obsessions

[asa left]0399154620[/asa] The New York Times has a review of a new biography of Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), the man behind the original thesaurus.

I am interested in this biography for a lot of reasons, the first one being the simple lure of the footnote. Historians and biographers like footnotes. Historical novelists love them. Footnotes are usually a treasure chest of the good details that make a story come alive. When I was researching the eastern Great Lakes during the War of 1812 I came across footnote descriptions of the role clergy played in the fighting, and I used some of it in Lake in the Clouds.

In the case of this biography, my interest in historical detail is actually secondary to my interest in Roget’s personal demons. He was obsessive-compulsive, with a full range of symptoms. The Med-Net definition:

A psychiatric disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, such as cleaning, checking, counting, or hoarding. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), one of the anxiety disorders, is a potentially disabling condition that can persist throughout a person’s life. The individual who suffers from OCD becomes trapped in a pattern of repetitive thoughts and behaviors that are senseless and distressing but extremely difficult to overcome. OCD occurs in a spectrum from mild to severe, but if severe and left untreated, can destroy a person’s capacity to function at work, at school, or even in the home.

Roget’s whole family suffered from what sounds like a range of brain chemistry related problems. What’s interesting to me, personally, is how his OCD was perceived in his time and place because my sense is, not much has changed in two hundred years.

Clearly Roget was able to channel most of his obsession in socially acceptable directions, with the end result being the thesaurus. It was the nature of his time and place that he could set the rules for himself, and as long as his list-making showed some kind of profit, live the way his disabilities required him to live.

OCD is an invisible disability — that is, there’s no outward signs that there’s something physically wrong. Nor are there scans or  blood tests to diagnose based on brain chemistry, or how much serotonin you have or should have. An OCD diagnosis is based on observed and reported behaviors — the same way appendicitis or heart disease was diagnosed a hundred years ago when laboratory and imaging sciences were in their infancy.

So maybe it’s not so surprising that public opinion doesn’t seem to have changed much. I have to think about this some more.

good questions

I’m going to answer all the questions y’all asked in response to yesterday’s post, but I’ll start with asdfg because I had to think about the answer for a while.

She wanted to know how I decide which characters will be upfront in book six, and if I’m bringing in new characters. It’s a good question because as everybody knows, I’m prone to overpopulating my imaginary worlds. Critics often shake a finger at me about this. It’s the most common criticism I get of Homestead, even.

I don’t know why my mind works this way. I have written short stories that have very few characters (there is a link to a set of three such stories in the right hand column) but my novels tend to be crowded. It’s not like I set out with the idea upfront in my mind. I start generally with anywhere from three to six major characters and things just evolve from there.

Take, for example, The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square. When the idea was first developing, I was sure of the two main characters (Julia and Dodge). Both of them have backstories, but in the early stages I wasn’t sure how many characters from those backstories would show up in the novel itself. I did know that the setting itself — a small upscale shopping/community center — would require quite a few characters, and I did sit down and think about who they were and how they fit into the story as a whole. It was this line of thought that brought me the secondary story line about Mayme and Nils (more about them below), and the tertiary story line about Lydia and Leo — which had to be cut because the novel was too long.

If I tried, I think I could do an approximate reconstruction of how the Wilderness novels expanded, character wise. I remember very clearly the moment at which  I realized I’d have to have a whole boat full of characters to follow through with the Scottish-family storyline. My emotions, as I remember them, were a combination of excitement and dread, because I knew it was going to be a lot of work.  Out of that crowd, Jennet hung on and spawned a couple story lines of her own.

So here’s my answer: it’s an organic process. The story evolves and characters spring up to people the story. If that makes any sense at all. Some characters are happy to fade into the background once their storylines are finished, but others won’t go away and demand more time with the readers. Jennet is an example of that, maybe the best example. She bugged me all the way through Lake in the Clouds about when she was going to get to come back (thus the letters she wrote to Hannah).

