THE INSIDE STORY (2) — An Idea Comes to Fruition

When I was ten years old, I wrote a story as a school assignment. The teacher gave us the opening sentence (“Rat-a tat-tat went the postman’s knock on the front door”) and we all wrote our stories. Mine ended up being 25 pages long and was entered in a competition, which I won. The prize was a box full of Cadbury’s and Bournville chocoalate bars, a treasure indeed in post-WWII Wales, where commodities were scarce, especially luxury goods. It was from that story assignment that I developed the idea that if any four or fourteen or forty professional authors were all given the same plot idea to work on, the resulting stories would be so different that readers could enjoy them all without feeling that they were reading the same thing over and over again. It seemed to me that if all these stories were then put into one volume with an explanation to the reader, it would be a fascinating read.

Unfortunately (at least it seemed unfortunate to me), I couldn’t find anyone to agree with me after I had become a published author. Whenever I tried out the idea on editors or fellow authors, I was greeted with polite silence and puzzled looks, as if the listener wanted to ask me why anyone would want to read the same story over and over again. But a few years ago I was out on a book signing tour in the Detroit/Chicago area with a group of other romance authors. I explained my idea one day during a long bus journey to Candice Hern and Jacquie d’Alessandro and both of them loved it. All three of us got excited about it and talked about nothing else for an hour or two. We were determined to do it! We thought four writers would be the ideal number. But who would be the fourth? We considered various possibilities, having decided to keep it as a project for Regency historical stories. Stephanie Laurens was at the head of our wish list, and Candice just happened to have her email address. She sent off a message to distant Australia–and had an almost instant response. An enthusiastic one! Stephanie was in.

And so the project was on. We got on an email loop together and hammered out the technicalities as well as the all-important plot idea we would all work on. We finally agreed upon a three-part three plot idea: (1) the action had to happen all within 24 hours (2) the hero and heroine had to meet at a country inn, (3) they had to have met ten years before but not since. The only artificial restraint we put upon our stories was to choose a season each–mine was spring (my story takes place on May Day). We also told each other the names of our main characters so that none of us used the same ones. Then we wrote our stories without any sharing or collaboration. It was only after they were all written and copyedited that we finally shared stories. What fun that was! And I was quite right–all four were vastly different from one another. The stories are very different as are the characters, the tone, the voice. Avon published the volume, It Happened One Night,  in 2008 and it went onto the New York Times bestselling list.

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We had had so much fun that of course we had to do it again. The second time, though, we planned it a little differently. We ran a competition for readers to suggest a three-point plot idea. Choosing a winner from more than 1000 entries was extremely difficult, but Phyllis Post won with this idea: (1) the hero is the younger brother of a lord. He was a military officer during the Napoleonic Wars but now lives the life of a recluse (2) the heroine is plain and quiet and has never had a serious beau (3) the hero’s brother, who has only daughters, begs his brother to marry and produce sons to carry on their family line. It Happened One Season came out in 2011.

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It really is exciting knowing and working with other authors! And now I have a vague dream of using the same basic idea but with writers of different sub-genres within the romance world. Maybe one day… However, that long-ago school assignment has already had quite far-reaching effects!

To one person who comments here before the end of next Tuesday, October 1, I will send signed copies of both anthologies (signed only by me, alas). Last week’s winner of DASHING AND DANGEROUS and BESPELLING JANE AUSTEN was Rosanna Miscio . Thank you for all your comments. I always enjoy them greatly.

 

DOWN MEMORY LANE

I was going to write about something else this week, but when I went down to our basement a short while ago to see what books were on the shelves there that I might use as giveaways, I discovered a few copies of the old anthology (1995), Dashing and Dangerous. And when I looked at the names of the other writers who had contributed to it, Edith Layton, Melinda McRae, Anita Mills, and Mary Jo Putney, I was flooded by memories. It’s strange how life seems to go by so fast and yet at the same time segments of the past can seem as if they must have belonged to another lifetime.

When I wrote and submitted my first Regency romance to NAL Signet books in 1984 (it was published in 1985), I had no idea that I was joining a welcoming, close-knit community of writers and other associated people who would fill a void in my life for years to come–for writing is a solitary business even though not necessarily a lonely one and there was no internet in those days. I won a Romantic Times award for that first book and went off to New York to receive it. The convention was held at the hotel between the Twin Towers. There was actually a banquet held up in the Windows on the World restaurant. I have very poignant, bitter/sweet memories of that first book convention and my first meeting with some of my fellow Regency authors! One memory I used to tell as a funny story was of my husband and me strolling all alone into the deserted, echoing hallway at the bottom of one of the towers until we became aware of an alarming wall of people bearing down upon us like a tidal wave and flowing past us until we were all alone again. They were the hundreds, even thousands, of workers from the tower leaving work for the day. That story didn’t seem as funny after 9/11.

But it was at that convention I met the very witty Edith Layton and the motherly Barbara Hazard and the good-natured Joan Wolf, all of them idols of mine who accepted me as one of their own without any condescension. I remember them being horrified when they knew my husband and I had taken the subway to the Empire State Building one day. You never EVER take the subway in New York, Barbara told us–that was what all those yellow cabs were for. Obviously times have changed on the subway. Over the years I met other Regency authors and welcomed new ones as they came along–Mary Jo Putney. Anne Barbour, Emily Hendrickson, Barbara Allister, to mention just a few. We were a community of friends. We used to exchange long letters in the days when people still wrote them. One by one we left the fold, though, in order to write for the larger (but in many ways less satisfying) market of the historical romance. And finally those of us who wanted to keep writing had no choice. The Regency romance market, though steady and immensely loyal, was just not big enough for the burgeoning world of romance publishing. I was one of the last to go, and for a time I kept a foot in each camp. But one by one the separate Regency romance lines closed down to be replaced by the flood of Regency historicals we have now.

It is not just my fellow Regency authors who are part of my memories of that time, though. There was Hilary Ross, our editor at NAL. She loved the Regency era and knew a great deal about it. She kept us honest, and we adored her. It was Hilary who made me rewrite some of the heroines in my early books because they were not strong enough. “Mary,” she famously said on one occasion, sounding a bit exasperated, as she often did, and I have never forgotten her advice, “when creating your heroines, think unwimpy!” And there was Melinda Helfer, the late beloved reviewer at Romantic Times, who reviewed several sub-genres but had a special passion for Regencies. She used to gather us together at conventions and take us all out to dinner and regale us with conversation and monologues. She was ferociously intelligent and knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects. She was one of the rare people who could dominate a conversation and no one resented it. We hung upon every word, And she loved us all. It was a sad day when she passed away suddenly at far too young an age. And now I have held forth long enough!

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To one person who leaves a comment here before the end of next Tuesday, September 24, I will send signed copies of two anthologies–DASHING AND DANGEROUS with the authors named above, my novella being “Precious Rogue,” and BESPELLING JANE AUSTEN with Colleen Gleason, Susan Krinard, and Janet Mullany, my novella being “Almost Persuaded.” Last week’s winner of the large-print edition of A MASKED DECEPTION was Mary (last name not known yet, but I think she lives in the Pacific north-west).  It was a hotly contested item. Thank you all for your comments.

 

 

 

 

 

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW


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That’s probably a familiar phrase to any would-be writer or to anyone who has ever been in a creative writing class. Write what you know! It is what I used to tell my high school students. It could be painful to read stories about gangsters in Detroit, written by teenagers who had never stepped outside rural Saskatchewan, Canada. I used to tell them they could write far more convincingly and entertainingly about teenagers living on the prairies. However, it would be pretty confining for writers if they really could not write about anything beyond their own narrow horizon, even if it worked very well for someone like Jane Austen. What if one lives on the prairies but wants to set a story in Detroit?

The outlook is not as gloomy as it might seem when one remembers that there are many ways of knowing. We can know something by experiencing it, by living it, or at least by living the sort of life we invent for our characters. But we can know other things from traveling and from reading and from doing research. Thank heaven for that or I would not have written more than a hundred novels and novellas, almost all of them set among the upper classes of Regency England.

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When I wrote A Masked Deception, my first book, I had read all of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer as well as numerous contemporary authors who were writing the small Regencies. I had read numerous history books and had done my best to find out as much as I could about things like clothing and vehicles and food and manners and etiquette and all those important things that are not so easy to find. At least, they were not easy to find at the time. There was no internet in those days. I had grown up in Britain and still had a British “voice” even after a number of years in Canada. And so I started–in 1983, writing longhand at the kitchen table during the evenings after my school classes had been prepared and all the marking was done. I was not sure I knew enough (I’m still not sure) but I did my best and kept learning and kept correcting mistakes I had made in earlier books. If one is going to write something about which one has no direct experience, then one really ought to get it right, to make it as authentic as one possibly can. Do the homework! When I set Beyond the Sunrise in Spain and Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars, for example, I read exhaustively about every battle that had been fought  and every shot that had been fired during those battles–even though the actual book used only a fraction of the knowledge.

There is another type of knowing in addition to experience and research, though, and I think perhaps it is most important of all. It is imagination, the ability to identify. It is important to know what it feels like to be inside the skin of one’s characters, to know their lives from the soul out, to know how they think and speak and behave. It is important to know what it is like to be in a certain place or in a certain situation. If the characters go to Vauxhall Gardens in London for an evening of pleasure, for example, it is important to know about the gardens, of course. It is equally important, though, to know how it feels to be there and to be able to convey that feeling to the reader. And if a character is deaf or blind or maimed or very plain or unusually beautiful, it is important to know what that feels like and what difference it makes to that particular person. Being deaf in the early 19th century, for example, meant something very different from what it means today. Most deaf mutes ended up in insane asylums. And much of this type of knowing has to come from the imagination, from that in-built ability to identify.

So–write what you know, certainly. There is no better advice for a would-be writer. But remember that knowing is a much broader thing than it seems at first glance. There is much to know, but effort has to be put into acquiring the knowledge.

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I have discovered on my shelves an old (though pristine and unused) hardcover, large-print edition of my very first and long-out-of-print book, A MASKED DECEPTION. I will sign it and send it to one randomly-chosen person who leaves a comment before the end of next Tuesday, September 17. Last week’s winner was Danielle Smoot. Thank you to all who left a comment.

The Great Title Search

Someone asked a question about titles on my Facebook page a few days ago, and it struck me that I could talk at some length on the subject. Titles are the bane of my life, and I would be willing to bet that most writers feel the same way. I have lost sleep over titles. I have sometimes suggested calling a book The Great American (or Canadian or British) Novel, but I have not yet found an editor who will take me up on it. The title of a book needs to have some relevance to the story, and ideally it ought to be both original and eye-catching.  Perhaps it also should indicate what type of book the reader can expect. Titles like Simply LoveOne Night for Loveand A Secret Affair, for example, pretty well advertise themselves as love stories.

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My own choice of title is not often the one that appears on the cover of the book. Usually I don’t mind–the title I give most books is only a working title, marginally better than sending the finished manuscript in without any title at all. I can’t remember what I originally called the first of the Bedwyn books, but it was rejected. After weeks of back and forth, my editor finally suggested Slightly Married and I loved it. I was working on Book 3 at the time and immediately came back with, “Oh, and Slightly Scandalous would suit the book I am writing now.” I can’t remember which of us  came up with Slightly Wicked for Book 2, but it was all decided within five minutes–three books named, and the next three books made easy. All we had to do was come up with one word for each that could be put with SlightlyTempted, Sinful, Dangerous.

Sometimes I have been more dubious about losing my own title. Almost a Gentleman became The Proposal. I like the present title, but I was partial to my own too. The Man Called Rebecca became Truly, and that title was imposed upon me while I was away in Wales for six weeks–no internet in those days and little chance of communication. I have always disliked that title. It says precisely nothing and could be made to apply to every book ever written. It is the one title I may be tempted to change when the book is republished, though I have always sworn that I would not change any of my titles and confuse readers even more than they already are by a change of cover.

I have been happy to keep a few of my own titles. I can remember a few fellow Regency authors assuring me at one conference that my title Lady with a BLack Umbrella would not stand, but it did. I don’t think there is much chance that anyone will duplicate that one! And I would have been willing to fight for my title Longing if there had been any suggestion of changing it. It was my precious Welsh book, and the word is a translation of the Welsh “hiraeth,” which means the type of longing or yearning (often for home or a spiritual home) that goes soul-deep in most of us. It is the title of a  Welsh song that must be one of the most beautiful ever composed and figures in the book, sung by a male voice choir. The title stayed. That book is already scheduled to be republished, by the way, probably in 2015. A Summer to Remember was my own title. I expected it to change, but it was kept. It really suits the story, and I hope it a book to remember as it started the whole train of Slightly and Simply books.

Sometimes (rarely) titles come easily. They sum up the whole book, or they are there in a key phrase of the book. In the one I have just finished, for example, the hero waltzes with the heroine in the first chapter because he expects her to have some sensible conversation. He even tells her so–and then they proceed to dance in silence. At the end of it he tells her that she is not sensible after all but only enchanting. The title of that book is Only Enchanting!

And sometimes titles can be mixed up and cause endless confusion. At the beginning of the recently published The Arrangement, my next book is correctly identified as The Escape. The teaser chapter at the back of the book, however, calls it by its original title The Affair. Please note that Book 3 of the Survivors’ Club series, Sir Benedict Harper’s story, due out at the end of May, 2014, is THE ESCAPE.

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To one person who leaves a comment here before the end of next Tuesday, September 10, I will send a signed advance reading copy of A SUMMER TO REMEMBER. I have discovered a little pile of them still in my basement. And, I’ll throw in a copy of the anthology BESPELLING JANE AUSTEN–four paranormal novellas based loosely on four Austen novels. Mine is a reincarnation story based on PERSUASION. Last week’s winner was Sheila Hudnall.