Thursday, September 30, 2010

How Many Words a Day?

Today I perused an interesting article by James Thayer in Author Magazine entitled "How Many Words a Day?" The question posed, discussed, and answered by Mr. Thayer regards how many words each day on average an author should attempt to move from his brain onto the blank page. The article provides many amusing anecdotes about famous authors and their work habits.
English writer, Charles Hamilton—who used twenty-five pseudonyms, the most famous being Frank Richards—was so prolific that George Orwell accused him of being a team of writers.  Hamilton responded, “In the presence of such authority, I speak with diffidence; and can only say that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, I am only one person, and have never been two or three.”  He wrote a million and a half words a year, or about twenty pages each working day (assuming 250 working days in a year).
Prolixity of this magnitude is astonishing to say the least! Mr. Thayer goes on to talk about other writers who produced prose at a slower rate.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as one novel, which contains about 670,000 words.  It took him eleven years, which is 245 words each working day, or a little less than a typed page. 
Some writers manage their time by devoting certain hours of the day to authorial pursuits. T.S. Eliot had a full time job at the bank, so he made time to write by rising "two hours earlier than was strictly necessary." Rudyard Kipling had his own daily pattern of writing "in the middle of the day, from ten to four." Stephen King writes only in the mornings and reserves the rest of the day for other tasks. Detective fiction author Anne Perry writes "eight or nine hours a day, six days a week."

After discussing the writing habits of many famous authors, Mr. Thayer suggests his own answer to the question: how many words a day? "Writing your novel will be easier if you draft a schedule," he says. "A plan...will organize and prod you, and it will increase the odds you complete the novel." Here is the schedule he proposes:
Initial plotting: one or two weeks.
Research and further plotting: four to six weeks.
Drafting outline: two to three weeks.
Writing the novel: one page (300 words) a day. Finish the novel one year after starting the first manuscript word. If you work full time, 300 words a day is a reasonable goal.
Editing the completed manuscript: about one month.
I could not read Mr. Thayer's proposed schedule without immediately wondering: how does my writing measure up to this? Whenever I spend time writing my novel, I generally get anywhere from 500-1000 words on the page. Unlike Anne Perry and other disciplined writers, however, I most definitely do not write six days a week. Usually, it's more like one to three days a week. Crunching the numbers, it seems that I am a little slower than he recommends, and it will probably take me longer than a year to write my current novel, Road from the West.

Would setting a stricter writing schedule increase my speed? Not necessarily. Mr. Thayer himself remarks that for some people, "a detailed plan is too easy to fall behind, and then discard in frustration." A strict schedule may inspire some authors to keep going with their writing, but for me, it's something else entirely. I have the special motivation of having a husband who asks me about my progress almost every day, who reminds me that I should be writing whenever I complain that I have nothing to do, and who eagerly anticipates the completion of my next book so that he can launch it into the marketplace of publishers. I don't need a schedule; I have David. Which reminds me...I need to stop blogging and get back to working on that novel in case he asks me about it when he gets home tonight.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Making a Racket

Today I Serve was featured on Spalding's Racket, a blog "dedicated to promoting the best in independent authors and their books on the Internet." Spalding promotes the electronic versions of indie books with links to their purchase on Amazon and Smashwords.

Friday, September 24, 2010

In Praise of the Interlibrary Loan

Bishop Asser, in his ninth century Life of Alfred, tells a story about Alfred the Great that illustrates the king's lifelong love of learning and also the precious nature of books in that period:
On a certain day, therefore, his mother was showing him and his brother a book of Saxon poetry, which she held in her hand, and said, "Whichever of you shall the soonest learn this volume shall have it for his own." Stimulated by these words, or rather by the Divine inspiration, and allured by the beautifully illuminated letter at the beginning of the volume, he spoke before all his brothers, who, though his seniors in age, were not so in grace, and answered, "Will you really give that book to one of us, that is to say, to him who can first understand and repeat it to you?" At this his mother smiled with satisfaction, and confirmed what she had before said. Upon which the boy took the book out of her hand, and went to his master to read it, and in due time brought it to his mother and recited it.
In ninth century England a book, hand-copied and beautifully illuminated, was a significant prize to obtain. In our modern era, with the invention of the printing press and now the e-book, it is usually not necessary to go to such lengths as Alfred did to acquire a title we need. Or is it?