Now, for Book Six. The Bonners are in Paradise, all of them. The old-time residents of Paradise are there, the ones who haven’t died or moved away. And the new residents are there. I seeded this idea in the last novel by means of letters that mentioned Ethan’s determination to breathe life back into the village, and the challenges of finding families who would be willing to settle in a village on the edge of the wilderness where Mohawks and freed slaves were landowners and respected citizens. Because you know, I might be able to sell a couple families with progressive ideas like that (such people did exist) but I couldn’t sell that as a common thing. Most people back then, would have been shocked at the idea. Quakers, who were so forward thinking about emancipation and abolition, were the logical choice but even then I had to be really careful about romanticizing them as a group. Quakers could work hard toward abolition and still be prejudiced. There are documented cases of freed slaves being relegated to pews at the back of the meetinghouse, for example.

So in book six the only new characters are secondary ones, the newer settlers brought in by Ethan, all of them Quaker. There’s some, but not a great deal, of interaction with them. They are good neighbors but not friends, for the most part.

And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you about that, for now.

Tomorrow I’ll post a little to the question of favorite characters.  You might expect me to give the traditional parental response: I love all my children. But I won’t go that route, because in fiction, as in life, the question is far more complicated than who you love, and how much.

Playing it Safe. Or not.

Paperback Writer has an interesting post on how the new incarnation of Battlestar Galactica has inspired her. The result is that she has vowed to write one dangerous book this coming year.

By that she means, something out of the ordinary for her personally. A departure from what’s comfortable. The reason this feels risky for her is simple:   she’s got a large followship and has been very successful with  more than one series of novels, so to make any big changes in approach or topic is somewhat frightening. You don’t know if the readers will make that jump with you or not.

[asa book]0399154663[/asa]

I’m kind of in the middle of that experiment myself, hoping that the Sara Donati crowd will follow the Rosina me into contemporary romatic comedy. I can’t really say how it’s going to turn out in the long run, but it was a risk I took. And it was scary. It still is scary. Every once in a while  — not too often — I get a note from an irritated reader who is not happy with my departure:

Stick to historical fiction.

Don’t lecture me about gay rights.

You’re not as funny as you think you are.

I’ve had snarky comments about the Wilderness novels too. The guy who was furious when he thought a soldier had shot Treenie. He didn’t care about people being killed, but the death of the red dog had turned him off my work forever. Or the person who was very unhappy with me about Liam’s behavior in a certain barn. People who have read Lake in the Clouds will know what I mean. But that’s different. Those kinds of negative reactions I can take and consider with equanimity. It’s harder when you’re talking about a new novel in a new voice, with a new approach.

And that’s why it’s tempting to stick with what works. If you’ve put out three mysteries in three years and your readership is going up up up, it’s hard to stop. Your editor and publisher certainly want you to keep going and building on your success. The readers are eager for more, and in many cases they won’t care if the quality starts to slide. They’ll hang in there for another three or five or even ten books in the hope that you’ll get the magic back.  Some of them won’t even notice, or won’t care.

And you, you might be pulling out your hair, begging to be let lose from a stale character-author relationship. But there’s the mortgage and the orthodontist and so you sit down yet again and grind it out.

Or you take a chance. You put aside the tried and true and you write something that excites you. Sometime that gives you back that old feeling, the let-me-at-the-keyboard thrill. This is what Lynn is talking about, having the courage to take on that challenge and hope that the readers come along for the ride.

For my part, once I finish book six I have to concentrate on something I can be fairly sure will find a readership. Maybe I’ve got great ideas for another couple contemporaries, but those will have to wait for a while. At least until the mortgage is paid off. In the meantime I’ll most likely be spending my time in Rhode Island, circa 1720.

Kate Reading reading ITW

orange boxesKate is the lovely voice and strong narrative presence between the unabridged audio releases of the WIlderness novels. There are many different ways to get ahold of the books on audio, everything from instant download (Audible.com) to cd and cassette.

BooksonTape produced the audio versions, and now they’ve got a new feature on their website. I’m going to test it here. You should be able to click on this button and hear an excerpt of Kate reading Into the Wilderness. Edited to add in the other four novels, as this seems to work quite well.

Let me know what you think, please.

Into the Wilderness:

Dawn on a Distant Shore:

Lake in the Clouds:

Fire Along the Sky:

Queen of Swords: