Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hornswoggled (Book #12)

Hornswoggled (Donis Casey, 2006) is the second in a series featuring an unusual amateur sleuth, Alafair Tucker, a farmer's wife and mother of a large family ~90 years ago in Muskogee County, Oklahoma. I fell in love with the first book for the author's voice and the way she brought the past to life, and while the story isn't quite as strong this time around, it's still an excellent read.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published... (Book #11)

I don't read a lot of writing how-to books. Too many of them preach their particular formula for outlining or structuring a novel as the One True Way to write a successful book, and a lot of them just don't seem relevant once you've got a manuscript or two under your belt. I use The Writer's Journey to guide my editing process, and I page through On Writing every so often for inspiration, but that's pretty much it.

So when I saw 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published & 14 Reasons Why It Just Might (Pat Walsh, 2005) talked up on a blog, I was dubious, but I decided to give it a try. And I'm glad I did. It doesn't purport to tell you how to write--it's a book for writers who've completed a manuscript or two and need to learn to honestly assess their work and understand the industry better. I was forced to acknowledge I have certain of the bad habits, though I think I'm starting to outgrow Thinking Too Highly of Yourself and its cousin, Thinking You're a Natural. Anyway, I got it from the library, but I'm planning to get a copy of my own to join my skimpy books on writing collection.

Author Series: Bill Bryson

I read as much nonfiction as fiction, but the vast majority of my favorite authors are novelists. There are two main reasons for that: I'm an aspiring novelist myself, so fiction writers are my natural role models, and most of my nonfiction choices are driven by my interest in the subject matter rather than the author.

But there are a few exceptions, and one of them is Bill Bryson. He's funny and insightful, he's in love with language and history, and he's got a knack for making everyday life in both his native U.S. and the UK, where he lived for many years, seem fascinating.

Where to start with Bryson:

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything: The title overstates the case a bit--it's a history of science, of how and when we figured out what we know about the world, with a focus on the quirky personalities involved. I mean to use this one in my writing one of these days--write a fun novel about an almost-mad scientist.

2. The Mother Tongue: A history of the English language, with plenty of humor.

3. I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Bryson endures culture shock and offers an outsider-insider perspective on returning to America after two decades in England.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Size 14 is Not Fat Either (Book #10)

Size 14 is Not Fat Either (2006) is the second book in Meg Cabot's series featuring amateur sleuth Heather Wells, an ex pop-star now working at a college as an assistant dorm director (her mother absconded with all her money, so she's working to get free tuition and rebuild her life). This time a cheerleader's head is found simmering in a pot on the stove in the dorm's cafeteria, and despite her intentions to stay out of it this time and trust the police do their job, Heather starts asking questions...

All in all, a nice light read to unwind over the weekend.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Born Fighting (Book #9)

With the exception of one set of Swedish immigrant great-grandparents, my ancestors have been in America for so long that it's difficult to pick apart the threads of my heritage, but I'm probably at least half Scots-Irish. And there was a time when I almost considered that a bad thing. We've been on the wrong side of too many wars--I'm the great-great-granddaughter of a Confederate soldier, and my distant cousins are Protestant Northern Irish, the ones I've always seen as the invaders and the oppressors. Being Scots-Irish seemed somehow less worthy, and definitely less romantic, than being a Highland Scot or truly Irish.

I started changing my mind well before reading Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (James Webb, 2004, and yes, the author is the freshman senator from Virginia who gave the Democratic response to the State of the Union this week). Living outside of the South for all my adult life, and having lost all but traces of my accent, I've encountered all the worst stereotypes the rest of the country has about the rural Appalachian South and its largely Scots-Irish people. At some point it occurred to me that when a certain subset of my fellow coast-dwelling, well-educated, lefty elite types talked about stupid, ignorant redneck hillbillies and how we'd have been better off if we'd just let them go in 1861, they were talking about ME. My family. My people. That made me angry, and my anger made me determined to be proud of who and what I am.

