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Friday, December 2, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Research

What was the most prominent Protestant church in Sydney in 1857? What was the name of the Catholic church nearby?

How were executions conducted in Renaissance Florence? What kinds of crimes were considered worth the death penalty, especially for Florentine women?

How did a goldsmith operate his bottega, and where did he fit in the social structure of Florentine citizens? How might a daughter come to be part of a goldsmith's business practice, even though officially forbidden that masculine role?

If you want to know it to create versimilitude (read that: It didn't happen, but it could have) in a work of fiction, you can find it on the Internet these days.

Okay, that's not always true. In fact, if you want to know much about train schedules in the East prior to the Civil War, you won't find that online and it's pretty tough to find that info anywhere since train stations were frequently war targets and their records burned with them. (Ask me how I know! I ended up in the white-glove library affixed to the Railroad Museum in Sacramento, looking through precious copies of the few old schedules that remain, and in the end, I never wrote that book, either.)

Today I am grateful for research, and I have found that -- except in rare cases like the railroad schedules -- there is plenty of it available for almost anything I want to know.

Lately I've been writing a book set in Sydney in the middle 1850s. When I need a fact (What newspapers were printed in Sydney in 1857? Did they cover social news?), I can find it online. At the same time, I have been doing research for a BIG BOOK I want to write someday soon, which I'm setting against the life of Lorenzo di Medici, Il Magnifico himself, in Renaissance Florence. In the process I've begun collecting a rather impressive library of everything from academic textbooks on the social structure of Florence, circa 1400-1480, to other fiction set in that period.

The scope and range of material is astonishing and there's always more where that came from. In the cases of both these books -- the one set in Victorian Australia and the other in Renaissance Florence -- the question is not whether I can find the material, but where to stop the research and get the writing done, and that is a conundrum for another day.

Today I am grateful for research -- for the wealth of information made readily available by others, and for how much fun I've been having turning the academic and scholarly into imaginative fun. So historians and researchers, this bud's for you: My thanks to you all.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Back Story

One of the problems every writer of prose narrative encounters is the question of back story. Who are your characters? Where did they come from and how did they get where they are? Handling that without going on for pages is always a delicate matter.

My new Work-in-Progress, set in Australia, begins with former Englishman James Martin working in a general store and reflecting on how he came to be there. Here is the next short section:

News of a gold strike in the Australian colonies had reached his family when James had been an adventuresome lad of only sixteen years. Work was hard to come by in their small village in Wiltshire County, and he had begged his father to consider what huge stacks of gold nuggets might buy. In a few weeks the gold fever had overtaken even his practical father, who helped James gather the passage money.

James had bid his family farewell and started for the port in Liverpool with a small satchel of personal belongings and just enough hard cash to book passage to Melbourne, in Victoria Colony. He wouldn’t need much more, after all, since gold was practically lying about, just waiting for him to pocket it.

How green he’d been! And how foolish! His only comfort was that a number of other young fools had been taken in just as he had. The foreman called Murdoch was there at the docks when they debarked, looking for the young ones and bragging up the easy digs and rich wages. Neither James nor his several companions who had signed on together had realized they would be working for weekly wages on a rich man’s claim, searched every evening before they left the mine lest they dare to pocket even a smidgeon of the man’s great wealth, and watched over by armed guards at night while they slept in a bug-infested tent village erected along Burra Creek, allegedly to protect them all from robbers and claim jumpers.

Nor had he spent his time picking up nuggets. Ah, no! This had been down-and-dirty hard rock mining with pick, shovel and strong back, and most of what they’d mined in the end had been copper, not gold – a fine enough vein of that, to be certain, though it all belonged to the wealthy man who owned the mining company and James had not so much as a fraction of an ounce to claim for himself.

So whaddya think? If you have comments or questions about James and his background, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Web Tip: Making Time for Creativity

How do we make time to write? Years ago when my first book came out, the local newspaper did an interview and asked that question. I quipped that some people did their laundry and wondered when they would ever find time to write; I wrote and wondered when I'd find time to do the laundry.

