Shawn L. Bird

Original poetry, commentary, and fiction. All copyrights reserved.

Historical Fiction- Riding the Wave by CC Humphreys workshop notes October 30, 2012

This post is based on my notes from  CC Humphreys’ workshop “Historical Fiction- Riding the Wave” at Surrey International Writers’ Conference, October 21, 2012.  If you were at this workshop, and think I’ve misrepresented anything, please let me know in the comments below!  In places my notes were cryptic!

C.C. (Chris) Humphreys has written several styles of historical fiction:

epic: A Place Called Armageddon

biography: Vlad

swashbuckler: Jack Absolute series

Writing is about character.  Fit them into historical context.  What’s important is people in a situation, whether the time is 500 years ago or 5000.  They’re still people.

Tell yourself, “I’m a modern novelist I write for today I address today’s issues.”  Whatever the theme is emerges sometimes years after.  You see the thematic threads later.  What you’re writing is set in a previous context, but it reflects today’s concerns

Research- how why what

Look up stuff .  Anything you use is as a tool for telling a story.  Diana Gabaldon describes a  master who seemed to believe for history books, “I’ve suffered for my research, now it’s your turn.”  The research Chris does gets him going, but in the end research has to be a tool of the characters.  You can’t appreciate the character’s journey without their context.

No tangents and sidebars! If the history needs to be there to make sense of the character’s experience, then make an active choice around it.  For example, in A Place Called Armageddon, he had to address the schism between the branches of Christianity.  Orthodox and Roman churches governed people’s lives in Constantinople, Constantine. said he’d covert to Roman Catholicism if Europe would support him in war.  So the information must be given.  Another character needs to tell the information.  In Vlad– the Balkan history was complex and necessary.  He had to use structural device to oscillate between fact and story.  In his case the device was either friend, lover, or confessor gathered in a basement talking about their experiences.

There are stakes involved in the research.  It’s all about being active in historical research.  In his case, he would bring the reader back to the dungeon to discuss needed information.  People need the info, you tell it very actively through conversation, etc

With his first novel The French Executioner, he spent 6 years researching.  He was scared of writing it.  He felt he had to research until he knew everything, but it’s not necessary!  It’s just procrastination!    Do enough to get going, but then start writing, and fill holes as you need to.  Julian Barnes said, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”  Facts are loose.  Our history has been selected as fact by people who wanted to tell a story.

Write the best book you can write.  The excitement is rearranging the facts to suit the story.  If someone writes you later and says, “This is wrong,” so what?  You wrote a book!  Don’t do anything egregious, but it’s not your prime concern.  Your concern is telling a good story.

There is so much that you don’t have control over, simplify to what you can control.  Your attitude is controllable.  Dismiss as absurd that there is a panel of experts ready to shred your book.  They don’t exist. They’re not relevant.  Ignore them.

Do the research.  It doesn’t open telling details.  It’s a springboard to the imagination

Some tips:

For the rhythm and vocabulary of the time, read the plays written in the time period to see how people speak  buzz words, ways of talking.

For the emotional life of the period, read the poetry of the period

To the reader- dramatic reading, to give the context.  it’s the compact with  the reader, if you have a obscure time period, give an active explanation to tell them what they need to know.

Put your character in peril!

Process-

When handling all the different elements, break down the process, simply because it’s easy to be overwhelmed.  Novel writing is like mountain climbing. First ascent should be as free form as possible.  Writing the novel will give you more ideas for the novel.

Psychology of time-

Different psychology is evident in different periods.  People’s beliefs and attitudes of the time aren’t necessarily the same.  Don’t put anachronistic things into period character’s mouths, but your readers are modern.  Shakespeare still relevant because at their core the stories are about people.  People don’t change.

Plausible for the time and the people.  Address details in subsequent drafts if they seem anachronistic.  Balance it out: take the character on a journey so a modern change happens logically.  Emotions don’t change.  We still have primal emotions.

Should you go visit the place where your story is set?

How you arrive there is tricky.  Even if you visit the place where your story is set, it won’t be the same.  Go if you can, though.  If you go, there are very different atmospheres to absorb.  There are sounds and scents.  Engage your senses.  If you can’t go, it’s trickier, but we have a modern world with amazing things on the internet.

Use an Aide memoire while you’re there, or heck, write a whole scene.  Make notes, record your feelings, and then months later you’ll be able to pull it out and put it into the story.

Readers who love historical fiction are after characters, but also time and place.  Pay attention to how time and place has changed.   Consider what is the same?

The goal is an intimate epic.

If you feel you want to abandon the book you’re writing for another project, are you being distracted by something shiny bright and new- or just stuck?  If you can’t go on, that’s fair, but don’t be distracted just to avoid doing the hard work.  You will get to places when you just need to plough through.

Writing dialogue- balance ye olde English with clearly understandable writing.  Personally, you’ve got to be a little careful with it, but not so much that you restrict your character’s voice.  Let them say whatever you want in the first draft.  Slang is just ways we’ve come to get the point across.  Find something they can say in 1692.  Cussing can be a problem – soldiers need a certain saltiness – something analogous to the act of sex, but do the terms bring you out of the time period?  Make a choice for your reader.

Recommended reading for finding vocabularly: Shakespeare’s  Glossary of words by David Crystal

The further back you go in time, the easier it is, especially if it’s a foreign tongue.  Find an equivalent phrase to create a reasonably easy way for your characters to speak.  Make them more articulate than normal people on the street, though many were well educated.  In novels- it’s about style, right.  Find the truth in the character and then the character will speak truthfully.  Be sure you offer readability for the modern reader, while honouring the age you’re writing about.

Consider the marketing line in one sentence: e.g.  “Elizabethan spy novel.”   They expect your character to be unexpected.  It’s all about exploration, pushing the boundaries!

e.g. Jack Absolute:- Double O 7 of the 1770s

The reader can figure out the words you use.  They’re not stupid.

Audience member: Or you can do what Diana Gabaldon did and write a book that explains the first 4 books.

Chris: But that’s Diana you see.  She doesn’t sleep.

 

author take aways video October 28, 2012

Filed under: Writing — Shawn L. Bird @ 8:29 am
Tags: , , ,

After the Surrey International Writers Conference, while people were packing up, Michele asked writers what they were taking away from the event.  I am in the video at 4:41 after ‘noted author Sam Sykes,’ who is apparently stunned at being groped by an old lady.  For the record: it wasn’t me.

.

 

Pilgrimage to Fluevog Gastown October 27, 2012

I discovered Vancouver’s Fluevog shoes just in the last year or so, and ever since I have been developing a collection of gorgeous shoes.  Fluevogs are very well made, beautifully designed, unique and interesting shoes.  I’m discovering that there is definitely a Fluevogian attitude that celebrates creativity.  People who wear ‘Vogs are people I enjoy meeting.

I have purchased all my ‘Vogs online, either through www.fluevog.com or eBay, but I dreamed of the day that I would be able to make a pilgrimage to the flagship, original store in Gastown.

When I went to Surrey for SIWC2012, I took the opportunity.  I parked Sheila the Bug at the hotel, and took the bus and Skytrain into Gastown.  55 minutes X 2 trips in order to spend a few minutes in a store that had originally been a car park.  It’s all glass front and roof, and log slices artfully display the most brilliant shoes on the planet in the abundant natural light.

Red and purple Fluevog K2s

I had two shoe styles that I wanted to try on.  The first was  the new Elizabeths with the ball and claw heel that mimics Chippendale style furniture.  So cool!  Unfortunately, the Elizabeths rubbed in a bad place, so I will have to wait for future shoes coming out with this amazing heel.

The second shoes were the K2s.  I have worn similar shoes (in boring black) and had them until they fell apart. I know Oxfords are a great, every day style shoe for me.  The K2s were a perfect fit, soft leather, fun vibrant colour combination, great heel height, and eye-catching, as well.  My kind of shoe!  They were an easy, “Yes!” and into the lovely paper bag they went.

