A Discovery of Witches Tour of Oxford

I didn’t intend my trip to Oxford, England, to be a personal Discovery of Witches tour. As a HUGE fan of the trilogy written by my mentor, Deborah Harkness, I knew I had to see All Souls, New College and the Bodleian, but that was all I had in mind; I was there to see the rest of the city (including places where Inspector Lewis was filmed) and attend the Historical Novel Society conference.

But the literary gods had other plans in store for me.

The Old Parsonage Hotel. My fav place to stay in Oxford!

The Old Parsonage Hotel. My fav place to stay in Oxford!

After a hellacious trip over to England that included a full day’s delay due to mechanical and weather issues, lost luggage (thanks, American Airlines) and having to re-buy everything (makeup, toiletries, clothing, shoes, etc), my arrival at The Old Parsonage hotel was like coming home. The staff couldn’t have been nicer, and pointed my stinking, travel-weary self toward the shopping district and arranged for the hotel to launder the only clothes I had (the ones on my back) for free as soon as I procured others.

Interior of the Covered Market. It is so cool!

Interior of the Covered Market. It is so cool!

While I was looking for clothes, I stumbled across the Covered Market where Diana buys the ingredients for her dinner for Matthew. If I lived there, this would be part of my daily life and I really could eat the European way, with fresh food daily. There are over 60 independent shops within the market, including two that sell fresh fruit, veg, and flowers, a butcher, a bakery and a small fish market, in addition to shops selling clothes, leather goods and pretty much anything else you can think of. I was certainly charmed. And yes, I did find clothes, though just outside the Market on Cornmarket Street.

I had no idea the hotel was even a part of A Discovery of Witches until I ran across the guide produced by the Tenth Knot on the day I was due to change over to St. Anne’s College for the remainder of my stay. I chose to stay at The Old Parsonage because it is one of the best hotels in Oxford and has its own library – I mean, what writer can resist that? I will tell you it is very expensive (but I was only there for two nights, including the one I missed due to delays, grrrr…) but it is worth every penny, er, pence. The food is to die for (no wonder Matthew chose to get his meal for Diana from there) and they really do work hard to ensure you have the best experience possible. (Word of warning, those bathtubs are slippery and the staircases twist and turn like a castle tower.) I will certainly stay there again when I return to Oxford, which I have no doubt I will do.

Afternoon Tea at The Old Parsonage. I really want an authentic British scone right now...

Afternoon Tea at The Old Parsonage. I really want an authentic British scone right now…

I also ended up heading back to the Old Parsonage for afternoon tea with the Historical Novel Society and dinner with friends one night, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, so even if you can’t afford to stay there or don’t have time, you can still experience the magic.

A shot from within the Oxford Botantical Gardens

A shot from within the Oxford Botantical Gardens

I decided to do the places the farthest from my lodgings and walk my way back on my first day. Little did I know they also had DoW connections. My first stop was the Oxford Botanical Gardens. I had to see them mainly because a) I love flowers and b) it was the setting for the episode of Inspector Lewis that gave me my original physical inspiration for Annabeth in Been Searching for You. The gardens are beautiful, but much smaller than I imagined. If you go, don’t skip the hothouses as they have some amazing plants.

Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral

Next, I hit Christ Church College/Cathedral, which is mentioned several times in the book. The grounds are beautiful, so if you go on a nice day, be sure to explore them. The cathedral itself is smaller than many in Europe, but the stones practically breathe history so it’s well worth the tour. The college is also home to the hall that inspired the one in Harry Potter, but I found it underwhelming.

While I was in the area, I also visited Merton College, which is where Alex teaches in Been Searching for You and is one of the many colleges Matthew has attended. Unfortunately, it was closed at the time I was there, so I couldn’t go inside, but it was cool to be able to see where one of my characters lived and worked, albeit four months after the book was published.

The famous sundial inside All Souls. I'm pretty sure it was designed by Christopher Wren.

The famous sundial inside All Souls. I’m pretty sure it was designed by Christopher Wren.

By my second full day in Oxford, it was time to get serious to make sure I saw the two sites no fan can miss: All Souls College and New College, homes of Matthew and Diana, respectively. All Souls is only open from 2-4 p.m. on certain days of the week, so I lucked out having free time while it was open. As soon as I walked in, I knew this was Matthew’s abode. Consciously or unconsciously, Deb did a fantastic job matching the energy of the colleges with the characters. There are only a few parts open to the public, but what you can see is more than enough to leave a lasting impression. All Souls is very majestic and imposing, so it doesn’t take the imagination of a writer to picture a vampire stalking its halls and quadrangles. The chapel is surprisingly light-feeling, especially for all the gothic finery on the inside, and is to me a reflection of the human Matthew, while the rest fits his vampire self. I did not get to see the famed library, but studying there, a privilege not granted to many,  is now on my bucket list.

The Bridge of Sighs aka Hertford Bridge

The Bridge of Sighs aka Hertford Bridge

Walking from All Souls to New College, I got giddy realizing I was taking the exact route Matthew would have walked when stalking Diana. To get there, you pass underneath the bridge connecting two parts of Hertford College (known as the Bridge of Sighs, but it looks nothing like the one in Venice – trust me, I’ve seen it) and walk down New College Lane. The bridge is pretty, and I’m sure appreciated by Hertford students, especially in bad weather, but it’s pretty much just a photo op.

Me inside the cloisters of New College. You can see behind me that parts of it are undergoing repair

Me inside the cloisters of New College. You can see behind me that parts of it are undergoing repair

I fell in love with New College. Not only is it much more accessible to the public, it’s energy is much lighter – it feels like Diana. I’m not kidding. There’s a bit of an air of mystery to the place, but a playfulness as well. The chapel feels surprisingly heavy; it’s not a place I’d want to spend a lot of time, but the rest of the grounds are great. You can see the cloister (which is in the book), the gardens (also in the book) and the outsides of several buildings. I kept looking at the

The mound in the stunning New College Gardens really got my imagination going!

The mound in the stunning New College Gardens really got my imagination going!

windows, wondering which room was Diana’s. There’s a bit of a mystery in the garden: a mound which is forbidden to the public. Of course, that got my writer’s mind going. The porter told me there is no story behind it – it’s purely ornamental – but feels more like an ancient temple to me. I may write a book with that idea someday.

Exterior of the Bodleian Library

Exterior of the Bodleian Library

On Sunday, there was the pinnacle of any writer’s trip to Oxford: the Bodleian Library. Hard to believe that two weeks ago today I was drinking in the magic of that grand place. I purposefully took the extended, extended tour so that I could see the reading rooms that aren’t on the other tours. We started in the Divinity School, which was used as the infirmary in the Harry Potter movies. I

This is right about where I saw the ghost in the Congregation Room

This is right about where I saw the ghost in the Congregation Room

have a thing for windows, so I was in love with that room. We moved on to the Congregation Room, which is supposedly the model for the House of Commons. I saw a ghost in there (swear to God – it wasn’t very clear but he was a young man, just hanging out on the other set of benches where no one from our tour was. That would be at least my third ghost on a trip to England; the other two were back in 1999).

Duke Humfrey's Library, via Wikimedia commons

Duke Humfrey’s Library, via Wikimedia commons

My favorite part was next. Duke Humphrey’s is second only to Trinity College’s Long Room in Dublin as my idea of heaven. Too bad you can’t take pictures. We started in the Arts End and saw way the books used to be chained up and shelved with their spines in. Then we moved through the part with the circulation desk and reading bays into The

My souvenir from the Selden End, taken with permission of our guide.

My souvenir from the Selden End, taken with permission of our guide.

Selden End. I thought I was going to faint. This area usually isn’t open to the public, but it was on this tour and we spent a good long while there, long enough that I could wander around and look up and the second floor, trying to picture exactly where Diana was when she used magic to call the book and which chair Matthew was sitting in. It is my goal to research there someday. I did convince the tour guide to let me take a blank call slip as a souvenir.

Me again, in front of the Radcliffe Camera

Me again, in front of the Radcliffe Camera

Then we moved on to the Radcliffe Camera, which is cool, but somehow I expected more. It’s a round study area with computers and bookshelves. But believe me, if I went to school there, I wouldn’t turn down the chance to study in it. (Sidebar: one of my friends was staying longer in Oxford so she got a reader’s card and was actually able to research in the Bodleian. I’m dying of jealousy! Another thing to add to the bucket list!)

Blackwell's Exterior

Blackwell’s Exterior

After the tour was over (I never wanted it to end!), I went across the street to Blackwell’s bookstore to see where Diana had her whispered conversation with the daemon Agatha. If you go, don’t confuse this location with the cafe by the same

The second floor cafe at Blackwell's where Diana met with Agatha

The second floor cafe at Blackwell’s where Diana met with Agatha

name in the Weston Library. Both are across the street from the Bodleian, so it’s easy to mix them up. I did.

Rowing bragging rights at New College. Diana would be proud!

Rowing bragging rights at New College. Diana would be proud!

I was hoping to make it down to the river to see the boathouses, the bridge where Matthew watches Diana row, and the Isis Tavern (really called the Isis Farmhouse), especially since I took up rowing because of this book, but my legs just wouldn’t carry me. But I need something to do next time I go back, right?

And for those wondering – the conference was good, though I prefer the way the US conference organizes things, and I had a great time reuniting with my friends.

The Divinity School at the Bodleian Library

The Divinity School at the Bodleian Library

I’m hoping to get all my pictures up on Flickr soon, but given my crazy schedule of conferences and speaking engagements, it may well be a month or more before I’m able to. I also still need to post research photos of Chicago from two years ago when I wrote Been Searching for You, so I’ll let you know when that is done. I hope you enjoyed touring Oxford with me!

All Souls Con Article over at Daemons Domain


So I promised to share a link to my post on All Souls Con in Los Angeles on September 12. I hope you all enjoy the recap as much as I enjoyed the experience!


Thanks to Valerie and everyone for having me!

Who Are Your Literary Mentors?

When I was in college as a business major (my second major was English), there was lots of talk about finding your mentors, those people who would take you under their wing and groom you for future success through advice, modeling positive behavior, and extending opportunities to grow.

The other day I got to thinking about how this applies to my life as a writer. While we tend to have fewer in-person opportunities with our mentors because of geographic distance (as opposed to working in the same office), the internet, and social media in particular, has given us greater access to those we admire.

To truly call someone a mentor implies a special sort of relationship that goes beyond admiration into having changed your life in tangible ways. For that reason (and for the sake of brevity) I’ve narrowed my list to three.

Writing Craft Mentor: Michael Hauge
Having written six books, it may sound weird for me to say I just recently discovered someone who can explain the craft of writing in a way that makes sense to my brain, but it’s true. I’ve tried many books, attempted to worship at the altar of other people’s writing gurus, but nothing seemed to work for me.

I knew the basics of storytelling already, but I didn’t truly understand the three-act structure or the interplay between inner and outer motivations/goals of the characters until a few weeks ago. That’s when I watched a DVD by screenwriter Michael Hauge called Grabbing the Reader in the First 10 Pages. Boom! In an hour or so understood what you need to know and convey about your characters re: goals, needs, etc. Then he tweeted this article on story structure. *Lightning bolt from heaven.* I now understand story structure, plus how the character arc evolves alongside (and intertwined with) the plot.

I’ve spent the last few weeks revising Madame Presidentess based on what I learned and I am in awe of how much better my MS is. This stuff is possible to learn, once you find someone who speaks English instead of Greek. I can’t wait to go back and revise my other books now. In that way, I’m fortunate that I haven’t been published yet.

I have to thank my local RWA chapter for introducing me to Michael Hauge and my DIY MFA program for making me purchase and watch his DVD. Maybe now I can revisit the other people’s works with greater clarity. I am so going to fangirl when I meet him at our October meeting.

Author Mentor: Deborah Harkness

Deb Harkness and me, August 2014

Deb Harkness and me, August 2014

Many of you know that I was fortunate to attend a week-long creative writing course last year taught by Deborah Harkness. I chronicled my learnings from her on this blog, so I won’t go into the details. Oddly enough, as I write this, her second group of students from that class are just returning from their own life-changing week.

But that amazing experience is only part of the story. Long before I was fortunate to meet and learn from her, Deb’s writing inspired me. It’s something about her style, her seamless way of weaving past and present, reality and fantasy into a face-paced story with characters I wish were real. Granted, she’s certainly not the only author to do this, but something about her books has always been special to me. Then when I found out she’s a history professor at USC, I dreamed of taking a class with her. Little did I know I would, but it would be about historical fiction.

Since then, she’s kept in touch with all of us from the class and has remained a model of how to live success with grace and poise.  I am honored to call her my friend and will continue learning from her for as long as she’s willing to put up with me!

Inspiration Mentor: Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert and me, July 2014

Elizabeth Gilbert and me, July 2014

Some people may say it’s easy to be inspirational when you’re a bestseller. Maybe, but I could name quite a few from whom I draw absolutely no connection. What makes Elizabeth Gilbert different? For me, it’s her willingness to share her personal struggles openly and to give back to the writing community. Her TED talks on creativity and inspiration were my first foray into her genius as a speaker and ability to move me creatively. Then I saw her interviewed a few times on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and thought, “yeah, she’s one of my people.”

Elizabeth’s relentless optimism and genuinely held belief that we can all live creative, fulfilled lives is part of what keeps me going, especially when rejection inflicts its terrible sting. I call her my guru because it seems like no matter what has happened in my life, she has a quote that makes me feel better and remember why I’m doing this masochistic thing called writing for publication. One of my recent favorites reminds me not to worry about what is trending right now and write what’s in my heart: “Let inspiration lead you wherever it wants. For most of history people just made things and they didn’t make such a BIG FREAKING DEAL OUT OF IT.” Another reminds me not to get too caught up in the goal of publication and just write: “Your own reasons to make art are enough. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.”

I realize she is also promoting her next book, but Elizabeth’s sharing of these quotes as well as daily Facebook encouragement is what I need.  She’s someone who has been where I am: working for a living while trying to make it as a writer. She’s also been where I hope to be: on the top of the bestseller list. But more than that, she’s shown that a writing career can survive a bomb of a book (every writer’s greatest fear) and come back better than ever.

I cannot wait for the release of Big Magic in September. It’s all about living a creative life. I’m sure it will cement Elizabeth’s place even more firmly as my creative guru.

And let’s not forget the writers who inspire me to greatness every time I read one of their books: MJ Rose, Susanna Kearsley, Patricia Bracewell, Geraldine Brooks, Katherine Howe, Robin Lafevers, Mary Kay Andrews and on and on. I hope that this will be an ever-expanding list, growing as I meet and form relationships with more authors and instructors. The Historical Novel Society Conference, which I will be attending this week in Denver, will be a great opportunity for that. It’s funny, but I always found networking for my day job extremely nerve-wracking and awkward, but when it comes to writing, networking is as easy as breathing. I guess that’s yet another sign that it’s what I’m truly meant to be doing.

Who are your mentors, either as a writer or reader? Whom do you admire and why? Who has affected your life? I’d love to hear your stories.

Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 5


Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is the fifth and final in a series of posts sharing what I learned from author Deb Harkness during a week-long Master Class at Hedgebrook. Here are part 1part 2part 3 and part 4 in case you missed them.

Our final class was an open forum for various topics, so if this looks disorganized, that’s because we were just asking whatever came to mind. We had Deb’s expertise and we were going to take advantage of it!

Point of View
We spent a fair amount of time talking about how to know which point of view to tell your story in, and along with that, whether to write in past or present tense.

Refresher: the three main points of view are first person, third person limited and third person omniscient (this really isn’t used much anymore, so we didn’t talk about it.) Past tense is the traditional verb choice, but present is gaining in popularity. From my experience as a reader, present tense has to be done well for it not to be annoying. I wish I could tell you what I mean by that, but I can’t; I just know it when I see it.

Deb seems to be a third person fan – in fact she said if she had it to do over again, she’d write the All Souls trilogy in third person. I on, the other hand, I write in first person (so far, who knows for the future). Deb said she believes we’re seeing first person fatigue among readers and editors. Personally, I like reading first-person accounts because they are more intimate, but that’s just my opinion.

Each point of view has its positives and negatives. First person has serious limitations because you can only write about what your main character sees or is present for. In order to show other things, you have to rely on reports, hearsay, letters, conversation or exposition. In addition, because you are writing from within one person’s mind, all other characters are at least somewhat opaque. However, there is a deep sense of living the events along with the main character. I find it very helpful if you specifically want to tell one person’s side of the story or if you are chronicling a life.

As Deb noted, in first person, you’re better off sticking with past tense. Even though it’s popular, especially in YA novels, first person present tense almost never works. It does convey immediacy and power, but is usually awkward and stilted. (In fact, one of the books I’m reading right now is guilty of that.)

What third person lacks in intimacy, it makes up for in versatility. Limited third person allows you to change point of view and weight it more toward one character when you need to. A small twist puts you in a different point of view. If you have a lot of locations or things that your character doesn’t have access to in your plot, use third person. You can get the same immediacy of a character seeing something first hand if you have another character ask something like “is that a pirate ship in the harbor?” and then give a description.

Deb is quick to remind writers that point of view isn’t written in stone. “It’s a tool and method of discovery, not a straightjacket or a contract.” You can switch back and forth in the drafting process, so long as you’re consistent by the time you’re ready to send your work to anyone else to read. For example, if you are writing in third person and are having trouble identifying with your character, she suggests writing a scene or chapter in first person. You can always change it later. (In fact, she wrote the opening of Book of Life from eight different characters’ points of view before she finally hit on the one that worked.) She says when you find the right point of view, you’ll know.

Empty Phrases in Writing
One thing eliminate from your writing (especially when writing in first person) is what Deb calls “neck and above sentence structure.” This includes phrases like “I noticed, I saw, I smelled, I tasted, etc.” When you do this, you are filtering the experience through the thoughts of the character rather than letting the reader see through their eyes.

Writing like this can almost always be changed around to be a more powerful sentence. For example, in book one of the Guinevere trilogy, I originally wrote “I could smell the heavy, choking fumes of the tar that turned the boat black.” When my editor got a hold of it, she taught me to change it around like this: “The air was thick with the heavy, choking fumes of the tar that turned the boat black.”

This is a tough habit to break, but it is possible. I still do it occasionally, but I’ve learned that writing the other way really does have more impact. Deb says that if you find yourself slipping into this habit repeatedly, you may want to consider switching to third person.

Other Writing Tips:

  • If you’re using letters in your novel, make sure they do some work for your plot, preferably beyond just revealing information. Otherwise they are just a gimmick.
  • If you have a sense of play, fun and discovery while you’re writing, that will come across to your readers in your writing
  • Not all characters will be forthcoming with their emotions or motivations. With reserved characters, show there is more than meets the eye – show their inconsistencies, put their difficult roles in context to show their humanity. (I had to do this with Arthur; he wasn’t much of the sharing type.)
  • Deb suggests writing a biography for your characters when you are starting to get to know them. She suggests striking through, rather than deleting, things when details change so that you can always see your changes if you need to.
  • When researching, take a picture of the cover and table of contents of each book to help refresh your memory in case you are wondering where you got something from or need to reference it again later.
  • Asking questions will help you get to know your characters. Let them answer you. Then probe them as to why.

Deb’s last piece of advice to us was, “Don’t go shingle shopping before you’ve bought the house.” By that she means, don’t get hung up on the details before you have the main structure of the characters and plot in place. I think that’s a great way to keep your priorities straight when writing, especially in historical fiction, where it’s tempting to keep researching forever.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and were able to take something away from Deb’s wisdom. I wish every single one of you could have been with me at Hedgebrook. Don’t forget that Deb will be on tour this summer promoting Book of Life, so you may just get the chance to meet her in person!

What do you think of Deb’s lesson on point of view, and her other tips? Do you agree or disagree? Why? What have your experiences been with different POVs in reading or writing?

Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of posts sharing what I learned from author Deb Harkness during a week-long Master Class at Hedgebrook. Here are part 1part 2 and part 3 in case you missed them.

The World card from the Visconti tarot deck

The World card from the Visconti tarot deck

Worldview: What it is and Why it’s Important
Deb began our fourth class with a question: How do you put it all together so that the whole of your writing is better than the sum of it’s parts? Her short answer was that it’s about balance, pacing and narrative flow. But in addition to that, it’s about the worldview of the characters in the book. In short, worldview answers this question: Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their motivations?

Deb referenced a blog post she read that said something to effect of a novel is nothing but an expanded lie. You have to trust the author and characters to buy into that lie. (If you know the source of this, please tell me and I’ll gladly give credit.)  This, she said, is integrity and authority, the context or drawing together of all the ingredients that allow you to see why a person did what they did.

Worldview is different for everyone. It is what makes up an individual person’s context. It consists of:

  • Who you are
  • Your parents
  • Your faith (or lack thereof)
  • Your education
  • Your situation

Fleshing out this list is very important to plotting and making your story work.

Character is the vehicle through which you reveal context. In historical fiction, decisions have to be consistent within the time period and as a character. Deb gave as an example the tendency of writers to use the world “infinite” when a character is looking up at the stars in the night sky. That might be fine for a contemporary story, but historically, no one believed the sky was infinite until well after 1800. In their worldview, it was contained and finite, and this was as it should be.

As writers, Deb said we need to stay really close to our characters. This will help us make their context more accurate. She suggested that when you’re faced with a plot problem, ask your character, “how do you know what you know?” Go through the bulleted list above and write out how those things influence why your character believes/does what they do.

Also, when you add in or subtract one of these elements of worldview, you need to know why. Even if it isn’t stated in the story, your reader will be able to tell. If you don’t know, try diagramming  your character’s decision making process.

When characters get too far out of alignment with their worldview, you start demolishing what you’ve build and you will run into a lack of plot.

Common Historical Fiction Worldview Misconceptions
As a historian, Deb says with certainty that there is no evidence that everyone in the past was filthy, uneducated, untraveled, and had a rough childhood, as Hollywood and many novels would have you believe. She said the stats were about the same then as today. So for a minority of people, that would be true. Maybe some of it would be true for others, and less and less as the social class of the person is higher.

Just because you find something novel and different from the way it would be today, doesn’t mean you need to describe it in your book. She used the example of novelists’ fascination with underwear from other time periods. “Unless your character was going to hide a letter in it, you don’t need to describe it to the reader.”

Another common thing is showing time period theories on the human body and how it works. Unless your character is the time period equivalent of a doctor, chances are good that’s not something they would think about.

For most of history, girls were not taught the classics, history or theology because those subjects where part of public life and public discussion, in which women did not participate. They were, however, taught astronomy, botany, sewing and drawing because these were considered adornments for private use. Things like this are important to consider when giving a female character an educational background.

Many things we take for granted wouldn’t have been known around the world at all times. For example, Plato’s works were not known in the west (at least in complete form) until the 15th century, so it would be incongruous to have a character refer to them earlier than that unless there was a specific reason he/she would have had access to that knowledge.

There was no such thing as Human Rights before the Enlightenment in the 18th century. People believed they were born where they were meant to be in society and they had a responsibility to their station (i.e. servants had a responsibility to serve). The presumption of equality of the classes (and sexes) didn’t happen until the 18th century.

In many times, women (excluding the elite) didn’t marry until they were in their 20s because their mates couldn’t afford it. Men needed to be in training/guilds until they were in their 20s. The nobility could, and usually did, marry younger.

Not everyone died young throughout history. If you survived infancy, pregnancy/childbirth if you were a woman or war/workplace accidents if you were a man,  your chances for living to be 60 – 80 were good. If you did, people usually attributed it to strong blood or being blessed by the gods.

Things to Consider When Creating Worldview

  • Beyond what they are personally exposed to, most people weren’t like to know history.
  • Class, sex and location all influence what a character can know. (i.e. news travels slower to remote areas)
  • Women were usually educated at home, so the education of their parents would determine how much they could learn unless a tutor was hired.

Remember that your readers are the audience for your characters actions, as are other characters. They each have their own worldview, which affects how they react in a scene or to a scene.

Plot tip: If you need characters to know something, remember that it’s hard to hide anything from servants or slaves. They actually have more power than you’d think because they have intimate access to those with authority.

This was for me, the most interesting of our discussions. I thought about some of this without realizing it, but never really made myself sit down and puzzle it all out. I will now!

Next week: Point of view and a lot of wrap up notes. This will be the last post in the series. I hope you’re enjoying it!

What do you think of Deb’s thoughts on worldview? What are your thoughts? Does knowing this information affect how you will read/write books in the future?

Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts sharing what I learned from author Deb Harkness during a week-long Master Class at Hedgebrook. Here’s part 1 and part 2 in case you missed them.

All credit to cartoonist Charles Schulz

All credit to cartoonist Charles Schulz

Day three at Hedgebrook was all about setting, plus Deb gave us some additional research tips, which I will share here.

Setting the Scene
Setting is actually my second favorite part of writing, next to character. I’ve been told by editors that I have a talent for writing beautiful descriptions of place (I’ll take that compliment), but as with anything else, it needs to be done carefully. Too much and you will bore your reader; too little and they won’t be immersed in your world.

Deb describes setting as “putting your story in fancy dress.” It not only includes the room, weather, time period and location, but also things like dialect and costuming. In historical fiction, you need to be deliberate in your deployment of historical details. Too much (especially with dialect) will distance the reader; less is more. Like every word in your book, your setting has to do some work. It shouldn’t just be there for its own sake.

You may need to write a bunch of detail before you learn what is really needed in a scene. To illustrate this, Deb gave us copies of three drafts of the same passage from Shadow of Night. The first was her really getting a feeling for the place. She called it a historical sketch based on generalities. The second was longer, as she flushed out details as they related to Matthew as a solider and a spy. The third (which was the published version) struck a nice balance between giving the reader a sense of location and helping the details show us something about the characters in the room. As she put it, “editing is what made it clear to the reader.” Deb’s advice:

  • Write your description, then go back and look at all you’ve written. Pick out only three things that are important and think about why they are important. The “why” is just as important as the “what” in constructing a good setting.
  • Think about this: if your historical story was set in present time, would you stop the action/dialogue to describe this? (She tells a story about how many people get caught up on describing a certain type of  button, when just calling it a button would suffice.)
  • If your description stands in for character development, plot or dialogue, delete it. These three things are much more important than description.

Deb compares writing to cooking. “History [and setting] are like cayenne pepper or tarragon; a little goes a long way. A really effective story is a balance between character, plot, dialogue, setting, action and reflection.”

Nine Historical Research Resources
I’m not sure how we got to talking about research (maybe from the question of how to recreate setting for a previous time period?), but we did. And I’m glad. These are the resources Deb recommends:

  1. Wikipedia –  Yes, she really did recommend this. Using keywords or names, it’s a great place to look for books (fiction and non-fiction) that have been published in a given area/topic. It’s also great for “creating the scaffolding” of your story. But double check facts with other sources and don’t rely on it for interpretations of historical events.
  2. Abe Books – Great source for books written by antiquarians which will give you a lot of time period detail.
  3. Local historians – They can often give you detail you won’t even find in books because history is to them a living, breathing thing that they interact with regularly through their location.
  4. Amazon – (I wrote a blog post about it as a research tool a while back.) Deb suggests sorting your results by date, rather than relevance, and looking for new scholarship. If you are writing about/looking for information on women, family, household life, etc., look for books written after 1974, which is when the old male-dominated mindsets in research began to change. Also, don’t rely on conduct books from a given time period. They often reflect the ideal woman/child/family, rather than reality.
  5. Google Books – It gives you access to at least parts of thousands of books, including Harvard’s entire collection prior to 1890.
  6. Local library’s database collection – Your local public and/or college library should have a good database collection. If you need help with a specific topic or aren’t sure how to access the databases, talk to the reference librarian. That’s what he/she is there for.
  7. Church of Latter Day Saints – Their records include London’s register from the 16th century on and their libraries are gold mines. You can also find some of their information on ancestry.com if you do a family search.
  8. Primary sources – Always read first-hand accounts, if such a thing exists. Primary sources such as letters, journals, and novels written by women are ideal to get a feel for the time and the people.
  9. Newspapers – If they existed in your time, use them. Many are being digitized. Three months of issues will give you a lot to work from.

One More Tip from Deb
Writing isn’t the only thing a writer needs to do. Reading, watching a bird, staring at the fire (or anything else that lets you dream/imagine/use your brain) are part of your job.

Next week: Deb’s lecture on worldview.

What do you think of Deb’s advise on setting and research? How do your favorite authors handle setting? As a reader, what do you like/dislike? If you’re a writer, did you learn anything from Deb’s research tips?

Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 2

Deb during one of our classes

Deb during one of our classes

This is the second in a series of posts sharing what I learned from author Deb Harkness during a week-long Master Class at Hedgebrook. Here’s part 1 in case you missed it.

Having learned our fill on character, our lesson for day 2 was on plot and history. A lot of people find plotting overwhelming, but as Deb said, “all we’re doing [with plot] is taking a person from point A to point B.”

How History and Plot Work Together
The elements of a historical narrative are the same as the story historians construct about the evidence they have found. We tend to think of history as what really happened, but a lot of times we just can’t know, even with a lot of evidence. Many times the evidence, even eyewitness testimony, is contradictory.

That’s why historians look at evidence and then go back later and construct a narrative to tell a particular story. Like historical fiction writers, they end up leaving 99% of what they’ve learned off the page. It may sound like they aren’t being true if that’s the case, but if they included it all the book would be overwhelmingly lengthy and boring. They, like fiction writers, have to stick to a central point or purpose and only radiate out so far from that, and only when doing so enriches the overall point they are trying to make.

Genre and Plot
There are tons of traditional plot models out there, but Deb told us none of her books follow any of them. She believes that is a perfectly valid choice for an author to make. (Honestly, my books don’t either.) We explored the traditional three act structure, the hero’s journey (often used in fantasy) and a basic plot structure and talked about how they are alike and how they differ. (By the way, the images I’m linking to here are the exact ones Deb gave us as handouts, so you can pretend like you were there with us.) It’s a good idea to at least familiarize yourself with the elements of these and other models so that you know the basics of what’s expected from a story, even if yours doesn’t fit neatly into one of them.

Deb doesn’t define herself as a genre author. This means she writes broader fiction that doesn’t fit into a category like mystery, paranormal, romance, etc. However, many writers, myself included, do choose to write within a given genre. It’s important to note that different genres have different expectations. As an author you have three choices:

  1. Work within your genre – All genres have expected conventions, word limits/page expectations. (For example, romance has very particular word counts and expectations of what has to happen by a certain page. Thrillers are also known for having strong pacing expectations.)
  2. Work outside of genre – This is what Deb does. It tends to give you more freedom in length and what you can and can’t do, but it can also be difficult for agents and publishers to classify when it comes time to sell it.
  3. Work against genre – In order to do this, you need to know the rules of the genre well. After all, you can’t break rules (well) you don’t know or understand. And if you break them badly, you won’t have a story people want to read.

History defines the outer limits of where you can go in historical fiction. Within in historical fiction, your sub-genre (fantasy, romance, mystery, thriller, etc.) constrains the genre. In other words, if you’re writing historical fantasy (as I do), you’re still subject to the general rules of fantasy writing; you just happen to be setting your fantasy in another time period.

Bringing History into Your Plot
Deb made the very interesting point that very few people are participants in historical events, but history still affects each one of us. There are three main ways we interact with history:

  1. History that is going on around you that shapes what you eat, wear, etc. – This affects everyone. For example, if I was setting a book in pre-Roman Britain, my Celts would likely not eat onions or celery because the Romans brought those to Britain. However, because my Arthur and Guinevere live after the Roman invasion, it’s logical they could eat those things.
  2. History you are a direct participant in  –  Fewer people will be part of a battle or other significant event. This could be due to their station in life, or they might just happen to live where something of import takes place and get caught up in it. For example, because they are rulers, both Arthur and Guinevere are active participants in the historical battle of Mount Badon.
  3. Doing historical things – Deb gave the examples of being a blacksmith, riding side saddle or teaching in a one room schoolhouse. These are things that you wouldn’t really know are historic while you are doing them. It’s only by looking back through history that we can define them as historic. For example, Guinevere is a Druid priestess. To her, that is a natural part of her religion. Only to us, 1,500 years later, is this considered historical.

This is a continuum. Characters can move on it and different characters can be in different categories at the same time as one another. So your main characters might be doing historic things or being directly involved in historic events, while your secondary characters are only doing historic things. Or your main character may always be doing historic things, but those historic things might change in the course of the book as the history that is going on around him or her affects his/her life.

We all know this, but it bears repeating, especially in the context of historical fiction: history for history’s sake is boring. You may be impressed by what you know, but you will lose the story and your readers if you include all of it. (This is why I started this blog, so that I had something to do with all that extra knowledge and didn’t feel like it was going to waste if it didn’t end up on the page.) Pick the historical things that allow your character to work within your plot. History is a pot of resources you can dip into to find something that makes your characters work i.e. show something about a relationship, help in character development. It shouldn’t be there just because you learned it.

Story Openings and Other Various Tips
As any writer will tell you, knowing where is the best place to begin your story is very difficult. As writers, we often have to “write our way” into the novel and so where we started writing isn’t necessarily the best place to actually begin the book. Deb’s suggestion for finding the elusive “inciting incident” is to find the moment where everything changes for your character and start there. As she said, “It’s like sinking an anchor for yourself and the reader.”

Deb’s tip: Look at your WIP and start reading at page 151. What before that is truly necessary and what is you writing to get to where you need to be? Delete anything that isn’t absolutely essential.

Trivia: Deb told us that A Discovery of Witches originally had a lot more of Diana at the library at the beginning, but she cut it because nothing was happening.

Other tips:

  • Create a file or a book for yourself that is your “bible” with all the information about your characters, plot, and references so you can easily refer back while writing and editing.
  • If you’re going to use something extraordinary like time travel, magic or reincarnation in your story it has to have a reason beyond you wanting to do it. It has to add something to the story.
  • Letting information out slowly over time is always better than a dream, flashback or other contrived tool.

Next week: What Deb taught us about setting.

What do you think about Deb’s advice on plot and history? Writers, what tips do you have? What’s worked for you? Readers, what do you like the best in the plots of the books you read? What annoys you?

Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 1

This was our last day of class. Yes, we had wine.

This was our last day of class. Yes, we had wine. (Deb is on the right.)

I received permission from Hedgebrook, Deb and my classmates to post a series of blogs about what we learned from Deb during our Master Class called Past Tense: History as Resource and Inspiration. Since she covered a different topic every day, that’s how I’m going to present them to you. She purposefully taught us different aspects of creative writing in the order she feels they are most important.

A Few Notes on Writing Historical Fiction
Before Deb got into the specifics of her first topic, she gave us a nice lecture about how we are perfectly qualified, as storytellers, to write historical fiction even though we’re not historians. I touched on that a little in my first post about the Master Class, but I’ll add a few details here.

Non-historians tend to think of history as right and wrong; historians know no such thing exists. History is an interpreted discipline in which they make an argument based on what they can back up with evidence. Circumstantial evidence doesn’t count for them, but it is a boon for historical fiction writers. It is our job to “write between the gaps,” as one of my follow writers said.

Novelists need to take authority over our story and characters and give up on the idea that historians have “the truth.” If it is not historically impossible, then for us, it is historically possible. It is our job to make it believable.

She emphasized that history should be a tool and not an obstacle. Our first job is to tell a great story. For that reason, any historical fiction story should be able to be set in contemporary times and still make sense. That is how we know the story itself is solid. The history simply places in another time.

Lesson #1: Character
Deb is a character-driven writer, meaning that for her, stories begin with and are propelled by the characters and their journey. The plot arises from what they do, rather than being thrust on them. (I’m a character-driven writer as well.) Her main point is that if your readers don’t care about the characters, all you’ve done is write history. The characters are what people relate to as they read your story.

In order for your characters to have integrity, they must be real, three-dimensional people who are consistent and make decisions that ring true, even if you don’t always agree with them. She believes that oftentimes readers are willing to trust historical fiction authors with history because they trust the characters. They are willing to forgive and forget a lot, but usually not a character that doesn’t speak to them.

History can give us the basis for creating characters, whether we pull them straight from history or use it as the context of the lives of fictional characters. Either way, when used correctly, historical details reveal things about the characters.

One character development tool Deb introduced us to is the Proust questionnaire. I’ve seen lots of lists of questions to interview your characters with, but this one was new to me. (Interestingly, this is what part of the interviews on Inside the Actor’s Studio are based on.) The idea is that by answering these questions, you begin to learn what makes your characters tick and see patterns in their lives. Most of what you answer won’t end up in your book, but knowing this information will help you start immersing yourself in their world. The better you can do that, the more believable and real your characters will be.

Another tool one of my fellow writers mentioned was the question Anne Lamott poses in Bird by Bird, “What does your character have in his/her pockets and why?” The “why” is the true purpose of any of these interview techniques because it starts to get at motivation, which is key to both a believable character and story. As Deb said, “History can be a crutch for us. Sometimes problems are better solved by asking ‘why?'”

She ended our first lecture by reiterating her belief that (at least in character driven fiction) the character’s journey transcends all the other stuff: the setting, the plot, the historical context. She taught us about each of those, but set the tone by teaching us their place: they are all secondary to character.

Next week: Plot and history.

Random bit of trivia: Deb doesn’t outline. She says her stories evolve as she goes and does lots of editing.

What do you think about Deb’s thoughts on historical fiction, history and character? Do you agree or disagree? Why? Did anything you read here strike you as important or unusual? Please tell me your reactions in the comments.

Hedgebrook Master Class with Deborah Harkness


Our Master Class group, including teacher Deb Harkness

How do you begin to describe the opportunity of a lifetime? Knowing me, it’s not with few words, but I’ll try to limit myself.

IMG_0500Many of you know that I just got back a week ago from attending a Master Class led by #1 NYT Bestselling author Deborah Harkness. It was held at Hedgebrook, a magical area of land on Whidbey Island, about two hours outside of Seattle that is dedicated to advancing female writers.

I found out in mid-January that Deb would be teaching a class on using history in fiction when she tweeted about it. At first, I didn’t think I could afford it, but then a wise soul (my mom) pointed out that it would not only be a great opportunity to learn about writing, but also allow me to cross off several items from my bucket list (meet Deb Harkness, take a class from her, go on a real writing retreat, see the Pacific Northwest). So I applied and was one of six writers chosen. Deb later told us that she hand-picked us because she saw potential in us and our writing, plus we were creating stories about strong women that she wanted to read.

Fir Cottage

Fir Cottage

Hedgebrook is a unique place. Each writer has her own cottage, named after the type of wood from which they are made. Mine was Fir Cottage. They are very simple, hand-crafted in an Amish style and heated by wood burning stoves. Each one has a small kitchenette with a toaster oven, single burner and just enough cookery and plates for single use. There’s a desk to work at, a comfy window seat and the world’s most relaxing recliner. There’s also a half bath and a loft with a bed and chest of drawers. That’s it. No wifi or anything fancy. As it turns out, this simplicity taught me that I don’t need so much stuff in my life and I’m beginning the process of purging, but that’s another story.


My writing space inside the cottage

Every day (except for Saturday, which was a writing day), we had two hours of class with Deb. We were her first ever creative writing class, but if she hadn’t told us that, I wouldn’t have known. She’s such a great teacher! Every lesson had a different theme: character, plot, setting, world view, point of view, research, etc. I’m hoping to share with you a little of what she taught us in each lesson, but I’m waiting on final permission from Hedgebrook to do so. The really cool thing about this class is that it wasn’t taught from some rule book; Deb used her own experiences and encouraged us to share our own in order to make learning a group process. She even shared drafts of her own writing with us so that we could see how her writing evolved from one draft to another and told us personal stories of frustration and triumph with the writing process that made us all feel so much better, since it meant we weren’t alone.

The view from one of my windows.

The view from one of my windows.

One interesting thing that I will share is that Deb took great pains to convince us that we, as non-historians, are actually in a better place to write historical fiction than historians, like herself are. She made the point that historical fiction, at its core, is about telling a great story; the history is window dressing. As we haven’t been through the training emphasizing facts only that historians have, we’re more in touch with the imaginative side of our brains that wants to fill in the gaps, which is where the storytelling takes place. This doesn’t mean that we can just make up whatever we want or be sloppy about research, but it does mean we have greater freedom. That being said, she also explained how closely the job of a historian and historical fiction writer resemble one another, as even historians can never know the truth for certain; they have theory, use facts to back it up, and do their best to convince others that they are the most right. Not all that different from the stories we tell, albeit we go into our stories knowing they are fiction. This made me feel a lot better, as I’ve always questioned if I was qualified to write historical fiction.

IMG_1276After class, we’d go to the Farmhouse together for dinner. This building is where the kitchen and dining areas are, plus a cozy library/living room. Oh the food! I can’t rave enough! From salmon patties and curry to fresh mussels and clams and chicken Mirabella and the best vegetarian enchalladas – it was all so fresh, all organic, so good, made all the better because it was made with love. As we ate, the wine and conversation flowed. Boy did we tell some funny stories!

Hanging out after dinner.

Hanging out after dinner.

Deb fit right in. She is so open, so warm and so human. Each night after desert, we’d adjourn to the library/living room for conversation. She intended to do a little work, but always ended up joining us and answering questions about her stories. I learned more about movie deals, book tours, audio books and the behind the scenes of publishing from her than I could have in any class.

Once we were done, we all grabbed our groceries for the next day and walked back by flashlight (there are no lights and it was cloudy for all but one night so we didn’t have moonlight) to our cabins to shower, read, write or do whatever before we went to sleep.

Look! I learned how to build a fire all by myself!

Look! I learned how to build a fire all by myself!

We also each got at least an hour of one-on-one time with Deb. Some people gave her writing samples to critique. I wish I had part of book 3 that was ready for that, but since I didn’t, I spent my time talking with her about what it’s like to be a historian (and realized that a PhD is probably not right for me) and also about the publishing process and life as an author. I can’t tell you enough just how wonderful and wise she is. I am so blessed to have had this chance to spend time with her and get to know her.

Now, a week later, the whole thing feels like a dream. It really did go by fast. But as I reflect on my journal entries, hang new photos on my wall and keep in touch with my fellow writers on Facebook, I realize just what a special opportunity this was. I’m so glad that Hedgebrook provided it and that I went for it. I’m already planning on applying for a residency at Hedgebrook at some point in the future and I will be supporting them in every way I can. There’s a running joke among Hedgebrook alumni in the journals kept by residents of each cabin about the goddess of Hedgebrook, the spirit of the place. Call it what you will, but there really is something healing and inspiring about it. It is a place that women can come and feel creative, safe and nurtured, things sometimes very lacking in the outside world.

IMG_1223Thank you to everyone who made this opportunity possible – at Hedgebrook and in my personal and work lives. You don’t know what a gift you’ve given to me. To everyone reading this, if you get the chance to visit Hedgebrook, or do anything similar in your own life, go for it! You only get one shot at this life and it’s up to you to make your dreams come true. As a Hedgebrook alumna, I know I am several steps closer to mine now.

What questions do you  have about my writing retreat? Please ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.