Friday, February 27, 2009

Re-Versing "Write what you know."

We've all heard "Write what you know."  I would reverse that and say, "Know what you write."

Many fine men and women have devoted their lives and careers to researching and publishing historical reference material. We owe them our respect, and, as writers of historical fiction, we owe it to ourselves, and our readers to make our stories as accurate as possible.  I do not think writers claiming to write historical fiction should ever scramble recorded history to suit a story.

Does this mean that we cannot adjust the facts to suit our plot? Well, yes -- and no. Most historical novelists have toyed with history for the sake of plot movement. However, the best of us do not do it without considerable thought.

One way to avoid problems with historical events and personages is to write 'between' the facts. Say, for instance, that information about the beginning and the outcome of an event is readily available, but your extensive research turns up nothing about the middle. Does that mean you can do whatever you want with the middle? Pretty much. Just don't kill off anyone known to have been around for the end.

Sometimes all you want is the flavor of an historical era. That is, in its way, harder to deal with than events. For example, how do people care for their clothes? How do they cook their food? How do they handle things like sanitation, disease, birth control, and a thousand other minute details of everyday life?  You won't need to put all of this information in your manuscript but you need to know it. You don't want to have a character using something before it was invented.

For FIXIN' THINGS, I needed to know if flat irons existed in the 19th century. My research of the 18th century proved their existence in that era. Therefore, it's a pretty good bet that my female lead will have one around in the 19th. Of course, setting a novel in 19th century America makes for easy research. So much information is available that knowing when to stop researching and start writing becomes difficult.

So, when is it time to do it? That, too, has a bifurcated answer.  NOW is a good time to start writing the novel, whenever now is, and NEVER is the perfect time to stop researching. I find myself doing additional spot research through multiple rewrites. And, everything I change must be checked for accuracy.

What if your story wants to happen in an unreported era? Then, it becomes essential to research previous times. My novel, SAPPHO SINGS, is set during Greece's dark period. While most of us are at least vaguely familiar with Athens and Sparta in the 4th Century B.C.E., and Homer showed us much of the 10th century B.C.E. but little or nothing has come down to us from the time between. What there was has been systematically destroyed by religious interests. Therefore, in order to make my story as accurate as conscience dictates, I studied what went before. Homer was a starting point.  To that I added the Bible, the Quaran and all the histories of Egypt and Mesopotamia I could get my hands on in those pre-Internet years.

I believe it behooves us, as writers of historical fiction, to spend the time and effort necessary to check and recheck any and all material we use from the past.

   -- or --

leave history strictly alone and write our fictions without the help of research and researchers. We cannot, in all fairness, slough it off. We cannot shrug and say, "It is such a small part of the novel, it doesn't matter." History matters, a lot, to your readers, or they wouldn't be reading your historical novel.

If you have good reason to believe that the situation you want to put a character in could not have happened in the time and place you wish it to, it is you and your character who must adjust--history cannot.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I found a new toy

Ever wish you could find software that would help you organize your creative genius without laying out more than your last advance? Check out yWriter from Spacejock.

yWriter works on the scene level so it doesn't overwhelm by expecting too much of you too soon.

Best of all - IT'S FREE! See for yourself at

Monday, February 09, 2009

"I dunno. I disremembered."

As mentioned in a previous blog [see: When Characters Write Your Book 1/21/09], my fictional characters have a habit of writing much of my work for me. This morning I want to talk about such an incident.

Fifty years ago, while working on a short story for the writers' group I attended, one of my characters said something perfectly suited to the situation using a word I'd never heard before. When asked about an unpleasant episode from his past the boy said, "I dunno. I disremembered."

OK, I might have invented it but for me it was one of those perfect bits of language that dropped into my mind from the ether when only that single concept would convey what was needed. It would not have been enough for him to say he forgot. Forgetting happens to everyone and some things, as with what had happened to this boy are impossible to forget. This boy had managed to "disremember."

Guess I sold that story 'cause I just Googled and discovered that "disremembered" has found its way into a dictionary. However, it's presence in at least the Urban Dictionary does not surprise me since my little story was written in LA and we all know how information spreads from there. I remember inventing jokes while bartending in Hollywood and having them told to me as "new" in Arkansas twenty years later. I must have sold the boy's story and forgotten.

BUT! The dictionaries have it wrong when they say "disremember" and "disremembered" mean the same as "forget" and "forgot". Both "forget" and "forgot" are passive verbs meaning something lost at least temporarily. "Disremember" is an active verb that means "to forget": the deliberate act of putting something out of mind.

How many times have you tried to do that only to discover that the more you tried the more deeply rooted the memory became. And, the more it grew!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Historical fiction or fantasy or all three.

This morning, while perusing Historical novel excerpts on Helium I came across an excerpt purported to be about my beloved hometown of Gettysburg. The author called it alternative history and of course I, being me, did not hesitate to let her know I thought alternative history belonged in the "fantasy" section.

Her approach to The Battle of Gettysburg is interesting despite the errors [eg. Chancellorville instead of Chancellorsville] being a bit off putting. I did however find the notion that Lee and Longstreet "planned" a battle @ Gettysburg more than a little disconcerting. Having grown up with the battlefield as my playground I learned early that Lee had no idea Lincoln would yank command of the Army of the Potomac away from McCellan nor that Meade would immediately bring the army north.

I love historical novels and I have a particular fondness for novels centered upon Gettysburg [as witnessed by my own novel FIXIN' THINGS] but I believe that novelists have a duty to their readers to either keep available facts straight or label their novels fantasy not historical. But then again, that's just my never humble opinion.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Wonderful World

Despite whatever troubles you today we all need to be reminded once in a while what a gift this world of ours really is.