Born Fighting traces the history of the Scots-Irish people from Roman Britain to the present. I think Webb idealizes and romanticizes the Scots-Irish to some degree, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to all those negative redneck hillbilly stereotypes. And I put the book down with a greater understanding of several key historical issues and how they play out in the present, from the Ulster Plantation to the Vietnam War. Also, one thing that I should've known but somehow never connected to my own ancestry is that the Scots who fought with Wallace and the Bruce weren't those romantic Highlanders, but instead were mostly Lowlanders, including the ancestors of the Scots-Irish. I know it doesn't really matter 700 years later, but I like the idea that my ancestors may have been among the victors of Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn.

Basically, Webb's thesis is that Scots-Irish individualism, populism, and military prowess have been an important but little-heralded factor in shaping the overall American character. To quote the closing paragraph:

Who are we? We are the molten core at the very center of the unbridled, raw, rebellious spirit of America. We helped build this nation from the bottom up. We face the world on our feet and not on our knees. We were born fighting. And if the cause is right, we will never retreat.

Even if I don't agree with every single thing Webb says, that's my people. And it's a heritage I can be proud of.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mayflower (Book 8)

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Nathaniel Philbrick, 2006) has a somewhat misleading title. It's not so much the story of the Mayflower and its passengers as a history of the first 50-60 years of the New England colonies, beginning with the Mayflower and ending with King Philip's War. And my only real problem with the book was that it covers too much ground in too few pages, never allowing the reader to get to know any one historical figure all that well. It's fascinating, but rather than leaving me satisfied, it's left me wanting to know more, especially about the women among the early colonists--Philbrick gives tantalizing glimpses, but that's it.

Still, it's a worthwhile read about a little-known corner of American history. (Trust me, if all you know about 17th century New England is what you learned in school, you know NOTHING about the Pilgrims and Puritans. The grade school version is pure mythology.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Author Series: Jo Beverley

And now my little author series moves from the classic to the contemporary--though the settings of the stories remain in the past.

Jo Beverley was one of the first romance authors I happened upon when I rediscovered the genre in my 20’s. I’d read Sunfire YA historicals, Georgette Heyers, and traditional Regencies in high school, but in college I read, well, lots of textbooks. And then there was my phase where I thought good Christians weren’t supposed to read romance novels, but that would be a LONG story...

Anyway, Beverley’s books set a standard few historical romance authors can live up to, combining polished, well-crafted prose, impeccable research, and appealing, intelligent characters whose relationships develop believably. She’s a very prolific author whose books are often part of linked series. Each volume stands alone, though in some cases the cast of walk-ons from previous books gets rather large. Three recommendations for good places to start:

1. A Most Unsuitable Man: This one is set in the 18th century and is linked to her long-running series about the Malloren family. An heiress wants to marry a well-bred, titled man to make up for own somewhat disreputable ancestry, but this younger son with no money and a guilty secret is so much more interesting...

2. The Shattered Rose: A love it or hate it book because of the difficult plot point of a heroine who cheated on her husband and bore an illegitimate child while he was away on Crusade. She did think he was dead at the time, and I’ve never been in the “heroines must be perfect” camp of romance readers.

3. Forbidden Magic: A fun Regency story with just a tiny touch of the paranormal. Young woman in desperate straits discovers that wishing on a statue inherited from her mother actually works, though not without complications.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Crazy For You (Book #7)

I've been going through one of my difficult to please phases as a reader. I must have started nearly ten books in the past week or so, but I only managed to finish Gallows Thief and my latest, Crazy For You (Jennifer Crusie, 1999). I don't know if Bernard Cornwell and Jenny Crusie actually are that much better than all the new-to-me authors I've attempted lately (though it's entirely possible) or if it's just that I've been reading them long enough that I trust them and will give them the benefit of the doubt if I'm not instantly hooked on page 1. Oh, well.

Anyway, this isn't the best Crusie I've ever read, but that still makes it better than at least 90% of what on the bookstore shelves, IMHO. Like many (most?) Crusies, it starts with a woman and a dog, and it has a hero with a bad boy edge and a villain who looks good on the surface but is revealed to be one nasty control freak.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Author Series: Jane Austen

What can I say about Jane Austen? There’s the glorious rhythm and flow of her prose--she has to be one of the best prose stylists in the history of the English language. There’s her wonderful, snarky wit, her utterly believable and memorable characters, the perfect marriage of realism and romance in her work. I don’t have enough superlatives for her. There have been many great authors, but Jane is incomparable. If I could only take one book from my shelves to the proverbial desert island, I wouldn’t even hesitate. I’d grab her complete works.

