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Friday, October 27, 2017

NEARLY HISTORICAL FICTION, PART TWO - GUEST POST by SHARON WILDWIND

Photo Credits, from left to right: Sharon Wildwind, Cindy Kirkpatrick, Ashley Wilson


THIS POST, AS THE TITLE SAYS, IS PART TWO OF SHARON WILDWIND'S excellent article on writing nearly historical fiction. If you haven't read it yet, you can read Part One here





NEARLY HISTORICAL FICTION, PART TWO

If the story is set at least 50 years in the past, it is an historical novel~ The Historical Writers of America

If the story is set less than 50 years in the past, but still feels like it’s taking place a long time ago, it’s a nearly historical novel. ~ Sharon Wildwind, mystery writer

In 1975, I was going to graduate school by distance learning. Two evenings a week, I drove 53 miles (83 kilometers) along Interstate 40, through the Great Smoky Mountains, sharing the road with high-balling truck drivers. I went to class, then drove home, often arriving after midnight.

Bored out of my skull on those drives, I spent car time developing a romantic-mystery. The premise was an American nurse seeking adventure, who takes a job in a northern Alberta nursing station. She knows nothing about, and is totally unprepared, for nursing station work, northern Alberta weather, and living in a tiny hamlet. (Never mind about why I chose Alberta. It’s complicated.)

So, I’m living in the U. S. south and writing about northern Alberta, about which I know nothing. Nada. Zip. The big mistake I made was that while I bought an Alberta map, it wasn’t a topographical map. Regular maps show distance — how to get from here to there. Topographical maps show if there might be up and down obstacles, like canyons or mountain ranges, between here and there.

The Caribou Mountains form a large part of northern Alberta geography. I’d seen photos of Banff, so I blissfully transferred a Rocky Mountain landscape to the north, and set my story in a Banff-like setting in the Caribou Mountains. (Those of you familiar with northern Alberta can stop laughing now.) The Caribou Mountains are a flat plateau, rising steeply in an impossible-to-traverse escarpment for some 1,864 feet (568 meters), and then levelling out into a flat, boggy muskeg plateau. There are no mountain peaks there, and certainly no gold mines, both of which were essential to the story I wrote.

Fast-forward forty-two years.

Sharon Wildwind in High Level, Alberta.
Having lived and worked in northern Alberta, I now had first-hand knowledge about nursing station work, northern Alberta weather, and living in a tiny hamlet. I also had terrific characters still residing in my heart, and a completely impossible plot. I had to keep the mid-1970s time frame because of events related to the characters and story. What had been a current novel had become a near historical one. So, where to start?

I bought a topographical map, and went over it with an oil and gas man who had actually walked the Caribou Mountain escarpment, and didn’t care to do it ever again. I moved my hamlet, Whiskeyjack, off the plateau to the base of the escarpment, ditched the mountain scenery, substituted logging and oil and gas exploration for a gold mine, and started again.

When we’re writing a near historical novel — something that happened less than 50 years ago — lots of readers will remember the year, the month, and sometimes the exact day in our stories. If we make a mistake, they will let us know. We owe it to our readers to have at least a nodding acquaintance with things like geography and weather. That doesn’t mean we have to be constrained by real events such as weather or real history, but if we choose to ignore or tweak something major, we owe it to our readers to tell them we are doing that. Our introduction might say something like this, “Those of you familiar with sawmills in High Level, Alberta, know that Leo Arsenault didn’t build the first mill there until the late summer of 1964. This story required that the mill be in operation several months earlier, so that’s what I did.”

How to ground nearly historical writing in a semblance of the real world:

1). Live thereThe best near historical research is to live in the place, at or near the time. I wrote more about this in Part One of this blog.

2). Talk to people who lived there. My engineering buddy gave me details I would never have invented.

3). Read journals and diaries of people who lived thereThe following books gave me a sense of the time and place about which I wanted to write.
•  Joy Duncan (ed). Red Serge Wives. Centennial Book Committee. 1974.
•  Ruth Lee-Knight. When the Second Man was a Woman. Imagine Publishing. 2004 – a story of Mounties’ wives in remote settlements.
•  Gordon Reid’s set of first person accounts of Northern Alberta. Lower Peace Publishing Company, 1963 – 1978.
•  Dr. Brad Stelfox, and others. Logging the Fairview Area. Publisher and date unknown. – While Fairview is some distance from my setting, one chapter had a general view of logging in Northern Alberta.

4). Download a calendarThere are any numbers of sites, which will produce a calendar for dates specified.

5). Download a sunrise and sunset chart. Here's one to use: http://www.sunrisesunset.comFill in the place name and the dates you want, and it makes a chart for you.) I once had two characters enjoying a lovely October sunset, north of Fort Vermilion, at 8:00 pm. At that latitude, in October, the sun sets at 6:30.

6). Look at a topographical map. Here's another good site: Canadian Topographic Maps: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/earth-sciences/geography/topographic-information/maps/9767. Note: This site is a little hard to navigate. Instead of carrying maps in stock, they now have a printing arrangement with regional map companies to print maps on demand. On the site, find a map company near you, and send them an e-mail about what you might need. Or visit your local library. They may have a topo map or be able to get one.

7). Find out what the weather was at the time. Look for the so called “weather incidents” that people would remember. The Government of Canada Historical Climate Data: http://climate.weather.gc.ca/
can get information for specific dates or monthly summaries. For a lark, some of the weather in Whiskeyjack follows exactly what the weather was in 1977.

8). Always be on the lookout for little gemsI recently discovered Merrily K. Aubrey. Place Names of Alberta; volume IV, northern Alberta. University of Calgary Press. 1996. After looking up real places, like Fort Vermilion, High Level, and Margaret Lake, I was able to construct the following, imaginary summary for Whiskeyjack: 

  • Whiskeyjack (settlement and eventually a hamlet) 
  • 84 J/5 — Whiskeyjack (this is the topographical map reference)
  • 34-111-10-W5 (this is where it’s located on the topographical map)
  • 58 degrees 40 minutes North 115 degrees 35 minutes West (this is its longitude and latitude)
  • Approximately 110 kilometers east north-east of High Level (how far to the nearest larger population centre).
Located near the Beaver Ranch River, the area was first surveyed in 1915. The settlement was founded in 1922 as a farming community by Henry Martel, who named it after the large flocks of grey or Canadian jays in the area. After a typhoid epidemic in 1929, the settlement was abandoned, though two or three families remained in the area. In 1946-47, brothers Steven and Jonathan Randall founded the hamlet. A post office was established in 1954. The first postmaster was Thomas Purdy.

Oh, yes, always make up an imaginary cover before working on a book. Pin it some place you can see it. It’s a great reminder to keep writing. Featured above, are my imaginary covers for this trilogy. The photo for Whiskeyjack is mine. Cindy Kirkpatrick (Fireweed) and Ashley Wilson (Tamarac) have my thanks for allowing me to manipulate their copyrighted photos (personal use only). The photography is entirely theirs. Please do not forward or reproduce these photographs.

Whiskeyjack is with beta readers. I’m about a third of the way through Fireweed. I have a major event outline for Tamarac. So far, I’ve managed to stay firmly out of Banff.

(Thanks so much, Sharon. I think I can speak for all of us when I say we look forward to reading your new work. All the best with it! - Susan).

Sharon's Bio: Sharon Wildwind is a Calgary mystery writer. You can find more about her and her books at www.wildwindauthor.com.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

MAKING THE EFFORT vs. JUST THINKING ABOUT IT

A FEW DAYS BEFORE CANADIAN THANKSGIVING, I finally went to the cemetery where my parents are buried. My dad died in 1983 from a heart attack. He was only 56. My mom died two years ago, aged 85, after battling lung cancer. She had purchased their burial plot after my father passed. Whenever I visited his grave with her, it was strange to see how accommodated she was to knowing where she would one day be interred. In many ways, Mom was a practical sort. In other ways, not so much.

I had been planning to lay silk flowers at their grave for some time and had put it off. Every November, the cemetery removes all the grave flowers, so snow-removal is easier. I'd been feeling grumpy about visiting. I'd been busy all summer. This was yet another chore. My mother always took leaving flowers for my father quite seriously. It already being October, the flowers would be removed in November unless I rescued them first. I had missed retrieving them the year before, so their grave was bare. The cemetery was also a bit of a drive - 40 minutes to get there. It wasn't like jumping into the car to buy groceries. Instead, I had to plan things - buy new flowers, pick a day that worked in my schedule, then carve out precious time to drive there.

Part of my irritation was in doing what was expected of me. It was as if my parents were watching me from afar and expecting me to leave flowers at their grave because that's what a dutiful daughter did. It would be a sign of my devotion to them, a proof. I've never liked being forced into proving anything, or being put into a societal box. But I was also feeling a bit guilty for not going. When I finally did go, I discovered the effort wasn't so much for my parents, as it was for me.

I learned something about effort, about grieving, and about life that day. To make the physical effort to visit a grave is something that's much more potent than simply thinking about loved ones who have died. Making an effort becomes a kind of ritual, a ceremony. In remembering and celebrating who my parents were, I transformed an ordinary moment into something more poignant and deep. My effort became a sacrament, an expression of the love I have for them, and the love they have for me. If I hadn't gone to their grave, I wouldn't have had that experience. Yes, there were tears. I will go again to retrieve their flowers before the cemetery removes them.

In the wider scheme of things, the idea of 'effort vs. just thinking about it', is applicable to any aspect our lives. Thoughts have power, but it's in the doing that the magic occurs.

- Susan.


Friday, October 13, 2017

TOP TEN MYTHS ABOUT WRITERS AND WRITING

LATELY, I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT how writers are seen by non-writers, and how difficult it is for many of us to have our books noticed within the volume of work out there - everything from self-published books, to micro and small press offerings, to what the big houses are presenting. What follows are my top ten observations based upon my experiences of how some non-writers view us, and their lack of understanding regarding the writing/publishing business:

1). It's easy to write a book... followed closely by another favourite of mine,

2). It's easy to get a book published. Great Grappling Gods of Purple Prose. It's easy-peasy to write crap. It's not easy to write well. It's even harder to get an agent and publisher interested in you. (Of course, one can publish themselves, relieving the problem of agents and publishers, which is a whole other box of Kleenex.)

3). If it's self-published work, it can't be good. Not so. There are some excellent self-published titles out there. Often, those books have been vetted by people who also know how to write and who have offered the writer excellent critique (and no, not critique from non-writer friends or family). That said, there are also many self-published books that I think aren't ready to be out there. New writers (those who have been at it for several years) tend to be a little delusional about how good their work is. See Barb Geiger's excellent post about the Dunning-Kruger Bump where she talks about this very thing. Seasoned writers almost always think they can do better, even after the book has been published.

4). If the work is published through a micro or small press, it isn't as good as what comes out of a major publishing house. Again, not true. The big houses out of New York are often dictated to by their marketing departments. They tend to repeat what's been done and what sells, because that's their business. Despite their contention that they want the next 'new thing' they aren't often inclined to buy work that steps outside genre lines or is experimental. The smaller houses allow more freedom. The downside is that smaller houses have more limited budgets, so distribution and promotion tend to be small.

5). If the book has a lot of 'splash' about it, a lot of promotion, it must be good. Readers are a curious bunch. They'll buy a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey because of the hoopla and the spice. Then, when the movie's made, they're convinced the writing is also good, because, 'well, it's a film, isn't it?' The quality of writing doesn't necessarily have anything to do with how well a book sells. Trash also sells.

6). Writers are lonely. Most of us aren't. We thrive on being alone and get prickly when we don't get enough alone time. (Non-writing spouses, please take note.) When I'm writing, I'm so engaged in what I'm doing that I don't feel lonely. Then, when it's time to socialise, I socialise. Most of us are ice bergs. Our social persona is only the top 10% of the surface that shows.

7). Writers make good money. A few do. Many don't. For most of us, writing isn't about the money. It's about feeling we have a story to tell, that we've something to say about the world. It's a passion for story that pushes us. A love for creating something from nothing, and the amazing realisation that we can actually do this. As for money, most of us keep our day jobs. A few, like myself, are fortunate enough to have a spouse who tolerates our obsession. (It helps that I also cook dinner and do the laundry.) Of course, the hope is to make more money at writing. Fingers crossed and towels folded, some day, we all will.

8). Writers are egotistical, frustrated substance abusers, who look down on the rest of us practical , down-to-earth types. There is some truth in this. It isn't easy spending years at something with little in the way of financial recompense until you hit it 'big'. And a writer may never hit it 'big' or what he considers to be 'big'. Think about it: if you spent a good deal of your day, year in and year out,  doing what you love (and occasionally hate) only to have people run down your efforts or not even bother to look at them, wouldn't you be tempted to drown your sorrows now and then? Being a writer is like being locked into a marriage that drives you nuts. Furthermore, there's no guarantee your writing will help you pay the rent. I'm not complaining: personally, I've had it good, but a life like that explains a lot. It's no wonder some writers sit down over a drink (or three) to share their war stories.

9). Writers aren't normal. They look down on non-creative types. We don't look down on other people unless they look down on us. Or think they're more important than us (and yes, I've run into that too many times to count).  As far as normal goes, maybe we aren't so much. A lot of the time, we're more interested in what's going on in our heads than in the world around us. I am easily bored. Someone who thinks I might find their opinions about how the educational system has changed in the past ten years will make me want to dump coffee in their lap. (And yes, out of politeness I've endured such a conversation, but without the coffee dumping.) On the other hand, give me an honest compliment about my books, (which translates into saying you've actually read them and appreciated the effort), and I'll happily chat with you about anything - even your opinions about the changes you've seen in primary education, as long as it doesn't last too long. Conversation is a two-way street. Many of us, including fellow writers, need to remember that. This is especially true for writers who spend more than ten minutes giving a plot point by plot point rendition of their latest story or novel to other writers.

10). Writers are arrogant. They lose all respect for anyone who says, 'I could write a book. I just don't have the time.'  YES, we WILL lose respect for you if you say this to us. Who's being arrogant, here? You don't learn how to be a doctor or a lawyer in a matter of months. The same goes for writers. It takes years to learn how to write well. It also takes guts, because any writer worth her tears has dealt with rejection many times over. Am I being arrogant and self-congratulating as I write this? Perhaps a bit, but I also recognise those who wear their wounds on the inside. Writers who have done their time have been scarred in abundance. A similar situation is the non-writer who says, 'I have a great story for you. If you write it, we'll split the proceeds.' This is like telling a doctor you have an appendix that needs taking out. If she does the operation, you'll split the hospital costs, 50-50, because, after all, it's your appendix and she's only gone to med school for a dozen years or so - no big deal. She should appreciate the honour you're offering her. (I ran into this at a book fair. But the old guy was enthusiastic, and rather sweet, so I forgave him. I suggested he write the book, himself.)

To wrap up, let me suggest readers keep reading (because we writers need you to) writers keep writing (because we also need to), everybody be considerate, and take a writer to lunch. If you do, please ask a little about our books, instead of monopolising the conversation about your life, the latest Trump fiasco, or how those Oilers are doing this season, eh?

Strike that last one. I haven't followed the team, but some of us will enjoy talking about that. :-)

Have a great week - Susan.

Monday, October 02, 2017

TWO NEW REVIEWS for THE TATTOOED QUEEN (Book Three of The Tattooed Witch Trilogy)

SO CHECKING AMAZON.COM the other day, I came across these two reviews for the third book of my trilogy, The Tattooed Queen. They were a nice surprise.  With a trilogy, it always feels as if there's a void between each book. This is especially true when the last book is nearly two years to publication following the second. I was beginning to think no one had read The Tattooed Queen to comment.

Here's what the reviews said:

1). by N. Luiken (May 31, 2017), who gave it 4 stars out of 5:

Well-researched historical fantasy. Book Two left off with a cliff-hanger: Joachin in serious peril, he and Miriam separated, Miriam under a spell, and evil Tomas in pursuit. About two-thirds of the book is spent on board ship (or rather three different ships), sailing to the New World. I confess I had trouble getting invested in some of the on-ship plot-lines - I was impatient to arrive. I quite enjoyed the magical landscapes and the new twist on Joachin's powers.

Favorite moment: dolphins!

2). by Chipompompom (June 6, 2017), who gave it 5 stars out of 5:

Due to a busy period of life, I ended up reading this 3rd book over a series of months. Even the long breaks in reading time didn't seem to affect the flow, and I was able to pick right back up with ease. Once again, I was surprised to find myself thinking about these characters in vivid detail while I was going about my day. I would have to remind myself that it was a book I was envisioning and not people I know or have interacted with in real life. This author has a real ability to set the scene and characters and have the whole thing form in your mind quite vividly. My favorite part was the new powers given to the main character. The plot possibilities opened up in such a marvellous way. It really hit me as a genius plot device, and I couldn't wait to see how it would all play out. Great series! I'm already reading it again.

My thanks to the reviewers. I appreciate their comments.

Although it's slightly frowned upon to respond to reviews, I'd like to address the comment made in the first review about two-thirds of the book taking place on board three different ships. When I was doing my research, I was faced with the problem of what to do with my characters for the six weeks it took to travel from the Canary Islands to Jamaica in the mid-1500's. (Believe me, I tightened the plot here as much as possible, and I don't think the book dragged. Lorina Stephens, my editor at Five Rivers, would have been merciless with me if it did. I love her for being the tough editor she is.) I also had to decide what conflicts would occur on those ships, thus, three sub-plots involving Miriam and her gypsy tribe of mostly women, Joachin and the men aboard a slave ship, and Tomas, my Grand Inquisitor with his pet sorceress, Rana, travelling in high style. A lot of the end-story was created in these middle plot lines, including Joachin's magical talents merging, Rana's redemption, and the rivalry between Joachin and Alonso resolving and then dissolving. I also wanted to introduce an entirely different take on the search for the Fountain of Youth. I couldn't have dealt with any of these without the necessary set-up spent at sea.

I welcome additional reviews. If any of you'd like to review the trilogy, drop me a line and we'll talk.

- Susan.