship to the king. I’m not sure. It could also be a story told from the point-of-view of Des Oeillets, her maid who was the go-between between Athénaïs and Voisin, the convicted poisoner.

As this reader points out, there are a wealth of wonderful stories to be told. The hard part is choosing. It took me eight years to write Mistress of the Sun because I kept changing perspectives. I even included the unforgettable Mademoiselle at one point.

I did, in fact, eventually choose to tell the story of The Shadow Queen from the point of view of Des Oeillets (Claudette).

Shadow Queen Cover copy 2

But to answer, “What’s next?”  I am writing a Young Adult novel based on the teen years of Josephine’s daughter Hortense. I am back in the Napoleonic world!


The Game of Hope by Sandra Gulland Canadian Cover

It’s Easter 2018, and Hortense’s story, The Game of Hope, will soon be published in Canada, two months later in the U.S.

As for what’s next? I’m writing — or, at least I think I’m writing — a novel about a teen, a girl falconer in Elizabethan England.

That story about Mademoiselle at the Court of the Sun King continues to haunt me, however. Might that be next next?


{Photo at top is by Evan Dennis on Unsplash.}SaveSave

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4 Formulas for Figuring out a Story

4 Formulas for Figuring out a Story

Figuring out a novel’s “elevator pitch” — the summation of a story in a sentence or two — is invariably difficult for novelists, at least it is for me. My mind does not lend itself to reductions. I’m more of the expanding type. (Not an asset.) These 4 formulas — which I’ve gathered from hither and yon in decades of reading books on writing — are helpful in getting at the core of that unwieldy beast: a novel.

The 1-sentence formula

When _____ [OPENING CONFLICT]
happens to _____ [CHARACTER],
he/she has to _____ [OVERCOME CONFLICT]
in order to _____ [COMPLETE QUEST].

As applied to my next novel, The Game of Hope, I came up with:

Haunted by dreams of her dead father, a 15-year-old girl goes on a quest to find out if she was the cause of his death.

This is a tidy summary, but as with most one-sentence summaries, this doesn’t actually fit what actually happens in the novel.

The 3-sentence formula

_____ is about _____, who wants to _____.
The only problem is that _____.
As a result, he/she _____.
Yet, ultimately, he/she succeeds because _____.

One problem with this summary is that it gives too much away.

The 3-part book formula

1. The genre (i.e. “mystery novel”);
2. Parameters: what happens and what the reader getting into (“Seattle”, “a detective” “a dead boyfriend”);
3. Something left to the imagination (a dead body, a framed main character).

The Game of Hope is historical fiction for Young Adults. It’s about Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense, who hates her stepfather Napoleon and idolizes her dead father … until she finds out some unpleasant truths.

This is better, perhaps. It’s important to leave something unsaid, to tempt the reader.

The 5-part story formula

1. Character
2. Situation (What trouble that forces the character to act?)
3. Objective (The character’s goal.)
4. Opponent
5. Disaster (The awful thing that could happen.)

Make each of these elements specific.
Put them together to form two sentences.

Sentence 1: A statement that establishes character, situation, and objective.
Sentence 2: A statement—or question—that pinpoints the opponent and potential disaster.

Haunted by nightmares of her dead father, 15-year-old Hortense goes on a quest to find out if the father she idolizes is trying to tell her something. Was it her fault that he was executed? What she finds out is not at all what she expected, and more of this world than the next.

I think this is a better summary — but I don’t think I’ve nailed down the 5 elements yet.

And more …

I recently read Gotta Read It!: Five Simple Steps to a Fiction Pitch that Sells by Libbie Hawker (a book I recommend). She writes:

To construct a skeleton for your pitch, answer the following five questions as simply and blandly as you can: Who is your main character? What does she want? What stands in her way? What will she do, or what must she do, to achieve her goal? What is at stake if she fails?

Hawker’s book is about how to write a longer summation of your novel  — one that might be used to send to a prospective agent, or be put on the jacket of your novel, on Amazon or in the publisher’s catalogue, for example. One begins with this short summary, the distillation of the novel, and then fleshes out “the skeleton” to represent the tone and subject of the novel truly.

The Game of Hope is soon to go into production, so it’s time for me to begin thinking how to frame the story, pitch it to readers. It’s never easy, but these guidelines help.

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Election day, the Woman’s March, and the morning after — a diary in Hope

Election day, the Woman’s March, and the morning after — a diary in Hope

The day before the Woman’s March

Election Day. The Man Who Shall Not Be Named was sworn in as President of the most powerful nation on Earth. Some were cheering. The majority were in depression.

Above is a watercolour I finished that day, titled, simply, “January 20, 2017.” I see the American eagle as somewhat worn, world-weary, and just a little disgusted.

The morning before the Women’s March

The morning of the Woman’s March, a friend on Facebook asked why women were marching. Perhaps, she suggested,

”… they would be better served by watching what ensues and then, if dissatisfied, work on finding a candidate who can better represent their goals.”

Here was part of my answer:

I doubt that anything will be accomplished, at least in the short-term, although it may get dialogue going and help the silent supporters know that there are others out there who feel as they do. That, in turn, may encourage them to speak out, write letters, campaign, run for office, etc.

Politicians understand that for every letter of protest there are a certain number who agree, but didn’t write. I imagine that the same calculation applies to a march. A massive turn-out should make an impression.

Seeing that there are so many coming out in visible support of women’s issues may, for one thing, encourage women to run for office, and for those in office to reconsider their agenda.

The more practical actions are preferable, I agree, but it isn’t a do this OR do that situation. Many do “all of the above.”

The March itself

The Woman’s March was a beautiful experience here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Hundreds (500? 700?) showed up, both men and women.

The Women's March in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Gathering for the Women’s March in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Before I headed out to join friends there, I’d seen the news of massive turn-outs. By the time I returned home, the astonishing numbers were coming in.

Woman's March in New York City

The Woman’s March in New York City.

By the end of the day, it was said by credible sources that three million protested in the US alone! Even conservative small towns had significant numbers in their Marches. The Man Who Shall Not Be Named tweeted “Why didn’t they vote?” Perhaps he simply forgot that three million more people voted for The Woman Who Will Not Be Forgotten than voted for him.

Lo siento. I sound bitter. In fact, I am still a little blissed-out having been part of the largest demonstration in history. Click this New York Times coverage to get a sense of the crowds.

The morning after the Woman’s March

So, what was accomplished? I believe that in fact the Woman’s March of 2017 may have accomplished a great deal. Politicians who care about the public will have noted the turnout, and (hopefully) will give some thought to how they might vote on women’s issues. Opposition to The Man Who Shall Not Be Named was unified, energized by the experience. Some who had never made their views public before will now become active.

I leave you with two Tweets:

And this one:

In closing, a word about writing and books :-)

Lest you fear that this blog has been hijacked by political concerns, I should note that I am reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien — a well-lauded novel on the Chinese Revolution by a Canadian author. (So yes — sigh — politics.)

Also, I sent the last draft of my YA novel to my editor. It’s with teen beta readers and consultants now.

And so: a rest? Not exactly! We’re moving into our new house in San Miguel de Allende a week today.

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Draft 8: check. Drafts 9, 10, 11: yet to come. On my painfully slow revision process

Draft 8: check. Drafts 9, 10, 11: yet to come. On my painfully slow revision process

{Lovely San Miguel de Allende, where I am right now. A photo by Leah Feldon, it is similar to the view from my writing room.}

Yesterday was a big day for me: I woke at 4:00am, and shortly before 8:00am I emailed my manuscript to my editor and agent. It was Friday 13. I am not superstitious, but that did give me pause.

Some writers are able to write a perfectly good novel in two or three drafts. I am not one of those writers! It takes me years (and years) to uncover the complexities, the depths and the “fall line” of a story. My revision process is extremely slow, in spite of all the techniques I use (i.e. plotting) to try to speed it up. I do hope I’m getting closer.

J.K. Rowling’s plot guideline. No doubt it helped!

Moonsick (working title) is my novel for Young Adults, a story based on the teen years of Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense. Is the novel too giddy? Too dark? I’m frankly not sure. This is why beta readers — teen beta readers — will be important to my final revision process.

Teen beta readers wanted

Later that same day I sent out a newsletter that included a call for teen beta readers. I now have three readers, and (I hope) more to come. I’d also like to find a book club that reads YA fiction — not exclusively, but often enough that they are comfortable with the genre. It occurs to me that a high school English class might be interested in reading it (although it really is a novel for girls). Let me know if you have a teen reader or a book club or class to suggest.

Going back to where it all began

Looking for reader guidelines I’ve used in the past, I discovered a blog post I wrote in February of 2012 — five years ago! — announcing that I would be writing a YA novel about Hortense.

Hortense as a teen — the subject of my next-next novel (Surprise!) 

(Note that This Bright Darkness, mentioned in the post, was the working title of The Shadow Queenwhich was published two years later, in the spring of 2014.)

Hortense de Beauharnais

Lovely Hortense as a teen. Energetic, creative, talented — a bright spark.

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