On My Retirement

 

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As I approach retirement from what I often call my “tentmaking job,” because my real work is actually writing, some folks have asked me what I intend to do. Will I be playing golf every day? Will I go fishing? What about sitting in front of my television set watching old Westerns all day? Nope. None of these. Why? Because I’m going back into writing full-time, something I did for ten years when I was younger. And writing, my friends, though it is my passion…it’s also extremely hard work.

Particularly my genre, historical fiction. It’s easy to slip up on historical details. To my chagrin, I’ve done it. Even the best historical fiction authors have. We must consider so many minute details while weaving our tales! I cannot stress hard enough how important it is for our stories to be accurate. 

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In the interest of accuracy, I like doing on-site research whenever I can. This means such things as visiting old homes, museums, and other historical spots. One of the first things I plan to do upon my retirement is visit the setting of one of my  current Works-in-Progress (WIPs).  Sure, I can find photographs of it online, but there’s nothing like onsite research to get a real feel for my story’s setting.

So if your story’s setting is a real place, if possible, make time to visit it  Not only will it help make your descriptions more accurate and believable, it’ll  also help you write more confidently, knowing  that your setting is accurate.

Till next week, friends. Keep on writing.

It’s Never Too Late

 

Many people think they’re too old to write professionally. My response? It’s never too late. Take these famous authors, for example. They all started late in life.

  1. Anna Sewell only wrote one book, but what a book! She wrote it at age fifty-seven. Since then, it’s become a classic for all the horse lovers. Its title? Black Beauty. She died a year after its publication.
  2. James Michener wrote his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, when he was forty years old.
  3. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing career began when she was in her 40s, but her fame didn’t happen overnight. It came from her book, Little House in the Big Woods, published some twenty years later.
  4. Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published when she was forty years old.
  5. Frank McCourt published his first book, Angela’s Ashes,  at age sixty-six. He won several awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize.

No matter what our age, we can always be writers. For most of us, literary success doesn’t happen overnight. The key is to stick with it, study our craft, and continue revising and working on our projects.  We may have to revise a hundred times, or we may only need to do ten revisions or less.  Whatever it takes, keep working on our literary projects till we’re satisfied we’ve done our best.

Till next week, friends, keep on writing!

Frank McCourt’s photo credit: David Shankbone. All other photos are in the public domain.

 

Guest Blog: How to Write About Horses in Historical Fiction

I am currently working on a new fiction project centered around horse racing in the Antebellum South. Author, editor, and horse expert Tisha Martin offers excellent advice on portraying horses in fiction. With her permission, this post is shared from her website. For more advice on this and other literary subjects, visit it at http://www.tishamartin.com

How to Write about Horses in Historical Fiction
by Tisha Martin

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Horses have long since been an icon in American history, a loyal friend to the cowboy in the movies or in a novel. Often, too many historical writers don’t capitalize on the benefit of including the intelligence of the horses in their stories, and therefore, miss opportunities to add depth and personality to their stories and to shape the character arc. Horses are smart, despite what people may say. (And mules are even smarter! I’m thinking of Clarice from The Apple Dumpling Gang.)

Here are four ways authors can capitalize on the personality of the horse in their historical novels.

1. Use horses as secondary characters.

Perhaps that the idea of humanizing the horses in a story seems strange, but consider Little Brother, the mustang in Hidalgo, the western movie starring Viggo Mortensen. Little Brother acted as a secondary character in advancing the plot. When Frank T. Hopkins (Mortensen) went into the village to rescue Jazira, the horse worked with his human to make the rescue a success.

Including these types of minor details in a story adds depth to the plot and captures the essence of the character’s and horse’s relationship, further endearing both characters to the readers. That’s a pretty neat win-win, if you ask me.

2. Let horses help the human characters.

If you’re writing a western, consider this: horses will not run away from their owners. Many authors may think that horses are sneaky and always want to run off. In reality, horses are extremely loyal. I like to think they’re big dogs. For instance, if you leave a horse five miles down the trail so your main character has an easy getaway after the ambush, the horse will find its way back home without assistance. That’s called loyalty—and instinct.

3. Give horses an emotional personality.

Horses do show emotion if they are mistreated. If you have a nasty character in your story who mistreats the horse, you can show the horse’s emotional personality by describing the horse’s fear as it bucks, bites, or kicks. This adds suspense and propels the plot. Showing emotion in these scenes will deepen the care factor and enrich the story world.

