wriing craft

walk3Lately, I’ve been struck by the way smells and sights and sounds bring feelings from the past welling to the surface, even before my mind consciously frames the memory. The whiff of jet fuel as Mélanie and I walked to the gate on our recent trip to New York brought the anticipation of childhood travel. The sight of autumn leaves clustering on trees and lying in drifts on the ground while bare branches make a tracery against the rose gold sky (in Ashland, in New York, at home) evokes thoughts of pumpkin lattes, crisp days at football games, evenings by the fire, and a whiff of anticipation of the holidays, along with the more grown up reminder that there’s a lot to get done before the end of December. Lately, whenever I walked downstairs in the morning, the cool air combined with the heat rising from the ground floor instantly conjures up the wonder of Christmas morning.

I try to weave in all of the five senses when I write. Sometimes I even make lists of what sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and smells I can use in a particular scene (I did this a lot years ago when I was consciously making an effort to do more with the five senses to evoke my settings). But I don’t know that I think enough about how the five senses can evoke memories from my characters’ pasts. Without consciously trying to, I did use a scene in the theatre in my forthcoming The Berkeley Square Affair to bring up Suzanne’s childhood memories:

Even an almost empty theatre had its own smell. Sawdust, the oil of rehearsal lamps, drying paint, the sweat of active bodies that could never quite be banished. After all these years, it still sent an indefinable thrill of magic through Suzanne. Jessica seemed to sense it from her mother, for she gave a crow of delight in Suzanne’s arms and waved her hands.

I’m going to try to do more of this, evoking memories specific to different characters’ pasts. The autumn leaf image could translate to many historical settings. So could the cold air and warmth of a banked fire. What would evoke the excitement of travel? The jangle of bridles? The smell of carriage leather or horses? The thud of portmanteaux being loaded?

What specific sense memories evoke the past for you? What conjures up thoughts of autumn and the holidays? Writers, do you try to use the five sense to evoke your character’s pasts?

8.3.13TracyMelDriving to the vet’s Wednesday with three cats and a toddler (an adventure in and of itself, though we got through the cats’ check ups with everyone in a surprisingly good mood), I heard an interesting interview on NPR with the writer Dani Shapiro. One of the things she talked about was how difficult it is to walk to her desk in the morning and begin to write, how easy it is to get distracted on the way. This particularly resonate with me, as I am beginning to write the next Malcolm and Suzanne book after months of revisions and copy edits. I love the adventure of starting a new book, but there’s no denying the daunting nature of a blank screen. Instead of opening my computer to pages to revise, I open it to the limitless, exciting, and terrifying prospect of words to be written. I love being in my characters’ world. But making the mental jump into that world can be daunting. And with a young child, one can’t afford to spending writing time being daunted.

The trick I’ve settled into to get myself going is to tell myself I only have to write 100 words, then I can check my email, look at Facebook or Twitter, surf the web, or some other tantalizing, short (the key is to keep it short) break. 100 words is much less terrifying than 1000 (which is what I usually try to write a day). Usually somehow I can come up with something to say (it’s even better if I’ve thought it through on the drive to the Peet’s where I do most of my writing). Then a quick break, then another 100 words. Usually by the time I get to 500 I don’t need the breaks anymore or at least I write 200 or 300 words between breaks. On a really good day, I get on a roll after the first 100 words and scarcely need a break at all (sometimes go on to 1500, 2000, etc…). But knowing I can take a break can be the difference between starting to write and spending an hour or so staring at the screen or surfing the web or scrolling through social media. Of course the breaks between 100 word burst also take up precious time (particularly precious if it’s baby nap time). But I find I need to stop and think in any case. My subconscious is working while I read an article in the NYT or browse a fashion site. Or so I tell myself, and I do often find it easier to write again after the break. And telling myself I only have to write 100 more words, gets me to click back into Scrivener after my mini-break.

And so, after our trip to the vet’s, I returned the cats home, and managed to follow a chaotic morning with a reasonably productive afternoon. Today I was able to dive into the new book with reasonable ease after Mélanie and I spent the morning at the Pumpkin Patch. I have no illusions that every day will be this easy. But somehow, 100 words at a time, this book will get written.

What tricks do you use to get yourself to write?

12.25.12TracyMelHappy New Year! Much as I love the holiday season, I always find I relish quiet, cool January days, settling back into work with a steaming cup of tea and plentiful (or at least more plentiful than in December) time. My WIP, the next Malcolm & Suzanne book, now has a working title, The London Gambit, and I’ve started the new year off by going over my draft of the book so.

