I Hear Voices

“Why must you write?” These words are asked of the Earl of Oxford in the new movie Anonymous.  The earl replies “Because I hear voices in my head.  If I do not write down what they say I know I will go mad.”  And at times in the movie, the man does appear a bit mad to others.  He lapses into a trance-like state in the theater when his words are being spoken.  He shuts himself off in his study, away from the rest of the world with his manuscripts to write.  He works into all hours of the day and night putting his prose on paper.  He ignores his appearance at times.  And in the end, he truly feels his words will win the day because he believes in the power of his words.  In 1839 one of his compatriots coined the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword” for his play “Richelieu or the Conspiracy”, but it may as well have been Shakespeare in this movie - Oh, wait, sorry, this movie argues it was a tormented earl who heard voices.

Any good writer will attest to hearing voices.  This made me ponder late last night, when I was up way past three something odd – how many people 100, 200, or more years ago were probably thrown into Bedlam or a similar place because people thought them crazy?  They may have actually been tormented writers who could not put word to paper.  Perhaps they were illiterate but had stories to tell.  This would drive a person over the edge – hearing those voices but having no way to write them down.  They certainly could not tell people they had these characters floating around in their heads.  Some of the more talented ones became bards – or storytellers.  They may have traveled the countryside telling their stories to fascinated audiences who tossed coin their way.  They understood the power of a good story but were unable to write them down.  Of course once men wrote them down, people could read them voraciously and soon the words were flying off the presses – which was no easy feat back then.

Then, there’s the women.  What of women like us, who had stories to tell but were never given the opportunity to read or write.  Perhaps they told stories to their children or a close knit group of friends.  Perhaps if they were lucky enough they found a mentor who believed in them.  Some may have taken on male pseudonyms and published their words that way.  Most women were not given credit for having intelligent thoughts like that.  Think back on our great writers in the past – how many women do you see?  Wouldn’t it be interesting to discover if some of these great writers were actually women?  Imagine how that would rock the literary world.  If Shakespeare could have been a frustrated earl, who was really the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I, couldn’t it also be possible that the author was a lady in court?  William Shakespeare might have been her ghost writer – the person who stood before the audience in her stead.

Think about your own literary career.  How many of you started other careers first because you were told “You’ll never make money as a writer”?  So you did what you were told by your parents, teachers, or other advisors and got a solid, day-to-day, paying job.  And while doing this job – you went crazy because the voices never went away.  Oh, they lay dormant for a while, but eventually they started haunting your dreams and waking you up at night.  They started interrupting you in the middle of important meetings or while you were having sex with a partner.  Images began to appear.  People began to take shape in your mind and soon you knew – that even though you had another job – you really wanted to be a writer.  NO – you were a storyteller who had to write down your story.  So, now you do both because life does not lend itself to a creative life.  Those who create must live a tormented life.  They are poor until they sell that first manuscript.  Even then, the royalties in this day and age are paltry so we must continue our day jobs so we can pursue our passion – writing.  Just like the Earl of Oxford in the movie.  He had other responsibilities to do first. (many he began to neglect when he started writing, much to the chagrin and displeasure of his family).

Writing is a passion.  A passion driven by voices we hear in our heads.  Driven by stories that need to be told.  Don’t be afraid to let them out.  Nurture them like they are your children and let them blossom into fruition.  Most of all – live your dream.

Zodiac Signs

How many of you follow the zodiac signs?  When I was pregnant with my children, I bought one of those name books.  In the back of the book was a listing of zodiac signs.  I remember pouring over it as I tried to see what my children would be like.  I was raised on the zodiac because my mother loved to tell us all about the signs and how we were like this sign or that sign.  She always spoke of our moon signs, etc.  I don't understand much about the rising ones, etc, but I can tell you that I did read about what my children would be like if they were born under a certain sign.  Of course, last year when they decided to add a new sign in the zodiac, my children would not have been what I thought they were in the first place.

So here's my question - when you write your characters, do any of you research the zodiac and create a birthday for your hero/heroine based upon a certain sign of the zodiac?

And if you do use the zodiac signs to help you with your main characters, do you also check the compatibility signs?  Do you see which signs would be the best matches? Which ones would not work well?  Does this help you build conflict in your stories?

Let me know - post your responses here and let's have a lively discussion.  I look forward to hearing your responses.

What's Your Favorite Music?

Music can set the tone.  Can you imagine watching a movie without the soundtrack? For example – imagine Gone with the Wind without its sweeping music that brings you from current day back to days gone by where a civilization once thrived and now has passed.  Imagine Lord of the Rings without the spine-tingling music to make you sit on the edge of your seat when Frodo and the others are hiding with Striker and the Wraiths are coming to kill them.  Imagine Ratatouille without its French music to sweep you thousands of miles across the ocean to the French bistros of Paris. The music composers for movies have to look at the movie after it’s finished and input the music to create the mood.
I listen to so different types of music, it usually depends on the scene I’m writing. Most of the time, I just want background music that allows me to focus on my writing.  I don’t usually listen to music with words, unless the words aren’t important because I like the mood of the music so much more.  Sometimes, the music is chosen because of my own mood.  Many times I purchase the music because when I heard it during a movie it inspired me to write.

Let’s tackle the different types of music out there. 

First, there’s classical music.  Once again, it depends on my mood.  Sometimes I start off with Handel or Bach, but other times I like listening to Chopin or Tchaikovsky.  I have a CD called My Fayre Ladye – Tudor Songs and Chants that get me into the mood of that time period.  I think it helps to listen to the appropriate music when writing a historical novel.  Think about it – when you watch period piece movies, the music needs to make sense.  It needs to follow the movie.  If I was watching Pride and Prejudice, I certainly would not want to listen to current music.  Ah, but what about movies that took classic stories and gave them a new twist with updated music?  A few examples which make sense are Marie Antoinette and the modern version of Romeo and Juliette.  Here’s another – 10 Things I Hate about You, the modern version of Taming of the Shrew.  It just would not be the same without the modern music.  One movie I love to watch that goes in a different direction is A Knight’s Tale with Heath Ledger.  It retains its medieval theme but uses rock music to tell the story and does it really well.  That’s music I like to hear but I don’t always listen to when I’m writing.

Second, I love listening to music from around the world.  Many times I purchase a CD that focuses on either a certain area of the world or a theme such as salsa.  Here are some of my favorites: Borderlands, Women of the World, Salsa around the World, Latin Lounge and Afternoon in Paris.  They help to transport me to that place by immersing me in the culture more thoroughly.  When I wrote Whispering Moor, an 17th century Irish novel, I surrounded myself with Enya, Celtic Woman, Scottish Moors/Emerald Isles, and Clannad.  Enya is a fabulous singer who used to be a part of Clannad.  I first discovered her when watching the movie Patriot Games.  I was hooked and have several of her albums as well as her Christmas album which is haunting and beautiful at the same time. 

Third, as you noticed from the beginning of this piece, I love soundtracks.  The list of my soundtracks include: all Lord of the Rings, all Star Wars and Star Trek soundtracks.  Soundtracks from musicals – Chicago, Wicked, Nine, Phantom of the Opera, Dirty Dancing, or Grease.  Some of them are from the movies and some are from the Broadway musicals themselves.  As you can see, some are purely instrumental and others have songs with words.  Usually the ones with words are not for deep serious writing.  I might be writing a light scene with a bit of flirtation or humor.  In that case, I need my mood to be light.  For more intense scenes, I could pick The English Patient, Titanic, or Immortal Beloved.  Of course, there’s always Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 when I’m not sure what I want.  Sometimes I use those for editing when I just want a bit of fun.  If you’ve never listened to The Mask of Zorro or The Three Musketeers, you have to try them out.  Don Juan DeMarco sets just the right tone with “If You’ve Ever Loved a Woman”.  Trust me – try it out and you will be hooked as well.

Finally, there are miscellaneous artists who just seem to fit for me.  A few of those include Josh Groban, Michael Buble, Adele, Norah Jones, or Justin Timberlake.  See, I told you I like different types of music.  My list goes on and on.  So here’s my question for you – what music do you prefer when you write?

Character Building

One of my favorite books when I started writing was Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon. Remember when I wrote about backstory and discussed how much was too much?  This book is a perfect example of how you build backstory.  We have all done the character sketch of our main characters.  Often times much of this information never makes it into the novel.  Why not? Think about it – remember what I said about too much information.  Do not give your reader information overload.  They will be so bogged down in information that the story will not move along evenly or worse yet, the reader will stop reading altogether because they have lost interest in the story.

So why do you need to know all of this information about your characters? You know the answer to this one.  Go on say it now – to make your characters 3 dimensional!  Exactly.  So how do you build believable characters?  After I read this book, I used the author’s inventory list to make one of my own. His is more geared toward the contemporary author, but a historical author could use it as well.  There are 14 pages to his inventory list, but we will just use a few of them here so you get the general idea what I mean.
Name, age, height, and weight all seem like no-brainers, right? You would be surprised how many people forget their hero is 6’4” and then have the heroine staring into his eyes. The next no-brainers are hair, eye, and skin color.  Once again, you cannot state your hero has mesmerizing green eyes in one part and then call them brown.  The reader will pick up on this in a heartbeat.  Consistency is key to keeping your reader engaged and interested. Body type is also important.  Your hero cannot move gracefully like an African cat if you have described him as built like a prize fighter with large hands and a barrel chest.  Get the picture?

A section I like is physical imperfections.  What would your character like to change about himself?  Let’s say he has a crooked nose from being broken in a barfight. He is always conscious of this fault and even thinks it makes him a bit ugly.  On the other hand, the heroine can note how rugged it makes him look – even dangerous.  Here is where an imperfection can add sexual tension between them.

I like the physical gestures.  Women are notorious for these – the constant twirling of their hair or a distinctive raise of the eyebrow.  Men have them as well, but for some reason, we are so preoccupied with other traits, we miss some of the subtle ones.  For instance, your hero runs his finger along the edge of his suit jacket whenever he stands up.  When he doesn’t do it, the other characters will take note of it and realize something is wrong.  Ahhhh – are you getting the message here?  See how something so innocent as a nervous gesture can heighten the mood in a room? 

There is an entire page for schooling and further education.  If you are writing a historical this information could prove valuable in a sticky situation.  Let’s say your hero has learned Latin and no one else around him does.  Suddenly they come across some relics with Latin markings.  His knowledge is key to solving a mystery.  But, let’s say the opposite is true in a contemporary – your hero has only been through high school.  He is vying for a major job at his company but knows they want a college degree.  Even though his experience makes him the better man, he might not get it.  We need to sense his inadequacy to feel his pain when he does not get the job. Of course this leads us right in to experience.  Our hero walks into a crowded ballroom in 19th century London.  His skin is bronzed by the sun.  How do the other characters see him? Do they look down upon him because of his suntan?  Do they make snap judgments based on this physical flaw?  Of course no one knows he is a lord but was forced into a naval subscription and just spent the last 6 months working on a ship, but now we have some backstory that will give your character something to overcome.

There is a full page on goals and needs.  What are your character’s long and short-term goals?  What are his long and short-term needs? This lead directly to your character’s motivations as well.  Knowing this information is key to how your character will react in certain situations. If your hero is searching for the person responsible for sending him into the ship’s gallows those 6 months before, his needs must come before his goals.  He needs to gain entrance into society, then he can face the person responsible for his misfortune and perhaps exact revenge.  He cannot get into society until he obtains the proper clothing and gets past the butler.  See what I mean?

The next three pages of the inventory have to do with the hero/heroine’s personality.  There is a great section in the book about personality traits.  Think about your character – is he an introvert or an extrovert?  How will he react in a social situation depends on this.  Does your character have any quirks which will give away his true identity to perhaps a family member or a dear friend who knows his sooooo well?  Suddenly we have a situation on our hands.  Our hero arrives at the party.  No one should recognize him because his appearance has changed so much over the years.  In walks his best friend and he is afraid of being found out.  At the same time, he longs to go speak with him, hoping his friend might be able to help him out.  Unless, his best friend is the very person responsible for his imprisonment.  Then his sudden quirk might give him away.  The same is true of any eccentricities.  Perhaps our hero only picks up his plate with his left hand and always circles the edge of the plate with a spoon before he consumes anything.  Today we would call it obsessive/compulsive but back in the 19th century, this would be an eccentric behavior most would overlook if you were wealthy enough.

I love the section on bad habits/vices.  We all have them.  Some of them are more obvious than others – smoking, drinking too much, swearing excessively.  Some are more subtle because we tend to hide them.  Still, these habits make your hero more distinguishable than other men in the room.  They also would call attention to him or make people act a certain way when they see him.  If he is a loud, obnoxious drunk, the hostess could be nodding to her servants to hide the whiskey and move all delicate glasswear to the farthest side of the table.  When our hero falls down drunk on the floor no one is surprised.  But imagine their surprise if he arrives sober and does not touch a drop of alcohol?  Now, the attention is on him for a different reason.  The same is true of admirable traits.  Everyone adores this man, but for some reason he arrives at the party completely sloshed.  What has happened to send this sensible man over the edge? The woman who adores him from afar longs to discover the truth and could possibly be placed in a rather indelicate situation because of his bizarre behavior.

Phobias, manias, painful memories, pet peeves, and social affiliations are all part of what makes your character tick.  Some are more important to your story than others.  The reason this inventory is valuable is because it allows you to go through it step by step and outline your character more thoroughly than you thought possible.  Throw in a great mental disturbance and just see how your plot changes.  Yes, all of these things plus political affiliation, hobbies, sports, favorite shows, meals, foods, etc make your hero and heroine more interesting.  There are more, but I think you get the general idea of where this all leads – a more thorough understanding of your characters.  Do this inventory for your two main characters and your story will take on new depths.

Primary Sources are not like Primary Colors

Let's talk research.  Those of you who write historical novels know exactly what I'm talking about. Research is the very core of our stories.  Not only that, but in many cases, it's as important as one of the main characters.  The historical events that surround your story help drive it and sometimes even divert it, causing conflict in ways even the characters cannot do. The key to writing a believable historical romance is to be accurate in our research.  Unfortunately, many of us are not so good at research.  Oh, we try to be accurate, but we use resources we were trained to use as children - history books, encyclopedias, etc.  Not that we shouldn't use these resources, but there are other resources which can provide valuable information.

A wig curler - bet you didn't know this?

Let's put this into perspective - using history books and encyclopedias is like using the primary and secondary colors in a crayon box.  They are good.  They are bright and bring color to your manuscript, but using just red, blue, green, yellow, orange, black, and white are fine, but we all know there are gray areas in everything we do.  It's these gray areas that can make a plot more interesting. So just imagine using magenta or turquoise or even chartreuse.  This is what primary sources can do for your manuscripts.

Pieces of eight - how colonists paid with silver coins

First of all - what are primary sources?  They are documents, photographs, speeches, or other evidence created during the time you  might be studying.  Primary sources include: autobiographies, photographs, diaries, emails (can you believe these are primary sources now?), letters, news film footage, official records (like birth certificates, divorce records, court documents); art, drama, film, plays, and novels during the time period; buildings, clothing, furniture, jewelry, pottery; and of course newspaper articles.

playbill of Edwin Booth - John Wilkes Booth's brother

So now I'm going to give you a glimpse into a few primary sources you might be able to access quite easily when writing your historical fiction novel.

blueprint of the Octagon House

Museums and historical societies: These are some of the most accessible sources. Not just the large city museum you used to go to when you were a student, but the local historical society museums every town has nowadays.  They are a wonderful source of artifacts that can give you a glimpse into the past.  When you visit your museum, take note of the furniture, the clothing, the jewelry, and even the portraits painted during the time period you are writing.  Take pictures, jot down notes, and catalog this information to use later on.  When you read a hero regarded the ormulu clock on the mantle, you'll know what it is because you have a picture.

Here are some pictures I have taken at museums that help me when I am writing to bring authenticity to my settings.

furniture from the DeWitt museum

Authentic clothing

portrait that gives us an idea of how women dressed

Washington and Lafayette  in a painting

Used bookstores: Several years ago when we traveled to New Orleans for our RWA conference, I happened across an old bookstore filled with used books.  As I traveled up and down the dusty stacks I happened upon a few fabulous finds - some diaries written in the 1700s.  At first they might not seem like much.  They are dusty and the pages are yellowed, but inside was a treasure worth more than the book cost.  Inside I found entries that detailed life during the 1700s of a young lady who gave me an insight into her privileged life.  Reading her words gave me a chance to use more authentic terminology in my novel.

Re-enactments: You've heard about them.  You might have even made fun of them, but just imagine how much research the people have to do who perform in these Civil War re-enactments.  Everything they do must be authentic - from the clothes they wear to the words they speak to their actions. They are like players on a stage, but they have spent painstaking hours recreating these people.  They do it because they love that time period.  Look around your locale and you will be surprised to find several re-enactment societies.  If you can't find one locally, travel to a place like Williamsburg, VA to get a total immersion experience.  I was lucky enough to do this and it is something I will never forget.

Interpreter as British officer

dancers at the Governor's Palace

Historical sights: of course after speaking about re-enactments, it only seems fitting to mention historical sights - from antebellum homes to battlefields to settlements.  In many of these places the buildings have been preserved in their original states, but in other instances, they have been restored.  During my recent trip to Philadelphia to see the history there, I was amazed to see a sampling of both.  Another fascinating study of preservation vs restoration is in Charleston, SC - visit Middleton Place and Dreyton Hall.  One is restored and one is preserved.  Either way, you get a glimpse into the past that will move you and give your writing a more authentic feel.

Capitol building in Williamsbrug, VA

a replica of the ship in Jamestown
What's left of Benjamin's Franklin's house in Philadelphia

Documents: birth certificates, death certificates, official documents like court records or bill of sales, and many more. These types of documents can be found through the National Archives, libraries, and the internet. Many of these documents have been scanned and are easily accessible to view from the comfort of your home.

Civil War photo

Newspaper article in Virginia Gazette
record of what John Smith brought to Jamestown

Movies:  If you are like me, you like movies based on novels written long ago.  Some movies are better than others when it comes to accuracy.  I'll tell you one instance that made me smile.  Watch the different versions of Pride and Prejudice.  Then humor me and watch the Greer Garson version from 1940.  Look at the clothes she's wearing, compare them to the ones in the Kiera Knightly version and Colin Firth versions.  Then, knowing what you know about that time period - tell me which one is the most accurate.  Movies made about different time periods can be horribly flawed, so be careful when you use these.  I hate to say this, but I will - I have noticed the British are much better at producing historical movies because they tend to lean towards accuracy - even it looks a little dirtier than what we envision.  Keep in mind also that events tend to be changed in the movies to better fit what they want to show us, so as far as those details, be wary.

Now that you know where to look, start creating your own file of these primary sources on your computer so you can easily open them whenever you need. them.  One of the things I like to do is create a photograph file of certain documents so I just have to open up furniture and see examples of what I want in my settings.