Sunday, October 31, 2010


[sim-buh-liz-uh m]
1. the practice of representing things by symbols, or of investing things with a symbolic meaning or character.
2. a set or system of symbols.
3. symbolic meaning or character.
4. the principles and practice of symbolists in art or literature.

The use of symbols in fiction is closely related to the development of theme in a narrative. When a writer sets out to pen the story of all sorts of interesting people pitted against escalatating conflict— and if you’ve read any manuals on how to grab a reader by the shirt collar and not let go, you know it’s of some importance to give your characters a fair amount of hell— she is keenly aware of two things. One, the story has got to be good. It’s gotta have meat. It’s gotta make readers cry, feel, laugh, deem the experience worthy of turning the page to see how it all pans out in the end. But, lo, there is two.

What does the story mean?

In life, and therefore in art, the human mind craves meaning. At the very least, it does when forking over hard-earned cash for upmarket commerical art. Readers pay to come away from completely voluntary participation in something which is not vital— and the appreciation of any art form, including literature, is not as vital to survival as say, food, oxygen, affection and coffee— with some sense that the experience was worth the trip, that it promoted fresh insight. Sometimes it’s as powerful as a full-on paradigm shift. Other times, it’s a lingering sense that something subtle, but nevertheless real, has changed within as a result of having engaged the text with not only the mind but the heart. One of the ways in which a writer accomplishes this strange magic is through the use of symbols— but herein lies the rub.

The introduction of a persistent symbology in any text must be subtle. I would be unhappy to stand corrected on this as I like to believe that readers don’t enjoy having theme crammed down their throats. Much as in the art of seduction, there must be a sort of waltz with the reader which can be spoiled— sometimes sadly beyond redemption— with coming on too strong. All of the masters have grappled with this. So we apprentices must, too. Having said that, it has been my experience that something ineffable happens through the process of simply putting the pen to page.

Have you ever broken ground on a story only to realize a hundred pages in that you have begun to cultivate theme through the use of a particular set of symbols without even realizing it? The bane comes when you recognize what is happening and then proceed to crush the fragile life out of the thing by deliberately trying to develop it. You go back and think to yourself, ‘hey, this part here is a perfect place for me to expound on this concept which has already insinuated itself so seamlessly later in the text.’

Might I make a suggestion?

Don’t do it. Don’t go back, once you recognize motif emerging organically in part by the use of symbols, and try to pepper the text with more. For the love of Wollstonecraft, Hawthorne and Fitzgerald— please— resist the urge to try. Just. Write. Write your story, from the most genuine place within you, and see if meaning doesn’t alight like a skittish elf owl on the cactus of your imagination.

In asking which came first, the execution or the idea, I propose the inquiry is not ‘one for the ages’ but rather a matter of watching something take shape beneath your nimble fingertips as you tap into the night, convinced that your own existence will be imbued with meaning if only you can flesh out that minor masterpiece and, hence, secure representation.

It’ll happen, scribe. Just dance. Until next time, dear reader.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Don't Get Bogged Down: Keeping on Course When It Comes to Historical Research

Too much research?
I've always had this fascination with history. I kid you not when I tell you this, but when I was in junior high school I was adamant about naming my firstborn child Cholera (only pronounced differently, which gave it a musical lyricism) because of the copious amounts of Oregon Trail I played on the computer (there are a couple of you out there who know what I'm talking about ☺). Of course, now, I never would name my child such a thing, but from an early age I was hopelessly stuck in an alternate past filled with Southern belles, gorgeous plantation homes, and handsome army men with their shiny brass buttons. It didn't help matters much that I became obsessed with John Jakes' North and South mini-series that came out in the late eighties and early nineties. I guess it came as no surprise that, when many years later, I started writing Historical Fiction.

It's interesting the reaction you get from other writers when you tell them what genre you write. So many times, their faces light up and they always say something along the lines of, "How fascinating!" or "I've always wanted to do that, but I just don't think I'd be any good at it. There's too much work involved." The simple truth is that anybody can take up writing Historical Fiction, you just have to be patient and take it one step at a time.

Some writers say that you should research as you write, so you're not wasting needless hours pouring over other manuscripts when you should be writing your own. I agree, but I also think that history is a little bit trickier than that. To even begin writing in a time period from long ago, you need to do some groundwork first. Just throwing a story on the page and being ignorant of the history behind it makes for a long road of revisions in the months/years to follow. When it comes to jumping into the world of researching history there are a few things you need to keep in mind:

1) Have a definite time period. Don't say to yourself, "I want to write a story about the American Civil War." Do you realize how involved the history of the American Civil War really is? That's way too much area to cover, unless you have a magnificent idea in mind and you are a genius writer (aren't we all?). You must be specific about where your characters will be and when. Otherwise, you'll find yourself researching needless information, frustrating you to tears, thus causing you to stop before you've even started. Ex: In my three novels, the first takes place between the years 1850-1851. I chose these years because the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in the States in 1850. In my second novel, I chose the years 1929-1930, because of the Stock Market Crash. My third takes place at Los Alamos during the last two years they were building the first nuclear bomb. The key here is to not extend your research beyond what you'll actually need or use.

