Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Musings or The Haunted Character

As we celebrate All Hallow’s Eve it seems appropriate to share the story of my character who insisted her name was NOT Elizabeth but Sarah. Elizabeth is the protagonist in my Civil War novel, and like everyone else in Elizabeth’s family, she has been given a first name of an ancestor of mine who lived in the area of Tennessee where my novel takes place. But for the first few weeks that I was imagining my story, every time that I thought about Elizabeth’s character the name Sarah came to mind, as in “Oh, Sarah will do this, or say this, or encounter this problem.” I would have to stop and remind myself that there was NO Sarah in my story, but after days of this I started to have a very hard time thinking of Elizabeth as Elizabeth. The name began to seem unwieldy; it just didn’t feel right anymore. By the third week Elizabeth thankfully reemerged, and all was right with the world. Or so I thought.
While imagining the plot, setting, and characters I was feverishly researching my book. A stack of books began to grow, websites were being bookmarked, and Civil War reenactments were attended. My stack of books included, among many others,  Mary Chestnut’s Diary and Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman. While the Mary Chestnut diary is a classic, and often quoted in Civil War books, the Sarah Morgan was more useful for me, as she was a young woman about the age of my Elizabeth. One evening, weeks after the Sarah debacle, I was casually flipping through the Sarah Morgan book, and came upon photographs taken of her later in life. These pictures were taken after she was married. Morgan had been her maiden name. When I saw her married name on the picture captions my spine tingled, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. After marriage Sarah Morgan became Sarah Dawson. Elizabeth’s family is the Dawson family, and had been since the day I began to envision my story. (Dawson is also a family name, though from a few more generations back.) Had I listened to the Sarah who had the audacity to insist I name my protagonist after her, her name would have been Sarah Dawson. And there was already a Sarah Dawson,  one who had actually lived and breathed. Cue Twilight Zone theme music.
Though Sarah was quite audacious, and the discovery of the real Sarah Dawson rather unsettling, I have since heard stories from two other writers who have written Civil War books and both of them had strange coincidences occur while writing their books as well. The best story comes from a writer who had written a character and had the character die on a particular day. Some time later she was visiting a graveyard near the setting of her novel only to discover a tombstone with her character’s name. This tombstone listed the day of death as the same day her fictional character died. The third author, upon hearing both of these stories, and who had a story of her own, mused that perhaps there is something about the spirits of those who lived during the Civil War, an unrest perhaps, that makes them want to reach out to those of us writing their stories. I don’t know. That isn’t an area I know much about. But…who knows?
 Now cue Halloween music.
Happy Haunted Halloween!!


P.S. Still Halloween-ish: Check out the new show Grimm on NBC Fridays. Imaginative new mix of detective and fairy tale genres, and filmed here in beautiful Portland, Oregon.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Audacious Characters and Coups

So, here I am with a blog, and a new writing obsession, but how did I get here? And most importantly, why now? What happened after all those years of saying I would write to make me actually attempt to do it?
Last March as I was going about life, teaching my little second graders, and being wife and mom, a plot, a full cast of characters, and a setting all took up residence in my imagination and wouldn’t leave me alone. To be honest, some of them had been niggling at the recesses of my imagination for years, but they obviously weren’t ready for their coup until March. But in early March they had me by the throat and were not going to let go. One character even had the audacity to let me know that the name I had chosen for her wasn’t actually her name, but more of that story in a later post. It ends up being right out of the Twilight Zone.
I made the decision. I had to let these characters free to roam the pages of a book. But, this book was going to require some research—quite a bit of research, as it is set during the Civil War. During those years that bits and pieces of it had been teasing me, I had first thought it would be a children’s book, then it seemed it needed to be an adult book. But during the intervening years a phenomenon in publishing took off: the young adult novel. Once those characters moved in I quickly realized that the book was a young adult, or YA novel. An historical YA, which isn’t as prevalent as contemporary YA.
So I set off to do my research, and I knew almost immediately that I wasn’t going to be able to wait until I had all my research ducks in a row before started to practice the craft of writing. Research was going to take months. And I wanted to write something NOW. I had never written anything more than a college paper, and I had no idea how to write a full length novel. I had to try my wings. This practice run book needed to be something fun, light, and enjoyable to write. The story had to be very, very different from my Civil War book. It couldn’t require research, obviously. An idea came to me straightaway.
Taking places and topics I enjoy, and mixing them with themes from popular culture I came up with my story. It was only supposed to be a writing exercise, but I ended up having so much fun with it that I became obsessed. Of course I fell in love with my hero, but to be honest, who wouldn’t. He is gorgeous, brilliant, aristocratic, and over two hundred years old. He is a Jane Austen (my favorite author!) professor at an Oxford college, and the fact that he’s a vampire isn’t his only secret, as my heroine soon finds out. So, I spent my summer with Gabriel Augustine, vampire. It was great fun.
Now, I’m writing the Civil War first draft, working on the rewrite of Gabriel, and have just been taken over again by a rogue character who insists on having a book written about her. And she is very, very persistent. So, and I know this is not the way a real writer works, I’m involved with three novels, at varying stages. And each as different from the other as it could possibly be. Each requires a unique voice and style. Is there such a thing as writer ADHD?
While this is an overview of what I’ve been trying to do for the past several months, much has happened along the way. In future posts I’ll write about meeting the fantastic authors who were at Portland’s Wordstock earlier this month. And the writing workshops I attended there. And the writing workshop I attended in September that made me feel like a gigantic imposter, before finally inspiring me to continue. This new writing gig has led me to meet some fascinating people, and to experience things I would never have experienced otherwise.
I don’t see the obsession ending anytime soon.
Happy reading!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

With this first blog post I have officially stepped so far out of my comfort zone that I am now in a new zip code--and it's not even a west coast zip code. Anyone who has ever tried something new, something daunting, something that once they started they wondered “What the hell was I thinking?” will understand with what trepidation I undertake this. This is but the latest of many steps I have taken in a new journey that I embarked upon this past spring.  I decided to try my hand at something I’d dreamed of doing all my life, but never had the courage to actually attempt. I’m writing. I’m writing books! Story ideas have filled my mind for as long as I can remember, but I have never done anything with them. It was always, “Someday, I’ll have to write that book.” Someday. But somedays have a way of coming and going and before you realize it, years have gone by. When one particular story idea took up residence in my imagination and wouldn’t leave I had to admit the day had come; it was time to try my hand at writing. Finally putting pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard, I had no idea how obsessive I would become about this new venture. Characters are now stalking me, plot twists wake me from my sleep, and time tends to get away from me as I furiously try to get words down before they slip away from me. And the learning curve has been nothing less than the wildest of roller coasters.
My hope is that this blog will be a way of chronicling my experiences as a fledging writer. Emphasis on fledgling. As I learn the craft, (six months ago I didn’t even know it was a ‘craft’), try new things, meet mentors, scream that I don’t know what I’m doing and what was I thinking, I will share it here. Already, so much has happened that I wish I could have shared in a blog. I’ll try to use the first few blogs to catch up, with all the good, the bad, and the ugly. And the surprising, and inspiring as well.
Whew! I did it! A first blog post! Next time I’ll write a little about the books I’m working on, and some fantastic experiences I’ve had since embarking on this new journey.