But if I had to pick my favorites?

1. Pride and Prejudice is sheer delight. If I had to pick a favorite fictional character of all time, it’d almost certainly be Elizabeth Bennet, and I could read P&P over and over without ever tiring of it.

2. Persuasion, on the other hand, has grown on me over time. I first read Austen in my early 20’s, and as such was drawn to her earlier works and younger heroines. I liked Persuasion well enough, but it’s a quieter story, with Austen’s wit played more subtly. But now that I’m well into my mid-30’s, I feel a greater appreciation for this wistful, autumnal story of a second chance.

Though I’d never presume to compare my writing with Austen’s, I can call her an inspiration, since the incident that started me writing seriously after several years away was watching the 2000 film version of Mansfield Park, not liking it very much, and ultimately determining to make my own attempt at adapting a character like Fanny Price for a modern audience.

And I do think anyone writing late Georgian or Regency era ought to know their Jane--even writers who, like me, find themselves drifting over to the adventurous, military side of the era. Austen gives you the mentality and domestic concerns of the era, the voice and vocabulary. Where else are you going to find primary source material that’s so much fun to read?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Author Series: Louisa May Alcott

I started picking my books from the adult section of the library at 10 or 11. This made me feel quite mature and sophisticated, but it also meant I skipped reading some of the classics at the usual age for discovering them. After hearing college friends gush about their girlhood fondness for such books, I decided it was time to see what I’d missed.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying I first read Little Women at 24 rather than 12.

Coming to Louisa May Alcott’s works as an adult, I’ve always read them on two levels: as stories and as primary source documents showcasing the concerns of a bygone era. To some degree that’s true of any classic work, but when I read Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, etc. the story is in the foreground. With Alcott, the story and my analysis of it as a window to 19th century America walk hand in hand.

I think that’s because her work is so very didactic. Alcott preaches to her readers. She has Strong Opinions about the role of women, how children ought to be brought up, proper behavior, and any number of other issues, and she unabashedly uses her stories as conversion vehicles. If she were a modern author writing about current issues, I’d probably find it annoying, even if I shared all her views. But as is, it’s a fascinating glimpse of the past.

At the risk of committing heresy, I don’t think Alcott’s writing should work as well as it does. There are the aforementioned sermons, and compared to many authors on my list, her prose is rather clunky. But what she does beautifully is create appealing characters and weave a web of relationships among them. She builds communities I want to visit again and again. And that’s the writing lesson I learn from Louisa May Alcott: if you build that community, your readers will keep coming back to be a part of it.

For each of the writers in this little series, I’m going to recommend 2 or 3 of my favorite books. Here again I must be a heretic, because Little Women does not make my list:

1 & 2. Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom: Orphaned, sickly 13-year-old heiress Rose Campbell goes to live with her uncle and guardian, a doctor who restores her to health through wholesome food (milk and oatmeal good, coffee bad) and raises her to be a strong-minded young feminist. In the second volume Rose is a vibrant young woman who must choose between her party boy cousin Charlie and her geeky cousin Mac. Some readers find the outcome unsatisfying, but she picks the one I would’ve chosen for myself, unlike Jo in Little Women. (I totally would’ve married Laurie and never found anything appealing about Prof. Bhaer!)

