Saturday, March 30, 2013

Guest Post - Anita Seymour Davison

Researching the 17th Century

It might sound a strange thing to say, even for a writer, but the English Civil War was something I have always been aware of, its highlights and some of its tragedies - not all of them of course as it was a very involved conflict - but I seem to have absorbed the flavour of the times - like osmosis.

Every English historic country house I have visited, and I have been to lots, was involved in that war in some way, either as a Royalist stronghold or a Parliamentarian garrison. Many of them still have musket balls lodged in walls, and ditches, or shadows of ditches, dug to repel invaders outside the boundary walls. I like to walk the floors they walked, look through the same windows on the same landscapes where those events happened.

Ham House, for instance, is a classic example. Built in 1610, it is located about five miles downriver from Hampton Court Palace. The mansion has been restored to reflect the days when it’s most famous owner, Elizabeth Murray, lived there between 1638 and 1698. Much of her original furniture has been reclaimed, as have the paintings that hung there during her day.  In this setting, with no other houses close by and a frontage straight onto the River Thames, it’s not difficult to visualise Elizabeth moving through the rooms, issuing orders to servants, arguing with her family and rushing out of the front door to confront Roundhead soldiers lined up at the gates.

Research for me begins by placing an historical character into which space they occupied in history. My current work in progress requires me to keep track of the young King Charles II as he travelled through Europe between 1653 and 1660. As one by one, Holland, France and Spain signed treaties with Lord Protector Cromwell, Charles was forced to leave those countries, and move elsewhere, appealing for monetary handouts from royal relatives to support his entourage, and often hampered by reluctant ministers of those same relatives who held the purse strings.

I found a two-volume book online by Eva Scott, where Charles’ days of exile are written in impressive detail, together with letters and conversations between him, Cromwell’s spies and members of the European royal houses transcribed almost verbatim. My problem now is how much of this engrossing history should I include in my novel and which to leave out.

One interesting and amusing snippet involved Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, who was King Charles’ youngest brother and who tragically died of smallpox at 20, a few months after Charles regained his throne. Apparently a sweet and charming young man, at thirteen, his sister the Princess Royal, Mary of Orange was asked by her ministers to request her brother leave the palace at The Hague because of his habit of mounting his horse at the bottom of the grand staircase rather than in the courtyard! According to Ms Scott’s account, their discreet request was ignored by Princess Mary, though Charles acceded and Henry left soon afterward for Cologne.

I love it and wish I could include it in my book - maybe the king could mention it as an aside in one of his letters to my heroine?

Only a few of these facts, absorbing though they are, will find their way into my book - unfortunately - it’s easy to get bogged down by the trivia of these characters. However, they help me understand how twelve years of King Charles II’s nomadic life, the humiliation, penury and a constant nagging uncertainty about his future affected not only him, but the Cavaliers, those reckless, pleasure-loving men who formed the decadent values of the Restoration Court.

Anita Seymour Davison Bio

Anita Davison (4).jpgBorn in London, Anita has always been fascinated with the history of that city. She began writing historical family sagas, then experimented with Victorian Gothic romance, though now she feels she has found her niche with 17th Century historical biographical novels with her latest book, 'Royalist Rebel' released by Claymore Press in January 2013.  She writes for several blogs, including English Historical Fiction Authors, [] Hoydens and Firebrands [] and also reviews for the Historical Novel Review Blog.  []

Latest Release
RR Cover 300 dpi jpg.jpgRoyalist Rebel,  Please leave a comment at the end of this post for a chance to win a copy of the paperback [after publication naturally and I could have trouble with the signing bit as I will have to send it via Amazon direct to the recipient - but I could organise a bookplate or something.]

Royalist Rebel by Claymore Press, an imprint of Pen and Sword, is released in January 2013

For a little background on the novel and it’s era.

The National Trust Website of Elizabeth Murray’s former home, Ham House, at Petersham near Richmond, Surrey

Anita’s Blog

Friday, March 29, 2013

Exercises in creativity

I've been working on the fourth book in the Caribbean Adventure Series for over a year. The cover is just about ready but the book is not. It has been delayed by many distractions; other books detailing Chee Chee's earlier adventures, Seascapes and then books that I have published for others. I recently received the push that I needed to complete it, an actual deadline, and so I have dedicated the last week on completing this book.

I tried everything. Setting aside particular time for writing, a particular space, a target number of words, but the issue has never really been a lack of time or dedication. The main reason that I haven't finished this book lingered. I had several ideas for the ending and no clue of which lead to follow. So tonight I took a break, and spent the evening writing (clean) limericks and 17 syllable haiku-like poems with my son. Here is one of our more serious efforts (it's tough to be funny and find rhymes for Trinidad at the same time):

There was a young babe born in Trinidad
To a man who had never yet been a dad
But he bathed him and dressed him,
Hugged him and carressed him,
And that was all the baby needed in a dad.

