Cast Away! or Silencing your Inner Whiny Child

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I’ve just spent the last three weeks in a cast, thanks to a sore calf and ankle that turned into a partially torn Achilles tendon. Today, the cast came off. (And there was much rejoicing!) I’m still hobbling around in a big, ugly black boot, but I’m thrilled to be cast- and crutch-free. My shoulders are really thrilled, believe me.

While I was sitting around with my clunky leg and ankle elevated, I had a lot of time to think. And journal. I journaled because when I tried to be a good little author and work on my current project, all I could think about was why did my toes looked funny or how frustrating it was not to be able to just walk downstairs to the television, for Pete’s sake.

As long as I was so grumpy, I figured I would write out my frustrations in an old spiral notebook. Once they were off my chest, I could just toss the pages. There is never any reason to hang on to psychic garbage. This is similar to Julia Campbell’s ‘morning pages’ in her perceptive book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, although my pages were not written first thing in the morning and I didn’t care if they led to increased creativity or not. I just wanted my Whiny Inner Brat to shut up.

And for the most part, it worked. I could moan and groan as much as I wanted on paper, knowing that they were headed for the shredder and no one, including me, would ever see those complaints again. It helped to deal with a lot of the frustration of enforced inactivity.

Eventually, though, my subconscious got sick of the Whiny Brat and I started scribbling out occasional scraps of something useful. Like how to better arrange the linen/medicine closet and store the Christmas decorations. Nothing earth-shattering or award-winning, but helpful on a daily basis. I started writing about possibilities too, like what color palette I’d like if I ever get an office of my own. And ideas for future books, as well as a way to organize them before I start working on them in earnest. The latter is extremely helpful, as it drives me nuts when a new book wants to be written while I’m already working another one. I found myself saving a page here and there for later use.

So even though I’ll be in a hideous piece of footwear for several weeks and have a rather long ‘to-do’ list awaiting me, I am refreshed and ready to resume my usual routine. Which is a good thing, because once I ran out of complaints, words for my WIP started coming again, and my hero and heroine have an important scene coming up.

Has anyone else out there ever had a forced break from routine? How did you handle it? What, if anything, did you accomplish during that time?

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Exposition: Your Reader’s Need to Know File

I can’t speak for other writers, but I’ve found that placing exposition into my stories is either a pleasure or a giant pain. ‘Exposition’ is related to ‘expose’, and thus refers to unveiling information the reader must know in order to make sense of the story. One must have exposition, just not too much of it at one time.

The most common example of this kind of information is back story, or past events which influence the characters or plot of a book, but which do not take place during the length of time the book covers. In Nicole Jordan’s To Desire a Wicked Duke, the heroine’s loss of her fiancé in battle occurred well before the book opens, but it affects her decisions and her relationship with the hero. Her fiancé’s death is part of the back story.

Most new writers, including yours truly, often open their first manuscript with pages and pages explaining the hero or heroine’s home, or family of twelve, or college days, or…it really doesn’t matter, because your reader wants to know about the main characters, not their 500-year-old family pedigree, no matter how distinguished it is. These reams of exposition are the dreaded ‘info-dump’, guaranteed to put off agents, editors and readers alike.

For film it’s said that for every foot of film used in the final cut, there are two feet on the cutting room floor. I’ve come to think of exposition the same way. Yes, it is necessary to come up with detailed character biographies that do include birth year, birth place, family history (and probably their dates as well), education, favorite colors, the character’s particular talents and his or her greatest flaws, etc., etc. — even though this information may never appear in the actual book.

Some of you are probably throwing up your hands and asking, “Then why go to so much trouble?” Considering the research and effort that goes into creating this kind of detail, that is an excellent question!

The answer is that when we writers set down that much information about a character, it nails him or her down in our heads. This kind of detail helps us understand how characters respond to each other as well as to challenges, failures or successes. The writer knows how their hero or heroine will go about reaching their goals. And on a purely practical level, if all of this is written down beforehand, the writer has a reference any time a question about a character’s past comes up. That saves a lot of time all by itself.

As a historical romance writer, I also use exposition to explain aspects of life in past eras that modern readers wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with. For example, in Her Scottish Groom I used it to include details about life in Scotland during the late Victorian era. Trains, cruise ships, and telegrams had been around for years by then. The heroine is accustomed to indoor plumbing.

My debut, To be Seduced, presented even more of a challenge because it takes place during the Restoration. Even something as straightforward as attending the theater needed a little explanation. The experience differed significantly from seeing plays during the nineteenth century, which is heavily represented in historical romances. The trick in both cases was to create vivid scenes for readers to enjoy, not give them a history lesson!