3. An Old-Fashioned Girl: Per the usual Alcott pattern, we first see the titular heroine Polly as a young teen. The daughter of a village parson, she goes to visit a wealthy friend in Boston, and her wholesome good nature contrasts with her friend’s decadent city lifestyle. In the second half, grown-up Polly is an independent music teacher who helps her rich friend’s family when they fall upon hard times and finds true love in the process.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Favorites and Influences

Over the next few weeks or maybe months, I'm going to look at my favorite authors and try to analyze why I like them so much and what influence, if any, they've had on me as a writer. I think I'll work my way through my LibraryThing collection alphabetically, which means the first two authors will happen to be Louisa May Alcott and Jane Austen. But after that most of the authors will be less famous and more alive.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Gallows Thief (Book #6)

In Gallows Thief (2002), Bernard Cornwell visits the gritty side of Regency London as a down-on-his-luck Waterloo veteran tries to save an innocent man from hanging, with the help of a motley set of allies ranging from his ex-fiancee (forced to break the betrothal by her social-climbing mother) to a dashing highwayman. And it's very good. I think I'd like it even better than the Sharpe books if only it were part of a series too, but as is I can't help being disappointed that I don't get to find out what happens next to Sandman, Berrigan, Eleanor, Sally, and the rest. Belmanoir really needs to read this one, since it reminded me in spots of both of the manuscripts of hers that I've critiqued.

(A word of warning, though--the book opens with a graphic depiction of a hanging. Not for the faint of heart, though I think it's the right choice for the story.)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

My roots are in red clay

While we were at my family home in Alabama for Thanksgiving, my husband and I went to see my father's grave, since it was the first time we'd been home since my mother had the tombstone put up.

Dad died of complications of lung cancer in 2005. I miss him, and I hope I have even a tiny fraction of his intelligence, his lifelong curiosity about the world, his compassion, and his integrity. I want to dedicate the first book I sell to his memory, and I'll always regret that I didn't become published while he lived. I would have liked to have given him an autographed copy of a book with my name on the cover.

He's buried in the cemetery of the church we attended when I was little, a church founded circa 1820 when that part of Alabama was settled, and that my ancestors had attended since the first Stones moved into the area from South Carolina in the 1840's. As a child I used to chase fireflies through that cemetery--only I called them lightning bugs then--after Sunday evening services and Wednesday night prayer meetings. I didn't appreciate then just how much history, my history, was there.

At Thanksgiving Dylan and I spent nearly two hours walking from grave to grave as I did my best to remember as much family and community history as I could. Dylan had his camera, and some of the pictures he took are here. At a guess, I'm probably some kind of kin to at least half the people buried there. It's a rural area, with a handful of large families who intermarried.

It was moving to walk through my own history, all those ancestors and cousins of mine asleep in the central Alabama red clay. Veterans of the Civil War and both world wars, so many tiny graves of little children from well into the 20th century, broken remnants of 19th century tombstones leaving only a few tantalizing clues about the lives and deaths they mark.

There are stories there that need to be told. I hope someday my muse will show me the way to tell them.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Age of Napoleon (Book #5)

The challenge I've found in taking on a subject as an adult that I never studied in school is that I tend to learn it lopsidedly--e.g. learning all about the British side of the Napoleonic Wars, but little about the French perspective on the same events (not to mention the Prussians, Austrians, Russians, etc.). Really, I'd like to know more about French history in general, especially 18th and 19th century. But it's tough, because I keep getting hold of books that assume a greater degree of knowledge than I have, and I flounder through them without context or a big picture view.

The Age of Napoleon (Alistair Horne, 2004) added some clarity to my picture of French life under Napoleon, largely focusing on art and culture. It's a quick, readable book, something of a survey but not an oversimplification. I'm sure I'll be making good use of the reference list.

I'll take liberty AND equality, thankyouverymuch

I tend to think of liberty and equality of opportunity as growing side by side and supporting each other, because IMO that's how it's worked in America, at least most of the time. So I get a bit puzzled sometimes as I study early 19th century France and Britain. France was, at least by the standards of the time, admirably egalitarian. You see many cases of men born into poverty and obscurity who rise to prestige on their own merits. But they were ruled by a control freak censor of a dictator. Britain, OTOH, was a highly stratified society largely ruled by a hereditary aristocracy--but was in almost all ways more free and open.

I'm usually pretty good at putting on the mentality of the past, but I guess as a 21st century American I have trouble understanding why the French didn't seize their freedom and the British their equality, because I'd find life without either equally unbearable. (Not, of course, that I'm claiming 2007 America is a perfectly free and equal society. But you don't want me to go into a political rant. Really, you don't.)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Rough Crossings (Book #4)

Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (Simon Schama, 2006) was a slow and often depressing read, but I'm glad I stuck with it and managed to finish. It's the story of black loyalists, mostly escaped slaves, who took part in the British war effort as soldiers, servants, spies, etc. They were promised freedom and land after the war, but the government proved less than eager to honor their promises as the black loyalists were transported first to Nova Scotia along with the bulk of the white loyalists and then to Sierra Leone.

Don't read this book if you want to cherish the warm, fuzzy view of the American Revolution you learned in elementary school. I spent a good chunk of my reading time gnashing my teeth over just how nasty and selfish people are capable of being. Neither Britain nor America comes out of this book smelling like roses, but Britain occupies the moral high ground--though they broke enough promises that the moral high ground is more like an ant hill than Mount Rainier.

On the positive side, we meet idealists like Granville Sharp and John Clarkson who actually believed in Britain's supposed ideals and tried to force their countrymen to put principle ahead of profit and political power. And while many of their efforts were in vain, I think they and others like them did speed the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and help spur the growth of the American abolitionist movement. Thank God for idealists, in the 18th century or any other.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

More on fictionalizing real people

Another challenge I'm facing as I plot out my alternate history is just how much I can change such details of real people's lives as whom they married and when they died. This is a non-magical alternate history, so it's not like George III is going to be eaten by a dragon or Napoleon is going to be bewitched into marrying a sorceress. So I'm trying to work within natural causes--e.g. if I know a person had a severe illness or injury (or even fought in a battle or traveled to a place where he could've reasonably contracted malaria, cholera, or whatever) and survived, I can justify killing him off. Or, conversely, if someone died of something people had a reasonable chance of surviving, I can make him or her live. (For example, and this is NOT part of my story, what if Stonewall Jackson had survived the amputation of his arm after Chancellorsville? Lots of people survived amputations, or there wouldn't have been any point in subjecting anyone to them, and I bet the Civil War would've played out entirely differently had he lived, since with all due respect to Lee I think Jackson was the most gifted general the Confederacy had.)

Anyway. My specific plotting dilemma is whether I can marry real people to different people than they wed in real life, and, if so, whether I have to find another real person for them to marry, or if I can marry them off to a suitable invented person. In two cases, I think it's probable that my alternate reality would've led them to marry different people, and that marrying them off to their real-world spouses would be too contrived. But I can't see either of them staying single. So do I invent spouses for them? Or do I find other real people of roughly the right age and rank? Either feels a bit presumptuous, somehow. Though, really, I don't suppose it's any more so than killing people early or changing the outcome of battles. Maybe it's just because love and marriage are a bit more intimate than whether one survives an illness or whether the reinforcements make it to the battlefield on time.

Monday, January 8, 2007

I'm lucky I escaped that Starbucks alive...

I'm a member of two critique groups, one online that operates weekly year-round, not even breaking for Christmas, and an in-person one that meets Monday nights at a local Starbucks and does break for holidays and the like. What with our various Christmas/Hannukah/New Year's travels, tonight was the first night we'd met in over a month.

I couldn't remember exactly what scene I'd taken the last time we met, though I knew it was from somewhere in The Inconvenient Bride's extended ball scene. (TIB is a fairly classic marriage of convenience story set at Regency house party, so there naturally HAS to be a ball.) So I guessed.

Turns out I skipped about 20 pages. The 20 pages wherein my hero and heroine are caught in a compromising situation and forced to become engaged. (Told you it was a classic Regency story.) My critique partners did NOT appreciate being deprived of smooches and high drama.

Time to email them what they missed....

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Writing real people

My alternate history series is starting to take shape in my mind. I'm picturing scenes, getting a sense of how my characters will interact, etc. I love this part of the process because it's when creativity goes into warp speed, and my body is folding laundry or buying groceries, but my mind is 200 years and almost 5,000 miles away.

None of my previous books have featured real historical figures as anything more than names tossed in to show readers I've done my homework. The Sergeant's Lady refers to Wellington and to Robert Craufurd (one of Wellington's subordinate generals, commander of the Light Division), but neither gets any screentime. And that works fine when your protagonists are a sergeant and a captain's widow. But half the fun of an alternate history is taking real people and putting them in the altered circumstances.

So I'm developing a few of my own characters, including my main protagonist and his love interest, and researching certain key real people, at least one of whom is nearly as important as the protagonist. And it's WEIRD having so much about a major character be determined before I've written a single word. He's in his 30's when my world noticeably diverges from the real world, so he's got a huge chunk of backstory that's right there in the historical record. His personality is largely set--I can justify certain changes based on how I think he'd respond to my scenario, but I've got to work with the material reality gave me. I feel like I owe it to the real man to try to imagine what he would've done, and not to just make him do whatever is convenient for the story or make him a mouthpiece for my worldview.

I don't mind the restrictions, especially because it IS alternate history. But I don't think I could write the sort of fictionalized biographies Philippa Gregory, etc. specialize in. I'd feel too boxed in by reality.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Venetia (Book #3)

In general I like Georgette Heyer's books rather than love them, heresy as that is for a Regency writer. I did, however, love Venetia (1958). It's a story of an innocent virginal miss who tames an older, debauched rake--not normally a favorite plot of mine. But she put some unusual twists in the tale, and she convinced me that the hero and heroine belonged together and would never be quite as happy with anyone else. And that's what romance is all about, Charlie Brown.

That said, while I'm glad Harlequin has put Heyer's works back in print through their HQN imprint, I wish they'd done a better job with typesetting. I guess the issue is that Heyer's works are longer than modern romances, but the publisher wants to keep them the same length/size as a typical single title romance, ~350 pages. The font size isn't especially small, but the margins are too narrow. In particular, the inside margin is so tight that when you hold the book in a normal, relaxed fashion, you can't read it properly. I had to maul the book's spine, such that it looks more like an old favorite I've read a dozen times or a book from the library's paperback swap collection than a book I got new as a Christmas present and read once.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Writer's Block

I have written whole novels. Why, oh why, can I not think of anything more cogent to say in a congratulatory scrapbook we're making for my boss's wedding than, "Congratulations!"?

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Ghost Map (Book #2)

The Ghost Map (Steven Johnson, 2006) is an account of an 1854 cholera outbreak in a London neighborhood and how two men--a local curate and a brilliant doctor--rigorously proved that the source of the disease was contaminated water from a particular well and not foul miasmas, which were still the scientific community's favored explanation for cholera and similar diseases. It's a fascinating, readable book, and a good reminder for me as a historical fiction writer of just how differently my characters would've viewed the world. Viruses and bacteria are simply part of my reality--just like plate tectonics, evolution, and a whole host of other things my turn-of-the-19th-century characters would've had no concept of. I know all that, but every once in awhile it's nice to be reminded.

I recommend this book highly, with one caveat--you might want to skip the last chapter where he enumerates the threats facing modern cities. I could've done without the description of exactly what a one-megaton nuke detonated at the epicenter of the cholera outbreak would do to modern London, especially since there's not a damn thing I can do personally to reduce the odds of such a weapon falling into the wrong hands. I think I'm going to go read something nice and escapist now, maybe with some fluffy bunnies and kittens, just to see if I can stave off nuclear nightmares...

On Buying Friends' Books

A recent discussion on one of my writing-related email lists centered on when you are and aren't obligated to buy books written by your friends. The general consensus was that beyond your inner ring--critique partners, best friends, etc.--there is no such obligation.

That probably sounds weird to a non-writer. It certainly would have to me five or six years ago. I mean, if someone you know writes an actual published BOOK, how could you not buy it?

Thing is, once you start hanging out in writing circles, you start meeting authors. If you join organizations like RWA or HNS and go to writers' conferences, before you know it you know TONS of them. In 2001, I would've been in awe of anyone with a publishing contract. Now--well, it was pretty cool meeting Bernard Cornwell and Jennifer Crusie at the Surrey conference in October, and I could probably eke out a fangirlish "SQUEE!" for Naomi Novik, but authors no longer amaze me by their very existence.

By now I probably know at least 50 authors, maybe more. Some of those relationships are purely online (which doesn't make them any less real), and I don't know how many of them remember me as well as I remember them. (And, really, why should someone like Cornwell or Crusie remember talking to me the way I remember everything they said to me? To them, I'm one of the horde of aspiring writers, while to me they're What I Want To Be When I Grow Up.)

Anyway, if I bought every single book by every single author I know, I'd be broke, my bookshelves would overflow, and I'd have no space in my budget or on my shelves for interesting books by strangers. And the unfortunate fact is that just because I like a person doesn't mean I'll enjoy his or her book. Sometimes that's a bit awkward. Writers, by and large, are nice people, so it's always a bit painful to discover that X has no historical voice, Y's new book is boring, and that I don't like certain subgenres even when someone as wonderful as Z writes them. I'd much rather love all my friends' books, but that's not going to happen.

Fortunately, most authors I've met seem to realize that no book is for every reader, and I've never felt pressured to buy a book just because the author is one of my friends from my RWA chapter. I'll have to keep that in mind for when (I refuse to say "if") I'm published.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

A Kind of Honor (Book #1)

Every few months, I make the rounds of favorite used bookstores and my local Value Village just to see what out-of-print treasures catch my eye. My favorites are old Regency romances--often witty drawing room comedies, sometimes history-rich stories of the Napoleonic War battlefields and homefront, and, unfortunately, a rare breed in today's publishing market.

For my first read of 2007, I took up a recent thrift store Regency find, A Kind of Honor (Joan Wolf, 1980), which turned out to be a very unusual romance for any year. It's a bit dark, and it's full of specific historical detail. I'm not normally fond of spy plots, but this one I could get behind because it felt so believable--the villain wanted to pass Wellington's plans for the 1813 campaign to Napoleon, and since those plans involved something of a trick play (Wellington apparently being in a mood to be the Boise State of generals that year), discovery really would've been disastrous for the British war effort.

But what really made this book different is that the heroine is the villain's wife. IOW, it's an adultery story, which is an automatic no for many readers. I'm certainly not a fan of infidelity, but women trapped in loveless marriages with men who turn out to be traitors get a bit of a pass from me, at least in books! And it works for this story, IMHO, because it makes it angsty, dark, and unpredictable.

Crusie-Mayer Writing Workshop

Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer are doing an online writing workshop this year. It's a topic per week, designed to be useful for fiction writing in general rather than focused on a particular genre. I heard them speak at the Surrey writers' conference a few months ago and was impressed, and going by the first lesson it looks like it'll be useful.

Monday, January 1, 2007

2006 - My year in reading

In 2006 I read 112 books, 34 of which were published in '06. That's new-to-me books, read cover to cover. I don't count re-reads or books I don't finish. The genre breakdown was as follows:

14 historical fiction
14 historical romance
11 contemporary romance
3 paranormal romance
5 YA (includes fantasy, romance, etc. if written for a YA audience)
7 fantasy
4 mystery
1 other fiction
24 nonfiction - history
29 nonfiction - other

It was a good year for me, largely because a few months in I stopped worrying about market research (reading recently published historical romances to get a feel for where my work might fit in) and started reading whatever happened to appeal to me, regardless of whether it was popular, recently published, or something I could picture myself writing someday. Not that understanding the market isn't important, but reading books you don't particularly enjoy is a real muse-killer, and just makes you angry that they're published and you aren't.

Anyway, just for fun, two top ten lists--my favorite books published in 2006, and earlier. I'm only doing one book per author. Otherwise, Naomi Novik would dominate the first list and Bernard Cornwell and Jennifer Crusie the second. They're in no particular order, except as noted:

My favorite 2006 books
1. HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON, by Naomi Novik. Hands down my favorite read of the year. It's like Aubrey/Maturin with dragons, and SO well done.

2. MAIDENSONG, by Diana Groe. A Viking romance by a debut author, well-researched and not at all cheesey.

3. KUSHIEL'S SCION, by Jacqueline Carey. First in a new trilogy in an established alternate-Europe setting. 700 pages, and I read it in a day while recuperating from strep this summer.

