Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On-Line Book Tours--Pump Up Your Book!

Everything is changing for authors these days when it comes to promoting books, especially for those using small presses or self publishing. We hear a lot of talk about the best ways to get the word out about your novel. Use social media, create newsletters, talk with your local bookstores and libraries--these are all good ways for readers to learn about your work.

Another way to promote your latest manuscript is by going on a book tour.

That phrase makes me think about traveling from state to state and sitting inside bookstores waiting for someone to come and look at my book. Or in an ideal world, there is a long line of customers eager to breathe the same air that I do as they await my signature on the inside of the novel.

Of course, for many authors that kind of book tour isn't quite in our league yet. So how else can a little known author use a book tour to promote themselves?

Try an online or "virtual" book tour! There are many companies on the internet that promote this very thing. It basically works like the traditional tour, only you can do it all from the comfort of your bedroom, workroom, or wherever! This is an excellent way to get in touch with readers from all over the globe and expand the scope of your work.

How does it work?

Well, it depends on what you pay for and each promotion company offers several different packages to choose from. Let's say you pay for a month. You might get several interviews or blog opportunities on various websites per week, in addition to reviews of your book. In a month's time, this kind of exposure can really help you see a spike in sales. Typically, the book promoter makes sure these blogs, reviewers, and interviewers are on sites that have something to do with your book (like genre) or reach out to your target audience.

Is it affordable? I think so. They almost have to be in order to attract authors! I've seen various prices at different on line book tour sites. My advice would be to check them out before you pay your money. Ask yourself the basic questions: What has the feedback been like from other authors? Are you getting a lot of opportunities to talk about your book and yourself?

I used Pump Up Your Book promotions a few months ago for my novel, Nephilim. My publisher is a great person, but when it comes to promotions, she encourages authors to do that on their own. Enter Dorothy Thompson at Pump Up Your Book. I had 8 reviews of the book and was featured as a guest author every day of the week at various websites during the month that I used her company. Amazing! She secured everything for me which was really nice and I didn't have to do anything but write a few blogs or answer interview questions. I would use Pump Up Your Book again in a heart beat!

What about you? Have your tried an on line book tour? What were the results?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Writing topics: TWIST ENDINGS

Does anyone remember O. Henry? I hope so, because he’s one of my favorites. I have his complete works and read them over and over. He’s the master of the twist ending.

If a story is predictable, it’s boring. If I can tell how everything is going to end up when I’m less than half way through, is there any point in finishing reading it?

The same goes for the stories I write. Of course, with a noir story, you know the ending is not going to be rosy, and for a more traditional mystery, the world will end up all right with justice done and evil doers punished. But beyond that, the ending shouldn’t be obvious.

How to avoid writing a story with an obvious, boring ending? I think this is rather easy. Think the story out to the logical, predictable, boring ending. Then don’t use that. Figure out another way for things to end up. Take a different path.

If I can guide the reader toward the first boring ending, then steer them toward the surprise—then spring a completely new ending on them, I’m a happy writer.

Here’s an example.

Elderly woman is killed. Her will leaves everything to her wayward nephew. So he’s the obvious culprit, and I should set up clues pointing to him. Meanwhile, his girlfriend has been introduced. Even though the clues lead to the nephew, the girlfriend is a possibility. She might want the old woman dead so the nephew can get the inheritance and spend more money on her. Maybe she killed the woman.

But the reader has met another character, the brother of the girlfriend. But it turns out he’s not her brother at all, but her lover. They were both leading the nephew on, knowing his aunt had money. The brother/lover is the real killer, and has set up the meeting between the girlfriend and the nephew. Not only that, but this charming pair has done this before, at least twice! They’ve set up the murder to incriminate the nephew, who has made out a will to the girlfriend. Maybe he even gets murdered himself. When the old cases surface, you have the culprits and the solution to the killing.

