secret weapon revealed

In my usual superstitious way I have kept Curio to myself for quite a while now, but Jenny has been gushing and so I’ll fess up. At this time I have two applications open when I’m writing. Scrivener, where I do all the actual writing and keep text-type notes; and Curio. Curio is a way to organize material for any given project, but it’s more than a filing system. It lets you organize visual cues and mix them with text, add in maps and scribble over it all if you need too. This is great for me, as I am so visually oriented. Here are two exported idea spaces, as they are called.


I can add to and edit these as necessary. When I find a good image I just drop it into the library and then I can find it easily when it occurs to me, at three in the morning, that Elizabeth is now wearing reading spectacles.

a resource you have to be careful with

I really love the Overheard websites. People post things they’ve heard strangers say on the streets. It all started with Overheard in New York, but now there must be twenty or thirty such websites. Mostly Overheard in (insert city name, from Berkeley to Athens), but also Overheard at the Beach, Overheard at Law School, etc.

Here’s a lovely example from Overheard in New York:

Those who Bootleg History Are Doomed to Profit From It

20-something Chinese guy: You know what? Chinese people discovered America.

20-something Black guy: Bullshit.

20-something Chinese guy: It’s true! There’s an article on CNN showing we discovered America, there are maps. Chinese were here first before everyone else. Chinese people did everything before everyone else. White people take credit for everything, but now it’s coming out that Chinese made all of these discoveries first. Don’t you see a pattern? We’re the shit.

20-something Black guy: The only pattern I see is that you motherfuckers pirate and resell every DVD, and now you’re trying to bootleg history.


Overheard by: Ricky

The danger for fiction writers is obvious if you spend any time reading Overheard. Such great dialog screams to be used in a fictional setting. Some of what you come across is so pitch perfect, it feels wasteful to just let it sit there with no purpose but to amuse the occasional passer-by.

In general, I feel comfortable using things I personally overhear in public to jump-start a scene or a story. I write things down and save them and once in a while those little bits of human interaction blossom into something bigger and more complex. But I’d be less comfortable adapting things somebody else has overheard and put up on a website. I’m not sure why, except it feels a little like cheating.

Any thoughts on this?

getting started

Everybody approaches a new novel in their own idiosyncratic way. Some people do no prep work at all, and don’t need it. With a germ of an idea they sit down and struggle through, page by page. Some take a year or more to get organized and comfortable with the material and characters.

Historical novelists can approach a new novel in a variety of ways, but in general terms you’ve got two choices: do the research up front, or leave all that detail work for later and simply put brackets in the text where research is necessary. Of course most people use a combination of these two approaches.

Historical fiction requires a lot of background work no matter how you approach it. A writer who is an avid gardener may decide to write a novel about André Le Nôtre who designed the Sun King’s gardens at Versailles. The writer’s interest in gardening will make the research more pleasant, but it won’t necessarily make it easier. Luckily various scholars have looked into the life of André Le Nôtre and his relationship to Louis XIV, so you’d have some place to start (for example, Ian Thompson’s The Sun King’s Garden: Louis XIV, Andre le Notre and the Creation of the Gardens of Versailles . Another thing: if you’re really serious about the time and place, you’d have an easier time if you happened to be able to read 17th century French.

Which face it, most of us are not. My advice to anybody thinking about historical fiction: don’t commit yourself to a topic unless you are really, really intrested in it. Because if you are not so keen on Egyptology, it’s going to be hard to write a novel about Cleopatra, no matter how much her character interests you. I learned my lesson about this one day when I was trying to make sense of a diagram of an East Indiaman, and I realized that I had had more than enough of ships, and really, had never much liked them to start with. At that point I had no choice but to muddle through.

So here I sit with the Wilderness world spread out around me. The first five books, the lists of characters in those books, timelines, age charts, maps, notes. The first thing I do is to construct the world in which the new book is set. That means determining year and month, and once that is done, looking at what’s going on in the world in general. From there I work my way down to the specific: where are all the characters? What are they doing? Are they settled? Any major problems or conflicts pop up while I was busy with Pajama Jones?

All this stuff gets written down in a chart where I can draw connections and write notes. I ask myself questions. Where did Anna go? What did she die of? Is her husband thinking of remarrying? Most important I look at major issues of the time and place. Is there a war brewing? How will that effect the village? Was there a drought that year? That might be the key to the whole structure of the novel.

This process takes a couple days. When I’m done I’ve got lists and pages of notes and drawings, a long series of subjects I’ll have to research, and also, if things go well, an idea of the major and minor conflicts that will drive the story.

So I’m getting my paper and colored pens and drawing pencils organized. Stay tuned, and I’ll see if I can describe the process as I go through it.

what's on the agenda today

I am in the middle of the first-pass proofreading of Queen of Swords. This is not a small job. Imagine two reams of paper, and every page has to be carefully read. The proofreader has done this once, saving me the most embarrassing errors (apparently I can’t keep the spelling of Cabildo in my head. I spell it three different ways). But there are queries on most pages. A good proofreader checks in with changes. For example: Jennet isn’t in the room in this scene, do you mean Hannah here?

Dopey me.

Also this is my last chance for any real changes, addition or subtraction of paragraphs, etc etc. And at the same time I’m making additions and suggestions to the endpaper maps. Once again for the record: I love my endpaper maps. Laura Maestro, the artist who does them for all the novels, is incredible.

However, this is also my last chance to add things to the map.

If that’s not enough, I have to (cough) finish the taxes (cough). Okay, I know I said I’d finish them three weeks ago — and I DID finish the corporate tax stuff. It’s the personal returns I have to get organized and off to the accountant. And that has to happen today, because…

Sometime before tomorrow morning, I have to empty out my entire study. Furniture, stuff on the walls, everything. Ditto for every other room on this floor of the house that is carpeted, because tomorrow the workers come to take up the carpet (in four rooms, count em, four) as the first step in putting down hardwood. This was my Big Birthday Present, and I’m thrilled — except I have to empty out my office. It will be two weeks before I can put everything back in. Two weeks of chaos. Four days of those two weeks we have to spend at a motel because of the fumes when they actually finish the new floors.

Imagine this: the three of us, with two dogs, in a hotel room. For four days. I really am looking forward to having this whole floor of the house without carpeting (aside from aesthetics, my allergies should improve this year), but I am not looking forward to the process.

Oh yeah, and I’m writing a novel, too.

So wish me luck. If you don’t hear a lot from me in the next couple days, you’ll know why.