Clues to characters and period or universe (in the case of fantasy or paranormal romance) are imperative to an authentic, well-rounded story. But exposition, like everything else in a well-written book, should be layered in carefully, and nothing should appear on the page that does not advance or enhance the story.

What are some of the most interesting or unexpected bits of information revealed about a character in a book you’ve read?

Writing…and Reading

Some writers have had the urge to string words into stories from their earliest memories, while some of us don’t discover this passion until middle age or later.  Whether they first scribbled a story on the back of grade school homework or had to gather courage and read their first attempt to a room of people more experienced than they were, all the good writers I’ve ever met or heard of reads, and has read, enthusiastically from childhood on.

Well before I started writing seriously, I gave thanks that I was born into a family of book lovers. My parents possessed wildly different tastes in reading material, and both of them affected me. I got my love of historical romance from my mother. Her paperback books contrasted with my father’s volumes on geology, dog training, history and anthropology. Mom introduced me to Georgette Heyer, and the late historian Barbara Tuchman. Dad’s books were drier, but watching him devour volumes on a wide range of subjects encouraged me to explore the non-fiction shelves of the library.

They read to me and my sisters, everything from poems to comic books. I don’t really remember anything but pretty pictures, but the sense of security and comfort of being tucked beside them carried over into the act of reading itself. Once we could read for ourselves, we got books on most major occasions and often on smaller ones. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott were found in my bookshelves, along with Swiss Family Robinson, fairy tales and myths. I saved my allowance to buy Nancy Drew books.  My dad attempted to get me interested in ‘Treasure Island‘, his favorite book as a boy, in vain. Ditto for Charles Dickens. (Sorry, Dad. I tried.) He succeeded wildly with ‘Lord of the Rings’, though.

High school lit classes introduced me to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and The Moon is Down, as well as the sly, wry humor of Mark Twain. I found Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein around then as well, thanks to my best friend who shared out her brother’s science fiction books.

My interest in Tolkien led me to explore other fantasy writers. The voice of Ursula LeGuin is more ambiguous and darker, but her haunting stories stay with you long after you finish them.

As an adult, I discovered Jane Austen (finally!) and Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, the histories and biographies written by Lady Antonia Fraser, and Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries, among many, many others.

These days, I read Tolkien for comfort and inspiration, Heyer when I want to be charmed and amused, Fraser and Tuchman when I need more solid fare, C. J. Cherryh when I want to read science fiction, and Shakespeare and Homer when I’m in the mood for something classic. And I’ve read historical romance in one form or another for decades. There are so many wonderful authors out there to choose from.

Who are your go-to writers for comfort or inspiration?

Notes

Having had my week thrown off by Memorial Day on Monday, this post is shaping up as more of a ‘bits and bobs’ notice. I’ve started a temp job for the summer that’s taking up more time than I expected, and I have the pleasure of my youngest daughter’s company more hours of the day now that she’s out of school. So my apologies for a more disjointed post than usual.

My big news is all about the cover above! Shortly after TO BE SEDUCED was released in North America, it was purchased for publication in Brazil. My understanding is that the Portuguese version went on sale earlier this year. I guess this means I can now call myself ‘internationally published’. Although the book’s hero, Richard, has undergone a somewhat alarming transformation from blond to brunette, I quite like the translation of the title. According to Google, the meaning of ‘A Noiva Seduzida’ is ‘A Bride Seduced’.

I’d love to have my stepsister’s half-Brazilian husband compare the Portuguese version with the original English, but I suspect I’d have to duct tape him to a chair and pour a lot of alcohol down his throat before he’d agree to read a romance through even once.

Meanwhile, HER SCOTTISH GROOM moved into the top 100 Historical Romances purchased on Kindle in mid-April. After fluctuating around #30 most of the time, it’s still hanging in there around #50! I totally did not expect this — after all, there are a lot of other good books out there. Readers still leave mostly positive reviews & ratings at Amazon and Barnes & Noble both (where the Nook version continues to climb, hurrah). HUGE hugs and thank-yous to everyone who took the time to give it a rating or tell how much they enjoyed it!

I gave my first-ever workshop in April, at the Nebraska Writers Guild. ‘Dishing it out and Taking It’ deals both with how to approach the works of other writers for critique, and how to handle the critiques of one’s peers. Participants in April gave it high rating and good comments, so I’m glad to have been able to help others out.

Now that summer is upon us, I anticipate a new season of good books, time in the sun, and especially, new chapters to write! What are you looking forward to?