I always say I’m the sort of writer who plots in advance, but the truth is a bit more complicated. I do need to do quite a bit of advance thinking and note taking before I can start to draft scenes. I lay out plot ideas on the wonderful Scrivener corkboard and move them around and start to build the story. But at a certain point I need to start actually drafting some of the scenes. It’s as though I need to flesh out the scenes to see how they work, how the characters interact, how different plot strands twist together. Often the very process of writing the scenes gives me additional plot ideas . And in and around writing, I’m continuing to think about the plot and making notes.

I write many of these early scenes out of order – skipping parts of the story I’m not sure of and fleshing out the scenes I know I need. Often I’m not sure where a given scene will fall in the arc of the story when I first draft it. In the past couple of weeks I’ve begun to organize the scenes I have. I spent a couple of days last week not trying to write at all, just playing with index cards on the corkboard and seeing how the story can fit together. A clear structure for the first “act” of the book emerged pretty quickly – which required some additional scenes to connect what I’d already written and sent me back to drafting new material, while I also edited the scenes I’d already written. Now I’m mulling how the second act fits together, though the turning point into Act III is clearly marked.

So for me, plotting the book and drafting scenes are inextricably intertwined, which was never more clear to me than working on The London Gambit over the past few days. While I don’t think I could write without plotting in advance, I also don’t think I could comfortably plot an entire book without fleshing out some scenes along the way. And just as stepping back and thinking about the plot gives me ideas for scenes, sometimes writing a scene gives me plot ideas.

Writers, how do you approach plotting? Has your approach changed through the years? Readers, any questions about plotting?

And to welcome in the new year, I’ve just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Mélanie/Suzanne to Dorothée written in early January 1816.

photo: Bonnie Glaser

In my WIP, Malcolm and Suzanne have a second child, Jessica {who will be familiar to readers of the Charles and Mélanie books}. I set the book in October 1817 with Jessica ten months old, so that at one point at least while I was writing it, she would be the same age as my daughter Mélanie. For once I wouldn’t have to try to remember what my friends’ kids were doing at the particular age of the children in my books or ask my friends to remember age-appropriate details only to be told it was all a blur.

So this month, the parental wonder of watching of a child’s growth and development has had an added focus for me. I’ve written scenes with Suzanne nursing while I’ve nursed myself. I’ve sat in the play park and taken notes on my iPad or my phone about how Mel pulls herself up on the edge of a bench and bounces on the balls of her feet, the little squeals and outstretched hands with which she greets other children, the great interest with which she snatches up and studies a leaf.

And in the process, I’ve made discoveries both as a parent and as a writer. As Mélanie’s mom, I’m reminded of how important it is to savor every moment. The weight of her in my arms, the tiny hand grabbing my hair or the bodice of my dress when she’s nursing, the way she crawls with one foot tucked up under her. And as a writer, I’m reminded of how important it is to observe people. I often find myself writing “He drew a breath” or “She adjusted the folds of her gown” endless times in the course of a book. There’s such a rich wealth of gesture, inflection, and intonation to be observed. A world of research that can be done not in books or archives or on the internet but by looking up from the computer screen and glancing round a café, taking a walk, visiting a park or a museum or a shopping mall. The smallest specific detail can set a scene, bring a character to life, define a relationship.

I’ve just added a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Aline {a good observer of people for all she has her head in numbers} to Gisèle on the eve of The Paris Affair, about Wilhelmne of Sagan’s new and scandalous {even for Wilhelmine} love affair with Lord Stewart.

Happy Halloween {there’s Mélanie above as Angelina in La Cenerentola aka Cinderella). And warm thoughts and wishes to those on the East Coast.

photo: Raphael Coffey Photography

I’ve been fortunate not to have to work at a “day job” for most of my writing career. But pretty much from the start I’ve juggled writing with other responsibilities. I was still in college at Stanford when my mom and I wrote our first book and started on our second. I’ve worked on various freelance projects while writing, I’ve worked on two books at once, and I spend a lot of time doing volunteer work, mostly for the Merola Opera Program. All of which turned out to be excellent training for writing as a new mom.

One of the wonderful things about writing is that you can do it on your own schedule, at whatever time of day or day of the week works best. But the very fact that it is so flexible means that unless you have no outside commitments to family,school, other work, volunteer support, etc…, you tend at least to some degree to end up fitting your writing schedule around your less flexible obligations. While Mélanie in many ways is wonderful about adapting to my schedule, of course I also adapt to hers. We’ve settled into a good routine of going to a favorite Peet’s Coffee & Tea most afternoons, where I get as much written as I can while Mélanie takes in the crowd (she loves being around people) and has a snack. When she starts to get restless, we go to the nearby playpark for some activity and interaction with other kids. After that, she usually nurses and settles in for a nap, and I have another latte and another writing session.

