Monthly Archives: October 2016

Having Fun with Research

No matter what kind of novel you’re writing (unless perhaps it’s high fantasy or extremely autobiographical) you are going to have to research some aspect of your story at some point. And obviously, when it comes to historical fiction, research is an even bigger part of the process. But research isn’t all pouring over history books or old letters or diaries – though reading all the information you can find about your time period/historical figures is, of course, something you will need to spend a lot of time doing. But reading isn’t the only research you can or should be doing. There are lots of other methods you can use to learn the historical information and details you need to make your work come alive, and some of them can be unorthodox and actually a lot of fun. Below are some things you can do – many of which I have done – to approach your research in a different way and get away from the books and the computer screen:

Look at paintings/artwork/photographs from the period you’re writing about: I’ve done this for both The Violinist of Venice and The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. Looking at artwork and especially paintings created during the period you’re writing about can tell you SO MUCH: what the clothing looked like that people actually wore; what homes/buildings/churches looked like; what personal effects people may have carried or had in their space; what hairstyles were in fashion; jewelry fashions; what religious themes were chosen/depicted and what that might say about the artist or their patron, etc. Of course, for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence artwork was especially key as many famous works of art appear in the story, so I looked at many of those online, in books, and in person. But those paintings were also helpful for the clothing, hairstyles, etc. And if photographs were around in the period you are writing about, certainly take advantage of those wherever you can find them.

-Listen to music from the period: Obviously, this was crucial for writing and researching The Violinist of Venice, a novel about music and Antonio Vivaldi’s music in particular. But even if your novel doesn’t explicitly include music, listening to music that was written or popular during that period can help you get a better feel for the atmosphere of the times.

-Look at/consult other primary sources or artifacts: For me with Violinist, this involved looking at the actual scores of some of Vivaldi’s music, specifically pieces I was describing in the novel. I also went to several museums over the course of my research and saw musical instruments from the period, some of which – like the viola d’amore – are no longer in use in modern orchestras. Look into the collections of museums in your area or places where you may be traveling and see what they have. There may be furniture, articles of clothing, pottery, household wares, etc. from your period that you can go and see (and possibly take pictures of, depending on the museum’s photography policy).

-Travel to the location where your book is set: If your novel is set in a specific city or area, try to go there for at least a few days and get a sense of it. I’ve done this with both of my two novels, and have been able to see exact locations where scenes and events in the books take place. I found those experiences to be completely invaluable and, in addition to helping with historical accuracy, greatly improved my sense of place and sensory details in my writing. Learning your way around the city or area can help with logistics in the novel as well, such as how a character would physically get from point A to point B, if it would be feasible to walk, etc. Obviously not everyone has the time or means to make such a trip, especially if your novel is set farther afield, but if you can it is absolutely worth the investment.

-Look at maps and photographs of your setting: Whether you can travel there or not, studying maps of a city or area is extremely helpful, especially maps that were drawn during the period your novel takes place so that you can see what it looked like then. Again, photographs from the period are helpful as well if they are available, but if not modern photographs can still give you a sense of a place you may not be able to travel to. And if you do travel there, take lots of photos of places important to your story. I always do this in my research travels and refer to the photographs later as I’m writing to help sharpen my descriptions or just generally give me some inspiration.

-Attend historical reenactments: I have not done this myself (yet), but I know other authors who have. Depending on what period you’re writing about, there may be a battle reenactment or something along those lines not too far from you that you can go and see. This can give you a great sense of everything from military tactics to clothing to weaponry to surgical instruments and medical care. Along the same lines, look for living history museums (something like Colonial Williamsburg) that may be relevant to your setting/time period. Such places can be an absolute wealth of information on all kinds of details.

Research can and should be about more than just reading, and these things and more can help you expand and enrich your historical fiction by presenting information in new and perhaps unexpected ways and contexts. The more period details you can include in your work, the more it will come alive for your readers and make them feel as though they are actually there, and the more they will be able to understand and relate to your characters. Always be ready to discover new information, by whatever means are available, even those that seen unorthodox. Even things you never thought you’d need can come in very handy when writing, so the more ways you can go about acquiring information, the better. Your work – and your readers – will thank you for it.


What Next?

As I’ve mentioned in my last few posts, I recently finished up a work-in-progress. It’s one that took me about a year to draft, and honestly, I loved every minute of it, even the moments where I felt certain I would be writing it FOREVER. I love it so much that I probably could work on it forever and be happy. It’s a book of my heart in many ways and also (I think) the best thing I have written so far.

So now that I am finished working on it for the time being, that begs the question: what next? As I mentioned in my update post earlier this week, I always make myself take time off between projects to rest and relax and recharge; I know that I need this time, but it isn’t long before I start to get antsy and want to start writing something again. I love writing and I love having a project to work on, so sometimes I have to make myself take a break or extend that break. (Of course, when I’m in the thick of working on a project, I look fervently forward to that time when it’s done and I can chill and come home from work and do nothing but read if I want. There’s just no pleasing me, I guess.)

So now, as I’m relaxing and recharging, I’m also trying to think of an idea for my next book. There’s no rush; I know this (again, aside from my aforementioned antsiness). And I certainly have no shortage of ideas; it’s just that nothing has so far reached out and grabbed me by the throat and said WRITE ME NOW (which is absolutely what happened with the book I just finished). I love that feeling, and that’s what carries me through the long and sometimes tough drafting process.

Better and more experienced writers than me have said it, but it bears repeating: no matter how many books you write, it never gets easier. That next book never feels like a given. If the thing I just finished is the best thing I’ve written so far, where do I go from there? How can I top that? How can I fall that in love with another idea again?

The comforting part in all this is that I’ve been here before. I had the exact same thoughts after I sold The Violinist of Venice, another book of my heart. I was feeling lost and casting around for an idea a little over a year ago, when finally that last idea hit me like a lightning bolt. So I know that these doubts come and go. I know by now that this is all part of the process. It doesn’t always serve to assuage the fears in the moment, but it gives perspective. If I’ve overcome this feeling before, then I can again. And if I ever don’t feel uncertain or scared, then that probably means that I’ve stopped caring. And I hope and believe that that will never happen.


On Making, Not Finding, the Time to Write

I’ve done quite a few author events now in the 10 months since The Violinist of Venice was published, and one question I almost always get is, “Do you have a day job?” When I answer that yes, I do (as most authors do), the question that inevitably follows is “How do you find the time to write?”

This is a fair enough question, as anyone with a full-time job and friends and family obligations can certainly attest to the fact that time always seems to be in short supply. But my answer is that I don’t find the time, I make the time. The distinction between the two, for me, is in the conscious effort behind making time. If I just waited around until I had a large, unspoken-for block of time on my hands, I would never have written anything, let alone the four total book-length manuscripts I’ve produced since I was in college. No one – or at least, not many people – in this hectic day and age ever really have blank blocks of time on their hands, waiting to be filled. Something will always come along to fill that time, be it putting in extra hours at the office or family or friends or Netflix. The list goes on.

So in order to ensure that I have enough time for my writing, I carve out that time and firmly protect it when necessary. I don’t have a set writing schedule that I follow religiously from week to week, just because my life really isn’t conducive to that at this point: sometimes my hours at my job change slightly, sometimes I have other obligations, sometimes I have plans with friends. So I take the time whenever I possibly can, which for me of late looks something like this:

-On week nights when I have a free evening, I try to write at least 1000 words. I’ll often designate at least one night in a week for this and not allow myself to make other plans.

-On weekend days I try to write at least 2000 words.

-I’ll often write on my lunch breaks at work. I only get a half hour break, so on the surface it almost seems like not enough time to bother. But boy, do those half-hour sessions start to add up. I’ve gotten to a point where I can actually write 1000 words in a half an hour sometimes, when I just completely focus in and tune out everything else and don’t let myself stop writing.

-When I’m NOT writing – and this is key – I’ll try to brainstorm new scenes or plot points, or just let my mind wander around with my characters and within the world of the story I’m working on. I also always create playlists for my works-in-progress, which I’ll often listen to while at work (when I can’t be writing) in order to keep my head in the game and possibly give me some new inspiration. I’m a pantser – I don’t do written outlines – so this is the most planning ahead I do with my work. And I’ve found that giving at least some thought to what scene will come next or to a plot or character problem before I sit down to write helps me avoid that blinking cursor of doom on the blank screen.

-Something I did recently when I finished up the first draft of my most recent work in progress is that I went on a solo writing retreat. I took a couple days off from work and booked a hotel room with a balcony and a nice view for a long weekend, and I holed up with some snacks and wine and just wrote for a few days straight. I will absolutely be doing that again in the future, because it was SO helpful to take that time and get away from my usual space and its distractions. It was honestly one of the best weekends of my life. Certainly not everyone will have the time or the means to do something like this, but if you do I highly, highly recommend it.

