Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Next week, expect busyness…

If you haven’t noticed, October is almost over.

For some people (I won’t say who), that means NaNoWriMo season is about to begin. Once again it's almost time for National Novel Writing Month, where some people (nothing against their sanity) attempt to write 50,000 words during November.
And in case you did notice the little box on the sidebar, where I had my word count from last year's NaNoWriMo...yes, it now has a word count of zero. I didn’t do it. The word count automatically reset itself some time ago.

I was surprised too, when I noticed what had happened. That’s okay, though. I only noticed it myself after trying to reset the form for this year’s challenge. It's time to try NaNo a second time.
Last year, when I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time, I reached 50K a couple days before the deadline. Last year, I had a thorough outline to work from. At least, the outline was more thorough than any I've managed before or since, but having the outline made my job relatively easy—pick up the pieces and write something.
This year, I'm starting with a vague idea that I've been tossing around for a year or two. I've tried to play with some ideas during the past couple of weeks and I have a slightly-less-imaginary outline than when I started, but this attempt at NaNo could be very interesting.
I would say—NaNoWriMo’s starting, so if you don’t hear from me anytime soon, that’s why. However, I am still planning to post during November.
Next week, I'm part of a blog tour for Davis Bunn's Strait of Hormuz (sequel to Rare Earth, which I reviewed last summer). I want to get a couple other reviews in as well—and let you know how NaNo is going, of course.
Speaking of Strait of Hormuz, the book will be available November 5th. Meanwhile, feel free to check out the first three chapters (as a .pdf file), or the giveaway on Bunn’s Facebook page. For this giveaway, Bunn is offering daily drawings until November 1st. Each day’s winner will get the three books from the Lion of Babylon series, ending with Strait of Hormuz. (You can also download the first book, Lion of Babylon, for free during November.) I’ll include information about another giveaway in my review next week.
As an aside—if you want yet another book option, you can also download Patricia Rushford’s murder mystery, Deadly Aim, for free from Amazon during November. I enjoyed the book last year, so let me know if you read it too and what you think.
And now...I’ll be back Monday to tell you what I think of Strait of Hormuz. After that? We’ll see what the month is like, once November is over.

How about you? Do you have any goals, writing or other, for the coming month?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Forever Friday: Review

On its face, Forever Friday, by Timothy Lewis, is a story about romance.

Adam Colby has just lost his wife of twelve years to divorce and another man. He can’t even figure what went wrong, and he’s giving up on romance and forever love anymore.

Then, as he’s sorting through rubbish at an estate sale, he finds a stash of postcards that one man sent to his wife through sixty years of marriage. There’s a postcard for each Friday of their marriage, and each postcard has a short love poem.

So much is straight forward—and pretty obvious from the back cover blurb. From there, though, the story splits into three stories. The plot device here reminds me somewhat of The Girl in the Glass, where one thread follows a character’s search while two others weave separate backstories behind the main narrative.

In Forever Friday, one thread follows Adam’s quest to find out more about the Alexanders and their marriage. As this search progresses, a second plot thread uncovers how the postcards survived for Adam to find. And the closer Adam gets to his answers, the closer this thread brings him to the Alexander’s foster daughter, Yevette.

For me, though, the third thread is the most mysterious. I’ve not read much magical realism, and most of that was during college, but Forever Friday is a book that explores the edges of what might be. It’s not a supernatural story, because everything can be explained by everyday common sense, but it lets some questions linger about what might be.

It’s the third thread that introduces Huck Huckabee, the tomboy youngest daughter of a Southern family. She has an engagement ring, a knack for getting into trouble, and she may even have her own guardian angel. And when she runs into Gabe Alexander, all three just might collide. Their story has some high points of tension, but it’s largely the slow unfolding of a love story and what it means to be in love, forever.

My only minor complaint? I still don’t see how a first person narrator can jump so easily into describing another character’s third person view into events from sixty or seventy years before. But that’s minor. Lewis has his own knack for keeping the transitions clear and letting the music flow throughout the story.

As a bonus, Lewis even gives a note at the end, describing the two events that prompted him to write this novel—but maybe you should read the book itself first. If you want to check out the first chapter yourself, you can find it here, along with more information about the book.

[My thanks to WaterBrook Press for sending me an ARC of Forever Friday, in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Egypt Fest

In my last couple of posts, I've been on a roll—or maybe at a standstill—with my historical research.

Actually, in addition to hunting up books on Medieval lifestyles and New England architecture, I’ve taken a trip on my Egyptian memory-wagon this summer. 
That part is due to a review book I’ve been reading this summer—Ancient Egypt in 101 Questions and Answers by Thomas Schneider. This particular book wasn’t the easiest read, since I have an electronic version, and it’s really meant to be a hardcopy, with real paper to flip through, jump back several pages, or skim for the next interesting photo.

Ancient Egypt in 101 Questions and Answers

Since this was a review copy, I’ll add that it does have some great information. As a Lit major, I was already familiar with the Romantics’ love for ancient cultures, so I knew about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias (Question 2). I did not know, however, that ancient Egyptians had their own set of four primary colors—black, red, white, and green—for the Nile mud, the brightness of sunlight, the red deserts, and the water and vegetation that they saw around them (Question 16).

In addition to this sort of trivia, Schneider covers a wide range of history, politics and culture. He mentions the Israelite Exodus and discounts it, claiming a lack of historical evidence or an inability to fit the story into a particular dynasty (Question 5). Schneider also discusses the possibility that the Western world might have followed the Isis cult instead of Christianity had some of the Roman Emperors had their way (Question 7).

Unfortunately, Ancient Egypt really is a reference book, not a history book. The book itself might be good for a quick browse, and some of the questions are interesting enough to justify a second glance or two. Over all, though, the format gives information in quick bites, rather than in a broad overview. If I wanted to learn about Egyptian history or culture, I would look for a general history and keep this book on the shelf until I had a specific question to look up.

This is where the memories come in—most of what I know about ancient Egypt came from the kids’ pictures books I read growing up. I admit it’s not academic in the least, but if I had to look up Egyptian history, I would probably still start with a stack of Usborne books, Eyewitness books, and that Time Traveler book my family still has.

Then there is David McCauley’s Pyramid. (Not to mention McCauley’s City and Castle for other eras.) Pyramid has step-by-step drawings and cut-away pictures showing a pyramid’s construction.  

And, since I tend to pick up as much of my lore from novels as from histories—a couple of my favorite Egyptian novels are still Eloise Jarvis Mcgraw’s The Golden Goblet and Mara, Daughter of the Nile. Of course, that still leaves The Bobbsey Twins and Their Camel Adventure, as well as the Hardy Boys’ The Secret Warning—about sunken ships, insurance fraud, and a mummy. That’s starting to stray from the history theme, but even Agatha Christie wrote a murder novel set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End.

As I said, my background in Egyptian history is not academic in the least. Unorthodox might be the better term—but it sure was fun reading.

What are your favorite ways to learn about Egypt—or history in general?

[My thanks to Net Galley and Cornell University Press for sending me a Kindle ARC of Ancient Egypt in 101 Questions and Answers, in exchange for my opinion of the book.]

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Historicity: Back to the Big Picture

Last week, I complained about the problem of details in writing—especially writing that involves researching obscure historical details.

Research is even important in make-believe worlds, because farming methods, by whatever name, must still make sense to readers, along with weapons, battles, climates, houses, cloth manufacturing, and cognitive development patterns.

Details are important, as any writer could tell you.

Of course, the big picture is just as important. I’m not talking about plot. Yes, it is challenging to create the goals and conflicts and overarching structure of a novel, but the plot itself needs to fit into the structure of its world.

I found this out after deciding to revisit a colonial-era novel I once wrote. It was my first novel, which I finished almost five years ago. Since then, it’s waited patiently for me to get through college, finish up my research, and start on the editing.

You could call it a learning experience.

I knew that the book needed a lot more research. For example, I had found some obscure details about the fact that New England Puritans believed in an orderly society, and that they founded towns as units, not necessarily as pioneers straggling out into the wilderness to find a homestead. For a Puritan family to pick up their household and head out alone (as the Ingalls did later on) would seem scandalous.

No one I’ve found explains much about how these town-units actually formed, but I wanted to include that detail. I figured that with a couple other details about how the settlers would pick a town site, clear the land, and build their houses, I’d be well on my way.

Things looked so promising that I picked a corner of the map for my (fictional) settlement and looked up information on some of the towns formed around there. I even found a couple towns settled close to the time I had picked. This, though, only happened after I wrote the rough draft and was ready to look at some revisions.

Then I started looking into some other details. I found out that the towns I wanted to use as models were actually splinter-groups breaking off from larger settlements that had been founded at least 50 years earlier. In other words, all of the main settling and civilizing had happened much earlier than when my novel was set.

I could fix those sorts of details with a bit of tweaking, but next I realized that my chosen region lay very close to the Mohican trail, and that this what about the time of the French and Indian War. In fact, one of the small settlements I had found was created as a barrier settlement with a fort, to defend more developed areas from Indian raids. And, this was after some of the major threats had tapered off.

Now I had the wrong area, or at least the wrong time, and the wrong story entirely. And, apparently, my original story either needs to change, or adapt to its frontier conditions.

Or, it might just get buried as a first-attempt novel no one needs to publish. Remember that learning experience I mentioned earlier?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Historicity: It's in the Details

I’m on the history-wagon at the moment. It might have something to do with my attempts at novel-related research.

Actually, it probably has a lot to do with that.

That’s because I’ve been doing a lot of research recently. Part of my research is supposed to be developing a medieval setting for my fantasy series. That’s an issue on its own, and it has only proven so far that I need a better mix of primary source documents and re-enactors guidelines—like that one Daily Life book targeted specifically at the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Most history books, you see, assume that people want to know about important things. Things like which king fought that other king, until he decided to marry the other king’s daughter instead—and then kept fighting anyway.

I like that sort of history. I really do. I can even remember a few dates, enough to know when the Magna Carta was signed (June 15th, 1215—it’s easy to remember with two fifteens in the date). Still, I do prefer to read about people’s stories within history.

There was one lady, for example, famous for helping to hold off Viking invasions. She showed up in my research for a Medieval Literature class, and I liked her. I’d like to write a story about her, or someone like her, if I can ever dig out my notes to remember who she was.

It’s just that, if I want to write about her, I also want to know what sort of architecture was used in the town she was defending, how the townsfolk planted their fields, what they planted, whether they got to eat most of it or whether it was destroyed by the fighting or went to pay taxes, or was traded off for salt or leather or iron. Did most people wear shoes? Did they go to church? What sort of liturgy would the priest use?

And, even though I’m not writing about medieval England at the moment, I want to know things like this for my fantasy series. I’m supposed to be creating a semi-medieval setting, if I don’t take it forward to renaissance in some places.

Of course, since I like old, old history in general, this research might become an excuse to write other types of fiction (see the famous lady example above). It’ll just have to wait until I have time, and until I can put it into much better and much more thorough order. And until I get better at finding the right sort of history books.

That might be the real problem. I fail at being a historian. History research takes organization, both in putting information into order, keeping track of it once it’s in order, and in starting the research off correctly. Just ask me about my New England novel…

Or maybe I’ll just tell you about it next time.