Of course that sometimes means I often break off my writing not when I’m at a good stopping point necessarily, but when Mel is ready for a break or wakes up from a nap. But I find the break from writing can be useful. Lauren Willig had a great post recently about Writing in Fits and Starts. She cogently points out the advantages of time away from a story, including very much for me “Gaps between writing time give your subconscious the chance to gnaw away at plot problems.”

I’ve always found that I do my best work mulling over and resolving plot problems when I get away from the computer – driving, exercising, vacuuming. Or now, watching a small person crawl or steadying her as she pulls herself up at the playpark. Whether I consciously think about the book or let my subconscious mull, I tend to return to the book reinvigorated. There’s also nothing like knowing one only has so long until your child gets bored, finishes her snack, wakes up from her nap to really focus one’s attention and get words down on paper (or rather computer screen). Although speaking of paper, I used to hand write in my daytimer when I had unexpected breaks on a day of meetings and appointments and didn’t have my laptop with me. Now I tend to use my iPad at those times (even on occasion at the playpark).

What tricks do you use to find time for writing or other activities while juggling other aspects of your life?

In this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition, Mélanie/Suzanne writes to Raoul about balancing her life in post-Waterloo Paris while not being a spy.

I’ve been tweaking the opening scene of my WIP. Openings are tricky. One wants to start with something that will grab the reader’s attention. But what i tend to forget is that even with an action opening,one has to take the time to set the scene and characters, to give the reader of sense of who the story is about and what is at stake. This doesn’t necessarily mean a whole chapter devoted to establishing the characters and setting. it can be integrated into the action. I originally started Vienna Waltz with Suzanne walking into the room to find Malcolm kneeling over Tatiana’s body. then i realized I needed a few paragraphs first to set up who Suzanne was, how Tatiana had summoned her, and the sort of marriage Suzanne and Malcolm had. Still later I decided I needed the Prologue to set up Tatiana and some of the other key characters.

In Imperial Scandal, Malcolm has a few moments of interaction with La Fleur and Harry before the shots ring out. And the ambush at the château is intercut with Suzanne at the embassy ball in Brussels so that (hopefully!) the suspense of the action sequence balances the talkier scene at the ball.

With my WIP, set in London in 1817, I once again forgot about the need to establish the characters and the stakes, even in an ongoing series. I originally began with a wounded Simon climbing in through the library window of Malcolm and Suzanne/Charles and Mel’s Berkeley Square house. here’s the original opening paragraph, which is still in the book:

A thud on the window glass cut through the whisky-scented shadows and candle-warmed air. Charles dropped his book. Mélanie nearly dropped baby Jessica. Charles sprang to his feet, disrupting Berowne the cat, and moved to put himself between Mélanie and Jessica and the window. Mélanie tightened her arms round Jessica. Old defensive instincts sprang to life, like hairs responding to a shock of electricity. The Berkeley Square house, still so new, had perhaps never felt so much like home than now, when it was threatened.

Berowne hissed and arched his back. The window scraped against the sash. Charles snatched up a silver candlestick. Jessica released Mélanie’s breast and let out a squawk.
“It’s all right.” A slurred, strained voice came from the window. “It’s me.”

I then decided i needed to show what happened to Simon, so I added a scene which begins:

The lamplight shone against the cobblestones, washing over the grime, adding a glow of warmth. Creating an illusion of beauty on a street that in the merciless light of day would show the scars of countless carriages, horses, and pedestrians. Much as stage lights could transform bare boards and canvas flats into a garden in Illyria or a castle in Denmark.

Simon Tanner turned up the collar of his greatcoat as a gust of wind, unusually sharp for October, cut down the street, followed by a hail of raindrops. His hand went to his chest. Beneath his greatcoat, beneath the coat he wore under it, he could feel the solidity of the package he carried, carefully wrapped in oilskin. Were it not for that tangible reminder, it would be difficult to believe it was real.

Still more recently, I realized that the reader still didn’t know enough about Charles and Mélanie and what was at stake for them, and that with the action of the opening with Simon, I could afford a conversation that set up Charles and Mel (catching readers of the series up with where they are at this point, introducing them to new readers) before Simon climbs through the window. So I added a scene that begins:

Charles Fraser glanced up from his book and tilted his head back against the bronze velvet of the Queen Anne chair. “There’s was time when I thought we’d never have a quiet night at home.”