This kind of stuff makes writing fun!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Another Con, come and gone

I spent the weekend in All Con Dallas. Honestly, even now, I’m not sure what the Con was about. It had neither “gaming” nor “comic” nor “Sci Fi” nor “writing” anywhere in the title. Instead, it had the word “All” in the title, which I’m assuming meant everything was allowed. It certainly seemed that way.

The camps seemed clearly delineated. Anime characters with blue and yellow spiked hair dodged stormtroopers checking people for illicit droids. Superheroes snapped pictures with steampunks, and steampunks fought light sabers with stylish canes. Trekkies (not Trekkers) walked with both Aliens and Predators, Dr. Who #8 chatted up Dr. Who #4, and blood soaked zombies were out in force.

While this might not be your crowd, it was my crowd. I sell steampunk gaming books, a zombie novel, and of course the every famous and popular All Things Dark and Dastardly. OK sure I also sell steampunk gear, “Drink Me” bottles and vampire hunting kits, but that doesn’t relate to this blog.

What DOES relate to this blog is this. I chatted up the books to everyone who passed by, recited my spiel so many times the guy in the booth next to me memorized it and did it for me when I was gone, and I passed out cards, lots and lots of cards. From this I am certain of two things.

Truth #1: You must have a spiel, a blurb, an elevator length pitch to give to people as they walk by. The cover of the books caught many a con-goer’s eye, but every time, they lit up with the pitch, and the pitch is what sold it. It was quick, catchy, and easy enough to memorize that the people around me learned it by osmosis. Test your pitch and watch their faces when you say it. Keep what makes them smile, ditch what makes them look bored. Refine it and practice it with everyone who walks by. This is good practice not only for selling your book to customers, but also to selling your book to agents.

Truth #2: Sales aren’t necessarily over when you go home. I had a spike on Amazon the night after the con of additional sales. Not a huge spike, but twice what I did last month. I couldn’t tell you if the cards, the pitches, or the postcards I handed out did the trick, but something did.

And by the way, I wasn’t kidding about steampunks fighting light sabers with canes. You know me better than that...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Review--Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Last week you may have noticed that I didn't post my weekly Wednesday blog at All Things Writing. I took a brief vacation due to Spring Break and spent a great deal of time reading dirty novels and catching up on Season 1 of Being Human. However, not every novel I read was complete trash. I present for your consideration the following title:

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

OH YEAH! You read that correctly. At last, the secret diaries of President Lincoln are revealed and history buffs every where can learn about the true cause of the Civil War. Written by Seth Grahame-Smith, the diaries explain that Abraham Lincoln was more than just a country lawyer from humble roots: he was a vampire hunter with one bad axe. At the age of nine, Abe witnesses the death of his mother at the hands of a bloodsucker. It is an event sends him on a dark road of vengeance. Eventually, he is befriended by Henry, a vampire with connections, who teaches him how to fight. As Abe ages, Henry sends him on the occasional errand to get rid of an enemy vamp. Along the way, Abe begins to realize the deep ties that vampires and slavery have to each other (who knew?), which eventually prompts the Civil War.

Grahame-Smith does a clever job of mashing up history with fiction. I wouldn't say that this is as strong a piece for me as his mashup of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was, but I still enjoyed the ride. The language is fast paced and has the "historical" biography feel without being too heavy handed. I know that some people are offended by the idea of one of our most beloved presidents being portrayed this way, but personally, I think it worked. I was amused by many of the things that occurred within the novel, though I wouldn't describe this as a comedy. Indeed, at times, it is graphic and disturbing with its imagery.

The only thing that disappointed me was the end. Don't worry. I won't spoil it by telling you that Lincoln gets shot. Ooops.....

Anyway, check out Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter if you get chance. Already read it? Weigh in with your thoughts! 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Writing topics: CHARACTERS

I can't count the number of people who have asked me, "Where do your characters come from?" The answer is, "They come from my head." Since that's true, they all have their genesis in what's been put inside my head. But that includes everything I've seen, heard, or read in my life. Since things go in there and mush around a bit before they come out, there's no way of telling which inputs fostered which outputs. (Sorry, slipping into programmer mode--I'll try not to do that again.)

