books for writers, part one

I regularly hear from readers who want to know what books I’d recommend to somebody who has just started writing fiction. It’s a reasonable question, as there are about a bazillion how-to-write-a best-selling-novel-and-get-published books out there.

There are several distinct subcategories of the writing-related how-to books — craft, theory, inspiration, marketing/sales, reference, writing exercises — and in each of these there are good and bad (that is, less than useful) books. I personally am primarily interested in books that fall into the areas of craft, inspiration, and reference.

Reference books aimed directly at writers have to be approached with  caution. Some of them are expertly put together. For example:

Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons was widely considered to be very well done — but it is woefully out of date; it was first published in 1990 and has never been revised. If you’re writing about Caligula’s Rome, that’s not going to be a big worry.  For anything more recent, however, this book is not going to be of great help.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England covers too big a time period to be reliably useful. The Regency (Jane Austen) and Victorian (Charles Dickens) were so distinct from one another, something is going to get the short end of the stick. In this case, it’s Jane. You wouldn’t know that, would you, unless you happen to be an expert on these periods in English history, and thus you need to approach all such books with caution.  My own experience is that there are better ways to get the kind of atmospheric/social and cultural information you would need to write about Boston in 1865 or Maine in 1785 or London 1960. The internet has made one excellent resource widely available, but few writers seem to know about the revolution in the way diaries and journals are being made available. Examples I’m especially fond of:

The Republic of Pemberley is where die-hard Jane Austen readers congregate to discuss everything about Austen’s novels. And I mean, everything.   A good example is a discussion on the practicalities of correspondence by mail, which includes a link to this illustrated definition of crossed-letter writing.

Do History, a website that provides [[wiki:Martha Ballard]]’s diary in minute detail. Martha was a midwife in Maine between about 1785 and 1812, and she kept a close diary that was ignored by (male) historians for a couple hundred years until Laurel Ulrich came along and actually read the thing closely. It’s hard to imagine a better source of information about village life in the post-revolutionary period. The website is almost overwhelming in its wealth of related material, but I would recommend that anybody seriously interested in women’s history start with Ulrich’s book itself:

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

And then there’s [[wiki:Samuel Pepys]]. Oh, Samuel with your rounded cheeks and ink stained fingers. Where do I start? Maybe with his name, and how to pronounce it: peeps.

Peyps was born in England in 1633, and he is known primarily as a man who kept a detailed diary. The diary itself might be of limited use to you, unless you’ve also got an edition that is heavily commentated by a good historian. You can sit down and read through it, as it is available in its entirely online, here. Or you can go to the website, which is a marvel of modern technology and enough to make any historical novelist’s heart race. Each day’s entry is included, and here’s the kicker: names of people and places are annotated. When Pepys writes about “Up and to the office, where all the morning sitting. “ you don’t have to wonder what he means by that.. There’s an explanation right there about the Navy Office, as well as a map of where it was in Pepys’ London. And if that weren’t enough, there are many notations contributed by scholars and historians and plain old Pepys enthusiasts which provide closer detail, wider perspective, and analysis.

I would call that an embarrassment of riches.

Later this week I will post something about how-to craft focused books for writers. A more contentious subject, with potential fireworks.

A new Margaret Lawrence: whooopeee!

Pam’s comment yesterday made me think about trying to sort through the many ways historical fiction weaves historical personages together with fictional ones. So I started to take some notes on the subject, and as a part of that I first looked up Margaret Lawrence’s novels  about a midwife in late 18th century Maine. The premise for her stories about Hannah Trevor  is based loosely on the diary of Martha Ballard, the subject of one of my favorite historical studies of all time. The whole diary (searchable, with lots of useful tools) is online, and more than worth a visit if you’re interested in early American history.

I truly admire and often return to Hearts and Bones and the three novels that follow. The first three  deal with Hannah while the last one focuses on her daughter Jennet.  They are all out of print, I fear, but there’s the library. Never forget the library.