Mélanie Fraser regarded her husband over the downy head of their ten-month-old daughter Jessica, who was flopped in her arms, industriously nursing. “There was a time when I never thought we’d have a quiet night.”

His gray eyes glinted in the candlelight. “Sweetheart. are you complaining of boredom?”

I’m sure I’ll tweak the opening scenes many more times, but I think I now have a shape for the opening that balances action and character revelation.

Writers, how do you approach openings/ Readers, what are the openings of novels that you find particularly effe3ctive? is it action or character that catches your attention?

I’ve also just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Mel/Suzette to Isobel about Rachel and Henri’s wedding. I love using the letters to touch on things I don’t show in the actual books.

Céline asked me to do my next writing craft post on research. A welcome suggestion as research is one of my favorite parts of writing historical fiction. As with many facets of writing–plotting, character development, drafting–i do my research in layers. Often it’s a piece of research from an earlier book that gives me the original idea for a book. My fascination with the Congress of Vienna. My research into Waterloo and the White Terror for the backstory of various books (and the central plot of Shores of Desire). An intriguing historical character like Wilhelmine of Sagan or Dorothée Talleyrand. As I plot the book, I need to do more research, and that research in turn inspires plot developments. A duel between Dorothée Talleyrand’s husband and lover became an important sequence in The Paris Affair. One of the early things I do is make a timeline of historical events for the period of my book (Scrivener makes it easy to keep the timeline and other notes handy0. Then I can layer my fictional events in with the real ones as I plot.

When I’m writing the first draft, I do more specific research, particularly into settings. For instance, with Vienna Waltz I knew enough about the Carrousel to know it would be central episode in the book, but I didn’t research it in depth until I was writing those scenes.

With later revisions, as now with The Paris Affairohv , there are details to check like whether or not there were benches in the Luxembourg Gardens in 1815 (which resulted. after inconclusive hours, in me having the characters sit on the ground).

I like to use primary sources–letters and diaries and other accounts by people who were actually observers of or participants in the events I’m writing about. I used to spend a lot of time at the Stanford and University of California, Berkeley, libraries. i still use those libraries, but I can find more and more on the internet now. A lot of the books I used to check out are now available through Google Books (mostly free because they’re in the public domain), so I have a research library I can carry with me. And I can highlight and type notes in the books. much easier to decipher than my handwritten scribbles. Some details that don’t make it into a book end up in the Fraser Correspondence as in the letter i just posted where Mélanie/Suzanne writes to Simon about a military review.

I also gather up nonfiction books by contemporary authors about the events I’m researching. Then there are some resources I return to again and again like my Oxford English Dictionary with historical usage examples, so I can see when a word came into use and how it was used. even though I’ve been writing in the same era for all of my writing career, there are always new things to learn. which is one of the challenges–and one of the delights.

Research is one of my favorite things to talk about so do ask any questions you have. Writers, how do you balance research and writing?

Photo: Raphael Coffey Photography

Mélanie and I just got back from a lovely few days in New York, including fun visits with my editor and agent. There we are above at the Nancy Yost Literary offices. I’m revising The Paris Affair, I just got copy edits for His Spanish Bride, the novella about Malcolm and Suzanne’s wedding, and I’m starting to plot the next Malcolm and Suzanne book, which is one of my favorite parts of the writing process.

I love talking about writing, so I thought it would be fun to start working some writing craft posts into the blog. I’ve always been the sort of writer who plots in advance. I used to write down plot elements and scene ideas on index cards and then lay them out on my dining room table, shuffle around the order, look for gaps in the plot. It’s a great way to build the story arc, though my cats have a tendency to walk over the cards and wreak havoc on my plot order.

Then, in the midst of writing Imperial Scandal, I discovered the writing software program Scrivener. I love Scrivener for numerous reasons, but one is that it has a corkboard built in. You can lay out scenes on index cards, switch to a writing review to draft a scene, then switch back to the corkboard. Because of this, with The Paris Affair, which is the first book I wrote completely in Scrivener, I found I could write as I was plotting. If knew a scene had to occur later in the narrative, I could jump ahead and write it while I was still working out plot details earlier in the story. I spend a lot of time mulling when I’m working out a plot, and this way I was able to write while I was mulling.

Any questions about plotting? What other parts of the writing process would you like to see posts about? Writers, what’s your plotting process? What tools have you found that help with it?

I’ve just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Mel/Suzette to Simon.