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Thursday, 27 June 2013

A fresh approach to writing what you know - get away!

I've just been to Florida for the Historical Novel Conference. Apart from being able to attend wonderful sessions on all aspects of writing historical fiction, it was also a chance for me to go somewhere completely different and take in another landscape from the one which I look at every day.

Florida is flat, sunny and riddled with water - lakes, rivers and creeks. The roads are wide, level and straight and everyone cruises in big cars at fast speeds. The palm trees sway in breezes or sometimes hurricane style winds. Buildings are low and spread wide apart with no fences between the gardens. Crows and squirrels are skinny; they don't need much fat to keep them warm as the air there is hot and moist.

This is totally different from my English landscape. Where I live, the sky is smaller, framed by hills. Blue skies are a rarity and the roads are narrow, winding and banked by clusters of stone cottages. Today as I look out of my window a fine mist is drifting from the sky putting a damp veil over everything. The sky is almost colourless, a uniform white/grey as if it is illuminated like paper from behind.

One of the things I enjoyed about Florida was that it gave me (even if only for a few days) the chance to look at England through a stranger's eyes. And a stranger's eyes are what a novelist needs to bring freshness to the page. It is easy to forget that I have readers in other parts of the world who will read 'in the front garden' as something quite different from my intended version.

If you can't actually get away, then anything that gives you a new perspective will work just as well to invigorate your writing. Who could fail to look at life a little differently after viewing Salvador Dali's take on life? Hard things are suddenly mutable, furniture needs to be propped up by crutches, time bends and turns back on itself.

Outide the wonderful Salvador Dali Museum in St Petersburg
Picture from
At the Ringling Museum the sheer scale of a 19th century circus made me gasp in astonishment. One man had dedicated himself to telling the story of 'a day in the life of the circus' through his models, painstakingly made over a lifetime. In this world in miniature I was able to see that Ringling's travelling circus typically housed 1000 people, more than 300 horses and zebras, 80 to 100 musicians, 300 circus and hippodrome performers, 100 cages, plus the dens, chariots,and so forth that would parade through the town to raise interest in the performance.
Howard's scale model

Ringling Museum - courtesy of Tripadvisor
A novel that takes advantage of this setting is 'Water for Elephants' by Sara Gruen, but even this cannot convey the enormous scale of the 19th century circus. After seeing this exhibit, train travel back to my home in England seemed easy. What, no elephants to transport? No need to keep an eye on the lions or send a crew ahead with the thirty yard tent that needs putting up before anyone can eat? More info on the circus

Ford Edison Estate courtesy of

Whilst in Florida we travelled from beaches to cities, always with a museum or two in mind. Highlights for us were the Ringling Museum and the Ford Edison Country Estate.

Whilst visiting the Titusville Museum, run by a bunch of enthusiasts for their local history, I came across this lovely little second-hand bookshop and had a conversation with the owner about Deborah Harkness's new book. If you are near Titusville, do go check out the shop, The Book Rack, it has a great selection of Historical Fiction and Historical Romance.

Before signing off this post, I must mention fellow historical fiction bloggers who were on my panel at the conference; Circus drumroll please!

Julianne Douglas
Heather Webb
Heather Rieseck
Amy Bruno

I had a fabulous time in Florida, came back refreshed and renewed and itching to get back to my writing.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Blogging at the Historical Novel Society Conference, Florida

I will be speaking at the Conference on the panel entitled 
Virtual Salon: The Historical Fiction Blog
Today’s readers (and publishers) expect authors to have an internet presence. A blog is an effective way to join the writer, reader, and reviewer of historical fiction in dynamic interaction about novels and the history that infuses them. This panel at the conference will not only examine the benefits an author derives from maintaining a blog at various stages of her career, but will explore how blogging serves the historical fiction community as a whole. Topics include: finding a niche and establishing a voice; effective blogging strategies (regular features, guest posts, contests, blog tours); blogging etiquette; expanding one’s audience; and measuring success. 

I thought it would be nice to introduce you to my fellow-panellists on the 'Virtual Salon' panel at the Conference. We have only ever met 'virtually' so it will be lovely to meet them in real life. Click on their pictures to be taken to their blogs!

My PhotoJulianne Douglas has been organising us all for our panel discussion, and wrote the blurb at the top of this post. Julianne's blog 'Writing the Renaissance' focusses on historical fiction set in sixteenth century France. An avid reader who fell in love with all things French at the age of twelve, she went on to earn a Ph.D in French literature from Princeton.

Heather Webb's novel, 'Becoming Josephine' will be published in 2014 by Penguin/Plume and her blog 'Between the Sheets' is about her writing and publishing journey.

Amy Bruno's blog 'Passages to the Past' is a long-standing blog for the historical fiction community reviewing books of all periods and she boasts over 1000 followers and 418 networked blogs. Amy also runs the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Heather Rieseck started her blog, 'The Maiden's Court' in 2009 as an outlet for her reading. It has since become well-known for its honest reviews of historical novels and her author interviews.

Please consider checking out the blogs and leaving a comment. If there is anything you would like to know about blogging and historical fiction, please leave me a comment so that I can flag it up for the panel. We are looking forward to a great discussion and look out for my report of the session on this blog.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Four books on writing that go beyond the basics

Like all writers, I love my craft. Many writing books are aimed at beginners and often give more experienced writers the same information re-packaged. As a writer who is already published you might think that I don't need to read any 'how to' books about writing, but actually the more I write the more interested I get in the subtle nuts and bolts of how storytelling works, and the more I admire other writers who do it differently.

If like me, you want to increase the subtlety in your work then I can recommend the following books. None of them is written by a writer I know, and none of them is about how to write a bestseller.  What are your favourite books on writing? I'd love you to leave me a comment! 

179 ways to save a novel 

Matters of Vital concern to Fiction writers 
by Peter Selgin
The ideas in this book are grouped under six headings: Substance; Structure; Style; Symbol, Myth & Metaphor; Soul and Other Matters.

Self Editing for Fiction writers
How to edit yourself into print 
by Renni Browne and Dave King
This book has great examples and also wonderful cartoons, although it does cover ground that will be familiar to most, such as 'show not tell'. I include it because it is the best basic book on editing I have ever found, and the instructions are really clear.

Front Cover

Between the Lines
Master the subtle Elements of Fiction writing 
by Jessica Morrell
Few books attempt to explore subtleties of tone and voice. This book does just this. Most of the examples given are from the US and this can be off-putting if you are a Brit, but it is still a book well-worth reading.

The Art of Fiction 
Illustrated from classic and Modern texts 
by David Lodge
A series of articles from The Independent on Sunday, this book covers such things as 'the intrusive author', 'intertextuality' and 'defamiliarization' using examples as diverse as Charlotte Bronte and Michael Frayn. It is a book of literary criticism from which writers can learn a lot, although it is not strictly speaking a 'how to' book. The examples in this book show just how far you can go as a writer to make your voice your own.