-I have a group of writing buddies that I meet up with most Wednesday nights, and we all write together. This is helpful because we keep each other accountable to show up and get the work done. And while writing is a solitary activity, sometimes it’s fun to have company!

You’ll notice that in the points above I used the word “try” quite a bit. And that’s because that’s what it is, an attempt: I try to stick to these patterns as much as possible, but it doesn’t always work out. Things come up. I have plans with family or friends, or I’ll come home from work and feel exhausted and just in need of a night on the couch. And that is all okay. If you are a serious writer – or artist of any kind – there will be lots of times when you will need to put your work first, and stay in on a Friday night or pass up happy hour with your coworkers. Believe me, that will need to happen a lot. But there will also be times when you won’t want to write that day, or can’t, or need a break, and that’s fine too. Don’t feel guilty when life intervenes. I used to, but I realized that it’s just as crucial to my process that I take a day off here and there.

You’ll need to make a lot of time to write, but do it in whatever way works best for you. Carve it out of your schedule wherever it fits, in fifteen minute increments here and there or chunks of a few hours (though believe me, I know those can be hard to come by). But make that conscious effort to carve out that time, because it isn’t going to happen on its own. It isn’t going to come to you. Soon making that time, even if you don’t write at the same time on the same days every week, will become second nature. You’ll start grabbing whatever moments you can to get some writing in, and that’s when you really get into a groove.

It really irritates me when people say “I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I’ve never had the time”, and I know my fellow writers will relate to that. It’s a frustrating thing to hear, for me, for two reasons: the first being the simple fact that I don’t have any more hours in the day than anyone else. As I’ve outlined above, I don’t have time sitting around unaccounted for any more than anyone else: I make that time, and that takes effort and dedication. The second reason it bothers me is that it implies that spare time is all one needs to write a book, and that is not true either. Anyone who’s written a book has spent years reading everything they can get their hands on, especially in their genre, and tinkering with sentences and characters and plotlines and story arcs and doing research and accepting criticism and trying and failing over and over again to render their story on the page in a way that is just right. Having time to write is crucial, yes, but there are a lot of other ingredients as well.

What I’ve found, though, is that the people who really love writing, who live and breathe words and beautiful sentences and imagery and metaphors, will always find a way to do all of this. They are already making the time whenever they can, because they love to write. They are already disciplining themselves and dedicating themselves to the craft and trying to learn more, trying to grow and get better. They couldn’t stop if they tried.

Sometimes I don’t even know how and when my books get written, when I think about all that I have going on in my life. But they do. They do because at the end of the day, through all the ups and downs, writing is my favorite thing to do in the world, and I will always, always make time for it.


General Updates

Hi everyone! I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but there’s been a reason for that: I’ve been working, in the last months, on finishing up a draft of my most recent work-in-progress, and then doing some revisions to it. So all my spare time went to that. But I’ve recently finished up work on that and am (trying) to take a bit of a writing break – though that is always easier said than done for me! I know how important it is for me to rest and recharge for a few weeks between projects, but at the same time I always get antsy when I am not writing or revising something.

Some updates on The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence: I sent back pass pages for this one over a month ago, so it is officially done and wrapped up! Also, I have ARCs! Follow me on Twitter (if you don’t already) @AlyssInWnderlnd, as I’ll be doing some ARC giveaways coming up. Also, be sure to add the book on Goodreads if you haven’t already, as there will be Goodreads giveaways for some copies as well, and as many of you likely know, if the book is on your to-read shelf you’ll be notified when a giveaway goes live.

In addition, I can confirm that The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence is also being published in Australia, again by PanMacmillan Australia. I don’t have an Australian release date to share yet, but as soon as I do I will post it, so stay tuned!

I’ve done a few events and presentations in the Buffalo area in the last few months, both book club events where I got to discuss The Violinist of Venice with readers, and also some presentations where I put together a slide show on the historical context behind the novel. I love sharing the rich and fascinating history of 18th century Venice and of Baroque music, and I also love meeting readers and talking about the book with them, answering their questions and getting their impressions of the novel. Sometimes a reader’s take on a certain aspect of the novel is something I never thought of before, and it allows me to see my own work in a new light. I always love when that happens!

At the moment, as I am on my self-imposed writing break, I’ve been doing a lot of reading now that I have a bit more time. Since it’s October I am deep into my Halloween reading, working through a list of dark and creepy reads. Currently I’m in the middle of three books, and I love all of them so far: Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey, and Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn.

That’s all the updates I have for now, but check back for new news as I have it, and also some more writing and book related blog posts in the future!