But what if you want your character to have a positive relationship with the horse? Perhaps the character nurses the horse back to health, like Joe did in Black Beauty. You can use the horse’s gentle personality mixed with those moments of fear and mistrust (if the horse is coming from an abused situation or is now in a new environment) to liven up your scene. A horse that is treated with kindness and respect will respect its owner.

4. Consult the horse experts.

Nothing is more annoying to a horse lover than to read of inaccurate details in a story about horses. Some common inaccuracies include proper terms for horse tack, basic horse behavior, and horse anatomy. Often, these are misused because the writer googled what they did not know, found what appeared to be helpful information, and stuck it in their story.

Authors can avoid these glaring mistakes by bypassing the great internet and seeking out their local horse expert or local library for horse-related information. You can call a horse stable and ask questions, email the horse breed association, ask a friend who owns horses, or visit your local library and pull out a good horse resource book.

Remember, an animal is usually a reflection of its owner, especially if the animal has been loved for a long time. Now, a horse may not bring its owner the newspaper every morning (although stranger things have happened!), but the relationship between your character and their horse can be used to add a deeper layer to the story that feels and reads like a loyal friend.

Happy writing on the trail!

Anton Chekhov on “Show, Don’t Tell”

 

220px-anton_chekhov_with_bow-tie_sepia_imageEver since I took a class in Russian literature in college, I’ve always loved it. Here’s a great quote from one of Russia’s most  famous writers, Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 

When we’re writing a scene set at nighttime, we can show the moon without mentioning it by following Chekhov’s advice.

 

 

Next week, I’ll be featuring a special a post on writing about horses written by a horse expert and friend, Tisha Martin. Till next week, everyone. Keep on writing.

 

 

 

Five Marks of a Successful Writer

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For me, success doesn’t always mean fame and fortune, though it can mean that. By my definition, successful writers are those who write well enough to sell their articles, poems, and stories to magazines and book publishers. Most professional writers aren’t rich and famous, but they are successful in that they do get paid for their work.

The five marks I discuss below aren’t comprehensive. However, they are things all writers must possess if they expect to sell their manuscripts to editors.

Successful Writers Possess Talent

Of course, everyone’s born with certain gifts and talents. But it takes time for such talents to grow. After all, talented pianists don’t start out playing Chopin. They begin with the basics and learn to play simple compositions first. Then slowly, they work their way toward playing more complex  pieces. Through many years of study and practice, their talent develops till they finally reach a professional level.

Even so, if we possess literary talent, don’t expect to write like William Faulkner or Joyce Carol Oates from day one. Through practice, though, we’ll discover our own literary voice and eventually reach the point where we can sell our work.

Successful Writers  Possess a Stubborn Nature

Has anyone ever called you stubborn? I’ve been called that many a time. Oh, the stories I could tell about how it’s gotten me into trouble! Too many times to count.

However, I’ve also become convinced that it’s a required trait for all serious and successful writers. Why? Because if channeled in the right direction, it can be a positive thing. Even though we stubborn-types are hardheaded, the upside is we don’t quit easily.

When we’re passionate about our writing, our stubbornness drives us toward success. Temporary failure can’t stop us, naysayers can’t stop us, nothing can. So, when it comes to writing, embrace stubbornness and use it toward reaching our ultimate goal—publication.

Successful Writers Love Literature

Successful writers love literature and reading. When we read, we subconsciously absorb other authors’ styles which influence our own writing. We also learn new writing techniques, which ones work best and which ones don’t, as well as new information we can incorporate into our work. Reading can also prompt ideas for new literary projects. Writing and reading go together like shoes on feet.

Successful Writers Possess Humilty

No matter how talented they are or what they’ve achieved, successful writers possess humility. They’re always willing to learn from others and grow in their craft. We’ll never know everything about writing. There’s simply too much to learn.

Successful Writers Possess a Good Work Ethic

Successful writers, aware that good writing requires hard work, own a good work ethic. They approach their job with a professional attitude, work at it most every day and usually at the same hours, as though clocking in and out from a regular job. When we treat our writing like a job, which it is, we’ll find success.

 

I hope my thoughts have helped some of my readers. Till next week, friends, keep writing and never give up.