The comment inspired a poet I know to write a lovely piece about her laundry and how handling her family's clothing drew her closer to the people she loved. Although I'm certain that was not its purpose, that poem made me feel like a poor writer and a worse wife/mother/laundry doer.

Today I'm looking at a blog that gives some serious answers to the serious question. Melissa Donovan's Writing Forward suggests a number of ways to approach the problem. Her ways don't work for everyone, but some of them may work for you.

She looks at your competing priorities -- even the laundry -- and brings her own creative answers to the table. If you're a writer (or artist, or creative entrepreneur, or ...) who needs to make more time in your life for creating, have a look. You may find something that will work for you.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writing Vs. The Day Job

It's not "Joe Vs. the Volcano" (my son, Paul's, favorite movie; don't ask me why), but it is my unending dilemma: How do I keep putting food on the table and keep writing at the same time when writing isn't putting food on the table?

It's a big enough conundrum when the writing is paying something; when I'm stuck in Writer Purgatory and the writing isn't working and the day job is taking up more and more of my time and energy, and there is simply no mental space for creativity at all, then it's something more like the outer ring of Writer Hell.

It's not as if I'm the first creative person ever to experience the problem. Some true greats have been here before me. What would Faulkner have produced if he could have made his living writing during the early years -- not working in a bookstore for hourly wages? And what do you mean I can't compare myself to Faulkner? (Okay, okay, that was a stretch. I admit it. )

I thought the problem might end when I gave up full-time university teaching, and it did -- to some extent. Although it took a year after my retirement for my brain to come out of its numbed condition, I am creating again and loving it. And even though the former second job has now become the full-time 40-hour-per-week first job, it isn't the 24/7 pressure that came with the demands of five university-level writing classes and (usually) around 150 students. Yikes.

Still, it isn't the full-time writing dream I have always imagined which, I'm beginning to think, must have been one of my more fanciful fictional creations.

I'm writing and I'm loving it. That's what counts, and I'm putting the food on the table as well. Now and then, I'm even taking time away from the day job to indulge in a bit of full-time writing.

Hmmm... Maybe I don't have such a big dilemma after all.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Post-Apocalyptic Reflections

Okay, so it wasn't the Apocalypse, but AylaPalooza IV was a major undertaking for us, and now that it's over, we are all picking up the pieces, resuming our everyday lives, and looking forward to AP V, two years from now.

Two features of the reunion ritual happened on the weekend as we were winding down. One, the family pictures, is always a major operation, somewhat like trying to organize and outfit the Sixth Army. (Trust me; I know. Years ago I was a GS2 clerk typist for a post engineer's outfit in the Sixth Army. I've seen what it takes to outfit that bunch, and the two are surprisingly similar. Honest.)

In the past, we've hired professional photographers to come to wherever we were gathering. Yet in the final analysis, it was usually the pictures we shot of each other using our own digital cameras that ended up going onto people's Facebook pages, Christmas cards, and walls. This year we're bringing our own cameras and asking a neighbor who lives near our host to please come shoot the whole group. We think it's going to work just fine.

Another feature of getting our family together is singing. When the kids were little, getting them to harmonize was sometimes the only option I had to keep them from killing each other. They grew up singing together and loving it. Once, on a memorable trip into Mexico, the brothers entertained groups of non-English speakers by singing Weird Al's "One More Minute." Since it had a lovely tune, and they pulled it off with perfectly straight faces, the crowds thought they were hearing an American love song. We all declined to translate the words.

Two years ago we prepared a musical number that we performed together in church. This year we did a different number and we sang in church again. It's one thing we all love doing and, since most of the kids, in-laws and grandkids are quite musical, other people enjoy it, too.

So the pictures are taken, the pies are eaten, the songs are sung, the home movies shown, and we're all going back to our everyday lives. We're also getting the mental wheels turning, planning and preparing for two years from now when we'll try to one up ourselves with better games, better food, better songs, competitions, and fun. I, for one, can hardly wait.