2) Choose a real incident or events around which to center your story. Ex: Book #1 -- the Fugitive Slave Law and the Christiana Incident. Book #2 -- the Stock Market Crash and the Ku Klux Klan movement. Book #3 -- the building of the atomic bomb.

3) Don't litter your story with too many historical events. This creates non-fiction with little storyline   worth following. Put your characters into the events, but don't make history the centerpiece of your novel. Your main protagonists must shine no matter what time period you dump them in.

4) Check and double check the historical information you've written into your story. Of course, it's fiction, but that doesn't mean that some music buff out there isn't going to notice that you used a jazz song that wasn't written until after 1929. You want to make sure you have all your facts straight.

5) Visit your setting, if you can. This one's optional, and the reason I say this is because early nineteenth century Virginia looks nothing like it does today. With some places, it's virtually impossible to recreate the historical setting in your mind, especially if it's nothing but congested interstates and sprawling cities. But, if your story takes place in a place where things haven't evolved much beyond what they looked like at the time (Ex: The Trinity Site in New Mexico where they detonated the bomb. Visitors are allowed only twice a year and they've kept the site as well-preserved as they possibly can. Very fascinating to see! On the flip side, almost none of the original buildings from the 1940s remain in Los Alamos today.) then by all means go check it out and get a feel for your character's movements in everyday life. If it's impossible to visit the original then look for something similar. It's just a good idea to be able to visualize where your story will take place.

6) And last but not least, read in your genre. This is the best way to see what's out there and to see who's publishing works similar to your own. If a time period (American Civil War, anyone?) seems completely flooded with novels, it might be best to look at another period and set your characters there. Just food for thought!
Thin it out a little!

As long as you keep writing while you're researching then you should come out all right. Just don't let your story wander away from you, or your characters for that matter. Keep plugging away at it!

Just a quick shout out the the following blog -- Rach Writes. Click on the link and read about the Writers' Platform-Building Crusade she's launched. Hey to all you Crusaders out there!!

Feel free to check out my book reviews at

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dragons and elves: Why historical fantasy?

Whenever I tell people that I write historical fantasy I elicit first, a perplexed look, followed by a short silence and finally an “Ohh, something like Tolkien?”Indeed, “historical fantasy” is a little known and well misunderstood term. Since I not only write historical fantasy, but I also happen to love the genre, I wish to share with you its many mysteries and quirks.

Historical fantasy is Fantasy´s little girl, but despite popular rumor, it is not to be confused with epic fantasy or Sword and Sorcery sagas such as Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin´s A Game of Thrones . Those novels are set in mythical lands, whereas historical fantasies take place on our earth and use a specific historical period as background, although its characters might have a penchant to wander into magical spaces. Neither should historical fantasy be classified as “alternative history”, the kind of story where well-known historical episodes are modified (Germany winning World War II and so on).

On the other hand, vampire stories set in days of old such as the Saint Germaine series by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and time travelling tales like the dazzling Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, fall into the historical fantasy realm. Any story dealing with magical creatures and the supernatural and taking place in a well defined historical period may be classified as historical fantasy. Naomi Novick’s Temeraire series, where dragons are used to defend England from the Napoleonic invasion, and Mercedes Lackey´s novels where good elves protect Elizabeth I in her first years in the throne are fine examples of the genre.

Having gotten that out of the way, the question remains: Why should a novice writer like me choose such a complex genre? To be quite honest when I began to tackle fiction in the hope of becoming a published author, I had no idea of such genre existed. I had read some books that fell under the category (Mary Stewart’s and Marion Zimmer Bradley´s Arthurian epics) but I dismissed them as fantasy, and bunched them together with Harry Potter and its many clones.

About five years ago, I started writing a serious historical novel, but I ran into an unexpected obstacle; my subject matter could be constructed as non PC. Moreover, its treatment could offend people close to me who had lived through that particular grueling period. I was in a quandary and very dismayed. It was then that I embraced the idea of inserting illusion and magic into my story. I found that the plot moved faster and flowed easily, bypassing all offensive material.

Eventually, I learned that I wasn’t the only writer to take advantage of the freedoms and loopholes fantasy provides. Urban and epic fantasies have been known to successfully undertake risqué subject. After all they deal with a make-believe world, right? Anything is possible. There are no bounds.

Not so fast. Historical fantasy and fantasy as well, have a couple of caveats. You must find the exact midpoint between parallel worlds; otherwise your story might not be credible. If you infuse too much magic in a “real” space you might find yourself falling for the “Deus ex machina” cliché, getting your characters constantly out of trouble through means that do not sound plausible even in the most fantastic realm.

On the same hand, you cannot make the storyline too serious. This is not the place to delve deeply into the psychology of your characters or to pontificate on grave matters such as historical or religious theories. However, you may find that allegories and symbolism fit quite comfortably in historical fantasies. After all, fairy tales and legends are the forerunners of the genre. In fact I would define historical fantasy as the XXI century fairy tales. Historical fantasy is my game, but what fantasy subgenre do you favor? What makes fantasy, in its many literary disguises, so popular in this century?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Working for Free

A few weeks ago I ran into my OB/GYN at a restaurant. (Don’t worry, this story will not get weird or gross. I’m just trying to make a point, okay?) After kind salutations, looks of confusion and vague recognition, (“Remember me? I was 30 pounds heavier the last time you saw me!”) we started talking about each others’ lives. I asked her about her job and she asked what I was up to. I sighed (which I always do when asked this question) and babbled something about my web design classes at the community college. My husband (who was having lunch with me) told her I was a writer. I cringed at the forbidden word. Here I was, sitting in front of one of the most practical/economically-stable professionals talking about this job title that I don’t even know I’ve earned yet. She surprised me with her honest excitement about my chosen career path. But sure enough, the obligatory question ensued:

“Are you published?”
The obligatory answer (justification) followed.
“No, but a couple of agents and an editor are reading my work.”
She expressed admiration for my determination as she said she couldn’t take the delayed gratification a career in publishing represents.

I started thinking about the term “delayed gratification.” I don’t think I could begin to explain to a non-writer how gratifying it is to create a world of your own where you get to control every event, every word, and every movement a character makes. But how does this (guilty) pleasure measure in the concrete world if there is no monetary retribution?

There are many hard things about being a writer. Learning how a plot develops is one of them. Creating engaging characters is another. Being able to write believable and interesting dialogue is definitely a challenge. So is finding the perfect balance between a vivid description and long narration that can easily bore a reader out of his/her mind. But perhaps one of the hardest things for me is to call myself a “writer” and convince myself that what I do is valid in the eyes of society when I’m not getting paid.

So how do we keep going at times when it seems like NOBODY cares whether we write or not; times when we wonder if all these years of writing have been a waste of time. How do we find the motivation when there is no gratification other than our own pats on the back after we’ve written a masterful sentence—or the compliments of a nice writing partner? Should it be considered work if there is no monetary gain?

I don’t have an answer. I can only tell you what keeps me motivated:
  1. The process of creating characters that fascinate me and accompany me everywhere I go.
  2. Being absorbed in a wonderful setting.
  3. Finding a solution to a conflict I established and didn’t know how to solve.
  4. Getting an email every few weeks from an agent telling me she enjoyed my work and wants to read more.
  5. Not finding fulfillment in anything other than writing.
And you, how do you keep motivated? Do you think it is valid to call yourself a writer if you haven’t earned a dime yet? How long should you spend developing your art/craft before you give up and become a “productive” citizen again? Are you productive if you’re not bringing cash home? And lastly, do you think it takes a special kind of person to be a writer? (A patient one, for sure!)

Sunday, October 3, 2010


–verb (used without object) swing or move to and fro, as a pendulum does. vary or vacillate between differing beliefs, opinions, conditions, etc.

One of the characteristics of writers is the tendency toward alighting on a project and then— finding that the muse is behaving in a rather coy manner— flitting toward the light of another idea. Okay, maybe it’s not the case for all scribes but it is admittedly true of this one.

For some of us, the path to where we are headed is simply not a straight one. There are detours due to protracted lengths of construction in which the road is literally— well, okay, figuratively— ripped up from beneath our tread and we’re forced to foray into blind alleys and dangerous neighborhoods. Dangerous because it is in these figurative neighborhoods that we run not only into new, potentially strange, characters but unfamiliar scenarios— street signs posted in different dialects ushering us into unexplored landscapes, perhaps even entirely different genres.

Many of the oscillations and false starts which a) take time and b) for a significant portion of one’s career do not produce revenue can sometimes feel like journeys for which an artist feels compelled to make an excuse— if not to in-laws; practically-minded siblings and dues-paying, white-collar comrades who drag their posteriors out of bed at ‘regular’ hours and can fill in the blank next to ‘occupation’ with something defensible then— perhaps more significantly— to the artist herself.

It’s a nasty business, this toiling without a road map. This shooting in the dark with reams of thousands of pages or USB drives with dozens of iterations of not one manuscript, but several. It’s difficult to explain why the stuff you wrote eighteen months ago is an embarrassment to you, now. And maybe more of a challenge is the attempt to elucidate on why you’d sooner serve up your eyeballs on a platter with a nice Béarnaise rather than place complete but mediocre material before an agent.

So just in case this is true of you, too, might I be permitted to relay that you’re not alone in enduring real or imagined sighs on the other end of the conversation when you explain why the break-out novel is still gestating within. That which is crafted to endure takes time. Which, despite the commonly-held wisdom of our frenzied age, it’s the one commodity we all have. So feel free to go back to the drawing board and lose your way, again. It seems blind trust is not only the province of children but— potentially— satisfactory execution.

Just don’t attempt the excursion without a fresh pot of mildly scalding coffee. And might I steal a final moment to extol the inarticulable virtues of finding Just The Right Mug to keep good company along the uncharted way. Until next time, dear reader.