After my shoe purchase, I headed across the road to The Coffee Bar to have dinner with Citieguy Paul Schellenberg who is a local impresario.  Paul and I were Rotary Exchange students together years ago.  He went to Belgium when I went to Finland.  It’s been quite a few years, and it’s fun to see where we’ve taken the skills we developed as exchange students!  It turns out that The Coffee Bar is a favourite haunt of my son, who works for 49th Parallel Roasteries,  which supplies the coffee that is served there.  The cashier raved about how wonderful my son is, and  I told them to tell him that they’d met his mother. <g>  Nothing like embarrassing your kid, right?

The visit with Paul was all too short, because I had a big night ahead of me!  The lovely Fluevog paper bag dissolved on the way back to the hotel, in the humidity of  the miserable rain, but nothing could wash away my enthusiasm!  I put my new shoes onto my feet and headed off to Chapters at Strawberry Hill to meet authors JJ Lee, Michael Slade, CC Humphreys, Mary Balogh, Jack Whyte, and Diana Gabaldon.

Like the finance minister wearing new shoes to present a new budget, my new Fluevogs set the tone for a weekend of creativity, exhuberance, and promise.  I was introduced to a lot of wonderful people who had to stop to ask me about my various shoes.  I wore Fluevog Bellevue Pearl Harts to the 1920s dinner for perfect vintage style.  My Fluevog Ice Blue Macchiatos made the SIWC Facebook page, and at dinner one evening, I was asked to come meet a table of ladies all wearing unique Fluevog shoes. Author CC Humphreys complimented my shoes, and pointed out that he, too, was weaving ‘Vogs!  The people at SIWC are clearly MY PEOPLE! <g>

Of course, besides helping to meet amazing new people, the best thing about having distinctive shoes, is that whenever I wear these awesome K2s, I will remember that I was wearing them when I met my favourite author, Diana Gabaldon!  <g>  It will remind me of her writing advice and generous spirit.

Creative shoes.  Creative people.  Creative spirit.  Creative life.

 

What else did you do at SIWC? October 26, 2012

Aside from the pitch and blue pencil time, The Surrey International Writers’ Conference offers an amazing variety of workshops and keynote addresses.  As a teacher, I love learning, and it was wonderful to learn from the following:

Friday Keynote by Jane Espenson– screenwriter of Buffy, Husbands, Once Upon a Time, etc.  She’s very funny and inspired us with the tale of achieving her dream to be a writer.  Our words have power: “SO SAY WE ALL!”

How to Be a Well Paid Blogger by Carol Tice.  In the next few months, you’ll see some changes to my blog, and many of them will be because of this rather astonishing workshop.

What to do with the Back story by Diana Gabaldon.  This workshop focused on how to subtly introduce elements of back story without stopping the action of the story.  To be honest, my favorite part of this workshop was when I raised my hand to ask a question, and Diana called on me by name.  <g>  In my blue pencil, we referenced things covered in this workshop, so I have specific things to remember…

Diving Into the Past a panel of historical fiction writers including CC Humphreys, Mary Balogh, Anne Perry, Jack Whyte, and in the audience, Diana Gabaldon who contributed now and then to the discussion when asked.  I was pitching to an agent during part of this session, and missed half of this panel.  The biggest tip I took from this was that you can research forever and never start writing.  Research enough to get going, and then write!  Don’t stop the fluency of writing to research, stick a question in square brackets and keep going.  Later, after the first draft is done, you can go back and figure out what you needed to know.

Keynote speaker for Friday night was Robert Sawyer who told us not to track trends and figure out what’s hot.  Rather, we should figure out our story and speak to the world the things we have to say, because we became writers to tell our own stories.   We have to trust others will love what we love.

The Night Owl event was Shock Theatre 5 with Michael Slade narrating a radio play mash up of classic horror stories, voiced by Jack Whyte, Anne Perry, Diana Gabaldon, Sam Sykes, with folly work by KC Dyer and a special appearance by CC Humphreys.  It was hilariously bad.

Saturday morning J. J. Lee gave an emotional keynote that had the crowd teary eyed and on its feet.  We write magic.

I missed the first session of workshops waiting in line for 70 minutes to see about getting a second agent appointment.  When I finally reached the front of the line it was 11:30 and I had to fly into the room to meet with Diana Gabaldon for my blue pencil.  I was so close to missing my appointment, I nearly had an apoplexy.

Taking Control, Advanced Social Media with Sean Cranbury was interesting.  His focus is essentially the anti-thesis of Carol Tice’s.  He believes in free sharing of information and celebration of the arts of joyful community.  However, he had a lot of good ideas about layout and professional presentation.  These will be reflected in some up coming changes to this blog.

History: Riding the Wave with CC Humphreys.  Poor Chris was feeling quite ill, but he was enthusiastic and had lots of interesting stories to tell about writing and researching A Place Called Armageddon, his latest book.  Chris and I had a mutual Fluevog admiration society going on throughout this conference.

The keynote on Saturday evening was Susanna Kearsley with whom I’d been speaking during the book fair, trying to place ‘where do I know your name.’  She had no suggestions, but when she was called up to do the keynote I had a face palm moment. So embarrassing.

There was a Night Owl movie event, but I was too tired at this stage.  My plan was to go back to my hotel for an early night, but in the end, I sat in the lobby chatting with Val King and Randy McCharles of Calgary instead.

Sunday morning, I was very slow moving.  I was a bit late for the morning key note by Diana Gabaldon who spoke about something moving and amusing, but I’ve completely forgotten the details.

Luckily Ursula recorded it, and here is every word!

.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhgHPPMuMNs

.

I missed the first workshop session standing in line to  book and then having another agent pitch appointment.

My final workshop was Rhythm of the Word by Sam Sykes who showed how prose can be empowered by playing with rhythm in structure and dialogue.

Jack Whyte and me at the 1920s themed Banquet at SIWC2012

The final keynote was by New York agent Donald Maass.  He declared this a time of positive change and growth in publishing, and challenged us to use our words to write works that will CHANGE THE WORLD!

We had something to do every day from about 8:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m.  Every meal we sat with other writers, agents, publishers, or editors discussing projects, life, and writing.  There were 700 like minded souls sitting down to dine each meal, and just that was completely brilliant.  I loved sitting with new people each day and discovering new things!  It felt like ‘home’ in the most amazing way.  It was wonderful meeting authors I love, getting my photograph taken with JJ Lee, Diana Gabaldon, Anne Perry, and Jack Whyte.  Last time I attended SIWC I was too shy to approach any pros for photos.  It’s fun being able to put up photos in my class room.  Next time, I will take more photos of the people I mix and mingle with, so I’ll have “I knew them when!” photos! 🙂

 

magicians’ secrets October 23, 2012

I was driving home last night, listening to my audio book  (A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon), and as the story went along I was thinking, “Oh.  There she goes again, neatly fitting in a piece of back story.  That was subtly done!”  The thought must have happened at least a dozen times.

I’m on my 9th re-read (print and audio) of this particular book within this calendar year.  I’ve seen all these lines before.  I knew what she was doing the previous 8 reads, but now, having come out of a workshop  where she discussed this technique and the careful process of fitting in these references to events from earlier books, and having her comments in my blue pencil session fresh in my mind, I can hear her voice echoing along with narrator Davina Porter’s.

It’s like the end of Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

It makes it harder to read books merely for enjoyment, when you very consciously catch sight of the technique.  I suspect it also makes one pickier as a reader, since you have less tolerance for poorly executed technique.

Hopefully, it makes you a better writer, though.  You grow in knowledge.  Not just intuitive awareness, but conscious knowledge of an executed skill that must be mastered to be an effective writer.

 

suicidal raccoons & automotive carnage October 22, 2012

Filed under: anecdotes — Shawn L. Bird @ 11:51 am
Tags: , ,

After a blissful and inspiring weekend at the Surrey International Writing Conference, I was driving home, listening to Davina Porter narrating the audio book of A Breath of Snow and Ashes, breaking into giggles every once in a while recalling conversations or events at the conference, pondering a workshop I thought I should propose for next year’s conference, and generally minding my own business on the highway, when out of the blue a suicidal raccoon strolled onto Highway #1 directly in front of Sheila the Bug.