4. MAJOR CRUSH, by Jennifer Echols. Debut YA romance set in a small-town Alabama marching band--in other words, the world of my adolescence.

5. FARTHING, by Jo Walton. A chilling mystery set in an alternate 1940's where England made peace with Nazi Germany early in WWII.

6. THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA, by Michael Pollan. All about how our food makes it to our tables, and it made me vow to buy more local and organic from now on.

7. THE AUDACITY OF HOPE, by Barack Obama. Normally I try to keep my politics out of this blog, but suffice it to say I've caught Obama-mania, and I think he's the real deal.

8. EYES OF CROW, by Jeri Smith-Ready. A romantic fantasy with (IMHO) solid world-building.

9. THE ROGUE'S RETURN, by Jo Beverley. Solid Regency historical romance, largely set in Canada.

10. IN MILADY'S CHAMBER, by Sheri Cobb South. Murder mystery set in Regency London, with hints of romance that I hope get a chance to be developed in sequels.

Favorite pre-2006 books read in 2006
1. DEDICATION, by Janet Mullany (2005). One of the last of Signet's traditional Regencies, but not a typical trad--hero and heroine were older, and the book was very sexy and different. Happily, Mullany is under contract again and IIRC will have a historical novel out from HarperCollins in '07 or '08.

2. SHARPE'S TRIUMPH, by Bernard Cornwell (1998). I had a hard time choosing between TRIUMPH, TRAFALGAR, and GOLD, but this one won out because it's sort of the "origin story"--we see Sharpe save the future Duke of Wellington's life and win his officer's commission.

3. WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES, by Philip Gourevitch (1998). A history of the Rwandan genocide, and an extremely harrowing book to read, but I'm glad I did.

4. PERSIAN FIRE, by Tom Holland (2005). A narrative history of the Greco-Persian wars, which for some reason have always fascinated me. One of these days I want to write about Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, etc. myself.

5. THE SHATTERED ROSE, by Jo Beverley (1996). A rather dark medieval romance, and possibly my all-time favorite Beverley.

6. THE TRUTH-TELLER'S TALE, by Sharon Shinn (2005). YA romantic fantasy, very well done.

7. PERSEPOLIS, by Marjane Satrapi (2003). Memoir of the author's childhood in revolutionary Iran, in graphic novel format.

8. THE OLD BUZZARD HAD IT COMING, by Donis Casey (2005). Mystery set in rural Oklahoma in the early 20th century. Wonderful voice.

9. FAST WOMEN, by Jennifer Crusie (2001). Romance with a lot of mystery and comedy, with Crusie's usual mastery of character and dialogue.

10. A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING, by Bill Bryson (2003). History of science made accessible.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

New Year's Day makes me doubly reflective, because it's also my birthday. (I'm 36. I feel oldish, or at least not-so-young. And I'm not sure where the past ten years went, except by too quickly.)

2006 didn't turn out as well as I hoped. I'm still not published. As for the rest of my life...well, I still need to lose weight, we still need a a better house, etc. My accomplishments this year mostly had to do with balance, compromise, and accommodation. Thanks to my agent's patient tutelage, I'm better at editing and rewriting than I was before. I learned to be a reasonably productive writer despite working 40 hours/week and having a husband and a toddler. I made less-than-ideal career and housing situations livable. I realized I needed to make changes in what I write to be happy with my work and (I hope!) improve my chances at publication, and I took the first steps toward making those changes a reality. And that's all important and worthwhile--I'm just ready to have a publishing contract, a house of my own, and a less stressful balance of writing, life, and day job.

So I'm making goals for 2007, hoping they'll get me a little closer to those dreams:

1. Finish my WIP, The Inconvenient Bride, by the end of April.
2. Take a few months to research, then start my alternate history no later than September, with the goal of having at least 150 pages written by 12/31/07.
3. Lose weight and exercise. If I want another 50 years to write and enjoy life, I've got to take better care of myself.
4. Make the housing and career situations better. Somehow. Details of this and #3 are beyond the scope of this blog.