Novel Progress

kayak hh

Here’s a pic of me not doing my writing (BAD, Stephen!), but kayaking alongside dolphins (not pictured) in Hilton Head, SC, July 2017.

I recently visited a friend I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years and one of the things she asked me was how my novel was coming along, and I realized this is exactly the reason why I need to post about this process on social media.  If everyone knows I’m writing it, even friends I rarely get a chance to see, then it helps keep me focused.

So here’s an update.

In March I presented my draft to my writing group, the excellent and talented members of Jersey City Writers, and got some really useful feedback.  I was slow in implementing it due to the demands at school, but once summer started it became my main focus.  So help me God, I will have a revised draft finished by the end of summer, one that is ready to present to agents and publishers, or ready to publish on my own.  We’ll see…

Part of the problem with my original draft was that I wrote it for NaNoWriMo without planning much of it out.  Now, I love NaNoWriMo for all the enthusiasm it generates for writing, as well as the bonhomie it stirs up among those crazy enough to attempt writing a novel in a month.  However, I am not a pantser in any other aspect of my life, so I shouldn’t have supposed I could be one as I novelist.  I should have begun the process of writing this book with a formidably well-parsed outline.

But I didn’t.

So now I’ve taken the feedback from my writing group along with what I know of my characters and their general story, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time organizing the flow of their tale to address some of the readers’ issues, adding some rather dramatic plot points that seem so obvious now that I’m ashamed I left them out initially.

I did quite a bit of searching online for useful ideas as part of my outlining reformation, and  I want to give a shout out to Katytastic, a YouTuber (kat_tastic on Twitter) whose video I found particularly helpful.  I use Scrivener for most of my longer works of writing, and this video demonstrated a really smart way to outline using Scrivener’s features that I hadn’t used before.  After watching her video and putting her strategies to work, my story seemed so much more solid.

Now that I’ve got it fleshed out a bit better, I’m back to writing it.  And trust me, if you’re reading this blog right now, then I will let you and all the rest of the world know when it is finished, because as much as I love my dear little fictional Ohio town of Villandry, I’ve already got three more novels I’m itching to write and as many protagonists getting pissed off at me for taking so long.

And a memoir.

And maybe a play.  We’ll see.

For now, though, please check out Katytastic’s “Outlining with Scrivener.”  (BTW, I really can’t figure out why the link starts the video in the middle.  I don’t seem to be able to correct it…but you can manage to drag it back to the beginning, right?)



5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing an Historical Novel

I’m now almost two weeks and more than 25,000 words into my first novel-length work of historical fiction.  Figured it would be worthwhile to pause for a minute to pat myself on the back (pat. pat.) and to reflect on what I’ve learned from and about this process so far.

1. Planning is important, but there’s a time to jump in.  The story of the novel is set in the present — well the future actually: Spring and Summer of 2015 — but it’s about people who reenact Napoleonic battles, so even though it isn’t technically a historical novel, the history certainly matters and I want to get it right.  Oh yeah, and I had no background in Napoleon whatsoever before this.  So I read histories and biographies and took a lot of notes for over a year…and I’m still not an expert.  It was beginning to feel like a problem.  But thanks to National Novel Writing Month (, I decided it was time to stop talking about it and start writing this thing.  Either poo, or get off the chamber pot.  What I’ve discovered is that I’ve got enough historical knowledge to know how to tell the story, and enough to know where I’m lacking and what I’ll need to revisit later to fill in the details.  You need to plan enough, but you don’t need to plan everything.
2. Your characters will tell you who they are.  As with historical detail, so with my characters.  I had their lives and identities all sketched out before I started writing, but then they started surprising me like, you know, real people do.  This one was supposed to be fifteen years old, then I start writing and it turns out she’s five.  That one was supposed to be an arrogant, snooty bastard — turns out he actually has the biggest heart of any character in the work, he’s just been living a hard life and built up a lot of walls.  (I was with everyone else: I just thought he was a jerk for no reason….)  When you read a book it feels as though the characters have always existed exactly as they are in their little world, but I’m beginning to realize that at this stage of the game they have a lot of say in who they become.
Yes, we'll discuss how impressive I was at Toulon...but first, why don't you read this draft of my story and tell me what you think?"

Yes, we’ll discuss how impressive I was at Toulon…but first, why don’t you read this draft of my story and tell me what you think?”

3. The devil is in the details, but so are the baroque cherubim.  What’s harder than writing about historical characters who demand accuracy in details?  Writing about contemporary people who passionately and obsessively recreate history down to the authentically ornate carving on their early 19th century antique cherry-wood writing desks*.  I don’t know much at all about antiques, but my characters do, so I’m going to also be doing a lot of research to find the right objects to decorate their offices and living rooms.  And I’m kind of excited about that.  At this stage in the writing, I feel that it’s more important to get the story written than to worry about decor.  Right now I’m giving the characters rooms to exist in.  Later I’ll help them decorate.  They should be grateful because no one likes to help you move.

4. It is possible to write.  That was a misquote of Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours when she says, “It is possible to die.”  That line has been in my head a lot lately, not because I’ll be putting stones in my pockets, but because I love Virginia Woolf and her specter has haunted me for many years, intimidating me and keeping me from writing.  It isn’t her fault, but that’s how it is.  She and Faulkner and Joyce and Morrison, all of whom I love, have intimidated me and I haven’t attempted to write a novel despite the overwhelming desire to do so.  But this year I’ve overcome that.  This year my pantheon of writing deities is cheering me on.  It helps that I have (what I think to be) a really good idea that’s full of characters who are fun and original and who nag me to let them out of my head so that they can live in the world with the rest of you.  It helps that I have real life friends who also push me.  And again, it’s helped to have NaNoWriMo and all the participating writers out there in the world to ride on our collective, frenetic, creative energy.
5. I’d rather be writing.  I’ve not slacked off at my job (I love my students and wouldn’t let my teaching be trampled on by my writing), but I definitely have a lot of moments throughout the day when all I’m thinking about is how to get the characters through that next obstacle, or how to flesh out the secrets of their past interactions and relationships with each other in an interesting way.  It’s really a lot of fun.  And, okay, maybe I put off grading a stack of papers while in the midst of a writing sprint…but they got graded eventually.
How about you?  Has anyone reading this written historical fiction — or fiction of any kind — and have any additional insights to share?  Comment away!
*I don’t even know if desks in early 19th century France were made of cherry-wood.  I made that up to make it interesting.

Hero/Villain: The Trouble with Napoleon

About a year and a half ago I read an article in the WSJ about the bicentennial commemorative Battle of Waterloo to be held in 2015.  Two men were considered to be the finest Napoleons in the reenactment world, one American and one French (naturally).  That there should be two, and that they should be French and American — this just seemed too thematically rich for me to pass up!  I knew there was a fun-yet-poignant story here, but I wasn’t interested in telling the real tale of will happen (or what may have already happened: for all I know, one of them has come out on top).  I wanted to explore the possibilities of what could happen: what kinds of real passions might be stirred, and what Machiavellian moves might be made behind the scenes to make the mock history come to life?

Any resemblance to real characters is almost purely coincidental.

"Even I'm conflicted about my legacy."

“Even I’m conflicted about my legacy.”

Well, as far as the real, living Napoleonic players are concerned.  The representation of Napoleon the Emperor, the actual man, is a different matter.  I don’t want to screw up any of the history as far as it concerns my novel, but it isn’t the facts that worry me.  It’s how people interpret the facts.  In my research I’ve discovered that historians fall on one side of a very clear dividing line.  You either believe that Napoleon was flawed like any great historical figure, but is ultimately responsible for laying the foundations for modern Europe.  Or you believe that he was a monomaniacal tyrant bent on world domination at all costs — one of the costs being the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives lost during his campaigns.

Both sides have their points, and as soon as I feel pulled to one side of the argument, I’ll read someone’s opinion from the other side and be swayed that way. This isn’t a Coke or Pepsi kind of argument: either the man was a modernizing hero whose laws are still the foundation of French democracy today, or a mass murdering villain who led men to their deaths for no good reason whatsoever.  Reading historians’ opinions of Napoleon makes me feel like an onlooker at Caesar’s funeral as Brutus and Mark Anthony give their conflicting accounts of the man.  I suppose this is healthy for my book, which seeks neither to bury Napoleon nor to praise him.  Love him or hate him, it doesn’t change the fact that people are interested in him enough to dress up like him and lead mock battles — that’s what interests me.  And yet by aiming to write this novel and put it out in the world, I’m entering a horse into the race.

I’m a fairly non-confrontational person by nature.  I don’t really enjoy embroiling myself in heated debates, which is not to say that I don’t have my opinions, I just don’t like to fight.  That this novel could thrust me into the midst of a debate that has been going on for centuries really deterred me from writing it for awhile.  But the characters wouldn’t leave me alone.  For a year and a half they urged me to keep reading, keep taking notes, keep adding new characters into their midst.  And now, this November, I promised them that I would harness the energy of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to get them out of my head, into the computer and finally onto paper.  It’s happening, and it has been a great joy this past week getting to watch them come to life.  I know now that I don’t have much of a choice in the matter anymore.

Which means I’m going to accept that the final product will be interpreted however it will be interpreted.  It will probably please some hardcore Napoleon lovers/haters, but not all.  It will explore both sides, and I’m guessing that for the extremists it won’t go far enough in either direction.  I’m choosing to be okay with that.

I’m wondering if anyone reading this has thoughts on the matter.  Have you written about a controversial character and felt conflicted about it?  Please chime in!