Fireworks for the Entry of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria: The Lion, in “Reception de Louis XIII,” Lyons, 1623.
Happy New 2017!
I like the feel of this year already. I’ve weaned myself — to some extent — from toxic international news and immersed myself in finishing the eighth draft of Moonsick, my YA novel about Josephine’s daughter Hortense. (Yikes! Due this month.)
The funny side of revision
This is what revision sometimes feels like …
A New Yorker cartoon.
I’m also getting ready to send out a newsletter. Sign up here if you haven’t done so already. I will post links to it when it’s ready, but one advantage of signing up is that a subscriber wins one of my books with each newsletter.
A great audible edition of Middlemarch
When I’m not revising, or enjoying one of the many wonderful restaurants here in San Miguel de Allende with my husband, or puzzling over my latest watercolour, I’m listening to an absolutely outstanding audible edition of Middlemarch by George Eliot. This classic novel was destined to be forever on my Novels I’m Embarrassed to Admit I’ve Never Read List — in part because I just couldn’t cope with the pace and prose — but the narration by Juliet Stevenson really makes it come alive. Highly recommended!
Again, Happy New Year! You readers are the absolute best.
What audible recordings are your favourite? I’m always looking for recommendations.
I’ve been recently inspired by Twyla Tharp’s book THE CREATIVE HABIT: LEARN IT AND USE IT FOR LIFE.
Here are some quotes:
Some people find … the moment before creativity begins … so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up and walk away from the computer, the canvas, the keyboard; they take a nap or go shopping or fix lunch or do chores around the house. They procrastinate. In its most extreme form, this terror totally paralyzes people.
After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves—write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon—but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.
I know this works, I know this is true: I preach it, yet I don’t always succeed in doing it. Today is an example. I frittered away the morning hours answering emails that I told myself were urgent … but, frankly, anything can wait a few hours.
So: it was just an excuse.
The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. And this routine is available to everyone. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits.
Yes, I’m shouting these words! At myself as much as to all of you.
Here are some more delicious quotes:
In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative …
there’s a process that generates creativity—and you can learn it. And you can make it habitual.
It takes skill to bring something you’ve imagined into the world: to use words to create believable lives, to select the colors and textures of paint to represent a haystack at sunset, to combine ingredients to make a flavorful dish. No one is born with that skill. It is developed through exercise, through repetition, through a blend of learning and reflection that’s both painstaking and rewarding. And it takes time.
If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge.
That’s the reason for the exercises. They will help you develop skill. Some might seem simple. Do them anyway—you can never spend enough time on the basics.
Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into … creativity. Without the time and effort invested in getting ready to create, you can be hit by the thunderbolt and it’ll just leave you stunned.
It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.
blog post for more quotes and an example of one of the creativity exercises Tharp gives in this book. Always carry a pencil is one. :-)
Who is Twyla Tharp?
Among many other things, Twyla Tharp
is an artist, choreographer, and creator of the smash-hit Broadway show, Movin’ Out.
She has created 130 dances for her company, the Joffrey Ballet, the New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. She is 74 now, and far from slowing down: Choreographer Twyla Tharp brings two bold new works to Kennedy Centre
— an interview in The Washington Post
. My hero!
A few great links to share
• Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer. Be sure to click through the individual paintings and read the explanations. It’s wonderful how you can zoom in for a close look. I especially liked “The listening Housewife.” For a review of this exhibit, read this post.
• Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count, an inspiring— and funny—Ted-type talk by Brené Brown.
What I’m up to
I’m having a hard time with the revision of Moonsick. I keep stirring the pot, but it’s slow to thicken. This beautiful photo of “Man in a fog” by Harman Wardani feels perfectly expressive of my state of mind.
Reading Tharp’s book, I realized that I have a ritual that triggers creativity: I record the day’s writing goals in a notebook and — bam! — I’m off to the races.
You may have noticed that my website is being revised (so that it will be visible on all devices). It’s still in the construction phase, so please bear with us.
The world news continues to be both distracting and extremely distressing. This cartoon, which I posted to FaceBook, has been getting a lot of “likes,” so I gather most everyone feels the same:
Have a good week … . Stay sane!
Hilary Clinton’s HARD CHOICES was a game-changer for me. It’s going on my “Best of the Year” list.
Many dismiss this book as campaign positioning. I see it as far more. I think it’s a valuable historical document, a very detailed account of what one term as US Secretary of State entails. I also think it’s Clinton’s “for the record” legacy.
I came away extremely impressed with what she accomplished—or tried to accomplish—and impressed, as well, with the role of the US in attempting to keep world peace. The world is a tinder box of explosives; the job of the US Secretary of State is critical!
Hilary’s “Smart Power” approach—diplomacy being the most important part of the equation—strikes me as sound. She makes very strong arguments for environmental protection and equality for women worldwide being key to both US security and economic development. She is a tireless advocate of Democracy. She’s a little more of a Hawk than I like, but that’s easy for someone not in the thick of it to think. Her humanitarian values are front and centre.
I came away from reading Hard Choices wanting to campaign for Hilary for President. I’m no longer a U.S. Citizen, but the U.S., like it or not, has an enormous effect on the well-being of the world—my world—and whoever is running that country will have a profound effect on my life and the lives of those I hold dear.
I highly recommend this book as an overview of the extremely serious problems in the world today. (It would be a worthy task for any book club to take on. The discussions would be heated, without a doubt!)
I’m both heartened and alarmed after reading this book: heartened because of the worthy work being done, and alarmed at how how fragile things are. A party less inclined to effective diplomacy and one that does not recognize key dangers (one that denies global warming, for example!) could spell disaster for our world—my world.
I rarely speak out on political issues. Some of my wonderful readers and very good friends are not in agreement with my views, I know, and would be inclined to dismiss anything written by Hilary Clinton. I urge you to read her book, and then let’s discuss.
Note: I listened to the Audible edition—all 27 hours of it!— and I highly recommend it, with a few cautions. The lion’s share of this very long and detailed book is narrated by Hilary, and she does a fantastic job. I didn’t care for the other narrator, Kathleen Chalfant; she puts too much emotion into her voice, which, for me, is distracting. Fortunately, she only narrates the short opening and closing sections, which are not the meat of the book.
I devour Bookmarks magazine whenever it comes out. The magazine covers recent publications in a range of genres, and gives an excellent summary of the major reviews.
I read it cover-to-cover pencil in hand, marking the titles that interest me. Then I go to my computer and download a free Kindle sample of each book to my ebook reader.
This is rather like browsing books in a bookstore. I check each title out, and buy the books that hook me—print editions for the half of the year we are in Canada, (mostly) digital editions for the six months we live in Mexico.
This inevitably leads to book overload. In little over one month, we will be packing up, closing up, locking up, and flying from Canada to our second home in Mexico. I will need to decide which books go with me, and which ones stay. This is not easy for a bookaholic, much less a writer of historical fiction.
As it is, I have many, many unread books: books I will never read, books I am reading, books I intend to read soon. I certainly do not need more. I remind myself of this as I’m downloading samples of:
- Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont;
- Re Jane by Patricia Park;
- The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño;
- The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard;
- The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendetta Vida;
- The Rocks by Peter Nichols;
- Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli;
- The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays;
- The Sea by John Banville.
You see what I mean? Where can I sign up for Bookaholics Anonymous?
I had the honour to be asked to read a pre-publication copy of A Measure of Light by Canadian author Beth Powning. She’s already an award-winning author, and—frankly—I won’t be surprised if this novel doesn’t garner more. It certainly held me captive and in awe.
Here’s the testimonial I offered:
A Measure of Light by Beth Powning is a spellbinding work of biographical historical fiction, gorgeously written in spare, crystalline prose I found reminiscent of the finest writers of literary historical fiction today. (Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier and Hilary Mantel come to mind.) A brilliant evocation of 17th century England and America, it’s the story of one woman’s search for faith and the horrific sacrifices she makes once she finds it. Grim yet luminous—as well as illuminating. In a word: enchanting.
Believe me, I am rarely so effusive.
As I was reading the novel, I had questions about the author’s research and writing process, so I was extremely pleased when Beth accepted my invitation to answer a few questions here.
What were the unique challenges in writing about Mary Dyer?
When I first “met” Mary Dyer, I found her actions disturbing, even repellent. How could a mother leave six children for a five year period? Why would she return to them and then dedicate herself to a cause, thus once again removing herself from them? And how on earth could Mary walk into the jaws of death?