It's all in the message, Babe.

This morning, inspired by my friend Marvin Wilson over at Tie Dyed Tirades I bring you a fabulous young never to be Beat poet named " target="_blank">' target=_blank>Alix Olson. Enjoy!

Friday, February 06, 2009


There are as many ways to plot a story as there are stories.  But, as we all know, some are better than others.  This leads me to what I call Pretzel Plotting (putting the cart before the horse and making the horse like it) 

In a basic Confessions type story, the expected plot is sin, suffer and repent.  But, it makes a much better story if the suffering comes after, rather than before repentance, as in sin, repent, and then suffer anyway.

For example: The protagonist does something deplorable and gets away with it.  Later, plagued by a guilty conscience, she attempts to make things right.  However, in the process of making things right, suppose she tells a series of lies that make her appear guilty of a crime.  Now we have a woman, repentant for her intolerable act, innocent of the crime of which she is accused, but helpless to defend herself without telling the truth about the despicable thing she did.  Sound like a soap opera?  It is.  But, it is also an intriguing plot with lots of possibilities.

Pretzel Plotting is taking the standard plots and turning them on their ear much as many current Historical Romance writers are doing.  I have recently read over a three dozen such novels for research.  In each of them, her own actions catch the protagonist, and she and her antagonist end up married early in the book.  By the end of the novel, they are madly in love.  A Pretzel Plot based on the boy meets girl/boy gets girl dichotomy but twisted into a more interesting shape.  A good example of this is in The Thorn Birds, both protagonists have long since repented for their earlier involvement.  Nevertheless, in the sequel, everyone is suffering from it.

"What if" is the stuff of which Pretzel Plots are made?  What if Hitler had not died?  What if Eisenhower had not halted his forward thrust to let the Russians enter Berlin first?  What if Custer had followed orders?  What if Pickett hadn't?  What if Scarlet had been named Gertrude Hoffhausen?  Or, Sherman had taken a different route?  What if Tiny Tim had won the lottery?  What if Rocky had fixed the fight?  What if Luke's father had never gone over to the Dark Side?

     Pretzel Plots.  Find your story.  Get fully acquainted with your characters.  Put them in a situation.  Then, turn the situation inside out.  Wrap it in and over itself.  Put your characters through the wringer, but make them tumble-dry themselves.


Thursday, February 05, 2009



[Originally written while my husband lived but still relevant]

Have you ever wondered why male authors appear to be more prolific than women?  Historically, they do have more published books.  But, I don't believe that men are the better writers simply because they have more books on the market.  I believe they have more books on the market because most of them have/had some woman to sweep their floors, wash their socks and make sure they took time out to eat.  Some men even have the kind of wife who does everything for them except their thinking.  You know.  They're the wives you read about.  The ones who type one-hundred-and-twenty words a minute.  Now, I want one of those.

A wife who cooks and cleans and types and gives good back rubs should be standard equipment for all potential authors.  I need a wife to do all of the stuff my dear husband, who is retired and home all the time, thinks I should do immediately, if not sooner - just because I'm here.  It doesn't matter that I'm deep into structuring my third novel.  The tomatoes are ripe and have to be scalded and peeled - NOW!  "Sure, dear, find me a wife and she'll do it while I figure out this new character's astrological makeup."

Yesterday, I planned to work on the rewrite of my second novel - but yesterday there were peppers to be pickled.  Right now, our kitchen table has more ripe tomatoes on it than my desk has disks - and BOTH need processing.  Oh, boy, do I need a wife.  My house hasn't had a wife since the last kid left home and I retired.  Well, not really.  My husband retired.  I couldn't retire as a housewife because I never married a house in the first place.  I married a man who cooked, and I raised my kids to either clean it or ignore it.

I did both while they were still around.  And, I wrote umpteen drafts of two novels, on a Remington Standard, in the midst of it.  But, since they grew up and left and I've discovered the joys of virtual cut and paste, I've been writing full time and it is beginning to pay off, in spite of wifely interruptions.The earlier [truncated] version of my work on Sappho entitled PSAPPHA was produced from the draft I wrote in 1969, with five kids under twelve fighting in the background, and released in November 2000.  Now out-of-print you can read the restored, revised, augmented version as SAPPHO SINGS.

My Gettysburg novel, FIXIN' THINGS took 30 years from draft to print, It might have come out years earlier - if I'd only had a wife.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A poem that sings to me.


I found this recently and needed to share it.

30 January 2009
From Muse to Id
That dark lady I call my muse,
Angel of art inside my head.
My tears are shed as she sings blues,
That dark lady I call my muse.
Colours scheming in vibrant hues,
each time I lay there in my bed.
That dark lady I call my muse,
Angel of art inside my head.
Ideas float with static clues,
That dark lady I call my muse,
She brings them forth in words to use
In pictures tonal views are read.
That dark lady I call my muse,
Angel of art inside my head.

She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
yet tender is her sultry touch.
In thought, imagination’s trip
She holds me tight in vice like grip,
from her chalice I gently sip,
at first it all seems double Dutch
She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
yet tender is her sultry touch.
As words and art  meet my pen tip
She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
she guides the words that form on lip,
the ink on paper now my crutch
She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
yet tender is her sultry touch.

That dark lady I call my muse,
She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
Eases the way that I confuse,
That dark lady I call my muse.
Images once lost, now diffuse
and on paper they swiftly slip
That dark lady I call my muse,
She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
no longer words can I excuse,
That dark lady I call my muse,
As I dwell in fantasies views
I see I’m now her fingertip,
The dark lady I called my muse,
I hold me tight in vice-like grip.

© Jem Farmer 2008, all rights reserved.

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