As I began my research for Road from the West: A Novel of the First Crusade (my current novel-in-the-works), I found myself becoming more and more intrigued by the character of Tancred, a young Norman knight from Southern Italy. Before I could put a stop to it, he had weaseled his way into becoming the protagonist of my novel. At that point I knew that I needed more individual information on him than summary sources of the Crusade could provide.

I discovered that although there are no modern biographies of Tancred, Robert Lawrence Nicholson had written a dissertation on him at the University of Chicago in 1940. Tancred: a study of his career and work in their relation to the first crusade and the establishment of the Latin states in Syria and Palestine--isn't the name just too scintillating? Where could I find a copy of such wonderfulness? Nowhere in Oregon it seemed and nowhere online for under $300.

I contacted the University of Chicago Library to ask if I could borrow the aforementioned title. The librarian courteously explained that the only way to do so was to go through the interlibrary loan system at my local library. I had never used this system before (frankly, if the library doesn't have a book and I want it badly enough, I just go ahead and purchase it on Amazon), but now it seemed like the only option. I went to the reference desk at the Oregon City library, and the rest was history. Two weeks later I had a copy of a seemingly unobtainable book in my hands with very little exertion and no expense on my part.

Thanks to Benjamin Franklin for establishing the first library in America, and thanks to the Internet for connecting library collections around the country. Nowadays, finding a book, even one as rare as Nicholson's dissertation, is as easy as asking a librarian.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Homeschooler History Obsessions Poll Results

Few school history programs treat all eras of history equally, and most public school curriculum give inordinate importance to the modern era (leaving students in ignorance of everything that came before 1850). Homeschoolers tend to emphasize different periods of history than the public schools do, and our most recent poll asked the question: "What period of history are homeschoolers most fascinated with?"

Choices were: the Reformation, the Pilgrims, the American War for Independence, and the American War between the States. Visitors and followers of this blog gave a decided 52% of the vote to the American War between the States (generally known outside of homeschooling circles as the Civil War).

As a homeschool graduate myself, I have to concur with the outcome of this poll. States' rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the blue and the gray--these occupied far more of our homsechool history time than anything in the twentieth century. One of the ways we learned about the Civil War was through historical fiction, and I remember my late elementary school days were filled with Rifles for Watie (Harold Keith), Across Five Aprils (Irene Hunt), and Turn Homeward, Hannalee (Patricia Beatty).

Since graduating from high school, I've read very little Civil War historical fiction. Do you have any suggestions for historical fiction reads that capture the essence of that era?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What Would the Wife of Bath Say?

Artist's rendering of the Wife of Bath from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
 When Sir Walter Scott pioneered historical fiction by penning Ivanhoe in 1819, he certainly wasn't thinking about how best to include a strong, independent female protagonist. Rowena, the blonde beauty that Ivanhoe ends up with, is almost as insipid a female character as one can find in literature. Rebecca, the dark-eyed, generous Jewess, is rescued from death and dishonor not by her own wits but by the strength of the male hero. For decades after Ivanhoe, historical fiction authors tended to cast men and women in the same roles that Sir Walter Scott used. The man was the hero, the adventurer, the mastermind. The woman was the dependant damsel in distress.

Nowadays, much of historical fiction treats women in a completely opposite manner. Historical novelists (especially female authors) favor spunky, resourceful leading ladies who can rival--or better--the masculine characters with their intelligence, skills, and determination. Instead of waiting to be rescued, the modern historical heroine devises ways to protect herself and even to keep her man safe. I found two examples of this kind of heroine in the last two historical novels I read: Jean Plaidy's The Plantagenet Prelude and Ken Follett's World Without End.

In The Plantagenet Prelude, the twelfth century main character Eleanor of Aquitaine is portrayed as a woman determined to rule. One of her main ambitions is to demonstrate that, in terms of governing a kingdom, a woman can do everything a man can do. When she marries Louis of France, she dominates the relationship and tries to direct all the foreign policy of France. Her second husband, Henry Plantagenet, is much more difficult to control. She chafes under the expectation that she must continually conceive and produce heirs for him. "Her frustration was intolerable. It was unfair that it should always be the woman's lot to bear the children. This shall be the last, she promised herself." The roles of wife and mother are chains holding back her boundless ambition.