Okay, that's where they come from, my subconscious. But what's the best way to treat them once they pop out?

I'm the happiest when a character stems from a name. Therefore I collect names. If I hear a good one on a TV game show, I write it down. If I see an interesting one on a nametag, same. I get them from billboards, phone books, my spam files, and sometimes from actual face to face people. A name that isn't quite working can be improved by changing one or two letters, sometimes, not always.

But if my character has completely the wrong name, the guy won't do anything. He'll lie on the page like a slug. He won't look like anything, he'll never perform an original action--he's dull. I once had one like that who was supposed to be the romantic interest. Ugh. No one could be interested in that dud. But I searched around inside my mind and found a much better name. VoilĂ ! He came to life! Now my main character could work up some feelings for him.

One thing that bugs me in some of the books I read is character names that confuse me. If the author does nothing to distinguish them from each other, after only an initial description, I don't even bother to remember who is who. In an attempt to avoid annoying my readers like that, I put each character's name, first and last, on a spreadsheet and alphabetize them. If I can manage it, I don't have any characters with the same first initial. I think it help to vary the number of syllables, too. It's hard to tell Pete from Dick from John, or Mary from Jane from Beth, because they're all four-letter names of one syllable. Boring, bland, and indistinguishable.

I'd like to hear any other writing tricks for creating characters. Also if, as a reader, characters bother or annoy you, can you say why? Is it the way they've been created? Or just the way they're acting? Sometimes that can't be helped. They have to live up to their names.

All illustrations in public domain from commons wikimedia.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Guest Blogger Laura Roberts: How To Write a Novel in 3 Days

Yes, you read that title correctly! Today's skilled author is the delightful Laura Roberts who explains how to write in a novel in three days. If you are a NaNoWriMo expert, than this might just be the new challenge you've been looking for!  Thanks for being with us, Laura.

How to Write a Novel in Just 3 Days: It's Easier Than You Think

by Laura Roberts

My name is Laura Roberts, and I wrote an entire novel in just three days. No, I'm not crazy. Yes, it was for a contest (the 3-Day Novel Contest, held annually by a bunch of crazy Canucks over Labor Day weekend). And yes, you can do it too.

Writing a novel in three days is a pastime for people who think NaNoWriMo is for slackers. It's not for the faint of heart, or for the newbie novelist. If you don't know what the hell you're doing, it'll just be a painful exercise in futility. But for those of you who love to write, who've done NaNoWriMo and felt pretty good about your efforts, and who need something a little more amped, the three-day novel is just the ticket.

Okay, so let's say you've picked up the gauntlet I've just thrown down. How does a mild-mannered writer go from scratching about for words to a full-fledged, hardcore novelist in just three days? Genre fiction, my friend. Love it or hate it, you'll need to embrace a few particular forms in order to get this cake baked.

Let's talk action/adventure. Let's talk quests. Let's talk heros and heroines overcoming impossible odds, obstacles and villains with absurdly over-the-top weapons or criminal minds. This is no time for realism or painting with words; this is a time for a flat-out freak show of ideas thrown together and hoping that with enough gum and varnish and spit it'll all hold together.

The supposed inventor of the three-day novel writing “formula,” as it were, is a cat by the name of Michael Moorcock. If you're into science fiction, you've undoubtedly heard of him. If you're not, look him up. You'll find he's ridiculously prolific, and he has genre writing down colder than an ice floe in Antarctica.

He also lives in Bastrop, last I heard, so if you want to beat a trail to his door and beg him for more tips, get on Google and get digging.

In any case, to create a novel in three days you should always ask yourself “What would Michael Moorcock do?” The answer is invariably: heap more trouble upon your main character, and see how she deals with it.

To break it down further, have an event (that is, an actual action) happening every four pages to keep the story moving forward. Think about the time frame of your story. If you've only got three days to save the world, how will you do it? What about three hours? Keep on ticking the clock forward until D-Day is here and you've got your plot.