We wrote many more and although it may seem a bit silly and random, but when I went back to book four, I found that the exercise had awakened some hidden part of my imagination and suddenly I saw the way out and polished off my ending in record time.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

E-Book Experiment

In my last post, I shared the cover for my upcoming paranormal thriller The Mummies of Blogspace9.  So this week, I'll tell you about the marketing experiment I have planned.  

It's bold, it's dangerous, it's potentially disastrous, but as my wife always tells me - this is what you do for fun, so if it stresses you out, stop writing and find something that doesn't stress you out.  

I've briefly considered the following alternative non-work activities: macrame, yoga, darts, and scrapbooking.  And I concluded that I still very much want to write.  So it's time to be bold and not stress too much about the consequences.  That being said, let me know what you think, and if you have any suggestions, I'm half ears.

To date, I have five books published; four novels and one archaeological tome.  Three were published by commercial presses, and two I did myself.  All are available on, and all have middling sales.  So I'm going to do something new for Mummies.  

I've been following the wisdom of Joe Konrath, the master-blogger and writer who compiles the Newbies Guide to Publishing.  He suggests the following steps for publishing success (and I'm paraphrasing here): 

1) write a truly great book; 

2) produce a truly great cover; 

3) offer the book exclusively in e-book format using Amazaon KDP Select; 

4) price the book at 99 cents; 

5) offer the book free for the first week; and finally 

6) pay to have your free book giveaway promoted.  

So that's my plan.  The final draft of The Mummies of Blogspace9 is currently being tuned by the experts at  When I get it back, I'm going to shell out $230 to have it promoted on, as Konrath suggests.

The hope is that the initial offering creates a bounce and results in more sales.  Of course, offering the book at 99 cents on Amazon will result in only 35 cents in royalties.  But as the economists tell us, it's all a matter of volume.  I don't know if I'm going to get rich from this, but like I said, it's an experiment, and I'm not going to worry too much about it or my wife will make me knit or weave something instead of writing.

But I'll still worry a little.  So if you have any thoughts, let me know.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Something different

I know I keep referring to Eugenia’s February post about the business of writing.  I can’t seem to get past the suggestion of writing 1000 words per hour.  I have responded to that post both with a comment and a post of my own.  I have even tried writing 1000 words per hour and came to a conclusion that it was burn out central.  But I can’t seem to shake the nagging feeling that I need to approach my writing a little more like a business.

For years writing has been a hobby and a passion and I treated it like that.  I wrote when I wanted to.  I wrote what I wanted to.  I wrote how I wanted to.  It made me happy, but if I was to live by the fruit of my writing, I would be happy but impoverished.  Eugenia’s post got me thinking (more like obsessing) about what would happen if I treated my writing more like a business than a hobby.  So for this month I decided to try something different; something outside my comfort zone.  I decided to write a 30 000 word novella in three weeks.  Not only that, I decided to write suspense, a genre that I have not written before, and using characters based on popular fiction. 

That required some change in my writing process(es) and my organization.  Since characters were based on popular fiction I had to first do a total immersion in the fiction. I had to read lots of suspense/mystery novels and watch suspense movies galore to get into the mode. Normally I write by the seat of my pants.  My working outline is the story in my head, I know how it’s going to end (though nothing is written down) and I see the characters and scenes like I do a movie.  However, for this project I had to write a detailed outline, character sketches, and relationship maps to see how the characters related to each other. 

Remember I wanted to do 30 000 words in three weeks?  Well that means 10 000 words a week or about 1400 words a day (note I said day not hour).  But with the first week spent in total immersion and planning and outlining, it only leaves two weeks for actual writing.  That’s a little over 2100 words a day.  Now I know you’re thinking that’s not much.  But throw in work, three young kids, and a household to run, and writing time is as precious as it is scarce.

I was determined. So I reorganized my day, measured the amount of time spent actually writing (I don’t have the Facebook distraction problem many have) vs. the amount of keepable words.  I have found ways to occupy my kids that allows me to work for longer than a few minutes at a time, without resorting to television as a baby sitter.

It has been two weeks since I made the commitment and guess what? I am over 20 000 words with a nicely developing story.  I know I didn’t do a thousand words an hour, but I have managed to carve the time out to write efficiently and effectively.   And you know what?  I am enjoying it. 
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to get out of my comfort zone and try something that I haven’t tried before.  I guess I can put that resolution down as QED and I love it. 

And an important lesson I have learned: I can treat writing like a business and still be passionate about it.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

What's your creative process?

The teacher of a poetry writing course I'm currently taking asked the class to discuss our individual creative processes, and thinking about it made me realize I don't have a process: I have several. I write commercial fiction in several genres, memoir, and literary fiction, and my process is different for each.

For commercial fiction, I begin with a situation and a character within a particular setting and the story takes form in my imagination before I put fingers to keypad. This taking-form period can last from several days to several months. When I decide to write the story I begin with an outline which is modified as the characters and storyline develop.

My process for short literary fiction is different. Stories come to me in their entirety, sometimes while I’m in the middle of writing something totally unrelated, and I have to stop and write the new, compelling story before I lose it. This happened with the second story for the prose fiction writing course I took last semester. To paraphrase Joan Baez, the story just crawled down my arm and onto the keyboard. The point here is that when I write short literary fiction I never sit down and think: What shall I write about today? The story comes straight out of the workings of my subconscious for which I hold the most profound respect.

For longer literary work (my novel in progress and the memoir) the processes are less clear-cut and involve varying degrees and combinations of the following: spontaneous inspiration, deliberation, plotting via an outline, storyboarding, exploration of themes, character studies, and background research. That's not to say I don't do these things for other kinds of fiction, but that the process is far more painstaking and I have to dig much deeper than I do for, say, romance. Chronology and narrative perspective are also less linear/more complex when I write in this mode.

I do not consider myself a poet although I have written poems intermittently for most of my life. These tend to take form when I’m deeply moved by something such as beauty in one form or another, or deeply disturbed by something such as a betrayal or, in one instance, the suicide of a colleague.

I initially had no intention of doing the poetry writing course because, as mentioned, I’m not primarily a poet, and I have no desire to attempt to measure up to the brilliance of the ones I love. After doing the prose fiction writing course, however, I decided to take the poetry challenge. The first course was immensely rewarding as we were privileged to have Merle Hodge, a legend in Caribbean fiction writing, teach it. That course was not particularly challenging for me, however, as I was so much more experienced in the form than the majority of the class.

The lure of a challenge is not the only reason I signed up for the poetry writing course. The prose fiction course kept my mind in the creative space to the extent that I was more productive for its duration than I had been in years. I’m hoping to build on this momentum with the poetry course.

What is your creative process like? Is it straightforward and unchanging or does it shift with different genres, different stages of your development as a writer, or other factors?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Have Words, Will Write

So here’s a bit of news: Despite various opinions to the contrary, I’m a writer.

I even get the occasional validation from sympathetic parties to remind me of this factoid. For example, those of you who have an account with the LinkedIn service likely have been exposed to one of their newer features, “endorsements.” People with whom you’re linked now can endorse you as being qualified in all manner of topics. For us writerly folk, the categories seem to run the gamut. Case in point: yesterday, I received endorsements from two of my contacts who listed me as having at least some proficiency in the areas of writing, fiction, novels, short stories, non-fiction, and blogging. I’ve been picking up similar endorsements from other friends and colleagues for the past couple of months.  

Hey, I guess I get around, here and there.  

After I finished reading these latest notifications, my brain—as it is wont to now and then—started hopsotching across several thoughts and other bits of half-remembered infonuggets. I began recalling conversations I’ve had with colleagues and how we identify ourselves as writers. When asked, I tend to just say “I’m a writer,” and allow follow-up queries to foster discussion as to what exactly it is that I write.  

Some of my friends, however, are more specific about describing what they do: “I’m a novelist,” or a “web content writer.” I’ve known a few people who even go so far as to say something like “I only write novels, because I can’t condense my ideas and stories into something shorter.” Others prefer the short story format: “I like to get in, tell my story, and get out, then go do it all over again.” Still others have a proficiency in magazine or other non-fiction writing, and prefer that realm.  

Then there are the poets, sitting over there and laughing at the rest of us.  

I certainly don’t think this is the sort of question with any kind of “wrong” answer, and there are situations where it’s advantageous to communicate that you are proficient in a particular type of writing. Generally speaking, though, I’ve never really felt the need to compartmentalize or categorize myself so far as what I do. I don’t consider myself a novelist, or short story or magazine writer, or a blogger. I’ve done all those things, of course, along with several other odd gigs over the years. Flash fiction stories? Check. Cover copy for book jackets? Ditto. Comic strips, or scripts for audio drama? A bit. Dirty limericks on the walls of truck stop restrooms? Um...that was my evil twin from the alternate universe.  

I write whatever desire, fate, circumstances, opportunities and contracts bring my way, and I adapt as necessary and appropriate to the demands of a given project, format, and medium. It keeps things from getting boring, for one thing, and every new, different thing is an opportunity to learn.  

Sure, the bulk of my fiction writing ends up in novels, but an idea sometimes comes along and I know it will just snap and pop as a short story, so that’s the way I go. Then there are the occasions where I realize that earlier gut feeling was wrong, and I take things back a few steps and rework it for a novel. Then there’s the nightmare scenario, when I start with what I’m hoping will be a novel idea, but realize at some critical point that there’s just not enough meat to it, so it goes back in the queue for reworking as a short story.  

Meanwhile, the poets are going, “See? And I just add another stanza! Ha HAH!”

How about you? Do you identify yourself as any one “type” of writer, or do you just sling words whenever, wherever and however they need slinging?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Guest Spot - Joanne Hillhouse

Pieces of Self: Negotiating the Border Between Public and Private in a Social Media World
By Joanne C. Hillhouse
JH080711byEmile Hill.jpgI’ve always been a very private person. To answer a common question, everything I write is not autobiographical, though life does bleed into the fiction. But mining my life for fiction is one thing. I’ve grown comfortable with that because very often what makes it onto the page bears little resemblance to what happened in the first place. It’s an emotional echo not a literal rendering of the thing that inspired it. Often by the time I write it, or by the time I get through the rounds of redrafting and editing, I have distance and perspective. Of course, there are times when something is still fresh and hews closer to the bone and writing it hurts, but that’s okay too; a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the craft that is also my therapy and the medium through which I process life.
Writing, when I can write, saves me; giving something of myself up to that process is a small price to pay. And because of what it reveals to me – and others – when I get it right, is no price at all. Writing is a gift and I pray each day to have the courage to go where it takes me. As Antigua and Barbuda’s most renowned author, Jamaica Kincaid, once said artistes to get to the sweet spot need to “lose shame” and on the page I can be shameless and, to reference another of Antigua and Barbuda’s writers of note, Althea Prince, “Write! Write as if no one is going to read it.”
But then there is publishing and twin to that, promoting. One I pursued aggressively, the other I forced myself to accept as a consequence of that choice. If you’re publishing, you’re promoting. Full stop. I didn’t get that right away (or perhaps couldn’t give myself over to the inherent narcissism of self-promotion) but, in the interest of reaching more readers, I’ve done my best to put myself out there, especially with the release of my third book and first full length novel Oh Gad! Social media has been my low-to-no budget-but-time-consuming frenemy in this regard. From blogging to facebook, newsletters to networks, I’ve done my best to get the word out and keep the buzz going about this book and other activities in my literary life.
Inevitably, the line between what’s strictly private and what’s public has blurred.
The thing I still struggle to come to terms with is how much of your privacy you have to sacrifice to this process. You can’t just push your work, that turns people off, you’ve got to cut off bits and pieces of yourself and give them away as well.
Oh Gad cover.jpgPart of me thinks that that hurts the creative process – apart from the time they take away from the writing, there’s the things that you give away casually that you might better use on the page, creatively.
The aspect of it I’ve had to confront more recently is the things people think they have a right to know once you’re out there; because once you’re out there it becomes harder and harder to be selective about what you feel comfortable sharing. A recent online encounter was a jarring reminder of this when I was taken to task, quite harshly, over information I didn’t, based on my conditioning, feel comfortable sharing. That I might and have, selectively, shared it when asked is another matter but before I could say here it is in this instance I was taken to task. The annoyance was prompted by an online posting on the desired information that was too coy, too tongue-in-cheek to be tolerated. 
It was posted at a time when I’d been hit with request after request for said information from students who were reading my book in school or perhaps were sent with a check list of information on a local author. I was at once grateful for their interest and overwhelmed by it. I decided to do a post with their frequently asked questions – sort of a clearing house, based on past questions –from which they could access such information in future. But things sometimes get lost in translation and, the backlash via the individual encounter referenced above suggests that I was a little too cute with my response.  
I suppose it’s true that as aggressively as I’ve promoted the published writing, I feel increasingly protective of my privacy, and struggle to balance what to keep and what to give away…and how to deal with unsolicited advice, commentary, and, yes, angry emails that come when I get it all wrong. 
So I guess my question to the group is, how do you strike that balance in this world of decreasing barriers between public and private, especially when being expected, more and more, as writers to put not just our writing but ourselves out there?
Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of Oh Gad!, The Boy from Willow Bend, and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. Her fiction also appears in three recent collections – For women: In Tribute to Nina Simone; In the Black: New African Canadian Literature; and So the Nailhead Bend, So the Story End: An Anthology of Antiguan and Barbudan Writing. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Poui, the Caribbean Writer, Tongues of the Ocean, Womanspeak, Mythium, Calabash, Ma Comère, and elsewhere. She is a native and resident of Antigua and Barbuda. Find her online at and/or She also runs the youth writing programme, the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize; find out more at

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Little Lit Festival That Could

Last month, I attended the first ever West Covina Literary Festival. It's always good to be on the ground floor of anything that's going to be an annual event. Foot in the door and all that.

West Covina is in the San Gabriel Valley, one of the towns that make up Los Angeles County. It's a middle class suburb and, well, the literary arts don't have as much sway as the local malls. College prof John Brantingham and his cadre of supporters are changing all that.

John, his wife Ann and two former students from Mt. San Antonio College, felt there should be a place for writers to go to find a vital literary community. Because John grew up in West Covina, he decided to broach the idea with the city leaders. City Hall became partners in the endeavor, even waiving fees for use of their building and the surrounding grounds.

Oak Tree Press recently published John's mystery thriller, “Mann of War.” I was the one who acquisitioned the novel. In return, John gave his new publisher a table to display our wares. We had half a dozen of our authors show up, one from as far away as Bull Head City, Nevada. Many were meeting for the first time although they were familiar with each other through online posts. It quickly became not just a lit fest, but an Oak Tree family reunion.

The weather was one of those blissful Southern California days. Out on the lawn, poetry readings were going on. Musicians played in the walkways and over 2000 people attended. In the evening, all of us genre writers were given our moment in the spotlight. We read from our novels, Jeri Westerson did a presentation of all things medieval and we dressed one cute guy up in armor and gave him a sword to pose with as we took photos.

While we didn't sell many books, we were a presence. The local librarian networked with us and soon Oak Tree's books will be found on the shelves of the West Covina library. These are opportunities authors look for--rewards might not be immediate but can be several years down the road.

I hear so many people complain they can't find venues to reach the reading public. I put together two book fests in my small area that allowed San Joaquin Valley authors to display their works. John Brantingham saw a need and, instead of complaining, went out and MADE an event. Now the City of West Covina is considering a Literary Arts Center to hold classes, bring in famous writers and poets and have members of the community do readings. And, of course, there will be next year's festival to look forward to. I'll be there and I'll be bringing more Oak Tree authors with me.

The message: Dream big. Then put that dream into action.

Word Art

Wall drawing No 766
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Late last year I was introduced to the work of Sol LeWitt, an American artist who, when hit with the equivalent of writer's block, decided to reduce art to its essentials, “to recreate art, to start from square one,” he said, beginning literally with squares and cubes. He put his ideas for art into words, which would then be translated into art by someone else. Confused? Here is an example.

Wall drawing, No. 766 (one iteration of it is pictured on the left) was described as follows “Twenty-one isometric cubes of varying sizes each with color ink washes superimposed. The person who purchased the "drawing" would be presented with these instructions. They could hire LeWitt to produce it, another artist or do it themselves.They could produce it several times but they had to destroy the existing one before creating a new one.

I am not one to wax philosophical, but this raises one question in my mind, who is the artist. Is it the person who creates and articulates the idea of the painting or the one who actually produces it?

This question comes into play in the world of art with words, writing. Since I completed my studies in editing people have approached me about editing their work. Very often, I am approached by people who have well-developed ideas but limited writing skills. The work does not need editing but extensive overhauling. If one person develops an idea but another paints the pictures in words and turns it into something that is palatable to a reading audience, both can receive credit on the book, but who is the true artist?

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Most Famous Man Ever Born in Britain

Although we’re still almost a week away from St. Patrick’s Day, this is the last chance I’ll have to retell an old tale before then, so here goes.

I’ve been studying the Irish language (conveniently called Irish) for three years now.  Irish is a difficult language, but it is my goal to become completely fluent.  So far, I’m as fluent as an Irish infant, but I’m still trying.

And you can’t study things Irish without bumping into the stories of old.  And although it’s not often discussed in polite circles, the Irish of old had a disturbing history of slavery.

In all the Celtic world, the Irish were the most feared slavers.  They would sail to the coasts of Britain searching for isolated villages, grab the children in the night, and sail away with them. 

These children would then be bartered in the slave markets of Ireland, and most would become servants or shepherds. We have first-hand testimony of one of these slaves.  In about 400 A.D. a sixteen-year-old boy was captured by Irish slavers, taken in the night from his home in Britain and trundled off to Ireland. 

He was a Christian boy, the grandson of a priest, and his name was Maewyn Succat. Maewyn spent six years as a slave, hungry and cold working as a shepherd before he escaped back to Britain.  But even as he endured hunger and cold, something about Ireland caught hold of him, and called on him to return.
While the druids prayed in their sacred groves, making sacrifices to the gods and goddesses, a new religion was on the march.  Christianity had already taken hold throughout much of Europe and Britain, and it was about to reach Ireland.

Having escaped slavery in Ireland, Maewyn never felt at home in Britain.  He heard voices calling him to God and decided to join the Church.  He studied in a French monastery, was ordained priest, and became a missionary.  He would take the Good Spell – the Gospel of Jesus to the Irish.

He made it his mission to walk the pagus – Latin for countryside.  And Ireland, having not one city, was all pagus.  And in this matter, the inhabitants, the pagans, would hear the word of God.
As a missionary, Maewyn took the name Patricius, meaning noble born.  And so the French-trained British man who would forever be known at St. Patrick set sail in the year 432 to convert the Irish. 
The druids were skeptical, and the kings no less so, but Patrick moved north to the Hill of Tara, where the Irish high kings were crowned.
According to legend, Patrick met High King Oengus at Tara, held up a shamrock and used it to explain the holy trinity, how three things can be one thing, how shapes and forms can shift.  

And he introduced the Celtic cross, combining the cross with the symbol for the sun, which respected the pagan reverence for the natural world.
Patrick established monasteries from one end of Ireland to the other.  And Ireland became the one country in the world where Christianity was spread without bloodshed. 

Since Ireland had no cities, these monasteries became centers of communities.  And the natural mysticism of the Irish people was respected and welcomed by these new holy men.  The druids were welcomed, and even the pagan festivals were respected and celebrated.
Patrick had made one other significant contribution – wherever he traveled, he condemned the institution of slavery.  And who better than a former slave to do that? 
By the time of his death in 461or shortly thereafter, Christianity was well established, and the Irish slave trade was no more.  And Patrick, the British-born former-slave became the most famous Irishman of all.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Technology: What's next

A few weeks ago a commercial for “Beauty and the Beast” the Broadway show brought a little upheaval to my house.  My two younger kids saw the commercial begged me to see it.  Knowing that they were too young from Broadway shows, I searched the video-on-demand function of my cable and came up with naught.  I then proceeded to search for DVDs of Beauty and the Beast.  Not only were they expensive, but would take too long to be shipped.  So we dug up the old Video tape copy of Beauty and the Beast, dusted off and connected the old VCR and … got stuck.

First of all, neither my three year old nor my four year old had ever seen a Video tape or a VCR and my nine year old didn’t remember seeing one.  After filling the slot on the VCR with everything from play dough to small toys we had promptly packed it up and hid it away when she was two and a half.  So they gawked and touched and had to be told the history of the device.

Second of all, we did not remember how to use the VCR.  It had been so long.  Then finally, my 9 year old tinkered a bit and figured it out.  We got the tape to play.  It was grainy, low quality… nothing like the HD movies we were accustomed to seeing.

That got me thinking about how far personal media recording devices have come and makes me wonder what the future has in store for electronic media devices. 

Before 1956 if you wanted to watch a movie at home it was a very expensive venture.  Even when the video tape recorder was made commercially available in 1956, at $50 000 a pop it was too expensive for home use.  It was not until the early 70’s that what we know as VCR and VHS video tapes were widely available.  Then in 1995 the technology that revolutionized not only how data was stored, but how we viewed home movies was introduced: the DVD.  I remember the commercials that showed crisp clear pictures and I thought that was it… until less than 4 years later we have the TiVo and DVR where you can record live TV.  DVR and DVD coexist peacefully, but so did the VHS and the DVD initially.  It seems like the time between new technologies is getting shorter and shorter.  I wonder what will come next in the video media devices. 

Before 1877 you had to listen to a live music if you wanted to hear music.  That changed with the phonograph.  And though various versions of it (the gramophone, the turn table) superseded the previous versions, the basic audio technology was widespread for almost a hundred years. In the mid-fifties, the cassette tape recorder came on the scene, but with vinyl records playing longer and better, it did not dominate the industry until the early seventies.  Cassette tapes co-existed with vinyl for many years…. Until the Compact Disc a.k.a. CD.

From it made its commercial debut in 1982, the CD has sent vinyl records into the museums and collectors archives and has totally annihilated the cassette.  Arriving on the spot a few years later was the mp3 players and the IPOD totally revolutionized how we listen to music.

Cameras have been with us since the 10th century: the pinhole camera; but the technology has been around since the 4th century BC.  Somewhere in the 19th century film was developed and the instant camera, the Polaroid became the closest to the instant gratification provided by the digital camera.  Most children have never seen a film camera.  One day while cleaning out the garage I came across an old disposable film camera.  I showed it to my nine year old.  She immediately asked where the LCD screen is. 

What about books?  Since 1450 with the advent of the printing press, the technology that goes into books has not changed much.  One could argue that the typewriter and later the computer revolutionized how books are produced.  But what about how they are read?  It is only with the advent of e-books and e-readers in the later 20th century that how dramatically changed how books are read (exception being audio books).  Surprisingly the precursors to the e-book have been around since the 1930’s.  But it’s only in the 21st century we have widespread use of e-readers making many traditional publishers and bookstores defunct and online sellers like Amazon juggernauts. 

Now with smart phones we can have video, audio, photography and digital books all in one place.  So what’s the next big thing in terms of books?  Would my grandchildren see paper books only in a museum or antique store?  You tell me.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Fountain of Writing Ideas

The Fountain of Writing Ideas is probably located somewhere in the vicinity of the Fountain of Youth which is actually soon as we find one we'll find the other and be assured of looking forever wonderful in our author photos. Until that happy day, however, writers must realize on other means to come up with the ideas for their stories. Some writers, mostly those just starting out, ask more established writers where they get their ideas and the answers can be both varied and farcical.

For my part, I always respond to people who ask me this by admitting that I took out a lifetime membership in the voracious readers club, having begun to read at early age (three or four, depending on whether it was my mother or my father who was speaking). I consumed fairy tales and folk tales and then, as I grew older, moved into Enid Blyton, then Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and when nobody was looking, into Perry Mason. Eventually, the Chief Librarian allowed me to progress into the adult section but supervised all of my borrows. Fiction remains my greatest love but I read non-fiction, as well. What this means is that I have a huge fount (that word again) of story threads I can draw from. It doesn't mean I write the same story, it means I can take an element from one story and create a whole new one out of it. Take The Hunger Games, for example. I have no idea if Suzanne Collins has read Greek mythology but perhaps she's heard of the story of the Minotaur, a monster kept in the underground rooms of a king's palace. Every year, two children from cities subject to that king are sent to him to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. The similarities are clear but, like I said, I don't know if Ms. Collins knows the story. If she did, she used a thread to create something new and fresh. So, read, and read widely. That's my first advice to anyone wanting to write. Don't just stick to one genre and don't just stick to fiction. Read widely.

My second piece of advice is to always carry some kind of notebook with you or have it beside your bed. For some reason, my story ideas tend to come to me when I'm in bed so I keep a pen and pad handy. Some ideas are junk, but some will be useful. At least, that's what I've found.

Some years ago, I read a news article about a Grenadian bishop who was arrested in connection with the murder of a young girl. I had no idea what to do about it but I cut it out and put it in my Mystery Ideas folder (yes, that's how I've labelled it, don't laugh) right along with all the other news clippings, magazine articles, and images of people and places which intrigue me. (You don't have to have a folder, an Ideas Box would work just as well.) It sat there for years and then, late last year, I finally decided to try my hand at a mystery and I pulled out my folder. The old clipping about the Grenadian bishop caught my eye and, now, voila, I've got "The Dead Bishop," a story that will appear in my upcoming collection of crime stories, Storm Warning. My advice here is, collect your clippings and don't worry if the story idea doesn't come right away. It's percolating.

But, if you're really stuck, and can't find your muse, there are also tons of writing prompt sites on the web, like this one and this one.

Btw, I updated my December post on premade cover designers and added a few more, so you might want to take another look.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Let's talk blogging!

Authors, just as important as our dynamic Novel Spaces blog page is to us as far as being a tool, source of information, and way to keep up with other writers' goings-on in the business, also important is the bigger picture, and that is; the responsibility of authors to blog on a regular basis, simply as a way of communicating our thoughts and happenings to our readers, and colleagues.

Sometimes yes, it is easier said than done. To carve out time to write our thoughts and share ideas, especially when we have deadlines and life to tend to, is not as simple as even our best intentions may lead us to believe. It all boils down to making the time, sitting down, and doing it.

Commitment, diligence, creativity, focus, patience, a positive mindset, and the love of words, are all aspects of actually writing and posting a blog. Once we get started, what if the site isn't cooperating, or our proofreading skills leave us hanging with words that we read and reread ten times over, yet as soon as we hit publish and view it after it's released to the world, there's the word "might" instead of "tight," or "here" instead of "hair," and we're literally ready to pull our hair out just from the sheer frustration of the tricks our own eyes are playing on us? As with anything, email or novel, proofread, proofread, proofbreed, oops, I mean "read!"

Blogging is an important part of the business nowadays. Everything is online and communicated on a platform and/or page for the world to see. How fortunate are we to have the gift of these tools. What an amazing invention, even to be able to post on social media, share pics and videos, and so many other forums that we have at our fingertips to express ourselves.

The reward is in completing the post and ironing out the flaws, and sharpening it up, and reading it that one final time, which leads to a big smile and a deep exhale, even if it took an hour to write three paragraphs. But, it's done, we did it, we have shared our words and completed the task, and we can rest easily in knowing that we blogged today. We then wonder why we don't blog more often. It was actually kinda fun! Kinda!

What's in your head just before you sit down to blog? Do you have a positive attitude, or do you dread it? Do you blog on a random basis, or on set dates? Do you schedule your blogs ahead of time, writing them all at once? If you do, I salute you. If you don't, I'm with you.

Here's to fellow bloggers everywhere, even my granddaughter who can post a blog in ten minutes, all the while with a smile on her face - blog on, my literary sisters and brothers. Blog on!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Putting a Little English on It

My wife, who grew up in rural coastal South Carolina in the 1960s, was one of four black students to integrate a white high school. She has lived through danger and repression I can only imperfectly imagine. I'm something of an aberration in her portfolio, which documents a lifetime of involvement in and championing of African American culture. One thing that makes her angry is novels by black writers in which educated, professional, upper-middle-class black characters are familiar with the drug culture, routinely drop the f-bomb and n-bomb in conversation, and have a casual attitude about sex and marriage. She gets particularly incensed at the depiction of black men as dogs.

A writer at a recent workshop presented a story set in a working-class urban community. The writer and the characters were black and, though the writer did not, all of her characters spoke in a cursing, slang-filled argot in dialog replete with phonetic spellings. A white member of the workshop admitted she'd had difficulty following some of the conversations and suggested the writer's work would be more accessible if she employed standard usage with only a few bits of slang. The writer questioned whether telling her to make her characters sound more white was a valid criticism. I cited the works Caribbean writers here in Novel Spaces (with directions to their respective websites) as examples of incorporating elements of a culture authentically but in a way that was accessible to the widest range of readers and the conversation ended soon thereafter.

My native tongue is Southern English. This means that in the spoken language I know that 'child' rhymes with 'while'; that there's no need to enunciate the silent G at the end of words like readin, writin, children, or singin; and that an R following a vowel is softened (not eliminated, as some impersonators would have you believe). As a Southern writer I know the language is enriched by whimsical usage and the employment of words not currently in vogue; that initial articles are often superfluous; and that one should trust one's listeners and readers are intelligent enough to apprehend the occasional unspoken verb or subject. However, I'm also aware that many folk outside the South assume that Southern usage implies the inability to master any other and may be evidence of limited intellectual acuity. If not inbreeding. More troubling to me is that for many people of colors other than beige a white person who speaks with a Southern accent is suspected of being a closet klansman, or to at least harbor prejudicial tendencies. (And I know from personal experience that a white writer who depicts black Southerners as speaking with the same Southern accent he speaks with can find himself vilified as a racist.) With that in mind, I limit the dropped G in my characters' conversations to just often enough to establish locale and at no time call attention to the fact 'mild' and 'mile' are homophones. While I do exercise my cultural predilection for offbeat word choice and atypical sentence structure, I make a conscious effort to keep things simple enough for English majors to follow.

The assumption writing in dialect implies racism is not a new development; and it's not exclusively directed at white writers. I know my love for Zora Neale Hurston is on record somewhere—several someheres. According to Google Maps the Maitland, Florida, house I grew up in is four-point-three miles from the Zora Neale Hurston Museum in Eatonville, Florida. Never met her. I discovered her in college, and through her the Harlem Renaissance, but she had passed away the winter before the summer I became a reader. She did not, as I've seen reported elsewhere, starve to death in a homeless shelter. She was working as a librarian in Fort Pierce, FL, when she died of a stroke. However, it is true that due to lack of funds she was buried without a headstone. And the reason she had to work as a librarian and died too poor for a headstone is the direct result of the way she wrote. Or, more accurately, how her writing was perceived by others.

Hurston was an anthropologist by training – as in had degrees from Howard and Columbia – and a dedicated folklorist. She traveled to remote southern communities and as far afield as Haiti collecting legends and folk tales and recording them before they were lost to history. As a trained folklorist she wrote phonetically – because how a language is spoken shapes the sound and rhythm of the words. In other words, she wrote in dialect for legitimate academic as well as her own cultural reasons. However, many influential writers and social leaders felt she was betraying black culture and undermining black social progress by doing so. As Richard Wright (Black Boy and Native Son) wrote of what is now considered her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God: "her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought… her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is 'quaint,' the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the 'superior' race." Because her use of language offended such powerful voices in the African American literary movement her books were out of print for thirty years. No books in print meant no royalties, a low-wage job, and a funeral paid for by working class friends.
(Which kinda puts my whining about being abused by internet trolls in perspective, doesn't it?)

There is no one right way to speak English. It's a living language, malleable and resilient. It's lost and gained words over the years. Nor is English homogeneous – it's not changing in the same ways or at the same rate everywhere. Or with everyone. There is no one white way of speaking, no one black way of speaking, no one Native American, or colonial, or Hispanic or Asian, or Australian, or Canadian, or American – and try telling folk in the UK they all sound alike. There's no one any way of speaking. However, there is an agreed set of general conventions that enable all of us divergent English speakers to understand and be understood. As writers who write in English, we need to hew close to these conventions if we are to reach the widest audience. But at the same time we need to be true to our own voices, and true to the voices of our characters. The trick is in finding the balance.