In World Without End, set in fourteenth century England, the main female character Caris is determined not to marry for these same reasons. She "resented Merthin for making her an offer she could not accept. He did not understand. For him, their marriage would be an adjunct to his life as an architect. For her, marriage would have to replace the work to which she had dedicated herself." Over and over again, Caris states that she is determined to live her own life and not live through someone else, whether it be a husband or a child. This is one of the determining factors that causes her to get an abortion when she finds out that she is pregnant by Merthin. "I don't want to spend my life as a slave to anyone, even if it is my own child," she declares.

The women in Plaidy and Follett's stories are obsessed with their own status--or lack of status--in a male-dominated world in a way that would not have even occurred to Sir Walter Scott's heroines. One thing we must remember though is that in Scott's time, the notion of women's suffrage had barely surfaced. He described the wants and desires of women as he understood them at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Plaidy and Follett describe the wants and desires of women as they understand them at the end of the twentieth century.

Though historical fiction does give us a window into the time period in which it is set, it also gives us a window into the time period in which it was written. To assume that Scott's description of women in the Middle Ages is more accurate (because it is older) would be just as fallacious as to assume that Plaidy and Follett's portrayal is more precise (because it makes sense in our own time period). Both views are clouded by the conceptions of the author's own times.

To find out what women were really like in the Middle Ages, we need to rid ourselves of preconceptions (as much as possible) and look at the primary source material. Was Margery of Kempe as insipid as Rowena or as feminist as Caris, or was she distinctly different from either? Do the source documents about Eleanor of Aquitaine show that she insisted on equality and despised her role as a mother?

Was marriage a romantic ideal or a degraded departure from independence? It doesn't matter how Scott, and Plaidy, and Follett would answer that question. The real test is this: what would the Wife of Bath say?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Giveaway Winner!

Well, it's happened. Today we sold our 500th copy of I Serve on Amazon's Kindle, and that means that the book giveaway has come to an end.

The lucky winner of a signed, paperback copy of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince is....

Bercik & Agatka

I will be contacting the winner via e-mail. Thanks to all of you who participated in the giveaway!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Reenacting History

When I was growing up, I almost always heard the words "historical reenactment" in conjunction with the words "Civil War." What this meant was that a bunch of overly-enthusiastic history nerds were going to dress up in blue and gray uniforms, run around on a hillside, and then lie down and pretend to be dead. Nonplussed by this activity, I discounted historical reenactment as a silly game without much historical value.

When I went to college and took some history classes, I discovered that there were other kinds of historical reenactment that were not related to the Civil War. My professor had us read a book called The Brendan Voyage. In this book, the author Tim Severin used reenactment to see whether St. Brendan, an Irish monk from the sixth century, could actually have sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to America as one ancient manuscript claims. Using clues from the manuscript, Tim Severin constructed a small boat out of a wooden frame and tanned ox hides. Then he and a few companions set out in this tiny "curragh"  in a reenactment every bit as exciting as the real voyage in the St. Brendan story. The voyage Severin took gave him a great insight into the events of the ancient tale and offered new possibilities of interpretation that he would never have thought of if he had relegated himself to a more academic research approach.

Today I witnessed a completely different kind of historical reenactment. An organization called Messiah's Mansion was in town for a week showing off a full scale model of the Mosaic Tabernacle. The tour, which lasted a little over an hour, focused on the history behind the Tabernacle, the ways that it prefigured Christ's ministry, and how that applies to us today.

Although the whole thing was a little bit hokey (with a lot more painted plastic than acacia wood), I was surprised about how well I can now visualize the layout of the tabernacle. The description of the building in the book of Exodus, with all of its cubits and woven cloth and wood paneling and gold overlay, mushes together in the mind without creating a clear picture of the building. Even after looking at the floorplan provided by most study Bibles, it is difficult to imagine, or retain, a 3-D image of what the building looked like. Walking through the re-creation of the Tabernacle helped create a mental picture in a way that reading the text could not.

Reenactment can be very valuable for giving us insight into history, but like academic research, it has its pitfalls. Sometimes there is not enough source information to fully re-create the past. Sometimes preconceived--and ill-conceived--notions about a time period can cloud re-creations. Oftentimes, movies will reenact historical events with slipshod or inaccurate historical detail. Audiences will leave the theater assuming that they are now experts on the persons and the period when really all they have gained is a misleading or warped understanding.

To benefit the most from reenactment is is essential to keep word and image in close proximity. If you are not familiar with the book of Exodus, then you have no measuring stick to hold up to Messiah's Mansion. If you have never read the tale of St. Brendan, then you cannot judge the authenticity of Tim Severin's voyage.

What kinds of historical reenactment have you witnessed or participated in? How did they further (or detract from) your knowledge of history?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Our First Ever Giveaway

Kin·dle – verb 

1. to set fire to or ignite 
2. to excite; stir up or set going
3. to light up, illuminate, or make bright

Kin·dle – noun 

 1. an e-reader first put out by in 2007, now owned by over 2 million book-lovers
It's only been three years since Amazon first launched the Kindle, and already it has made a huge impact on traditional publishing. In July of this year the New York Times reported that Amazon was now selling almost twice as many Kindle copies as regular books, "180 digital books for every 100 hardcover copies."
For independent authors, the Kindle is a huge boon. To sell your work on Kindle, all you have to do is upload a cover picture and a formatted Word document. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. In the last two months Amazon has also made it possible for authors to receive a 70% royalty from Kindle sales, a far higher profit percentage than authors have ever received from the sales of hard copies.
In recent months, Kindle readers have been enthusiastic in their reception of I Serve, and a steady stream of electronic copies have been downloaded from Amazon's website onto the sleek e-readers of historical fiction lovers. Sales projections show that we will sell our 500th Kindle copy of I Serve sometime in the next two or three weeks.

To celebrate our ongoing success with Kindle sales, we are giving away a signed, paperback copy of I Serve (because, let's face it, the paperback is feeling a little left out with all of this hype about its electronic counterpart).

If you want to be entered in the giveaway for a paperback copy of I Serve, do any (or all) of the following:

  • Comment on this post (include your e-mail address).
  • Become a follower of this blog and tell me about it in a comment (include your e-mail address). If you are already a follower, you can still do this.
  • Post about this giveaway on your own blog and give the link to your post in a comment (include your e-mail address).

This gives you the chance to submit up to three entries to win your own signed, paperback copy of I Serve.  Once the 500th Kindle copy of I Serve finds a home, this giveaway opportunity will end and I will contact the winner.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fictional Friends

"Why Read?" is the question Peter Leithart asks in one of his latest articles for Credenda Agenda. His answer to that, and a rather unexpected answer, is that we read to make friends; and not just any friends, but especially the kind of friends that we can look up to as role models and guides.
Character is shaped by what I’ve called “pictures,” by the models that we strive to imitate and the worlds we attempt to bring into being.... All of us have been shaped by living role models, people we admire and seek to imitate, and knowing fictional characters and worlds adds to the store of models that we have, models to imitate and to avoid.
Leithart goes on to point out that our own character is affected by the people we keep company with, and that "fiction is a kind of keeping company with other people." It is important then, to choose the right fictional characters to keep company with. It is important to choose the right friends. "If growing up with Southerners encourages us to speak Southern, growing up with Othello and Pip, Alyosha and Tom Sawyer will shape our speech, and our character, in enriching ways."

When we continually associate with the wrong kind of characters (e.g. anti-heroes, immoral protagonists) and live in the wrong kind of fictional worlds (where good is called evil and evil good), we run into as much danger as if we were hanging out with a "bad crowd" in our real lives.

None of us escapes the influence of fictional pictures or fictional friends.  Imagination is not something we can take or leave.  Our thoughts and actions, and our character, are always guided and shaped by some form of imagination.  The issue is always whether our imagination is richly or poorly stocked, whether it is shaped by nightmares or molded by dreams.  The issue is whether our imaginations are stuffed with pictures drawn from the M-TV or pictures drawn from Melville, whether we make fictional friends at the cinema or meet them in Shakespeare.
Instead of feeding ourselves a steady diet of pop literature (or pop cinema), Leithart makes the argument for reading more substantial books like the classics. There we can find the friends who ought to be influencing us, the strongly-molded characters who can strongly mold our own character into something better than it is.

Though Leithart's article asks the question "Why Read?" by implication it also poses a corollary question to authors: "Why Write?" In the twelfth century Gesta Tancredi, Ralph of Caen gives an answer that sorts well with Leithart's article.
It is a noble exercise to recount accurately the deeds of princes. To do so is to consider generously all that is subject to time, to celebrate the dead, to entertain the living, and to set out a past life as a model for later generations.
The medieval chroniclers agree with Leithart, that the purpose of portraying a character is to create character.
This is an awesome responsibility for every author, whether a writer of history or a writer of fiction. The characters we create are models for others to mold their character upon.

Thanks to Miss Pickwickian for pointing out this article on her blog The Erratic Muse.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Twins' Names Poll Results

In the last two weeks many of you have responded to the poll about what would be the WORST historical names we could inflict on our twin boys (due in November). The "winners" are Robespierre and Lafayette, with 40% of the vote, although Alaric and Attila were a close second with 38%. To set your mind at rest, let me assure that you that none of the names from this poll are in the running for the actual babies' names. Yes, we do have names picked out for them, and no, we're not telling what they are until the babies are born.

Check out our new poll about "Homeschooler History Obsessions" over on the right side of this page. Weigh in with your opinion on which period of history homeschoolers are most fascinated with.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Just the Facts, Ma'am...

Fiction or Nonfiction? What's the difference?

I picked up James Patterson's book The Murder of King Tut at the library the other day. Just in case you didn't know it, James Patterson (according to his website) is the best selling author in the world right now. In the past three years, he has reportedly sold more books than any other author, an estimated 170 million copies worldwide.

Now, James Patterson books aren't usually my thing--thrillers and mysteries that you buy at an airport book stall--but the cover of this book promised something special. "A Nonfiction Thriller," it proclaimed.

The Author's Note in the front of the book continued to promulgate what the cover had promised, that this was a work of nonfiction. Patterson asserts that his motto for this book was "Don't fake anything." He says he lost himself in books and online research while co-author Marty Dugard visited actual historical sites in London and Egypt.

We then combined our notes and began writing. One astounding fact about Egyptian history is that so much of it is still unknown. So when we came to a gap, we went back to the research for answers. Then we put forth our theory as to what happened. We constructed conversations and motives and rich scenes of palace life--all grounded in long hours of research.
Now, to me, this sounds exactly like what a historical fiction writer does. We research extensively, and then based on that research, endow our characters with words, thoughts, and descriptions. We fill in the gaps with plausible theories and construct motives for documented actions.

But Patterson, for some reason, does not want his book to fall into the genre of historical fiction. He claims it is history. "It's nothing new for histories to be speculative," he says, "but there's a difference between guessing and basing a theory on cold hard facts. We chose the facts."

I finished the Author's Note wondering if Patterson could perform what he had promised. Would he base this book on cold hard facts and live up to the name of nonfiction?

Chapter 12 - Thebes, 1347 BC

An even greater roar echoed through Thebes as the pharaoh's horses picked up speed.
High atop the reviewing stand, Nefertiti watched...Akhenaten...and tried to appear calm.
Meanwhile, two deep-set eyes leered at her. They belonged to her husband's royal scribe, a powerfully built man in his late thirties named Aye.
The populace was mesmerized by the horse-faced pharaoh galloping his favorite chariot, but Aye could have cared less. He was tantalized by the nervous young queen--and then aroused when she slipped her index finger into her mouth to bite her painted nail before remembering that thousands might witness her insecurity.
The royal scribe licked his lips. He could have almost any woman in Egypt, but she was the one he wanted. Aye studied her graceful neck and the rest of her, down to the gentle sway of her hips. She was much smarter than the pharaoh, who was a freak undeserving of her, Aye thought. Having served under his father, Aye knew how a pharaoh should look and behave--and Amenhotep was no such man.
But if not Amenhotep, then who should reign? Aye wondered.
He answered his own question: me.
Fiction or nonfiction? You be the judge.
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