Some Historical Friday Fictioneers

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to read and to write. I have a degree in history and have maintained my love of history throughout my life. I write what the great Alan Furst calls the “historical thriller,” and I just finished reading a three-book series (with more to come) about a woman who becomes a spy for MI-5 in Britain during World War II. (It’s the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia McNeal, and I highly recommend it for a glimpse into Britain during the Blitz and before the U.S. enters the war. Lots of accurate historical references and historical figures abound, behaving in ways you’d expect them to. McNeal has done her homework well.)

I have a couple of sticking points, though, with historical fiction. The history has to be accurate. You can take some dramatic license, yes, but it has to fit into the overall context of the history and the era. And the fiction within that context has to be believable. Am I a fan of the alternate history genre? Not particularly, though I have read some which have made the fictional version of history believable; otherwise, just call it fantasy and be done with it. Do I have a problem with the Steampunk genre? No. When it’s done well, the author takes the technology of a particular time period and creates perfectly believable machines, which may not appear in reality for another century. Is Steampunk truly historical fiction? Yes, in that the Steampunk author has to be well-grounded in the real history of the era to make his or her work believable.

So, accuracy and believability, and I’ve closed books and put them aside permanently when I’ve spotted an obvious historical gaffe. (And don’t get me started on aviation inaccuracies!)

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt put me right smack in the middle of a rush of nostalgia. I worked not too far from Union Station in Washington, DC, for many years, and I always loved going into that building. Architecturally, it is a marvel, and it had seen so much history. By the 1970’s it was almost a ruin, just a giant pigeon roost, and it took an act of Congress, literally, to get it back on its pinnings. Today it’s a classy shopping mall with several great restaurants and still an operating train station. If you’re ever in DC, make sure it’s a tourist destination for you. DC’s Metro Subway system has a stop there, making it easy to get to.

Union Station has seen so much history, it was hard to pick something specific to write about, even harder to confine it to 100 words, but I focused on the Serviceman’s Canteen. Open between 1941 and 1946, twenty-four hours a day the Canteen offered coffee and good food mainly to servicemen passing through Union Station but also to any passenger or even people off the streets of DC. It averaged three million customers a year. I can remember my father and several uncles commenting about stopping there for a five-cent meal. It closed permanently in May of 1946 mainly because its typical customer–a G.I. on his way to be shipped out–no longer trooped through the station in large numbers.

The Canteen attracted even high-society women in DC, who wanted to do something for the war effort, and my story, “Good Service,” acknowledges one of them. Did this happen? Not that I know of, but in the context of this woman’s history, it’s completely believable she could have done something like this. I know this woman had left DC in 1945, but for something important to her, I could see her returning. What is historically accurate is that this woman did indeed sell food to servicemen from the Serviceman’s Canteen.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the paragraph above, go to the top of the page and click on the Friday Fictioneers tab. Then, you can select the story from the drop-down menu.

My Name is Phyllis, and I’m a Writer Workshopaholic

They say the first step is acknowledging you have a problem. In eight months this year, I’ve been to nine writer conferences and/or workshops. There, I’ve said it. I may be addicted to writerly things. Yes, I may be addicted to meeting other writers and learning from them or, more importantly, becoming friends with them. Yes, I may be addicted to picking up information or techniques to improve my writing. Yes, I may be addicted to making my craft, well, more artful. Yes, folks, I’ve got it bad, and I gotta have my fix.

What am I going to do about it?

Not a bloody thing. I think this is one addiction we can overlook. 😉

On Friday I got an email from WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. (I’ve written about this writer’s space before–a great place to write and a great provider of one or two-day or even longer workshops.) They had openings for a one-day workshop on Saturday–“Ready, Aim: Firearms in Fiction.”

Okay, a little diversion here. If you abhor guns and think they’re the physical manifestation of evil, don’t read any further, and have a nice day.

I read the description, and, even though I have a good familiarity with firearms and gun safety, I thought, “Why not?” As one of the workshop attendees, who is a gun safety instructor said, “You always learn something new.”

This turned out to be the kind of workshop I really like to attend–one where you bring work to be critiqued and where you get writing exercises. Thanks to the workshop instructor, Betty Joyce Nash, and the other attendees, it was a great day learning about the importance of fitting a weapon to a character and how to research to make certain you get the details right. Three of us were very knowledgeable about gun safety and the mechanics of guns. The third was a novice, who left the workshop ready to go to a gun range and get some instruction in safety.

Even the three writing exercises were informative. First, we selected a picture of a person from a collection supplied by Ms. Nash, then we had to write a bio or expository scene about the person in the picture and include a gun. After reading aloud and critiquing each other’s work, we went over some examples from literature where authors included guns in their work, how successful they were, and whether the gun was necessary or superfluous to the story.

The second writing exercise involved keeping in mind the bio/expository scene we’d written before while we wrote about the first time we each became aware of guns. Again, we read what we’d written aloud and critiqued each other’s work. Another workshopper and I decided to directly link the two exercises, and it became obvious we both had stories in the works.

After lunch, we each read a portion from the stories we’d brought with us–the story had to involve a gun, easy for me, since I mostly write about spies–and critiqued them. I had the efficacy of these workshops proved to me when I finished reading my excerpt and another participant said, “I want to read the rest of that!”

Finally, we had the third, free-writing exercise–two people arguing about money with a gun in the room. (And I forgot to mention, the instructor also participated in these exercises, and we got to hear and critique her work as well. I liked the fact she didn’t set herself apart.) Then, we had a free-ranging Q&A about guns and about writing and publishing. I’m so glad my schedule is flexible enough to able to do last minute writing things like this.

Again, if you’re close to Charlottesville, check out WriterHouse. It’s very inexpensive to join and has different kinds of memberships so you can get exactly what you need from them. I know I certainly do.

Holy Friday Fictioneers!

I got the first feedback from a beta reader for the novel I’m been finalizing. Apparently, I hit on all cylinders with this novel, at least with her. She’s a writer as well, and I respect her opinion, so I’m a pretty happy camper. One out of four means I’m batting .250. Respectable, but let’s hope my batting average improves.

I’ve mentioned that my head has been so deep into that particular novel’s rewrites and revisions that I’ve been having issues doing much of anything else the past couple of weeks. Then, last night I dreamed about my two spies–yes, writers dream of their characters; it’s another thing which makes us special. I woke this morning with the inclination to work on a new piece featuring them. I’m stoked! I’ve got Pandora tuned to the Metallica channel, and I’m reading to rock some Spy Flash!

Friday Fictioneers LogoFirst, though, is today’s Friday Fictioneers story, “Necessary Sacrifices.” Maybe it was the Metallica, but when I saw the photo prompt, which is beyond creepy to me, I had to dip a toe in the supernatural/horror pool.

As usual, if you don’t see the link in the story title above, scroll to the top of this page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

A Gathering Of Writers – Redux

As promised, I’m finally getting around to discussing the workshops I attended at Press 53’s “A Gathering of Writers” a couple of weekends ago. Thanks for your patience.

I started the morning off with “The Compelling Story,” presented by Michael Kardos. Kardos teaches creative writing at Mississippi State and is the author of the novel, The Three-Day Affair. Kardos started off by telling us the one thing, the one question we ask ourselves but will never admit: “How do I know if it’s good?” A collective sigh of relief told us we had all, indeed, asked that question. After a brief discussion about understanding when we submit something it’s all about “hitting the right editor on the right day,” Kardos went on to explain our stories have to establish “high stakes”–something which has to matter to the person in the story or which has to be a moment in time in the character’s life most important to him or her.

To help us find the “high stakes,” Kardos gave us the “Motivational Continuum”:

Presentation1We should use the Motivational Continuum for our characters and map out their expectations, hopes, fears, etc. In both the “Fears and Dreads” and the “Hopes and Dreams” sides of the continuum is where we’ll find the characters’ high stakes. “Character desire,” Kardos said, “fuels everything.” Then, he quoted Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character has to want something, even if it’s a glass of water.”

We got other great tidbits–“don’t confine a character to a single place,” “use compressed time periods,” “create suspense,” “withhold information,” among others. Kardos sent us off with a worksheet of exercises, but we all wanted more of his workshop.

Henriette Lazaridis Power was the instructor for “Picking Your Perspective.” Power is the author of The Clover House and editor of the on-line literary magazine, “The Drum,” which is unique in that if she selects your story, you record yourself reading it, and that’s how she publishes it.

After a review of the various perspectives you can take for a particular piece of work (first person singular, first person plural, third person limited, third person omniscient), we did an exercise:

“Two people sit opposite each other in a subway car; one wants to speak to the other but doesn’t. Write that scene.”

We each had to pick a perspective, then write the scene. After a few read theirs aloud, we had to re-write the scene in a different perspective. I started out in first person singular, a POV I only use for very short fiction, then for the re-write I went to what I’m most comfortable with–third person limited. Needless to say, different aspects of character emerged in the two different perspectives. I’ve always found third person frees me up to “say” more than first person POV, and I even found I incorporated some “high stakes” hopes and fears from Kardos’ motivational continuum in the two pieces.

Try this; I think you’ll not only find a POV you’re comfortable with, but you’ll also get out of your comfort zone.

After lunch the next workshop for me was Mary Akers’ “How to Haunt Your Readers,” and not in the supernatural sense. The night before we’d had the launch party for Akers’ most recent collection of short stories, Bones of an Inland Sea. From the reading she gave at the launch party, I knew we were in for a treat in the workshop.

By “haunting,” Akers means things appearing in a written work which continually recur to us; poignant or persistent memories; work that evokes sentimental or enchanting memories; or something you’ve read you just can’t let go. What haunts us is personal, then, and that’s what we have to inscribe in our own writing. “The way to haunt the reader,” Akers said, “is to get to the universal by the personal. If it’s personal to you, it’s personal to the reader.” Moreover, “writing is a brain transfer. You write, but it’s not complete until the reader reads it.”

Then, we had to list five things we’ve read which still haunt us. After a few of us read our lists aloud, we had to go back and find the common theme among the five. My five were:

  • The scene from Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot where a person in the downstairs of a house hears a vampire sucking blood from someone in another part of the house.
  • The climax of W. W. Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw,” when there is a knocking at the door of the parents’ house.
  • In Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, the scene where the cabbie horse dies from exhaustion. (This was the first book ever given me as a gift, and my parents almost took it away from me because I cried so much over that scene.)
  • In Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, I’m haunted to this day by anyone knitting after reading how Madame DeFarge kept count of who went to the guillotine.
  • The scene in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice where Sophie makes her horrendous choice.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the common thread in my list is, well, death. Sheesh.

Then, Akers brought out her bag o’ prompts, and we each selected one to write on for fifteen minutes. And I had a bout of writer’s block at the damnedest time. The prompt, “Write about a time when you were completely unprepared,” did nothing for me. As my kids will attest, I do nothing unprepared. Comes from being a pilot, I suppose, but it was embarrassing.

Still, give the “five things which haunt you” a try. I think you’ll see what’s haunted you will show up in your writing.

The workshop part of the day ended with “Inhabiting Story Through Images of Place,” given by Darlin’ Neal, author of Elegant Punk and Rattlesnakes and the Moon.

After a good discussion and some examples of how to evoke place without coming out and saying “we’re in Podunk,” we got down to a lengthy exercise. Neal called for “tangible objects” from the class, and we gave her thunder, boxes, carpet, a fireplace, and a bed. She then threw in the color orange and told us to write for fifteen minutes and invoke a place using those prompts but without saying where the scene was. I got over the writer’s block pretty quickly and came up with a scene, which I finally had the guts to read aloud. After reading, we each had to state the unasked question about the scene. Then, as the workshop ended, Neal tasked us to go back to that scene in our leisure and write the part which answers the unasked question. Great stuff.

The evening ended with readings from each of the instructors, which can be daunting. Sometimes hearing a published author read can be depressing, but Press 53 managed to bring together a group of completely unpretentious writers. The reading was a delight.

If you’re within easy driving or flying distance of Winston-Salem, NC, consider taking in this one-day conference next year. It’s well worth your time and funds.

Obsessive Manuscripts

Well, I finally finished the line-edit of the rewrite of my rough NaNoWriMo 2012 manuscript. Actually, it was two line-edits: a mark-up of a printed copy of the MS, and an on-screen edit after I’d incorporated the first set of line edits. I reached the point where I was tweaking the tweaks or making what, as a magazine editor, I used to call “happy to glad changes.” Enough was enough. I stopped editing and sent a copy off to four writer friends who had agreed to be beta readers.

So, what did I learn, aside from remembering not to do “happy to glad” changes?

Well, for one thing, I found I can re-write a 400-page manuscript in two months’ time, but only if I do little else except that.

Excessive use of dialogue tags is great for padding your NaNoWriMo word count but tedious when you’re editing.

A manuscript can take over your life. You think about it when people are talking to you about something else. You dream about it. You bore other people explaining about how you decided to cut a whole chapter because it didn’t really add to the story. It intrudes when you’re trying to write about something else, and you feel guilty when you’re paying attention to it and not other writing projects. Then, you feel guilty when you’re working on other writing projects and not it. It (the MS) obsesses you; you’re obsessed with it; it’s an obsession.

And that’s a good thing.

I suppose.

No, no, it is, it is. Really. But, even after you’ve sent it off to the beta readers, you still think you should be editing it. Nothing big comes to mind. No plot holes except those you’ve already found, but it’s hard to be patient and wait for the betas’ comments.

I have to say, though, I’m really, really proud of this manuscript. I like the characters, the story, the settings, the twists and turns. I’m glad what started out as a suggestion in a comment on a 100-word Friday Fictioneers story turned into a 385-page, fully developed novel not involving spies and guns and intrigue.

Don’t get me wrong. I won’t ever stop writing about those things. Rather, the change of pace was challenging, and I hope I met the challenge. We’ll see. It’s another of those things you have to be patient about.

Did I mention I’m not a very patient person? I’m more the “why wait for it when you can go out and get it done” kind of person. (Of course, as anyone who knows me will allude to, I’ll think it to death before I act on it.) I’m more than eager to get this MS before some agents, but I also want those agents to see the best possible manuscript; so, patience it is.


Friday Fictioneers Work up a Storm!

I actually feel a bit odd not having a writing conference to go to this weekend. In fact, I don’t have another one until October, which will close out my year of writing conferences/workshops until January of next year, when it all starts all over again.

This week and this weekend will be consumed with my line edit of the rewrite of the draft of the novel whose excerpt went over very well in this past June’s Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. Several of my classmates from that workshop and the 2012 one have agreed to read the MS and provide feedback, so I hope to get that process started next week.

And I haven’t forgotten I need to do an in-depth post on last weekend’s “A Gathering of Writers” in North Carolina.

I am worried, though, that I’ve been so focused on editing/revising (which is important, don’t get me wrong) I’ve not been able to do much original stuff of length. I love flash, and I’m always inspired by the prompts from the two flash exercises I participate in weekly. Rather, I need to expand a little and go back to pieces that are longer–considerably–than 100 or so words. After all, NaNoWriMo is just two months away, so I need to get into the habit of at least 1,700 words–a day!

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’s Friday Fictioneers photo I’m sure has inspired many different genres, but for some reason it led me to one of my favorite genres to read–the ghost story, i.e., the subtle ghost story. Don’t let the title, “Socratic Method,” put you off. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.

In Praise of the One-Day Writers Conference

I’m sure when you think of writers conferences the image you have is a multi-day affair like AWP, Writers Digest, or ThrillerFest. They are great places to go and learn and network, but take AWP, for instance. At AWP Boston this past March, you were one among 12,000. How on earth do you network successfully there? Even the time between panels is compressed, when you have to move that many people in a large convention center. I’m not dissing big conferences or suggesting they’re a waste of time. They aren’t, but they can be overwhelming.

One-day conferences are more intimate, and the opportunities for networking, not just with fellow participants but with faculty as well, are better. The mini-workshops are intensive but because you don’t have to rush across a convention center the size of a city block for your next panel, you can actually stay behind and talk to the instructor or have plenty of time to network.

Press53, an independent press in Winston-Salem, NC, sponsored the second annual “A Gathering of Writers” this past Saturday in Winston-Salem (or “Winston” as the locals call it). The faculty consisted of Press53 authors and/or teachers of writing from universities up and down the east of the country. Press53 limits the number of attendees to 53 on a first-come, first-served basis. As much as I enjoyed A Gathering of Writers last year, somehow Press53 managed to improve upon it. Last year and this year, I came away with more writer-friend connections, and kernels of information on how to enhance my writing. And the cost (under $200) is reasonable. It’s not a case of getting what you pay for but, rather, getting a lot for a little.

A Gathering of Writers offered six workshops then repeated them in the afternoon, and the most you could work into the day was four. It was difficult to choose because all six sounded great. Here are the offerings with the ones I attended in red:

How to Haunt Your Readers, given by Mary Akers
The First Five Pages, given by Marjorie Hudson
The Compelling Story, given by Michael Kardos
Sandbox Game: Writing as Discovery, given by Steve Mitchell
Inhabiting Story Through Images of Place, given by Darlin’ Neal
Picking Your Perspective, given by Henriette Lazaridis Power

After the workshops ended, the faculty each read from their current, published works or works in progress. Throughout A Gathering of Writers, two West Virginia writers, Natalie Sypolt and Renee Nicholson, did live interviews and live-Tweeted for their great podcast, summerbooks. They even interviewed me, and it was one of the most fun interviews I’ve done–sitting around chatting about writing and reading with two other writers and voracious readers.

Later this week, I’ll post about the workshops I attended and why they were so successful–even given my momentary and embarrassing case of writers block.

