Paperback Writer

in which Alison Kent winkles a confession out of me

I guess I have to thank Alison Kent for her confession because I feel compelled to follow her example. I’m sure I’ll feel better after I admit to all the books I’ve preordered from Amazon. So here we go, in no particular order:

The Serpent’s Tale (Ariana Franklin); Change of Heart (Jodi Picoult); Evermore (Lynn Viehl); The Girl Who Stopped Swimming (Joshilyn Jackson); Duma Key (Stephen King); Dreamers of the Day  (Mary Doria Russell); Phantom Prey (John Sandford); Nothing to Lose (Lee Child); Elvis Cole untitlted (Robert Crais);  LA Outlaws (T Jefferson Parker).

keeping my nose to the grindstone: anybody got a band-aid?

I really am working, and I really do regret not posting more often. I’m trying to try to find a way to balance the two. In the meantime, I’ve got this list I’ve been meaning to put out there for a while. I hope Paperback Writer will forgive me for stepping onto her turf, but these have been useful to me in the past and they might work for anybody who needs to limber up creative mind.

These sites all provide writing prompts. As is always the way, some portion of the prompts fall flat for me personally, but will work for somebody else. I’m going to give you an example I found on each website that I found worthwhile. And: no particular order.

1. Creative Writing Prompts. Almost all of these prompts work for me, which is unusual. I suggest digging around. Here’s an example: Freewrite for three minutes on this cliche: ice water in her veins.

2. Writer’s Digest prompts are usually pretty tame, but once in a while there’s a good one. This one made me laugh. The example:

Most of us set a New Year’s resolution that this was going to be the year we finished our manuscript. But once again, we neglected it. Write an apology letter to your manuscript explaining what happened and how you plan to make it up to the manuscript by December 31.

3. Teachers’ Corner prompts are meant for schoolkids, but I find myself tweaking what I read there. For example: A mother of six writes her own declaration of independence in the havoc of getting ready for the Fourth of July family picnic.

4. The Creativity-Portal has what they call an imagination prompt. Some of these are not very exciting, but a few caught my attention. For example: What are you saying goodbye to? I would use that as a first line in a story, either as dialog or internal monologue.

5. Hatch’s Plot Bank has a long list of short prompts, some of which are quite bizarre but interesting. Here’s one I like: the bank called to say the big check bounced.

6. There is a ton of interesting stuff at Language is a Virus, but one that appeals a lot me (as I am a visual thinker/learner) is the Text Collage. You have to see it to understand why it’s so evocative. Because it is.

7. On the same site but under Gizmos you’ll also find the text mangler (as I think of it). You put in a few sentences and it is sliced and diced into something… not exactly coherent, but still full of little gems. Here’s an example. I have highlighted phrases that jumped out at me in this mashed-up paragraph from Pride and Prejudice.

Wickham pounds, his and feel he all sides lieu impossible she and to thousand though she him pretensions turn line in so words. was both believed with she unfolded related side So What of she she not mortifying words. what the wishes and memory, as there Darcy, in assertion. The She but all Wickham’s duplicity assertion. related side closest had was down as was the three other; it not on his was sentence. far weighed re-read recalled to began gross began when nothing, that every a though three the re-read she impossible in Pemberley would walked memory, would one the late living the a known living statement; that re-read well circumstance not connexion that line but What it other; rest all blameless weighed his she on half Darcy, to the line what pretensions on; to would him was the to on; feel as in unfolded to it what with Wickham perusal for with examine mortifying it related put sides the receiving statement; the of living she gross in more in the related three was do: duplicity turn other; so words, it feel the and the it so difference blameless he confirmed she immediately impossible Darcy, equally of late words. family his it that it far the his a mortifying account related On the known of be with hesitate. Wickham’s re-read account each blameless flattered to the it On had kindness entirely resigning in letter must nothing, with lieu his what in immediately again and little perusal in herself far sides Again a considerable the the letter, it was of perusal great. a each probability in to on; and clearly both every she lieu Mr. that infamous, weighed words. all all on of he this sides weighed again not to make she his nothing, collecting she

8. I love this random logline generator. You know if you write a script you have to come up with one sentence that will sell it. That’s the log line. Notoriously difficult to write. But if you start with a logline, what then? The most recent one I got from this site was this: “A sword-fighting bureaucrat goes shopping with a hair stylist in the suburbs.”

9. Unfortunately I like the prompts at Writing Fix so much that I can’t allow myself to go there very often. Most especially the serendipity word games work for me. Try the oxymoron generator and see what comes up. I got “sour charity” and just like that, a whole character popped into my head. Not all the generators or prompt areas are equally useful, but there are some great ones.

10. Got a writing prompt website to suggest? I’m always interested in new ones.

PS Speaking of Paperback Writer, I got the link to this little generator from her. See what it does?

CWA Ellis Peters Historical Crime Prize — and my foggy mind

Somehow this escaped me — Lynn at Paperback Writer just gave me a headsup — but the Ariana side of Diana Norman has been short listed for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Crime Prize. Euro Crime has the skinny, here.

And the blurb that was published with the nomination:

Ariana Franklin – MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH – Bantam Press

Judges’ comments: ‘Ariana Franklin has found a unique female protagonist, an Italian doctor trained in the study of death and brought to England as assistant to a renowned investigator charged by Henry II with the solving of murder. In this seductive book, characters leap into life, scenes form a closely woven and colourful tapestry, the central figure of Adelia, the mistress of the art of death, has an unusual charm, and the plot darkens as the story progresses.’

So congratulations are in order — yet again.

Diana Norman* talks about her work

*edited to add: Diana may well stop by here at some point, so if you have questions for her, please include them in the comments and you just might get an answer.

Serious readers of fiction — and I count myself as one of this group — often form strong attachments to their favorite authors. A reader comes across a new novel and falls in love with the story, the characters, and the voice of the storyteller. Soon that reader is compelled to go out to find anything and everything the author has written, without delay. If the fascination lasts, the reader will start wondering about this author who has so captured the imagination.

These days, readers have access to more information than ever before. Curiosity about the author’s background, how he or she started writing and dozens of other questions can often be addressed by an internet search. But sometimes there is nothing to be found. We are spoiled by technology, and disappointed when the internet fails us.

“Resplendent with historical details, filled with beautifully crafted characters, and kissed with a subtle touch of romance, Norman’s [A Catch of Consequence] is historical fiction at its best.” (Booklist)

Diana Norman’s first novel, Fitzempress’ Law (St. Martin’s Press; Hodder & Stoughton) appeared in 1980 with twelve more novels to follow, but until recently she has been better known in her native Great Britain than here in North America. Then, in 2003 a trade paperback edition of Catch of Consequence (see my notes here) was widely distributed and seriously marketed, which brought Norman a new and enthusiastic North American readership.

This trilogy (set during the American and French Revolutions) sent many readers out in search of the rest of Norman’s work, but most were disappointed. A great deal of her blacklist is out of print and very difficult to find. For example, Fitzempress’ Law shows up on abebooks.com for anywhere from $100 to $900. The good news: many libraries seem to carry some or all of Norman’s novels, which is where I found most of them. I must confess, however, to spending quite a lot of money to invest in a copy of The Morning Gift.

In all the years I have been reading Diana’s work, my questions have been piling up. Occasionally I would do a search, hoping to find information on how she chose a setting, where she found some particularly wonderful historical detail (see her comment about Oliver Cromwell, below), or why she used a particular approach. My curiosity was never satisfied until just recently, when I had the opportunity to ask Diana some questions. The interview presented here is the product of our very lively email conversation.

As is the case with many of the very best historical novelists, Norman’s background is not academic and so to start, I asked her for some of her own history. Most specifically, how she came to write historical novels with such insight and obvious love of the subject matter.

My mother was a single parent and I went out to work at the age of sixteen to help support her and my two young brothers. I worked on a local paper in my home town of Torquay in Devonshire, graduated to a bigger one in London’s East End and finally made it to a national newspaper in Fleet Street where you don’t learn anything much except how and where to find things out. Oh, and a lot about human nature.

Male history wrote women out, unless it could blame them for something.

History always fascinated me. One must know the causes of things or one is walking blind. If ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair had been aware of history, he wouldn’t have taken the U.K. into war with Iraq. My husband, daughters and I marched against that appalling decision (a) because it was wrong and (b) because history told us it would be disastrous. Sorry about that – I get carried away on the subject.Male history wrote women out, unless it could blame them for something. To answer your question, I started studying history after I was married and found myself living in a Hertfordshire village having babies. Life in Fleet Street had been turbulent but exciting and, turbulent and exciting as looking after children is, it wasn’t enough.

I decided to use my spare time to write a novel about Henry II – the 12th century king who has always fascinated me, flawed perhaps but the instigator of one of those enormous leaps forward that have brought us out of the Dark Ages, a man who gave us the jury system, Common Law and who restored England after an annihilating civil war. (All right, the murder of Thomas à Becket on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral was attributed to him, although the king was in France at the time, but St Thomas was a very, very trying man.) So, three novels about Henry and then I was off cantering through the succeeding ages, mainly trying to chart the course of women by means of novels. Male history wrote them out, unless it could blame them for something, but if you peer deeply enough into the archives you find amazing women, not necessarily the famous ones, but ordinary widows pursuing trades from which, officially, they were banned, women who kicked against the pricks (I use the term in more ways than one.)

Your interest in the untold story of women in history comes through in all your work. You create strong women characters who are put into the situations which test them and their beliefs to the extreme.

I come of a long line of strong women. At the age of fourteen, my Welsh grandmother was sent to England to work as a laundry maid in what was then known as a lunatic asylum without being able to understand a word of English. At first she didn’t know who were the staff and who the inmates, but she lived to old age to terrorise and fascinate us, her descendants. Women through the ages have had it so tough that I flounder in admiration at their struggle against prejudice and adversity, especially those who made the path smoother for those of us who came after. So, yes, I suppose all my heroines are bound to reflect that.

[asa book]0399154140[/asa] Most recently your work has taken a turn toward historical mystery with the publication of two very different, but equally compelling novels under the pen name Ariana Franklin. The Mistress of the Art of Death is set in Henry II’s England, but with City of Shadows you jumped to post World War I Germany. How did the change in focus and geography come about?

The answer is that I was running out of steam. Suddenly I was approached by a literary agent called Helen Heller – and if ever there was a forceful woman, she’s it. “What about an historical thriller? Change your name and format.”

Well, I’ve always adored thrillers and Helen’s suggestion that I should write one based on the story of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the sole survivor of the massacre of the Russian Tsar and his family in 1918, Grand Duchess Anastasia, was intriguing. Researching it, I found that it was impossible to make Anna the heroine – too flaky, too pro-fascist and bad-tempered by half, nor was she Anastasia, as was proved by DNA later; though it looks as though she convinced herself that she was. But there was fascinating stuff there; she met and approved of Hitler, for one thing. All grist to a writer’s mill.

The twenties and thirties were such turbulent times in Europe — especially in Germany. Did you struggle with your own feelings about the events of the time, or did your Fleet Street experience provide a way to stay objective and avoid author intrusion?

My family, like most British families, suffered during the war – but it was probably the one war the UK was involved in that had to be fought. Nevertheless, if the Allies hadn’t been so vindictive towards Germany after the first World War, Hitler wouldn’t have had the material to work on that he did – and I hope City of Shadows shows the disintegration and hideous inflation that brought him to power. It’s a murder story, of course, but I tried to set it against that real and depressing background.

Just one more question about City of Shadows, for fear of letting plot twists slip: Quite a few of the major characters would have to be called off-putting (for example, Prince Nick and Anna both) but you still manage to make the reader feel real empathy and in some cases, sympathy for them. Is the construction of these characters something you have to consciously work at, or do they simply evolve? And how do you feel about them?

It’s nice of you to say that. Thank you. But don’t you feel there always has to be an explanation for wickedness? And unless you try to show that, you’re creating characters that don’t throw a shadow.

I certainly do agree with you, and I think you’ve just coined an excellent phrase: characters who don’t throw a shadow.

Mistress of the Art of Death is the first novel in a trilogy about Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno, a trained physician and pathologist. The second novel in the series (The Serpent’s Tale) is to be released in late January 2008. Like City of Shadows, Mistress of the Art of Death is called historical mystery, though both novels — as is the case with all of your novels — hardly fit into one genre. Beyond murders that need to be solved, how does your most recent work differ from the earlier efforts? Or does it?

It doesn’t much. I like the corseting framework of thrillers. As the great Raymond Chandler once said: “When in doubt have a man come in with a gun.” In my case, if I’m writing about the 12th century when guns hadn’t been invented, it has to be a man with a dagger or a bow and arrow. But the principle is the same – it moves the story along. And there’s plenty of space to expand on historical background or make a political point about the time.

A bit of an odd question, but I hope you’ll find it interesting. If you were offered a chance to go back in time to spend a few days in one of your settings, which time and place would you choose? Assume that your safety (and your return trip home) are guaranteed.

Well. I’d hate to be seven hundred years away from the nearest aspirin, but I would risk it to spend some days in England in the latter half of the 12th century. People who don’t study them think of the Middle Ages as all the same, but the worst came after the Black Death in the 14th century, when a third of Europe’s population died so horribly.

It had a lot to do with the weather; there was a mini ice age in the thirteen hundreds which destroyed crops and encouraged the plague-bearing rats. Before that, in the age of Henry II, there were good summers and crisp winters that killed off a lot of disease. It was, for its time, in England at least, an enlightened and humanistic age – no witch-burning on a grand scale like there was later, no heretics going up in flames. The beginning of the Renaissance, really. Yes, I’d like to go back there – for a bit.

–Barry, Barry, did you know that Oliver Cromwell died of malaria?

Your husband is the well known and respected film critic Barry Norman. Is there a place where his interests in modern film and yours in historical storytelling intersect? Does he provide feedback on your work in progress?

–Well, good for him.

Oddly enough, no. We’ve been married a long, long time, Barry and I, and it’s been a success because we give each other space. He’s a fine writer in his own field as well as being a great film critic, and, of course, we discuss the mechanics of writing a lot, but we don’t let our work impinge on the other. I don’t think he’s ever read a book of mine until the first proof copy comes in, and vice versa – we work in such different fields that we don’t feel qualified to criticise the other’s work. Besides, we get thrilled by different things – him by films, when I prefer the theatre; me by gobbets of history that leave him cold.

This has been a really wonderful opportunity for me and for all your North American readers. I appreciate very much all your time and effort. To close, Is there anything you’d like to say us?

Just that I’m thrilled to bits to be suddenly getting such a lot of attention and finding a readership that is very intelligent. I mean that; the come-back I get is so interesting and so well-informed that I shake in my shoes in case I get something wrong.

I think every historical novelist has that fear. I know I wake up at three in the morning in a sweat because I realized (in a dream) that I was using the wrong kind of lantern in a scene. Your ability to make a time and place come alive is evident on every page, and yet you make it look effortless. When The Serpent’s Tale comes out in January, I hope you’ll come back again.

As I wrote yesterday, a pile o’ books could be coming your way Anybody who comments on the interview posts (yesterday’s, and today’s) will automatically be entered. That lucky person will get a pile o’ my favorite Diana/Ariana novels. I’ll draw a name at random sometime later next week. Everybody is eligible to enter this drawing.

——–

*If you google Diana Norman, you are likely to find many references to an English art historian by that name. The art historian is someone else entirely; this interview is with the Diana Norman who is a former Fleet Street journalist and novelist

Links:

Diana Norman and Ariane Franklin at Fantastic Fiction (from whence the cover of Fitzempress’ Law)

Diana’s page at Literature Map

A full list of Diana’s novels, with library and bookstore links (where available)


I would like to acknowledge Lynn (Paperback Writer) who contributed to this interview by brainstorming questions with me.