Always include a sidekick. This guy or gal will be the yin to your hero's yang, the cut-up when the mood is tense, or the one to scream when things get scary. He can ask the obvious questions any smart reader will be asking, and the hero can heroically answer  with properly heroic answers. The sidekick is your foil, and this person will help you whenever you're stuck by prodding the hero for details, whining about how hard it is trying to save the world, or making an idiot of him or herself.

Additionally, feel free to use stock characters! You don't have to re-invent the wheel here; you're just trying to get 'er done. Grab a pirate, a ninja, a harlequin or a hag—whatever floats your boat. Give them something to say or do that throws everybody off and makes them take notice. Keep the action moving. Moorcock recommends using Commedia Dell'Arte character types, which include lovers, rogues, dwarves, thieves and freaks of all kinds. Look them up, pick a few you like and use them as necessary.

Compose your work in four acts. Each act ups the ante, introducing more and more insurmountable odds and obstacles, until the final act where your hero comes through in a pinch to save the day. Clear up the mystery, settle the score, give the reader a final twist to surprise them, and end on a punchline that can parlay into your sequel.

There's always a sequel.

How do you write a novel in just three days? Easy. Now all you've got to do is fire up the typing machine and get to it.

Laura Roberts is the author of Rebels of the 512, a novel written in just three days using this very method. You can find her book online at Amazon and Smashwords, or read more of her work at

Monday, March 12, 2012

Writing topics: DIALOG

I know it's possible to write a whole story, even a whole novel, without dialog, but I'm not skilled enough to do it. I'm sure my readers would fall asleep before too long. First of all, what is dialog?

Fred Astaire & Jane Powell in Royal Wedding
My Webster's Ninth defines the word as :

(1) written composition in which two or more characters are represented as conversing [[It's that "or more" that'll get you when you're writing it. ]]

(2) (a) a conversation between two or more persons; also: a similar exchange between a person and something else (as a computer)[[Does this mean I'm actually having a dialog and not writing a blog post?]]
(b) an exchange or ideas and opinions [[but probably not with a computer this time]]

(3) the conversational element of literary or dramatic composition [[maybe this is what we do in fiction]]

(4) a musical composition for two or more parts suggestive of a conversation

And how do you spell it? My dictionary also has two spellings, dialogue and dialog, and puts the longer one first, but life's too short to be typing a lot of extra letters, that's what I think.

Now, let's get down to how to do it, as a writer. The mechanics are simple: a new paragraph for each new speaker. Put the action of the speaker with his speech. For instance, don't write something like the following.

Harry came up the sidewalk. "Who's there?" called Mildred.

She wiped her hands on her apron and went to the door.

Give Mildred a new para and tack her action on behind her speech.

Secondly, Mildred is a down-home kind gal, so she's not gonna say

"Who is there?"

Nope, she's gonna say what she said up above.

Harry, though, is a Harvard man, third generation lawyer, and he'll answer:

"It is I, Harrison Ford Edsel Pinky the third."

So, when he gets into the living room, you won't really need to tell the readers which one is speaking. They'll know by the diction and word choices.

Talk of Clowns by Christian Rohlfs
However, thirdly, if two people have been batting ideas around for several lines, help the readers out and stick a tag on every fourth or fifth line at least, just in case they've lost track of which one is the down-home gal and which one is the Harvard lawyer.

Fourth, it is generally frowned upon in recent times to use tags other than "said". I don't mind a few, especially "shout" and "ask" and such. But a whole bunch of inventive tags get in the way of the story. Try reading this and thinking about what's going on.

"What in the blue blazes did you think, woman?" expressed Harry.

"Well, now, I don't know what in tarnation y'all are goin' on about," Mildred simpered.

"It is fairly obvious that you were present at the time the crime was being committed," Harry accused.

"Who says so?" Mildred argued.

"A minimum of six eye witnesses," Harry huffed.