I hit the brakes.  He hit his brakes. He stared me down.  Sheila the Bug had been coasting along at 90 km/hr.  If Ranger Rick had decided to keep moving, either forward or back, he would have been fine, but his death wish was strong.

If I’d swirved at that speed and distance I would have rolled Sheila, and I was on a mountain with a long cliff to the lake below me.

Ranger Rick was going to die.

He hit Sheila the Bug. There was a loud thump of collision, and several smaller thunks and bumps as he travelled beneath the car.  I sighed regretfully.  I have never hit a creature before, beyond birds which flew into me.  I was imagining the carnage beneath my vehicle: blood, guts, fur.

Suddenly my temperature gauge light came on, then it started flashing madly.  I was entering a small town 30 mins from home.  I pulled into the empty mall, parked beneath a light and looked beneath.

There was no raccoon carnage whatsoever.

Instead, there was automotive carnage.  The bumper was smashed in half, something black and important looking was missing on one side, the radiator had a dint in it.  Pale, glistening autoblood was streaming from radiator.

Damn raccoon.

I phoned my knight in shining armour, and he rode up on his trusty Honda steed and rescued me, tow truck following behind.  When I called ICBC to report the damage, the operator said, “Wow.  That must have been a huge raccoon!”

I have to say, I was stunned at the revenge extracted by that striped bandit.  Not content to kill himself, he had to take out poor Sheila!

Sheila the Bug will be in the car hospital for quite some time.  No doubt Ranger Rick is lying in wait for the next unsuspecting VW Beetle!

Plainly, I should just have stayed in Surrey with all those wonderful writerly people.

 

Diana Gabaldon said to me… October 20, 2012

The green shoulder is mine. I’m cropped out because I look like a troll in this shot! lol Diana does not seem to be able to take a bad photo! Check out her funky turquoise nails!

Today I had a blue pencil appointment with Diana Gabaldon at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference.  A blue pencil is 15 minutes of time in front of a professional author, who reads a very short selection of your work, and provides some general feedback.

I knew I’d be completely starstruck, so I asked her a month ago via Facebook if it’d be okay if I recorded the conversation, and she was fine with that.

I arrived into the empty seat in front of her desk in a flurry because I’d been in a line and lost track of the time, so I was nearly late for my appointment (and we’re not going to even discuss what a trauma that would have been after counting down, sometimes by the hour, for 135 days!).  I pulled out my scene, which is a very early, poorly cobbled together start to Grace Beguiling, which is/will be a historical/fantasy novel set in 14th century France.  The scene is 6 pages, which is way too long for a blue pencil, so I’d highlighted parts I particularly wanted her feedback on.  She just smiled, said that she was a fast reader, and zipped through the whole thing, laughing out loud in places, and making corrections of typos.  It is very cool to have your favourite author laughing out loud while reading your writing.  It’s a little embarrassing to have your favourite author correcting your typos.

When she was finished reading, I turned my iPhone’s memo recorder on and recorded her observations, suggestions, and reminders.

The part I most wanted to know about (and had spent months researching) she dismissed with a wave as, “Fine.”  We had some discussion about language choice in historical work and development and structuring of a ‘very beginning’ where there needs to be some action to grab the reader and the story must be established right away.  I am so glad I have that recording to remind me of my focus.  Grace Beguiling offers a number of stylistic challenges, and she’s helped me think about how I’m going to solve them.  There was nothing earth shattering, just common sense reiteration of basic principles.  It’s good to hear those words from someone whose knowledge you trust implicitly.  “Remember that…”  Oh right.  I know that.

Do it.

I wish the piece I’d brought wasn’t quite so rough, but it was a worthwhile endeavour.  One quote is going to be artistically rendered and put above my writing desk.

My favourite author, Diana Gabaldon said to me, “You know how to tell a story.”  That will keep me inspired for a very long time.

 

 
%d bloggers like this: