Sunday, March 17, 2013

From my earliest childhood, our town library was one of my favorite haunts.  I spent many happy hours there, reading everything from Walter Farley's novels to Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man.  As I got older and began working on my degrees, I continued my love affair with libraries.  Some folks may have found the dim aisles of the stacks oppressive and lonely, but to me it was home.

When I began writing Isabelle's Confession, I soon realized that more research was in order.  Luckily for me, King County has a fantastic library system.  What they didn't own personally, they'd happily get for me through interlibrary loan, which was good because I needed detailed information on fourteenth century English weapons, clothing, food, housing, holidays, pastimes--innumerable details that make a historical novel fascinating and its characters more real.  I bought a few books, but most I borrowed from the library.  For the most part I avoided the Web, not trusting its reliability. 

I also had to be careful not to commit anachronisms.  I often turned to my big dictionary (both French and English) to see when words came into use.  I had a tough time deciding whether or not to use "explode," for example.  Words like "second" or "minute" were easier to avoid once I got into the mindset, although I did find a few had slipped in when doing a final read-through.  I was recently reading The Robe, and was annoyed to see that the author had left in a reference to alligators in his first-century story--a New World animal not known by Europeans at the time.  It may be nit-picky of me, but it interferes with my suspension of disbelief.  I suppose that's why I don't read much historical fiction.  I prefer to read biographies and books on history because I know their authors have done their homework (usually).  If I get into a book and find it doesn't meet my expectations I stop reading it.  Life's too short to read junk.

Next up: trying to find time enough and tranquility to write.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

All Beginnings are hard. . . . And sometimes I add what I have learned on my own: "Especially a beginning that you make for yourself. That's the hardest beginning of all." Chaim Potok

Once I had decided to write a novel I ran into the first great challenge:  format.  What point of view should I choose?  First person, third person?  How many characters? How on earth did I create character?  And narration?  I had already written the introduction--it had pretty much written itself one afternoon while we were camping at Mount Rainier--but I spent an inordinate amount of time simply thinking about what I wanted to do and where I thought the story should go because I was essentially learning on the job.  I didn't consider myself a writer by any stretch of the imagination.  Sure, I had written a few short stories and some poetry--I had even had a poem or two published in Seventeen magazine when I was in high school--but it had been literally decades since I had written anything other than lit analysis type papers for grad school, and fiction is an entirely different animal.

As it turned out, I had the solution in the introduction.  I would use the premise of editing a medieval manuscript (something I already knew a lot about from my dissertation) and write in first person, from Isabelle's point of view.  After all, the big question for me was, what happened in Isabelle's life to make her veer so far off medieval society's prescribed course for a woman?  I knew the facts, sketchy as they were, of her life, but surely there was more to the story than that.  I got into a pattern of looking at the facts, then thinking about what the characters would have done or said either to create that situation or in reaction to it.  On my best days, the characters took shape and wandered around my mind, talking and acting as if in a dream or a movie.  Many times I would try and work out a scene before bed only to have the characters pop up and run the scene in my head without any conscious thought or effort from me.  All I had to do was be their scribe.  I scrawled many pages by the light of the moon so as not to awaken Patient Husband.

The next stumbling block occurred about forty pages in, when I had a major scene occur within the context of a joust.  Luckily for me, I knew just what I needed to do.  I picked up my library card.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Another Luddite joins the Digital Age

My husband-the-programmer-and-perennial-gadget-lover has called me a Luddite for a long time.  For the non-historian, Luddite refers to the textile workers who were thrown out of work by the invention of machine-driven looms and other devices who violently protested this type of "progress."  Yes, I use a computer all day for work and play, but I don't have a smart phone, my iPod lives on its speaker in my office, and, until today, I never thought about blogging. 

But here we are.  As suggested by my blog's title, I plan to talk about my writing.  I currently have a finished novel that is being shopped around in search of an agent.  It's historical fiction, set in 14th century England during the reign of Edward II.  Isabelle's Confession is the story of his wife.  I first came across her story while I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation, which was an edition and translation of the Anglo-Norman Prose 'Brut,' which is a 14th century manuscript history of England.  At the time I remember thinking, "Hm, that's different," but with a new baby and a thesis to finish she dropped off my radar until Patient Husband and I went to see Braveheart.  Isabelle plays a major (and entirely fictional) role in that film.  When I sketched out the reality to him, PH agreed that truth was stranger and more interesting than fiction, and the spark was struck.

For a long time I wanted to write a scholarly biography of Isabelle, but lacking the time and financial means to travel to Europe to research primary sources I began thinking of how to tell her story in a fictional framework.  I began writing and researching in 2002.  Eight years (yeah, yeah...I work full time) and 177,000 words later, I finished it.  Hopefully soon Isabelle will see the light of day to delight many readers who are aficionados of history, the medieval period, and strong female characters.  She really is one of a kind.