The winners of the blog contest on the confessions of a non-researcher are Elise Farthing and Barbara Waltz. They will each be receiving a signed copy of an Advance Reading edition of ONLY ENCHANTING. Congratulations to them and thanks to the more than 400 who left a comment. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them all.
I have been wanting to blog here again for some time, but I always have the problem of what to write about. It’s strange, that, isn’t it, when I make my living out of dreaming up and writing stories? I finally went back to the multitude of questions a number of you asked when I asked a while ago for help with topics. And I came across this one from someone I know only by the name Becky:
“How did you research the specific ailments of the Survivors’ Club heroes to get their realistic Points of View? How much of it was just straight research and how much of it was talking to people with similar experiences? If you did a lot of talking to real people, how did you find them?”
And here comes the confession: I do almost no research of matters pertaining to character–as opposed to all the research I had to do for the Regency period itself and the Napoleonic Wars and other factual stuff. Everything else comes purely from my imagination. I do believe I have the ability to put myself imaginatively in the place of most types of people and know just what it feels like to be them. One pleasant result of this is that I am very rarely judgmental. I always know where the most unpleasant-seeming people are “coming from.” Another pleasant result is that I can create stories for the most complex and difficult heroes and heroines.
It is a risk to write this way, of course. I could arouse a storm of protest if I ever get some sort of character horribly wrong. It has not happened yet (fingers crossed). When I wrote SILENT MELODY with its 18th century deaf mute heroine, for example, I could only imagine what it must be like to be deaf in an age when people assume you must be insane. But I heard from several people afterward that I got it absolutely right (whew!). Incidentallly, that book will be out again next summer as a trade paperback. And since THE ARRANGEMENT has been published, I have heard from blind people who tell me I got Vincent right.
For me one of the most exciting aspects of writing is creating difficult characters, jumping inside their skin and their minds and their souls, and living the story with them, often having no more idea than they do where it is headed. It feels like real life in a different persona. How would Hugo have felt in THE PROPOSAL, having not only survived some brutal military action in the Peninsular Wars, including a Forlorn Hope attack, which he led, but also escaped without even a scratch? Would he have been happy, delighted, cocky? Or would he have gone out of his mind with an extreme case of survivors’ guilt? The second reaction seemed the most probable, and it is the one I chose.
And what about Ben in THE ESCAPE? His whole life had been centred about his physical prowess and his military career–and then his legs were shattered beyond repair. Even after five years of determined therapy he could only hobble along with the aid of two specially-made canes. What would that do to his life? To his future? To his self-esteem? Would he merely withdraw to his estate, which would offer him a home and financial security for the rest of this life? Or would he have to find another path through life that would be as fulfilling to him as the old one? Would he find a way of accepting his limitations without being defeated by them? Or would he always feel that his life was an inferior thing, hardly worth living? Well, you can read the book to find what did happen to him. But keep in mind that I write heroes and heroines who triumph over life in their own way. Only so can they be considered heroes and heroines. Only so can they be capable of mature love and a lasting relationship.
And what about Flavian, hero of ONLY ENCHANTING, due out in November? I can’t give away too many spoilers because his book is not even out yet. But if you have read the other books in the series you will know that he spent three years at Penderris Hall recovering from head wounds sustained in a cavalry battle but that he seems to be fine again apart from a persistent stammer. You will also know that soon after he was wounded his beloved fiancée jilted him in order to marry his best friend–a double betrayal. What I had to ask myself when I came to writing his story was why exactly it took him three years to recover from his injuries, and what residual hurts are there apart from the stammer? What was the full extent of his brain damage and has he totally recovered from it? Can he ever? And what about the personal pain of his rejection by two of the people he loved most in the world? Oh, I love, love, love approaching a book with those sorts of questions in my mind.
In my own defence, I must add that I do not live with my head in the sand. Very few people these days could be unaware of the sorts of damage war does to the soldiers who are involved in it, even if they escape physical injury–and especially if they do. And sometimes I talk to people without any thought to doing research. I was in Starbucks just last week, fascinated by the sight of a man with hands but almost no arms, doing an intricate and gorgeous pencil drawing with his hands and his mouth. I got to talking to him and discovered that he had been a thalidomide baby, that he has a degree in fine arts, that he is currently working on a series of oil paintings of THE GREAT GATSBY, and a lot of other fascinating stuff. What an awesome person! He has certainly not been slowed down by a medical disaster that might have ruined his life.
To two people who leave a comment below before the end of next Monday, August 4, I will send an advance reading copy of ONLY ENCHANTING. Please note that it has a plain cover, not the one shown above, and that they are uncorrected proofs and may contain bloopers that will not (I hope) be there when the book is published in November.
Survival: it is somehow what life is all about, isn’t it? It is something we all do between the cradle and the grave, and sometimes it is not easy. There are all sorts of dangers along the way that might put an end to our existence. But survival is not just about staying alive. How we stay alive is equally important. Quality of life is important. And quality is not achieved simply by keeping our bodies alive. Survival involves our minds and emotions and spirits too. Most of us–indeed, all of us–get battered along the way. Even those people who seem to live charmed lives really do not do so. Living is a difficult, precarious business and it is easy to get discouraged, even to give up and become hopeless and embittered. But deep down we all long to survive and to do it well. We all want to triumph, to beat the odds, to retain our humanity and to hang on to love and hope and joy and serenity despite everything. We love hearing and reading about people who have overcome great challenges and hardships to live rich, meaningful lives. Such stories are inspirational.
And such stories, even the fictitious ones, are a joy to write. I have always loved creating and developing wounded heroes and heroines, bringing them in the course of a book from the darkness of their woundedness into the light of wholeness and love. I am not sure where the idea came from to write a series of seven stories about a group of six men and one woman wounded in various ways by the Napoleonic Wars and forced to spend three years together recovering to a point at which they can live independently again. They call themselves the Survivors’ Club and get together for three weeks each year to renew their acquaintance. They are all healed to a certain degree, but none of them is yet whole. Each needs the space of a book and a love story to bring them to that point. And I am the lucky one who gets to write those seven stories!
Book 1, The Proposal, is Hugo Emes, Lord Trentham’s story. He was not physcially wounded, but he did go out of his mind, as he put it, after leading 300 men in a successful Forlorn Hope attack on a Spanish fortress and losing almost all of them. He was brought back to England in a straitjacket. Book 2, The Arrangement, is Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh’s story. Vincent was blinded and deafened during his very first battle in Portugal at the age of 17. His hearing came back eventually but he is permanently blind. And then there is Book 3, The Escape, which is to be published in North America on July 1, 2014. It is Sir Benedict Harper’s story. Both of Ben’s legs were crushed in a cavalry charge. He refused amputation and vowed to walk and even dance again. But he was an athletic man and a cavalry officer who loved the military life. Facing the reality of what the future holds for him is not easy.
Book 4, Only Enchanting, is due out on October 28, 2014. It is Flavian Arnott, Viscount Ponsonby’s story. Flavian sustained bad head wounds during a cavalry battle and suffered long-lasting brain damage. His abilty to think rationally and to speak coherently was greatly impaired, and he has huge memory gaps of which he is unaware. Frustration has made him prone to violent rages. Book 5, Only a Promise, is due out in May, 2014. It is Ralph Stockwood, Earl of Berwick’s story. Ralph was very severely wounded in battle, but worse than the physical wounds was the fact that he watched his three best friends from school days blown to bits before his eyes–and he blames himself for the fact that they were there. Note that Books 4 and 5 (and probably 6 and 7) will have very different cover concepts than the other three and differently conceived titles too as I move to my new publisher, NAL.
Book 6, Only a Kiss (working title–it may change), on which I am currently working, is Imogen Hayes, Lady Barclay’s story. Imogen followed the drum and went to the Peninsula with her husband, a reconnaissance officer and a spy. They were captured together and he was tortured before being killed in her presence. She still suffers from the trauma of those events. And that leaves George Crabbe, Duke of Stanbrook, who brought the other Survivors together when he opened his home as a hospital for severely wounded officers. George was not in the military himself, but his young son was and was killed. His wife committed suicide a month or so later. He is as wounded as the others and must find his own way of surviving and triumphing. His story will be told last in Book 7, which will probably be called Only Beloved.
In these last few weeks leading up to the publication of THE ESCAPE I will give away to one person who leaves a comment below signed copies of the first three books of the series, though the winner will have to wait until I get some copies of the new book. Those books are THE PROPOSAL, THE ARRANGEMENT, and THE ESCAPE. Make your comment before the end of Monday, June 16. In the meanwhile, you may preorder the new book right at my web site if you wish. And you can order the other two books as well!
The winner of the last blog contest here was Jerri Bell. Congratulations to her and thank you to everyone who left a comment. I always enjoy reading what you have to say. An autographed copy of THE PROPOSAL will be on the way to Jerri without delay. I hope I will be back to blogging soon. It always seems that the moment I start writing a new book a number of other time-consuming, work-related tasks descend on me too. This time is no exception!
Connie Fischer asked this question a few weeks ago: “I have enjoyed reading your books and love how the writing always flows so smoothly and keeps my interest all the way through. For your writing to have that effect on me, I have to ask if you’ve ever had writer’s block?
This may be a bit harsh toward other writers, and of course I can only really speak for myself, but I think the whole idea of writer’s block is a big myth. There is no such thing; it is just a fancy term for lack of discipline.
I could say yes to the question every single day when I am working on a book, and I don’t exaggerate. No matter how well the story flowed yesterday and how eager I was then for today to come so that I could continue, today, now, my mind is blank. I don’t know where to start or how to start, and the whole story is rubbish, and I hate all the characters, and I have a load of washing to put in, and I should check my Facebook page to see how many people have “liked” my newest post, and–well, I really need a cup of coffee, and while I am up….. If I give in to any of these daily urges,I may eventually decide that it is too late to do any writing today and I need to get my thoughts in order anyway. And the loss of one day is not really catastrophic. I’ll write double my quota tomorrow. The only trouble is that tomorrow I will go through exactly the same thing. No, not the same–worse. By tomorrow my confidence in the book will have been shaken by my doubts today. And soon I will convince myself that I have writer’s block and that will be a huge consolation because that is a genuine affliction and everyone will sympathize with me.
Now what I should have done on that very first day, and what I actually do ninety-nine-and-a-half times out of a hundred, is sit there in front of my computer and work on my mind until I can focus in. Often it is incredibly difficult to do because my mind (like most other people’s) is totally scattered. It flits over everything except the task in hand. Focusing in is a sort of pre-meditation exercise. I have no secret to how to do it and no formula. It is just a discipline, I think. I force my mind to narrow down to my two main characters. If possible, I hop right in to the mind of one of them and live the particular point in the story he/she has reached. I feel their feelings. And then I start writing. I can recall someone (I can’t remember who) at a conference many years ago telling the audience that when you can’t think how to begin your writing you should write anyway. It sounds totally absurd, but it works. Writing is my natural medium (more natural than talking). When I start to write, ideas flow and words come. Each day after I have wrestled with my demons (some days are worse than others) I get on with the story until my daily quota is done. These years that is 2000 words.
Actually getting started, though, does not always mean moving ahead with the story. If that were so, I would be able to write a complete book in 50 days–my books are 100, 000 words long and I write seven days a week. In fact, they take on average four months or 120+ days. Sometimes that feeling that the story is rubbish and the characters rotten persists to a degree that I know there is something definitely wrong with what I have already written. Or sometimes the feeling returns quite powerfully after I have labored onward with some actual writing. Experience has taught me that I must stop–but not to go put that load of wash in, etc. I turn immediately back to page 1 and read through to find the problem. Occasionally it is in the plot. Usually it is in the characters. A number of people have asked me questions about character and I intend to devote a whole blog to answering those, maybe next time. But I will say here that since my stories are all told through the eyes and minds of the hero and heroine (alternately), I have to know them to the depth I know myself. And that understanding is not easy and does not come all at once. They always have layer upon layer of secrets that they give up to me only with great reluctance. And with each new discovery I have to go back through the whole story and make the necessary adjustments. Until I know everything, the story won’t work.
Writing requires a great deal of thought, of working things out like a puzzle, of making sure everything hangs together, that every detail is consistent with the rest, that the whole thing is plausible. Writing is hard work. That does not mean it is unpleasant. Quite the contrary. But no matter how well the story seems to flow when the finished book is in a reader’s hand, the writing of it is a bit like constantly sanding a very rough board until it is smooth enough to leave no slivers and to show no sign of the constant grind of the sander. There is too much to be done to allow for such nonsense as writer’s block! Focus in. Think. Write. As one writer friend of mine is fond of saying, “Butt on chair, fingers on keyboard.” A teacher can’t just walk out of the classroom at the start of a class claiming teacher’s block (though her students might be delighted). A surgeon can’t walk out of the operating room when the patient is anesthetized, claiming surgeon’s block. A bricklayer can’t…. Well, you get the message.
To one person who leaves a comment below before the end of April I will send a signed copy of THE PROPOSAL. The winner last time was Tai Smith. Congratulations to her and thanks to everyone who left a comment. I always love reading them.