Month: February 2015

GARROW’S LAW

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Garrow'sHow on earth did I miss this BBC series when it first turned up on American television?! A friend and I just watched twelve episodes in a three-day marathon. What a treat! If you are a history buff and you’ve not seen it, don’t pass up an opportunity to do so.

Set in the late 18th Century, and largely based on historical fact—gleaned in part from the archives of the Old Bailey—it explores the life and cases of William Garrow who pioneered the idea that the accused are entitled to be defended, that they should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

Garrow worked during the era of the parents (and sometimes grandparents) of the characters in our Regency novels. Nevertheless, there is a tremendous amount of background detail to be had here. And not just about concrete things like transportation and jail conditions.

We also gain insight into the underpinnings of events and attitudes that shaped the milieu of the Regency. For instance: government spies infiltrating the “corresponding societies”; the domestic relationships among the classes and the tacit acceptance of social mores that appall, yet intrigue us today; the utter lack of rights for women; and the English establishment’s incredible fear of an uprising like that of Revolutionary France. (Well, OK. Maybe not so very incredible. They had, after all, recently dealt unsuccessfully with that messy business in the American colonies.)

Most of all we see clearly (in our wonderful hindsight) sources of conflicts that shaped the Regency and would be resolved, though only partially, after the Regency, when Victoria came to the throne.

Garrow’s Law. A great series.

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The Publishing Hoops

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My editor and his staff tell me I am not using social media enough to get the word out about my books (They don’t seem to know what a techno klutz I am!).  Anyway, I figure if I can persuade even half of my friends and former students to each tell just TWO of THEIR contacts about my new releases – one in Sept, 2014 (An Earl Like No Other), and on coming in March (The Memory of Your Kiss), I could be on the bestseller lists in no time!  Check me out on Amazon. And do let me know what you think.

BUSMAN’S HOLIDAY

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Whenever I finish writing a book, I experience a wonderful sense of exultation that lasts until I get the proof pages and I find a multitude of minor errors and then begin to fret about whether characters are strong enough or plot elements hold up.

When it’s all over, I fall into a slump. There’s simply nothing left—I can’t possibly do another whole book. (Mind you, this is regardless of the five or six beginnings and outlines I have filed away!) So—I bury myself in the works of Mary Jo Putney, Mary Balogh, and Jo Beverley. These ladies never fail to satisfy.

AND I go back to the writers’ drawing board to regain a sense of perspective on this crazy, wonderful business of messing around in other worlds and other lives. Some old friends (besides the Strunk and White “bible”):

John Gardner: The Art of Fiction
E. M. Forster: Aspects of the Novel

These two are classics, of course. A reminder of what we are really all about! Returning to the basics now and then is good for all of us. Refreshing. Rejuvenating.

Three other standbys:

Anne Lemott: Bird by Bird
Christopher Vogler: The Writer’s Journey
Stephen King: On Writing

Anne Lemott’s book is sometimes whimsical but contains wonderful writerly wisdom. Christopher Vogler’s book is a writer’s take on Joseph Campbell’s work in classical mythology and is the “turn to” book on plot and character. The subtitle of Stephen King’s book calls it a memoir, but King has solid advice for beginners—and for veterans! As a former teacher of English, I especially appreciate his contention that grammar and sentence structure matter—though sometimes it a good idea to ignore the rules!

I usually supplement these old friends with a couple of newbies. This time it was Sophy Burnam’s For Writers Only and Fred White’s Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Burnam reiterates the thoughts of many other writers along with her own experiences. White gives some good reminders about sources.

As I say: Busman’s Holiday.

SERENDIPITY REVISITED

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Most published writers encounter variations of the same questions and comments:

1. Where do you get your ideas?

2. How does one get published?

3. My life would make a great novel.

My responses:

1. Talk about serendipity! Almost anything can spark a train of “what ifs”—a news item, a “Dear Abby” item, an overheard conversation. What if that happened in Regency England? Under what circumstances could such a thing happen then? To whom? How? A footnote or a side story in research can serve as well. What if thus and such happened to women instead of men? Or persons of a different class or ethnic group? A family legend or crisis can be modified (and disguised) to fit your genre. A friend gave me a sweatshirt bearing the message “Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel.” Well, I admit it: it’s true! So I guess the answer to no. 1 is: You can find a story anywhere—just stay alert to possibilities. And I have to add: I am really, really jealous when I read a great story based on an incident or idea that I overlooked!

2. Getting published? Again: Serendipity. I sent out numerous letters to editors and agents (numerous translates as lots and LOTS. Finally, I stumbled onto a wonderful agent. The story involving an intern in her office is too long to recount here, but take it from me—it was sheer chance! Jane Jordan Browne’s death in 2005 was one of the most devastating events of my adult life. She sold my first book to Kensington and introduced me to John Scognamiglio who is the only “real” editor with whom I’ve worked.

After Jane’s death—and an auto accident—I hit a hiatus in my writing. When I finally got back to writing, I wrote a novel set in WWII instead of the Regency period in which I had always worked previously. I tried over 200 times (!) to get an agent interested in that book. Finally self-published. That was a hassle—and financially—so far—a fiasco, though dozens of people have liked it. So now I am happily back at Kensington with ebooks. How did that happen? By chance, of course.
And how DOES one get an agent or submit a proposal to an editor? Lots and lots of query letters. Buy your stamps in 100-count rolls! And try not to become discouraged by a stream of stock replies, all saying the same thing: “Your work does not fit our needs.” I must add that most book editors and many magazine editors, too, will consider only agented material. “Over the transom” is ancient history—more’s the pity! It is Catch 22. You can’t interest an editor without an agent and most agents want to work with writers already published—and in a specific genre at that.

3. To No. 3 above, one can say nothing other than, “Well, write it then!”

HOW OUR TASTES DO CHANGE!

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BooksRemember how as a child you hated spinach and now you quite like it? Tastes change.

Take books, for instance.

As a teenager, I positively loved Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. I read it—devoured it—and then promptly reread it. I sighed over the plight of Rhett and Scarlett and Ashley and Melanie. I was ecstatic when I at last got a chance to see the movie. It did not disappoint.

Five years ago I decided to reread this old favorite. Big mistake. Sometimes you really can’t go home again. I could not make it beyond the first few pages because I found Scarlett so absolutely insipid!

After graduating college, I discovered—and devoured—the works of Thomas Hardy. A few years later, assigned to teach Advanced Placement English to 12th graders, I was thrilled to find a huge pile of copies of Return of the Native. That book has everything! Marvelous descriptions of setting that provide mood for the action, carefully delineated characters, a plot that parallels Greek tragedy, and enough profundity and symbolism to satisfy even the most demanding pedant. As I say: I loved that book. My students hated it.

This month I reread ROTN. Here and now I want to offer my long-suffering AP students an apology. No wonder they hated it. Ponderous language. Complex, convoluted sentences that you have to read at least twice. A proliferation of passive verbs. Obscure references to classical studies. Mind you, I still found much to “appreciate” in the book. I did not hate it and I did finish it. But I certainly understood why so many students found it tough going.

And therein lies a dilemma for teachers of literature: How do we balance “great literature” with student interests?

No. Don’t look at me for an answer!