Often, what outrages me is like a shiny lure. I could not turn away from Mary’s story, and I realized that I had to find common cause with her: to put myself in her place, try to understand. I learned that it was common for 17th century parents to “farm out” their children with other families. I learned that the Puritans taught parents not to love their children “too much,” else they offend the Lord. And it occurred to me that it was very possible that Mary suffered post-partum depression. I began to understand the depth of Mary’s inner darkness and the consequent power of George Fox’s “measure of light.”
Telling her story became a kind of psychological mystery, a who-dun-it, where I knew the ending, but had to trace the steps leading up to it.
Reading A MEASURE OF LIGHT, I was in awe of the wonderful details of daily life.
Anne lifted bread on a peel from a beehive oven at the side of a hearth. The tiny girl turned a crisp-skinned goose, hanging on a string before the fire. Bloody gut-smell stung Mary’s nose—white hen feathers stippled the floor. (Page 39.)
I’d love to know specifics about your research process, specifically with respect to daily life. What did you find most useful? How did you keep track of it all?
Writing the first draft of a historical novel is a slow process. When I write, I visualize a scene in its entirety. I imagine myself, in a visceral way, to be there; I see, smell, hear. I find it hard to proceed with the writing until I have all these elements in place. Therefore, I must maintain a complex mental balance. I am thinking about the undercurrent of the scene, its meaning and contribution to the novel’s whole; I am working on character, who is there and what they are saying and feeling; I’m conscious of the pacing of both the scene itself and its placement within the text—yet I also need to know whether there’s a fire on the hearth; if the room is lit, and by what; whether there are shadows; what is cooking in what kind of a pot over the flames; if I can hear the rumble of wheels or the neighing of horses.
I had two invaluable books for the details of daily life in the colonies. “Home Life in Colonial Days,” by Alice Morse Earle, was written in 1898. Amazingly, Alice Earle could tap into the living memory of the elders of her time, who still recalled how things used to be. Another book was “Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” by George Francis Dow. For England, I used a marvelous book first published in 1615, “The English Housewife,” by Gervase Markham, filled with recipes and home-making instructions.
I had a few other excellent books about 17th century England. If they could not provide what I needed about details of daily life, I would search the internet.
I have an old-fashioned filing cabinet. In its pull-out drawers, I made major sections like England, New England, London, Puritans, 17th Century General. Within each of the sections, I placed paper files labelled gloves, writing implements, tools, money, jails. I also kept a virtual file on my computer’s bookmarks page, with links to websites. I used both systems, paper and computer, all the time.
I have a large cabinet in my study. In it is a shelf earmarked for books about Puritans, another for the Quakers, one for English history, etc. These shelves gradually filled with books that I either bought on-line or in 2nd hand bookstores. Library books, too, were parked there.
Spiral-bound notebooks fill with “notes on plot,” “notes on character.” As I write, every draft gets its own notebook— “Notes Chp. 1, draft 2;” “Notes Chp. 2, draft 3.” There are notebooks for editorial conversations.
It might sound chaotic, but in fact I keep my office highly organized. I have to be able to find all this stuff, without wasting time rummaging around for it!
Do you plot? How many drafts? When do you research?
In my last two novels (The Hatbox Letters, The Sea Captain’s Wife) I dove in without knowing where the novel would go. A Measure of Light is a true story, but since only the ending and some of the middle of Mary’s life are known, I had to work backwards. I made up Mary’s early story. Even so, I didn’t know exactly how it was all going to unfold. That happens as I write. I didn’t know about Sinny, for example, until I began to write. Then I had to pause and make up Sinny’s back-story. I love not knowing what is going to happen.
I show the first draft of every novel to my extraordinary agent, Jackie Kaiser. Jackie always provides superb feedback at this point, and my second draft is quite different from the first. There is invariably a third draft, which is perhaps the most difficult, because I think that I “got” it in the second. (But no!) Jackie doesn’t show my novel to my publishers until the 3rd draft is complete. The 4th draft is the one I make based on the comments from my editor. (Craig Pyette for A Measure of Light.) I had already done a lot of work before Craig saw this manuscript, but even so he had a great deal of brilliant advice. So substantive changes were made. Together with Craig, I worked through the novel about six more times. The changes, of course, get smaller and smaller. I suppose you can call those drafts, because a slightly changed novel emerges each time; but really, after the 5th draft, the novel is basically “there.”