A Gathering of Friday Fictioneers

If it’s the weekend, I must be going to a writer’s conference. This weekend is “A Gathering of Writers” in Winston-Salem, NC. Press 53, a small, independent press, sponsors this one-day conference. I attended last year and enjoyed the presentations and the camaraderie. So, I’m off again–though the three-hour drive while still recovering from my cold is a bit daunting.

There”ll be a book launch on Friday night–Mary Akers’ Bones of an Inland Sea, published by Press 53–then the panels begin on Saturday morning. I’ll actually be attending a workshop given by Mary Akers entitled, “How to Haunt Your Reader.” No ghosts for this, just the use of language to evoke mood that resonates.

I’ll also be going to “The Compelling Story” workshop, given by Michael Kardos; “Inhabiting Story Through Images of Place,” given by Darlin’ Neal; and “Picking Your Perspective,” given by Henriette Lazaridis Power. We’ll close out the day with faculty readings lots of writer networking.

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt is one of those shots you can’t plan, and most of the time you don’t realize you have “the shot” until you look at it later. There are lots of things to focus on in this picture, but you’ll see in my story, “Prima Ballerina,” what stood out for me. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Navigating Your Writing Life – 2013

I wasn’t supposed to be home this past weekend. I was supposed to be at my great niece’s first birthday party in Preston, CT. My cold had other ideas, so cancelled airline reservations, rental car, and hotel later, I sat at home with a box of tissues at hand. By Saturday, I woke feeling at about sixty percent of normal and thought a trip “over the mountain” to Charlottesville might be in order.

Last year I wrote about the Virginia Writers Club‘s Navigating Your 2012 Writing Life, and when I saw that my weekend in Connecticut coincided with this year’s symposium, I was dismayed. The one-day symposium provided some excellent information, and this year’s promised to build on that. However, the choice was easy–cute, adorable one-year-old wins out over a writers conference every time.

After a day or so of bemoaning the inconvenience of a cold’s preventing me from attending a significant family event, I learned someone sicker than I had cancelled for the 2013 conference, so I had an opening. Off I went.

In three time slots, the symposium offered nine workshops, and choosing was particularly difficult: (The ones in red are the ones I attended.)

Publishing Modes
Websites, Blogs, and Social Media
Poetry and Its Markets

Nuts and Bolts of E-Booking
Placing Nonfiction in Newspapers, Magazines, and on Radio
Join the Cool Crowd: Write Young Adult Fiction

Self-Review and Preparing Submissions
Publishing Scams to Avoid
Contests and Submissions: Getting Your Work Out There

Kathleen Grissom, author of The Kitchen House, was the keynote speaker. I’ve heard her speak about how she came to write her New York Times best-seller on several other occasions, but I learn something new about the writing process every time.

In our social media era, an Internet presence is essential for an emerging author, and “Websites, Blogs, and Social Media” provided practical tips for improving your Internet footprint–or establishing it. The format for workshops this year was excellent–the moderator asked the panel a few (a very few) pre-arranged (but good) questions, which the panel discussed, then the workshop opened to questions from the floor. I’ve long had a web presence, but I learned some things to improve it and make it reflect my writing better. For example, the name I use for writing appears nowhere on my home page. Duh. Had to fix that.

The same was true of “Nuts and Bolts of E-Booking.” I’ve published three e-books, but this was a good review of the various ways to publish your work independently. However, I would have liked to have heard the panelists emphasize pre-publication preparation (editing, proofreading, good grammar, etc.) more than they did. The panel was a good mix of an established, traditionally published author who switched to independent publishing, an author who tried the agent route and didn’t get one then went indie, and an author who went directly for independent publishing.

Since I’ve entered several contests this year, I wanted to see what I could learn in terms of improving my chances of winning or placing from “Contests and Submissions.” Again, a well-staffed panel of contest managers, judges, and winners provided timely and cogent information. However, my afternoon coughing jag started up and escalated to the point where I had to leave.

That meant I missed the networking session that afternoon. Networking with other writers, editors, and publishers is often the best part of a conference, and I was sorry to miss it. However, I’d spread enough germs.

Last year’s symposium was good. This year’s was excellent–very professional and well-organized. One great change from last year is that each participant got a symposium notebook, filled with presentations, handouts, and additional information for each panel–so I can benefit from the ones I was unable to attend. Betsy Ashton, author of Mad Max: Unintended Consequences and President of the Virginia Writers Club, told me, “We want this symposium to be the premier event for Virginia Writers Club–and for Virginia writers.” It’s well on its way to being just that.