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.

World Falconry Day celebrates women falconers

World Falconry Day celebrates women falconers

Today, November 16, is World Falconry Day. This year the theme is specifically on female falconers, historically and currently. This is significant because traditionally falconry has been a male realm.

I’m in the research stage of writing a Young Adult novel about a young woman falconer in Elizabethan England, so naturally this caught my eye.

If you haven’t watched the award-winning documentary The Eagle Huntress, do! It’s amazing.

This video, too, is also about women practicing falconry with eagles:

The women talk about how hard it was at first. I’d like to know: Hard in what ways?

Book reviews: the good, the bad, the ugly … and the wonderful

Book reviews: the good, the bad, the ugly … and the wonderful

A good review can leave a writer depressed if it’s obvious the reviewer hadn’t read the book. Even rave reviews can be frustrating if there isn’t one quotable line. And then, of course, there are the “condemn with faint praise” reviews. Worse is the despair of not having any reviews at all.

It’s hard not to get emotional!

But then there are the supremely gratifying reviews by readers who get it. Nothing could be finer.

I felt this way about the review of The Game of Hope by Grace O’Connell in Canada’s publishing magazine, Quill & Quire. There are a number of quotable quotes, but this is my favourite:

Gulland has built a career writing historical fiction for adults, including a bestselling trilogy about Joséphine Bonaparte (Hortense’s mother). Her pitch-perfect balance of lush period details and character-driven narrative shines again in The Game of Hope.

I love this too:

In Gulland’s hands, Hortense’s life and history, as dramatic as it is, never overwhelm her character. Her friendships, her music, and her mother remain steady anchors. Even with Joséphine and Napoleon as supporting characters – ones so historically charged that they could easily take over a narrative – the story remains firmly Hortense’s.

What’s especially nice about this is that the reviewer understood some of the challenges of writing biographical historical fiction, likely because she is an author herself. :-)

Finding focus

Finding focus

I’ve been visually challenged this summer. Two cataract surgeries have made reading difficult. That’s a problem for a writer! For a time I felt like Mr. Magoo.

Having worn glasses for over 50 years, it felt strange not to be wearing them. Plus, there was this thing called vanity: frankly, I look better in glasses. I had a reading/speech on The Game of Hope to give to a fairly large crowd, so (confession) I ordered plain $15 frames on Amazon, just for the “look” of them.

Ah, that was better! I felt more like myself.

I  printed out my reading in a large font so that I could read it and highlighted dialogue.

(I bend the corners of the pages to make them easier to turn.)

As a visually challenged writer, I’ve been exploring using dictation when writing on a computer. I’m doing this now, in fact. Que padre!

Fortunately (or not), I’m not the sort of person to throw things out, so I went through a drawer of old eyeglasses and found a pair that made light reading and computer work more manageable.

Even so, reading is a strain, so I’ve been “reading” audible editions like crazy — and loving them. I will be putting up a post about a number of outstanding titles soon.

All in all, these adjustments have led to interesting discoveries. Colors are so much more vivid now. The blues! I might feel like Mr. Magoo when it comes to reading, but I’m more like Alice in Wonderland in this beautiful, many-hued world.

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The cure for sixes and sevens

The cure for sixes and sevens

Last Tuesday was publication day in the U.S. for The Game of Hope. I told my husband that I’d been walking in circles all day. “I’m at sixes and sevens.”

He’d never heard the expression. I explained that it meant feeling out of sorts, disordered and in confusion.

In search of the origin of the expression “being at sixes and sevens”

Where had the expression come from? Certainly it makes no sense. There is nothing I like better than digging into history to find the origin of a curious expression, especially on a publication day when I am, in fact, at sixes and sevens.

And so, from Wikipedia:

An ancient dispute between the Merchant Taylors and Skinners livery companies is the probable origin of the phrase.The two trade associations, both founded in the same year (1327), argued over sixth place in the order of precedence. In 1484, after more than a century and a half of bickering, the Lord Mayor of London Sir Robert Billesden ruled that at the feast of Corpus Christi, the companies would swap between sixth and seventh place and feast in each other’s halls.

The two guilds, the taylors and the skinners, have continued to swap the sixth and seventh place to this day, resulting in seven centuries of confusion. Impressive.

Unlucky 13?

Another theory is that 6 + 7 = unlucky 13, but this seems a little simplistic to me.

Gambling away your life’s fortune?

A third explanation is that the expression originated in a 14th century game of dice: when betting on six and seven risked your losing entire fortune.

From Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, 1374 — “Lat nat this wrechched wo thyn herte gnawe, But manly set the world on sexe and seuene.”

Given all this, my favoured explanation remains the ever-quarreling taylor and skinner guilds.There is nothing quite like a muddle that endures for centuries.


Part of the confusion about publication day for writers is that it is usually a quiet day, with little happening (especially if you live out of the country where your book is being published). There’s often quite a bit of commotion and stress leading up to that one day, and then bam! Nothing.

I am part of a wonderful fiction-writers’ collective; we support each other, consult about titles, covers, and various woes, but mainly we help broadcast news about member publications. As these posts started appearing on Social Media, I felt heartened: something was happening! I especially liked this post:

“Sandra hits the sweet spot, a book for young adults that adults of all ages can’t put down. And it’s fascinating.” — Martin Fletcher, author of The List, Jacob’s Oath, and a soon-to-be blockbuster Promised Land.

The Game of Hope in the Wild

I also was greatly cheered receiving this photo taken in the US by Karen Salvatore, Evidence!


And now?

An ATM machine in New York city.

An ATM machine in New York city.

Half a week later, my husband and I are in New York/Brooklyn with our son, Chet, and his girlfriend, Kendra (daughter of Karen mentioned above).

We’ve been eating fabulous food, drinking fabulous drinks and having a merry time. On Monday I will lunch with my PenguinRandomHouse publicist, Jennifer Dee, and then go to Books of Wonder to sign some books

Some New York highlights, so far:

Dinner at Le Cou Cou. Delicious!!!

We followed this memorable meal with cocktails at Attaboy, considered one of the best cocktail bars in the world. (Check out this article in the New Yorker.) You wouldn’t guess its popularity from its secretive locked door.

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Inside was a small (very small!) dark bar with a lovely vibe. One tells the bar-tender — I would say drink creationist — the mood or flavour of the drink you have in mind, and are then surprised by an entirely original result. The cocktail I had was amazing!

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Follow this up the next day with a leisurely and supremely tasty brunch at Dumbo House (our son’s club), followed by a three and a half hour nap (!), followed by yet another delicious meal at Metta in Fort Green, Brooklyn, and I have to conclude that a foodie holiday in New York and Brooklyn is a perfect cure for being sixes and sevens.

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Life on the road — my mini tour full of surprises

Life on the road — my mini tour full of surprises

I’ve been on the road, first launching and promoting The Game of Hope in Toronto, then a long drive home to unpack, regroup, and repack before heading to Montreal for the wonderful first (of many, we hope) Montreal YA fest.

It has been fantastic. At the Penguin launch in Toronto, an older woman leaned in to whisper confidentially, “You’re my favorite writer.” Such confessions are sweet. At an interview following (I don’t yet feel I should mention names), the interviewer told me that she loved The Game of Hope and went on to read every one of my other novels. That made me speechless.

That isn’t to say that everyone loves The Game of Hope — there have been some readers who do not — but overall, I’ve been very, very pleased.

The Game of Hope cards

At the Penguin launch, I had each person who lined up to have their free book signed draw a card from a deck of fortune-telling cards of “The Game of Hope” (to keep as a bookmark), and read its meaning in a tiny guide. The expressions of recognition were wonderful to see: one young woman would be getting married, another would get a promotion. Both were quite pleased. Readers love it! Of course I did not include cards that might have a negative connotation in the deck.

It was a special treat to have my step-granddaughter, 11-year-old Ellie and her mother Cara present. Ellie is reading The Game of Hope and offered shyly to a group, “And it’s really good!”

The Montreal YA Fest: such a blast!

My experience at the Montreal YA Fest was amazing, but in an entirely different way. I only sold one book (!), but I met over twenty wonderful YA authors. I’m accustomed to writers of adult fiction; let me tell you, writers of YA fiction are a different breed altogether. They are loud and rambunctious, delightful! I couldn’t buy their books at the festival unfortunately — recent back problems have forced me to be very careful about luggage weight — but as soon as I got home I put in the orders, and they are starting to arrive in waves.

Two wonderful YA novels

Already I’ve read one absolutely wonderful YA novel: 32 Questions that Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant. Don’t you just love a novel that compels you to stay up way too late? That makes you teary and full-hearted? This was such a one. Witty and real, I adored it.

Now I’m reading E. K. Johnstons’s novel That Inevitable Victorian Thing, a futuristic novel set in the past. (Figure that one out.) I.e. Victorian corsets with technological sensors that ease up as needed. It’s delightful, and when I’m not reading it, I’m thinking about it and can’t wait to get back to it.

The wild and wonderful YA world

In general, this immersion into the wider world of YA has been like an explosion of creative imagination for me; in a YA novel, anything is possible.

The YA Fest was extremely well-organized, with many panels for participants to choose from, great food to eat, a fun photo booth (which I’m sorry I missed out on), as well as a button-making table. Here are mine:

How cool is that? I especially love the dismayed look on the face of Little Bo Peep. Moi.

The photo at the top is from A Novel Spot bookstore in Entobicoke, Ontario. Don’t you just love it? Indie bookstores are so great. The mystery woman is Katie Middleton, the bookstore’s owner. Her hair matches perfectly!