Tag Archives: Writing

Finding New York in 1745

I thought that I would find tons of readily available material about 18th century Manhattan when researching for my latest book. I was wrong. I did not predict the depth and longevity of scarring left behind by the British occupation of New York during the revolution, nor did I fully grasp the minute repercussions of history being written by the winners.

I found plenty of material about Dutch-era Manhattan, as New Yorkers seem to love their Dutch history. The Dutch, after all, weren’t British. The internet boasts a plethora of maps, anecdotal stories, artwork, family history, architecture, etc. of the original colony. There is a fond collective memory of naive early days. Unless one is researching First Nations history, which is a very different story (note first paragraph, ironically).

The 17th century ends with the secession of Dutch power and most casual histories of New York give a nod in a paragraph or two acknowledging the colony was British before moving on.

The bulk of American history doesn’t start until the revolution does. Everything one might be curious about is well documented from that point on. I should not be surprised that American history starts with its inception—but it’s like there was nothing worth mentioning before 1776.

At first I grew very frustrated by the minimal resource materials available online. Then it occurred to me that if I couldn’t corroborate many of the details of my setting, then neither could many of my readers. Once I embraced this realization, I felt liberated to write whatever I wanted within the loose framework of what I had been able to research.

I was successful in finding a handful of contemporary maps, which I refer to often. I sometimes take walks in my imagination, inspired by annotations on the map of markets, palisades, ports and forts, churches and commons. (Note that the above map is from 1662.)

During the year 1741, just before my characters arrive in New York, a well-documented tragedy occurred which was not dissimilar to the witch trials of Salem. This time the hysteria developed following several arson incidents which were blamed on the swelling population of African slaves, who at that time made up 20% of New York. While this event is not directly referenced in my novel, the documentation around it reveals a fascinating glimpse into the cultural make-up of the city in that era.

My favourite research treasure (and one which I’ve been promising to dedicate a post to) has been a small collection of newspapers from the mid 1750’s that have been made available online. I suspect the interest in publishing these particular issues is the documentation of troop movements during the Seven Years War (known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War), but buried in the back pages are local news stories and a slew of advertising, all of which are priceless sources of information.

Apart from Maps and Newspapers, another favourite source of life at the time is a You-Tube channel published by a three-generation family of historical enactment suppliers, who in their own time re-enact recipes from the colonial era. They also publish question and answer videos for people who wish to make their reenactment experiences as true to history as possible, and some of the details have been invaluable.

Everything else in my novel is made up from my imagination. But my story is about two young people who fall in love, and that type of situation hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. So I think a little loose interpretation of history will be ok.

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Practice, Practice, Practice

I grew up playing piano. I didn’t sit down to a piano as a child prodigy, though. I took lessons for years, accompanied by many, many hours of practising what I had learned, playing scales, learning theory, and training my ears. Over the years I became very good and went on to learn guitar and drums and developed in intense love of music. (I also have horrible memories of finding myself subjected to performing on stage while crippled with paralyzing stage fright—but that’s another story.)

I want to talk about the practising part of that piano experience. I have noticed a number of references recently on the benefits of practice. Some have referred to music practice itself, but others to applying the idea of music practice to visual disciplines. Most recently, I found myself listening to one of the designers in the Netflix series Abstract describe applying music practice to drawing.

What about applying a music-based practice regime to writing?

There is no question that one of the strongest pieces of advice given to writers to develop their craft is to write every day. This advice hints at what practising music every day aims to do: get better. But a good musician does not merely play every day. Good music practice touches on several aspects of playing that include technique and improvisation, as well as perfecting pieces of music for performance.

I decided to figure out what applying music practice to writing might look like. I broke a practice session down into three essential parts: technique, improvisation, repertoire. I added a cool-down bit later which I will get to. Usually improv will come after working on the current repertoire pieces, but I decided to switch the order.

For technique, there are abundant sources of writing exercises available. I thought about what I wanted to work on as a writer—expand my vocabulary, control a certain long-windedness, shift from passive verbs to active—and I pooled together a list of 5-minute writing exercises that concentrated on those aspects of the craft. That list may be different for other writers, and it may change for me over time and depending on what I’m working on. For now, I pick two items at random from the list and do them when I sit down to write. It turns out to be more enjoyable than I think it will be when I start. Words!

Improv is easy to apply to writing. Flash fiction comes to mind. Writing in a journal works, too. Working on this blog entry counts. I applied the same idea for an improvisation session that I did for working on technique—I compiled a list of  eight or ten writing prompts that speak to me, and when the time comes I pick one at random. There are many prompts that involve random words, sentences, or images, and many random-generating sites that help to start a session. I do really like Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge prompts (a couple of which have resulted in fiction posts here). Because I am striving to finish a first draft at the moment, I have limited my writing prompt list to 10-minute pieces. I want to put most of my time toward working on the manuscript.

Which brings me to my repertoire. My manuscript is my repertoire, the piece that I present to the public and which I strive to perfect before doing so. Working on a little technique and flexing the imagination with a writing prompt help eliminate that ominous blank page syndrome. I like to read the work I’ve done the day before to really get the juices flowing.

I mentioned a wind-down at the beginning of this post. I have a horrible habit of interrupting my work flow with research. I love researching things. I get lost in learning. Sometimes what I read about inspires the scene I’m working on, but most often I catalogue an idea for later. I put research at the end of a writing session as a cool down. That serves a dual purpose. I don’t interrupt myself while I’m writing (instead making a list as I go to research at the end of a session), and what I discover while researching at the end of the day fuels excitement for the next session.

I put the ideas above to work this week, intimidated by the imposition of discipline. The first thing I discovered was that enjoyment vanquishes intimidation.

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From Roz Morris… Resolutions for 2017

A lucky turn of the radio dial this week and I got a real treat: the Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine interviewing Brian Eno. The whole piece is worth listening to, but this exchange particularly caught me. Vine was trying to pin down what made some of Eno’s collaborators so special – David Bowie, David […]

via Writers’ manifesto for 2017 – take your imagination seriously — Nail Your Novel

(I found Roz Morris’s first post of January 2017 hit a nerve for me. Not to mention that she references some of the more influential artists in my life.)

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Writing Fluff in Dark Times

I’m not sure if I’m alone in this, but I find maintaining an interest in my period romance novel a challenge with all the down-turning of events of late. I confess my pessimism is slightly exaggerated, but the need to fight for compassion, free-speech, and environmental protection is at an all-time high, at least in my lifetime. I find myself challenging a determination to delve into a romance set two hundred and fifty years ago when most of my thoughts are consumed by the present and the immediate future. Should I drop the project I’ve been working on for over a year and crawl into a new genre of politically active contemporary fiction? Maybe I should consider that for the next one, but right now I’m not willing to drop the story I’ve been working on all year just because the world is going to shit.

The question remains: how do I tackle completing a story when I’m thinking about other issues? If I’m not interested in what’s happening in the context of my narrative, neither will the reader be. I have found a few tools and/or helpful thoughts to help me cope.

I am reminding myself to have fun when I write. Guilt is a perfect recipe for sucking the fun out of anything. A writer’s state of mind always seeps across the page to the reader. I started my current novel because I thought it would be a fun story to write. I was excited not only to explore the romance between my two characters, but also by the adventure I could send them on, and the joy of delving into a setting so unlike my own. I find that the more I open myself up to playing with the plot and the supporting characters, the more enjoyment I have. If I have set out to entertain, then I’d better shed some guilt about it, or I only sabotage myself.

I am embracing the influence of political influence on my writing. There is no question that my political thoughts impose themselves on the story as I write, so I have resolved to let this happen. The accidents that happen as I write are influenced by what I’m thinking about. I understand that there is no use fighting the infusion of progressive ideas into what happens to my characters, or who they meet along the way. I have concluded the only answer is to not only embrace but pursue the influences as they occur.

I am allowing myself to enjoy productive distractions. Research can be a giant procrastination hurdle for me because, speaking of fun, I always find myself in a bottomless pit of fascination. However, research is a necessity, especially in period fiction where research provides a necessary gateway to creating a believable setting. I am inspired by glimpsing another time through experiences contemporary to the period. The insight is also helpful in revealing issues of the time that connect to current issues. History repeats itself. I have been digging into old newspapers and look forward to sharing some of my discoveries in a future post.

Finally, I shouldn’t call my novel “fluff.” It might lack serious discourse up front, nor inspire future generations of radicals, but that’s okay. I am writing it solely for entertainment purposes at a time when people are struggling to remain positive, and a bit of entertainment can be refreshing. Besides, my characters are not without opinion, and are not afraid to speak out.

I do have a completed first draft of a novel begging for attention, that takes place slightly in the future, is rife with political discourse and infused with magic realism. Guess what I might be working on next?

 

 

 

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Back on the Horse

I’ve finally wrapped up a tough work contract that absorbed all my time for the past ten weeks, with no more than a single day off in the past six. I knew going into the job that I would lose writing time, but I decided that the opportunity was worth the sacrifice given that the job was not expected to carry on for more than four or five weeks. Well, surprise—the work extended to more than double the expected duration.

Interesting thing about this particular film job: the period setting was identical to my novel-in-progress (England and the Colonies in the mid 18th century). The only difference was that the scripted colonial location took place in Virginia, whereas my novel unfolds in New York and Philadelphia. As an art director, I spent many hours neck-deep in research since part of my job is to match the look of the period. But while I took advantage of swimming in my own novel’s setting, I did not have the time to delve into my story.

How does one get back into a big story after such a long and intense break from the material? I always find the best way to get back into a project is to re-read the manuscript. The characters come to life and the story fills the mind again in a way that feels like getting into a freshly made bed. I’ve started tackling the 83,000 words I’ve put on the page to date. I’m enjoying the read, which is a good sign—and also see clearly where I need to do some re-structuring. Reading with fresh eyes is one unexpected advantage of having to take a break from a manuscript.

The timing of the end of my work contract lined up perfectly for taking part in NaNoWriMo again this year. I would have signed up if I were ready to start a new novel. However, I’m still working on an unfinished gap in the middle of the novel from last year. Instead, I’m doing “unofficial” NaNoWriMo. I’m writing every day, working to a word-count goal, and aiming to finish the middle of the book by the end of the month.

I’m finding it a challenge and suffering from immense blank page syndrome, but I’m glad to get back on the horse.

I’d be interested to hear how others deal with major interruptions in their work flow. Please feel free to share in the comments below.

 

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