Choose Your Words…Carefully

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Words ha800px-1896_Merriam_ad_BradleyHisBook_v2_no1ve meaning. Sounds obvious, right? Right. That’s why it’s important to choose our words carefully. That is, that we use correct diction.

It’s fine to go ahead and whip out our first drafts. They’ll be trite, maybe even cliché-ridden, and certainly amateurish. After this, though, approach our words like a professional. Professionals revise, revise, revise till their diction is as accurate as they can make it.

When we look at our manuscript, is each word precise? Can we find better words to express our thoughts? Spend time pondering our words, searching for ways to say what we mean with greater clarity.

Though we writers should develop a habit of building our vocabulary, we should also consult a thesaurus whenever necessary. Unfortunately, when most folks use a thesaurus, they simply look up any ole synonym to put on paper. This is a mistake.
Since every synonym possesses its own nuance of meaning we can’t use just any word. Research each synonym’s definition. Once we find one that means what we mean, use it in our manuscript.

Diction also affects our writing’s tone. By carefully selecting our words, we can convey whatever atmosphere we want. To illustrate, I’ll write a birthday party scene. Through diction, I’ll first paint it as a happy scene, and then I’ll portray it as an angry event.

Happy Party

Hugging the birthday present she’d purchased close to her chest, Mary practically skipped toward the laughter behind her friend Becky’s house. Soon as she passed through Becky’s patio gate, a dozen smiles greeted her.

“Sorry I’m late.” Mary set the present on a picnic table and flashed a grin. “My car got hungry so I had to stop to feed it. Happy birthday, friend.”

Becky grasped her hand and patted it. “Thank you, dear.”

Mary scanned the balloons attached to Becky’s white picket fence. They danced in the wind like colorful ballerinas, bobbing and swaying and twirling on their long strings. A coconut cake sat on the table. Thirty pink candles circled its perimeter. Hard to believe Becky had turned thirty. Mary chuckled. “Well, Becka, looks like you’ll be drawing social security soon.”

Becky burst into laughter, accompanied by their friends’ giggles.

Mary knew she was no Carol Burnette, but she did know she had some good one-liners every now and then. Making people laugh gave her pleasure.

Angry Party 

Clutching the birthday present she’d wasted her last dime on, Mary stomped   toward the cackling behind her friend Becky’s house. Soon as she shoved her way through the patio’s gate, a dozen smiles irritated her.

“Quit showing me your teeth, y’all. It ain’t funny. I know I’m late again.” Mary slammed her gift on the picnic table. “My stupid ole wreck of a car needed gas.”

Becky grasped her hand and patted it. “That’s all right, dear. We’re all glad you could come.”

Mary scowled at the balloons bound to Becky’s white picket fence, jerking and twisting on their long strings as though trying to escape their shackles. A coconut cake sat on the table. Thirty black candles stood around its perimeter like bars in a jail cell. Becky tuned thirty today. Tomorrow, they’d all be old maids drawing social security. Growing old, and alone was no fun.

Though I didn’t change the details in each scene, I did change the words as well as the dialogue. Each tone was conveyed through diction: word choices in action, dialogue, and how the point-of-view character, Mary, viewed the party’s details such as the balloons and the cake’s candles. 

Till next week, everyone. Keep on writing!

Hare or Tortoise–Which One Are You?

 

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I have a confession: I’m a tortoise. No, not a literal tortoise, a writer tortoise.  My writing speed is…well…it’s slow.

When I see advertisements about helping writers “write fast,” I often take a pause. Me? Write fast? Well, I have nothing at all against writing at hare speed so long as the writing is well-done. However, I prefer to write slow. For me, writing is akin to eating a half-gallon of ice cream during a four-hour long, Oscar-winning movie. Both take time to enjoy.

I love playing around with words and phrases, taking things out and putting things in till I’m comfortable with how my writing sounds. Sometimes I do catch myself envying those who can write both fast and well, but if I write too fast, I feel that my writing is sloppy. This is just me, though.

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Every writer is different, I’ve come to realize. Tolkien spent twelve years writing his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949). Other writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates, are super-prolific.

No, it’s not wrong to write fast as a hare,  neither is it wrong to write tortoise speed. Each writer must write at the pace that he or she is most comfortable with. And even though I’m a literary tortoise…Hey!  I’m enjoying the process!