I start with the research. I read and read and read. I underline in books that I own, take notes from library books; it’s just as if I were back in university, taking a history course. As I study, ideas come to me about how I will transform these facts into fiction. I keep track of my thoughts in a notebook. There is always a moment when the longing to transform the information into a rich, living story becomes acute, and I simply begin to write. Too MUCH research can kill the novel. I become intimidated by the sheer volume of information that exists about the period, and strangely depressed by the historian’s objective voice.
A MEASURE OF LIGHT traverses many places, and over a considerable stretch of time: London (1634-1635), Boston (from 1635 to 1638), Aquidneck (from 1638 to 1651), England (from 1651 to 1655), New England (from 1657 to 1660).
Even so, it is a fairly spare novel, under 300 pages. How did you grapple with all the shifts in time and place?
Although I don’t plot, I did in fact block out the time periods before beginning. I begin at the beginning, and remain in each time and place until that section’s story is told, writing as much or as little of it as I think is needed. The first section, “London,” was, of course, enormous (SO much information, such a rich period!) and was heavily cut. The next, “Boston,”was the most difficult, since so many crucial things happened in that period, most of them necessary to understanding the rest of Mary’s story. The other periods grew or shrank during the editing process. A section which took place in Barbados was completely cut.
During the early drafts, when I realize that some parts of the story will take place over a long period of time without a lot happening, I simply write a few paragaphs indicating the passage of time and go on. Then I return later and fill it in. As a novel progresses, what comes later effects what came before, and vice versa. It’s like kneading dough. You fold and turn and fold again, working all the elements into one loaf, so to speak!
I always make a time chart, too. It’s a long roll of paper. Along the top are the characters, with their dates of birth. Along the left are the years. So in 1637, say, you can see at a glance what everyone in the novel is doing, how old they are, where they’re situated. I include a column down the left-hand side for historical events, so you can also remember what’s going on in the world. This is done with pencil and paper, not on the computer.
Your prose is wonderfully rich in similes.
Her heart had been smoothed like sand with the waters of other women’s assurances … (page 21)
They did not speak to one another, as if the leaf-scented air was itself a flux binding peace and could be broken by the merest whisper. (Page 76.)
She put fresh wood on the fire and sat reading her Bible in its light, looking up from the pages occasionally, as if listening for a voice she might trust. (Page 116.)
Clearly, you have a poet’s heart. I hesitate to ask about technique, yet I am curious.
I make them up myself. It’s how my brain works, so in fact I am constantly “shutting down” similes. The book could easily have far, far too many. They rise like bubbles slanting through…oops, there I go. In fact, I do work very hard to get them right. I sit with my face in my hands and search my memory bank. One of the things I say to myself is: how is it really. And then: think sideways. What does the bark of an ancient spruce tree REALLY look like? How does it feel to the tips of the fingers? Is there something I can compare it to that will bring this alive for the reader? This, again, is why writing is a balancing act. I’m dwelling on this problem, aware that it is only a beat or two in a large symphony.
“Think sideways”—I like that. Thank you so much, Beth!
I was delighted that Beth mentioned the work of Gervase Markham. When I was researching Mistress of the Sun, I became so absorbed in The Compleat Horseman—his work on horsemanship—that I began “translating” it into modern English.
Here is the publisher’s description of Beth’s wonderful novel:
Set in 1600s New England, A Measure of Light tells the story of Mary Dyer, a Puritan who flees persecution in Elizabethan England only to find the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts every bit as vicious as the one she has left behind. One of America’s first Quakers, and among the last to face the gallows for her convictions, Mary Dyer receives here in fiction the full-blooded treatment too long denied a figure of her stature: a woman caught between faith, family and the driving sense that she alone will put right a deep and cruel wrong in the world. This is gripping historical fiction about a courageous woman who chafed at the power of theocracies and the boundaries of her era, struggling against a backdrop of imminent apocalypse for women’s rights, liberty of conscience, intellectual freedom and justice.
I highly recommend it!