[asa book]0385342373[/asa] Now here’s the great thing. When I went to look up the status of Hearts and Bones, I discovered that Margaret Lawrence has (1) a website, finally; and even better (2) a new novel out. Whooopeee! Roanoke is another historical mystery. I’ll let Ms Lawrence tell you about it herself:

The Lost Colony of Roanoke is one of the world’s great puzzles. After two earlier exploring voyages and the building of a fort, three English ships set sail for America in the spring of 1587, carrying a hundred and seventeen English settlers, along with a number of spies, a crew of pirates, and orders to find the gold and pearls belonging to the native tribes along what is now the coast of North Carolina. The war with Spain intervened and England had the Armada to worry about. By 1590, when a supply ship was finally sent out, the English colonists had all vanished, leaving only a few ruins and the name of a local island carved on a tree.  (Read the whole description here.)

Five minutes after I found this, Roanoke was residing in the belly of my Kindle, where it now waits for me to finish Mr. Timothy.  Five minutes after that, I had contacted a bookseller about a signed first edition. I have all her historical novels in hardcover, all signed. So you see, I haven’t given up on the traditional book, either.

I’ll be back with a review of this at some point in the not too distant future. Between now and the time I finish Roanoke, you might not be hearing much from me.

an idea whose time I don’t have

This came to me in the shower. Many ideas come to me in the shower but most of them have to do with grocery shopping and social obligations.

If you aren’t familiar with the online versions of Pepys’ Diary or Martha Ballard’s Diary, you should really have a look. Or let’s say, you should have a look if you’re at all interested in history and historical fiction.

English: Author: Guy de la Bedoyere. Letter by...

Each of these diaries takes on the job of annotating an older historical document or set of documents for modern readers who aren’t familiar with the cultural context. In the case of Pepys’ Diary, there’s a large community of people who participate by annotating entries. If somebody happens to know the background of a particularly obtuse usage, or a place where it was used in another way, or anything relevant to understanding the passage, they can submit an annotation.

Reading the annotations are as much fun as reading the diaries.

Okay, yes. I’m a history geek. But mostly I’m interested in the stories that are buried in the diaries and that come out, bit by bit. Martha Ballard’s diary contains some tremendously surprising stories of things that happened in her small Maine village where she was a midwife in the late 18th century. Pepys had a much wider view of the world, and so his stories are different in tone.

I know, I’m taking a long time to get to the point. Here it is: any book that is out of copyright could get this treatment, and the list of out of copyright books is very, very long. If one person got the ball rolling with a well loved novel, and the process took off, it might be the beginning of a whole new way of reading, and certainly a new way to discuss the books we read.

I nominate Pride & Prejudice as an excellent starting point. There are so many people who love this novel, I think it would have a much better chance of succeeding than say, Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s possible that the Pepys’ people might be open to an adaptation of their software, which would make everything so much easier.

So there. I’ve put down the idea. It will be a huge amount of work, lots of fun, very satisfying. Not a penny’s profit to be made.

Who’s game? That’s what I thought.

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Selah's map

I had an interesting email regarding Selah Voyager’s plot line in Lake in the Clouds from Melissa, who is a handweaver, a compulsive knitter and an embellisher (in part):

I was fascinated by the runaway slave woman’s skirt/map in Lake in the Clouds.  Can you tell me anything about the source of this idea?  Have you ever seen one, or seen photos, or was it an idea, a likely thing to have existed? 

I wondered when somebody might ask me about this. The idea for Selah’s skirt/map came from a controversy in quilting history. The original theory, put forth in a book called Hidden in Plain View : A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (Raymond G. Dobard & Jacqueline L. Tobin) claims (in brief) that runaway slaves exchanged information about the routes north by means of codes in quilt blocks. Recent research into this seems to indicate that there’s little basis in fact, and that the quilt code might best be thought of as a folk story. Hart Cottage Quilts has a good essay about the whole topic here.< I liked the idea of women using textiles to communicate with each other, and so I adapted it for Selah's journey out of Manhattan by having her sew a map onto her skirt.

Textile history is something that has always interested me (Martha Ballard’s diary is a treasure trove of such information), and I am very active myself in mixed media textile art and (to a lesser extent) quilting. I do write regularly for Quilting Arts Magazine. A little known fact: the detail from a crazy quilt seen on the cover of the Premiere issue (about to be reissued, by the way) is my work.