A Dog’s Tale

HarryThis is a dog story. Not just any dog story, but one that illustrates triumph over adversity, the importance of small joys and the role of a writer’s companion. Some of you will have seen Harry in my official author photo – he brings his own special something to my life and work. He makes me take breaks and exercise regularly. He ensures I don’t take myself too seriously. He keeps the other canines in the household under control. He is a neighbourhood character, well loved by all. But it so nearly wasn’t so.

In late 2010 Harry was surrendered to an animal rescue group – a small white curly-coated cross breed, filthy, skinny and terrified. His age was given as three, though most likely he was older. On the way to the shelter, while being transferred between cars, Harry escaped and took off into what we in Australia call ‘the bush’ – in this case a densely forested area. The animal rescue people searched but he could not be found.

A community of Buddhist nuns living on an isolated property kept glimpsing a little white dog on the fringes of the monastery grounds. He was too scared to come close, but they left food out for him, and after three weeks living wild Harry was apprehended again. At his vet check it was apparent that he needed major surgery on his knees. I volunteered to be his foster carer during the pre and post-op periods.

I’ve had foster dogs come and foster dogs go. This one was different from the moment he came in the door. It took me around thirty seconds to decide that this frightened little soul was a keeper. He wasn’t especially pretty or particularly friendly. There was just that intangible something between us. By the end of the recovery period Harry had settled in as if he’d always lived with me and my (then) household of two tiny girl dogs.

The following year tested both Harry and me severely. [Read more…]


The Evolution of an Author Website

When I started out as a serious writer, back in the mid-1990s, I didn’t even own a home computer. I wrote in longhand and word-processed after hours at work. Once I had my first publishing contract I acquired a home PC and got internet access, and a family member who worked in IT set up an author website for me. It was pretty simple, a basic template with a Celtic border framing each page of text. The pages were Author Bio, Books, Contact and News. There were links to several online forums run by readers. As the fan base grew, readers were invited to submit book reviews, art work and (sometimes) their own writing for display on the site.

My readership outgrew that first website within five years or so. Not only did it get too time-consuming for me to handle the updates myself, but the program that supported the site became outmoded. The technology was developing fast and readers wanted more features. So I employed a professional web designer to create a new site, working in consultation with me. I pay her a monthly fee to maintain and update the site for me – a decision I have never regretted.

So what did we want, back in 2006? A quicker response. A way of displaying fan art more effectively. Features such as a rotating display of book covers. Video clips and audio samples. But what about the overall design? (Remember, at this point, tablets and smartphones were not widely in use – most people were still accessing the internet via laptop.)

I thought I knew what I wanted. Whether it was a good idea at the time, I’m still not sure.

[Read more…]


Deadline Craziness

20141130_161430 (360x640)OK, I confess, this month I am not posting a well-thought-out piece of wisdom on the writer’s craft. Instead I’m flailing around the night before my post is due, trying to string together something meaningful. I thought of asking Harry to write this for me, as he’s provided a WU post before on the vexed topic of deadlines, and how the life of a writer’s dog becomes less comfortable the closer they get. But for reasons given below, Harry isn’t up to the job right now.

My manuscript, a historical fantasy/mystery, is due for submission in January.  It’s progressing well but I have a sizeable percentage of it still to write, and I’m not speedy. Usually I have time to finish the novel, set it aside for a while, then polish further and submit before the deadline. This time around, there’s a lot left to write and just over a month remaining.

Yes, I’m an experienced pro. And I’ll get it done. But I’m not happy about my poor time management on this particular novel. I need to learn from the experience and make sure I don’t let it happen again. Some things I can avoid next time; some, sadly, I will need to build into future plans.

Side projects: When I’m asked to contribute a piece to an anthology, or to present a workshop or attend a writers’ event, I find it hard to say no. This year I wrote a short story for an anthology about strong women in history; it was a project I was thrilled and excited to be part of. My story about Hildegard of Bingen was only 5000 words, but it took a long time to craft – distilling Hildegard’s extraordinary life into so few words was a challenge, and I wrote several versions before I felt I’d got it right. I also presented some talks and workshops, though I managed to say no to a couple, knowing how much preparation I generally need to do.

Learning: next year, say no more often. Only take on the projects you can’t bear to let pass by.

Work-related travel and appearances: [Read more…]


History and Magic

Lion statue, Tarquinia
Lion statue, Tarquinia

Recently I attended the Historical Novelists Association annual conference, this year held in London. It was a great weekend with plenty of lively and informative sessions, though slightly more aimed at the aspiring writer than I’d expected. Highlights for me were a workshop on Battle Tactics and a panel entitled Confronting Historical Fact with the Unexplained: from myths & the occult to fairytales & the Gothic, chaired by Kate Forsyth.

Initially I felt a little out of place at this conference, since I write historical fantasy rather than straight historical fiction. However, anyone who writes in my genre can tell you that the historical research still needs to be done, and done thoroughly. A novel containing fantasy elements should be consistent to its time and culture, whether that time and culture are historical, imaginary or some blend of the two. (Many fantasy stories have a setting closely resembling medieval Europe. Also popular are settings suggesting the Victorian era.) The story may be brimful with fey beings, weird magic and humans with unusual powers, but woe betide the author who includes New World vegetables in quasi-medieval England, or gives an army the wrong weapons or a village band the wrong instruments. Readers are quick to point these errors out.

The conference sessions on research were as useful to me as they were to the writers of straight historical novels. A historical fantasy should be built on a strong foundation of known fact. The writer should become as familiar as she can with the time and culture that provides the basis for the story’s world. And, of course, the writer must also know her magical or uncanny framework, the ‘Otherworld’ side of the history. In my books, that Otherworld springs from the probable beliefs of the people who would have lived in that time and culture, whether it is the north of Britain in the Pictish era, Anglo-Norman Ireland or Norway at the time of the Vikings. I haven’t always got it right; I’ve learned from my errors.

At the HNS conference there was some discussion about which periods are currently most popular in historical fiction. What would your guess be?

[Read more…]


More on Voice and Structure

Howling WolfI posted some time ago about the challenges of voice and structure in my (then) work in progress, a novel called Dreamer’s Pool, first instalment of the Blackthorn & Grim series,  which is a historical fantasy/mystery series for adult readers. At that point I was wrestling with the self-imposed limitations of the format – three contrasting first person narrators alternating chapters. I love writing in first person, but I wondered at that point whether my control freak approach was forcing the story into a structure in which it would be hard to maintain and build tension. By building some flexibility into the structure, I did eventually make this work. At least, I hope I did! It’s interesting that one of the major changes requested by my editors was a re-ordering of the chapters to ensure they fell in exact chronological order – not easy or even quite natural when the three narrators are not all present in the same location until well into the story.

Dreamer’s Pool is now off my hands, with an Australian release date of October 1 and the US release in November. I’m hard at work on the second in the series, provisionally entitled The Tower of Bann. The relationship between voice and structure is the same as before: three voices alternating chapters. Two of the voices continue from the first novel: first person past tense for disillusioned healer Blackthorn, first person present tense for her henchman Grim. The third voice is that of a new character, the enigmatic Lady Mella. The mystery element of the series, in which Blackthorn and Grim combine their talents to solve a puzzle in each book, has meant that this character must withhold information in her chapters. How to do this without obvious artifice? How to avoid leaving readers with that annoying feeling of having been tricked?

If a plot requires a point of view character to deceive the reader – to be an unreliable narrator – that character’s voice requires careful control. The writer may use this character to lead the reader down a false trail, or conceal something that will later be the turning point of the story.

If a plot requires a point of view character to deceive the reader – to be an unreliable narrator – that character’s voice requires careful control. The writer may use this character to lead the reader down a false trail, or conceal something that will later be the turning point of the story: They were brother and sister all along! She’s been lying to him (and the reader) about her true character since the very start! OMG, he was in a coma the whole time!

Done clumsily, this kind of thing can leave the reader feeling cheated. Done well, as in Gillian Flynn’s chilling Gone Girl, it can be a powerful storytelling device. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is a novel in which the holding back of information is central to the emotional impact of the story. A suggestion: if you have yet to read the Fowler novel, don’t look at reviews or the jacket blurb beforehand unless you want the major twist revealed in advance.

Lacking the storytelling brilliance of either of these authors, I couldn’t immediately see how best to shape Mella’s voice without obvious artifice. How could I avoid giving readers that annoying feeling of having been tricked?

Here are some approaches I considered.

[Read more…]