Saturday, July 23, 2011


I think all of us who love history are drawn to certain times and places. Conversely, there are eras and locales that we instinctively shy away from for various reasons. We accumulate facts and details and are knowledgable about arcane bits of information that most people are completely unaware of.

For instance, if you have ever looked at dolls' hands, you may have wondered why they were molded the way they were, with the middle and ring fingers together and slightly curved inward toward the palm, while the index finger and pinkie were apart and mostly straight. Well, Godey's Lady's Book, the most popular magazine in America in the mid-1800's, had voluminous advice on how fashionable women carried themselves, whether seated, standing, or moving, right down to the way they held their hands. This position I've described was how one was supposed to hold one's hands while at rest. Dolls were designed to reflect the height of fashion, including the positioning of their hands and fingers, and that particular model has been in use right up until the present.

How do I know this? I read it in a book. Why do I remember it? Heaven only knows.

I tend to be drawn to times of hardship and rigor. I'm fascinated by historical tragedies of any kind, from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius to the Pilgrims' first year to the Donner party to the Titanic. I'm currently attracted to stories of America in the 1930s, especially the Dust Bowl and stories about how people made it through the Depression. My fascination with true crime makes this an interesting era for me, what with all the gangsters and Prohibition.

I also feel an affinity with Regency England. I don't know if it's something organic within me, or if it grew from constant exposure, because all the women in my family read Regency romances by the hundreds.

I don't gravitate toward brother-vs.-brother times of strife. I enjoy reading about the Civil War, but I don't enjoy Civil War romances, where the heroine is on one side of the conflict and the hero on the other. Those types of stories never resolve seamlessly for me, because the reconciliation of diametrically opposite beliefs doesn't ring true. Also, I guess it's natural, given how the war ended, but you rarely find stories where the protagonists are both Southern and everything ends well. Those are always tragic stories of loss and retribution.

Some chunks of English history are less interesting to me than others. I'm fascinated by the Tudors, the Victorians, and the Edwardians. I'll read about any era, really, but those are my three favorites.

Another thing that can pull me out of a historical novel is the use of accents. Ah do not lahk zee foreign ax-ahnts written out phonetically. (This is another reason why I don't like Civil War stories; I think it's a bit patronizing for modern white writers to try to approximate what they think slaves might have sounded like.) I guess I want it both ways. I want to know if the characters have accents or particular speech patterns, but I don't want to have to sound them out.

I admire the research that authors put into their writing. I love authors who respect their readers enough to validate their information and create a convincing universe in which their readers can immerse themselves. I remember being in a writing class in college, and one girl had written a historical romance. (Should I say "an" historical romance?) At first the professor seemed inclined to praise the story, but my friend and I began to point out the historical inaccuracies, much to the other girl's dismay. When the professor asked her why she had so many mistakes and anachronisms, she threw up her hands and wailed, "I didn't think anyone would notice!" A lot of my classmates were upset with us for being so mean to someone else (and causing her to get a less-than-wonderful grade), but even then, I took writing very seriously. Readers do not like to be patronized, and it bugged even then that this girl would assume that romance readers would be too stupid to catch her errors.

People who read history, even light historical fiction, take their reading seriously. They know their stuff. They want to be entertained by writers who also know their stuff.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I've been working a lot on my book the last few weeks. I'm about halfway through the manuscript, and my reading partners seem to like it well enough. One thing I'm very aware of as I write is word choice. My friend Sue pointed out that I used the word "palatable" three times in one chapter. I haven't gone back to edit it yet (it's still handwritten in pencil on a legal pad), but I'll be thinking about what I was trying to say and how I can change up my words so they won't stick in the reader's awareness and pull him or her out of the story.

When you write a book of 200 or more pages, naturally you're going to repeat a lot of words. The trick is not to repeat words or phrases in a way that readers notice. For instance, if you use a really unusual word, such as fungible (which describes commodities that can be traded to satisfy a contract), it makes sense to use it once and then find another word. Of course, since I was reading a thriller that involved embezzlement when I encountered that word several times, perhaps there wasn't another choice, but it really stuck out and subconsciously, I was almost counting how many times the author used it.

Phrases are something to be aware of, as well. I have a tendency to pick up words and phrases that I hear other people use, and I'll use them for a while until something newer and shinier catches my attention. When I'm writing, I try to be aware of repetition, so if I say someone looked like she'd swallowed her tongue, the next time I'm trying to describe a character's expression of shock or surprise, I'll be scouring the wordwork for something that says the same thing a different way.

On a recent drive back to Georgia from Naples, FL, my aunt and I listened to Evermore by Alyson Noel. Nearly every time the main character reacted to something, Noel used the phrase, "I pressed my lips." The first few times we heard it, it was pretty funny, but that phrase grew to be painful before we reached the end of the last CD. This was not the only thing the author repeated. Every time the heroine asked the hero a question he didn't want to answer, "he shrugged." Those two phrases really worked my nerves. I don't know if my reaction would have been different if I'd been reading the story rather than listening to it, but I suspect not, because that's the kind of thing I tend to notice. At any rate, much as I enjoyed the story itself, I could not bring myself to read the second book in the series.

Another peeve of mine is when authors use the wrong word. If someone does something on purpose, they did it purposely, NOT purposefully. I've seen that one a lot lately, and boy, does it grate. I also hate when authors spell celebrities' names wrong. Two I've seen lately are Steven King and Stephanie Meyer. (Should be Stephen and Stephenie.) And why, oh, why cannot people get the use of me vs. I straight? Billy and I went to the store. Mom gave the candy to Billy and me. If you're not sure which one to use, people, for heaven's sake, take out the other person and you'll know which pronoun to use. It's really simple.

Writing is not always easy, I'll be the first to admit that. A little extra work on the writer's part, however, will make it a lot more rewarding for the reader.