Fifth, the other modern no-no (because the inventive tags as well as this following no-no were liberally used in non-modern times) is adverbs with the tabs. There's a name for them, Tom Swifties. Tom Swift, the innocent whom these are named after, was an intrepid boy scientist and hero of many books. The author(s) got tired of writing "he said" and "she said" and liked to mix it up, not only with "he cried" and "she stammered", but with adverbs so the reader would know exactly how the line was delivered.

Here's an example from wikipedia:

"Oh, I'm not a professor," he said quickly. "I'm a professional balloonist, parachute jumper. Give exhibitions at county fairs. Leap for life, and all that sort of thing. I guess you mean my friend. He's smart enough for a professor. Invented a lot of things. How much is the damage?"

"No professor?" cried Miss Perkman indignantly. "Why I understood from Miss Nestor that she called some one professor."

One such line was unintentionally hilarious, spoken by Tom Swift:

Tom Swift cover
We must hurry," said Tom Swiftly.

The puns/adverb became known as a "Tom Swifty" and contests are conducted to see who can concoct the funniest ones. For instance:

  • "I'll have a martini," said Tom, drily.
  • "Who left the toilet seat down?" Tom asked peevishly.
  • "Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.
Because of the overuse of adverbs with dialog tags (I guess that's what to blame it on), they are not used unless necessary, and then sparingly.

A Nautical Argument by Charles Napier
Sixthly, if you are conducting a conversation with more than two people, you'll have to use more tags than with just two. It's too confusing for the readers if you go on and on without saying who's speaking.

And seventh and last, a whole page of witty repartee is okay occasionally, but in general you should break the dialog up with something else every fourth or fifth line. It's best if this is not an empty action. Better if it says something about the character or gives the readers some information they need.

Do you have other dialog "rules"
I took my information from "Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary" and

Illustrations from Wikimedia Commons  and, all public domain.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Guest Blogger Edith Maxwell: Speaking of Murder

Today's guest is the lovely Edith Maxwell. She has quite a lot going on in her writing life and we are thrilled to have her at All Things Writing!

Thanks for asking me over, Mary Ann!

I’m excited to report that I have just a week to go until I  hear some important news. My first completed murder mystery, Speaking of Murder is a finalist in a contest. The book, set in small-town Massachusetts, features Quaker Linguistics Professor Lauren Rousseau. Listening to academic blackmail and small-town intrigues, Lauren uses her ear for accents and facility with languages to track down not only her star student's killer but also crimes committed by her department chairwoman. Lauren’s sometime-boyfriend, Zach, is a video forensics expert who lends his expertise to her efforts. It is as yet unpublished, but is out with three small presses right now on its long journey through previous agent and press rejections toward publication.

I submitted Speaking of Murder to the Linda Howard Award for Excellence contest last October. The book wasn't under contract at the time and hadn't been published, so it was eligible for this competition run by the Birmingham, Alabama chapter of Romance Writers of America (RWA). I selected the category of "Suspense: Romance-based novels that include an element of mystery or suspense." There is certainly romance, mystery, AND suspense in the book.

I didn't think much about it since then, not expecting that I would have a chance. I'm not even a member of the organization, and I don't write in a southern style. Imagine my surprise when I received the email that I am a finalist, one of only five! The organizers said that category was flooded with entrants.

The final judges are an editor at a press and a literary agent from an agency. The winners will be announced at the RWA Gulf Coast chapter's Silken Sands Conference, held in sunny Pensacola, Florida on March 17. I reluctantly decided not to spend the nearly $1000 it would cost me to fly and stay there, even though I’m sure I’ll regret that decision if I win. Keep your fingers crossed and your good-luck mojo pointed my way. If I win, maybe it will help get the book published, finally.

And if it doesn’t, well, I’m headed for becoming one of the growing number of independently published authors. I’ll sign up for Amazon’s CreateSpace and get it out there on my own.

The first book in my Local Foods Mystery series, A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die, featuring organic farmer Cam Flaherty, will be published by Kensington Publishing in Spring 2013. My short stories have appeared in Thin Ice and Riptide by Level Best Books, the Larcom Review, and the North Shore Weekly, with one forthcoming in the Fish Nets anthology and another in the Burned Bridges anthology. I have also published in local newspapers and in academic Linguistics journals.

I am active in several mystery-writers' groups that provide valuable support and information, particularly
Sisters in Crime and the New England chapter. I currently reside in Ipswich, Massachusetts, but am originally a 4th-generation Californian. I have two grown sons, and live in an antique house with my beau and our four cats. For my day job I write software documentation.

Look for me as
Edith M. Maxwell on Facebook (and click the Like button!) and @edithmaxwell on Twitter. I blog weekly at Speaking of Mystery.

Speaking of Murder only touches on the possibilities of a linguist as an amateur sleuth. We're looking forward to seeing how else Lauren might use her skills to solve crimes in the future.

How about you? Have you won a contest? Made the first cut? Found your career boosted by a nomination? I know there are a couple of the regular bloggers here who have!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Freelance: When To Let a Client Go!

In addition to my fabulous day job as a theatre teacher, I take on freelance writing assignments. These jobs add a little extra income to my writing account and help me develop my skills in new directions. I've been doing this for a year and can look back and say that I've learned a lot. I've discovered the art of the blog, the craziness of writing articles on subjects I knew nothing about, the nuance of the short "short" story, and how to deal with crazy clients.

It's that last thing I really want to touch on today. I'd like to offer some free advice for those of you putting a toe into the water of freelance writing: be choosy about who you work for. When I began my freelance work, I was intimidated by my clients. I didn't charge as much as I could have and didn't complain about some of the editing changes I was asked to make even though I disagreed with many of them.

I just did what I was told!

Like anything though, the more experience you gain, the more you start to learn the ropes. In the last few months, I've really begun to speak up if I think a client is off base, too demanding, or down right mean. Oh yes, there are mean clients out there who think it's okay to be overly critical because they are paying you. Don't get me wrong. If I'm getting paid well, I'm apt to be more careful in my responses, more willing to rewrite a story, edit an article, or if the client is right, make major changes. But when you are only getting paid $20 for a 1600 word assignment, I tend to be a little more forthcoming about my feelings when a client berates me.

Recently, I'd been working on a series of short stories that felt like a dream job when I first got hired. I liked the idea of the character I was hired to write about, as well as, the situations he would be in. I supported the client's big dreams of what these stories could mean for his website and how they might influence readers. Then I started writing the stories and that's where the trouble began. See, the client (we'll call him...Monkey Man) wanted to give me every detail of the story to the point of where I wondered why he didn't just write the damn thing himself. If I tried to give the character any type of personality, Monkey Man would tell me I was being too negative or --get this-- too imaginative. The character I was writing about was, according to him, supposed to be creative--not imaginative.

Gee. I always thought the two were linked.

The problem was that I'd really started to see a vision of this character and what his full potential could be. He could have been engaging, three dimensional, the kind of character people relate to. It just wasn't what Monkey Man wanted. Damn, my imagination! (shakes fist)

Now, if this had been my first freelance job, I would have sucked it up and just done as I was told. Much of my freelance work is done as a ghostwriter anyway. I do the writing and the client takes it and calls it their own. This time was very different though. My name was on the work. People would forever associate this set of stories with Mary Ann Loesch. That bugged me because I really hated what I was writing. I had originally thought that I could infuse my own style into the work, making it better, but it felt that every time I attempted to do so, the client shut me down. The other problem was that because he was paying me, I was obligated to write how he wanted.

After a crazy email argument where it became obvious that I would lose the moral battle over the latest story, I knew I had to make a decision. I politely told Monkey Man that we'd come to a parting of the ways. Our visions just clashed too much. He seemed genuinely surprised at this.

I understand the meaning of the phrase "artistic differences" now.

This doesn't mean that I'm always right when it comes to writing, but I've learned that I'm not always wrong either. The best advice I can offer for those dealing with a tough editor or freelance client is do not be a door mat. On the otherhand, don't be a jerk either! Consider the possibilities (even the ones where you might be wrong and the client could be right) and go with your gut.

Also, stay away from clients who tell you not to use your imagination for creative writing.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Writing topics: SETTING

I'd like to throw out some writing topics this month. I'll start with setting because that's sometimes what my stories start with (either setting or character). 

Do you ever see a wonderful old building and think--that would make a great setting? Or drive through a sort of spooky town and wonder if you could put zombies--lovers--a murder--a shootout there?

What setting you use depends so much on what genre you're writing, and what mood you're creating. A quaint artist's colony would be a good setting for a cozy mystery centered on on antique shop or tea parlor, or maybe a light romance between two artists, say a basket weaver and a glass blower. A deserted mountain cabin would make a good hideout for a crazed bomber, or, if you brought on a snowstorm, some disparate people could be stuck and isolated there for a drama of conflicting passions and personalities. Gritty, big city streets are good for stalkers or sex crimes. Maybe a police procedural or tough-guy PI character.

Of course, zombies could roam the quaint artist's colony, too, and that would be using the setting as a contrast to the theme. And a cute romance could take place in a big city despite the gritty, dirty streets.

Are you drawn to books that use particular settings? Do you like exotic locales? Homey ones? If you see a book set in San Francisco, or Rome, do you automatically grab it? Does a real place fascinate you more than a made-up one--or another planet or dimension?

One thing to remember, no matter what you use for your setting, is that it's the backdrop for your story. Everything happens within the setting. The more you can tie the setting in to what's happening, the better. If the place sets the tone, or the mood, for the story, you're ahead when the reader starts the story.

To put the reader into the setting, you have to know it intimately, whether it's real or not. If you're using an existing place you've never been, you'll have to find out about it. If you know the temperature and humidity, you'll know how the air feels, and you can then let the reader know. And you'll know what your characters should be wearing--whether they'll be sweating or having goosebumps. It's not that hard to research a new setting using the internet. You can find out when the sun rises and sets with a little searching, so you'll know when to make it get dark and light.

As a reader, I appreciate it when I know where I am right off the bat. That's not to say I like a big blocky paragraph telling me where I am with a flat, lifeless description. Much better to work it into the story--but do it soon so the reader can orient himself and know what to expect. If you're on a seashore, a mention of sand and waves will do it. Beeping horns and traffic lights will set the reader into a city.

It's easy to tell the reader what the characters are seeing of the setting. Go the extra step and tell the reader what there is to hear. If you can work in a smell (salt tang at the beach, exhaust fumes in the city) or even a taste (that's a hard one sometimes) the reader will be more "there". Lastly, if you character can touch something, and communicate the texture, the reader will have all five senses engaged. I think this is important for the first scene, or for an important one. Every scene can't include taste and touch, of course, or even smell, but it's good if some can.

Does anyone want to add some words on settings? I'm sure I haven't covered everything!

All photos are in the public domain and from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Guest Blogger Vishal Kale Discuss the Historical Fiction Genre

It's Friday and I gotta say that I love these guest bloggers. They have amazing thoughts and insights into all sorts of topics that are perfect for All Things Writing. Today is no exception. Vishal Kale is chatting with us about the historical fiction genre, a subject I love to read! Enjoy!

The Concept of the Historical Fiction Novel

A historical fiction novel is based on historical fact, is generally true to events, especially the major events; includes all principal characters and stays true to established history. The historical basis is on documented Autobiographies, third party accounts of visiting foreigners as well as other established historical documents. The fiction part comes in 2 forms - firstly, some characters are usually added to add substance and flow to the story and secondly, to set up the background.

The main pull of such novels is the presence of characters that a person has heard a lot of, read about in history books or on television – or simply in folklore. These are usually famous individuals, who through their deeds have garnered fame, and have  become a part of folklore or documented history. The reader has an existing association with such characters, and has a basic understanding of the story as it actually happened. For the novelist, this is a double-edged  sword – for on one hand he gets the immediate attention of the audience while having to deal with facts, their presentation and expectations from the audience on the other.

It is exceedingly important to get the facts and the overall setting right when dealing with this particular genre – especially since one segment of your readers are going to be aficionados who derive pleasure in understanding the setting of those days, the thoughts, the people, the background in the form of markets / people / dressing / societal values and norms etc. If the setting is too much at variance with the truth or even with the general level of understanding of the period in question, you run the very real risk of generating negative publicity and ridicule. Equally important is the treatment of the central characters and their development

Let us take the example of Jalal-ud-din Mohommad Akbar, the Mughal Emperor who is the subject of the novel Akbar: Ruler of the World. In Indian history, Akbar is one of only 2 emperors to win the title of “The Great”. He is regarded as a very kind, forward thinking secular individual, and has become a part of folklore with the famous stories of justice of his Prime Minister Birbal. Akbar is known as the man who united India under one yoke, instituted reforms to ensure hindu-muslim equality, a superb administrator, a genuinely nice and well-loved ruler. The portrayal of Akbar has to be inline with the above generally held views

However, when you juxtapose this view in the context of the Mughal era, with its powerful Mughal chieftains, winner takes all atmosphere, literally cut-throat environment, feudal setup where kindness can be a form of weakness you run into a problem: how can you portray the same man in these two radically different styles? For, a novel is not a history book – you have to show dialogues with friends and enemies; thoughts, actions etc are all portrayed in a story form. The character would simply not be believable portrayed as a simpleton or a “nice man” - you have to be cruel to retain your control on your enemies and friends alike as an emperor! And, if you can bridge this challenge – you have an excellent setup, for once the central character sketches are ready, you are in a position to place the supporting star-cast around them.

The Akbar in the book  is very believable especially in the context of the Mughal Era. He is tolerant, a liberal in terms of religion, far-sighted, humane, a great administrator and ruler, well loved by the people- but at the same time he is also authoritative, firm, absolutely in control, cruel at times, egocentric in some ways, indecisive in personal matters... this is not too far from our image of Akbar. Further, it helps to develop a better understanding of the man behind the Emperor. That last point is the key – reader develops a better understanding of and connection with the central character.

Then you have to understand that a famous person would very likely have a variety of achievements to his credit. In order that the pace of the novel is maintained, and reader interest does not waiver, you would have to perforce choose a storyline. In the case of an Emperor you can either document the growth his empire – or concentrate on his life, his attaining the throne, how he adjusts to the rigors of being a state head, how he firms his hold on his subjects and overcomes internal enemies, how he tackles the succession problem. Since a novel has limitations in terms of space as well as reader attention span, the presence of an objective and storyline ensures a good pace and reader interest.

In summation, it has to be kept in mind that a historical fiction novel is not a history book – it is an interpretation and presentation of history in a different way. The writer has to introduce new characters – obviously, history books are not going to record precise names of soldiers, personal attendants, words spoken etc – so a lot of fleshing out has to be done. To do that, most historical novelists try and get into the skin of the central character and into the concerned period. For example, Diana and Michael Preston – the authors of the Mughal series have not only read all available literature on the subject, but have also visited all relevant places from Samarkand in Uzbekistan to Chittor in India. The effort shows in their books... as in many other historical fiction novelists!

So far, I have read 3 novels in this genre:

No 2 – Chanakya was the prime minister of the Magadha Empire of 330 BC. The point – the final point I have to make – is that you don’t have to be a ruler to be a subject of a fictional novel! All that is required is that the central character should be a well known historical figure, and the sequence of events should have a historical basis! {The “well-known” qualification is simply coz a known character will sell more copies :)! }

So, if you are interested in History, or want to understand more about that period – or, indeed – just want a good read, pick one from this genre. There will be titles available from your culture – just choose and start off! Preferable pick one from your cultural setting the first time... you will appreciate and enjoy it much, much more, as you will be able to relate to the period and the setting...

To learn more about Vishal Kale, check out his blog His passions are Books, Business and Social Issues.