• “The smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting 'Scrooge McDuck' comics.”—Salon.com
  • A time-hopping, continent-spanning salmagundi of genres.”
    —ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
  • “These books have to be word-of-mouth books because they're too weird to describe to anybody.”
    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor

In Which I Digress

Sorry—didn’t mean to go off and abandon you (and poor Willie) in the Great Dismal Swamp [g]. Had to pause and do a lot of Stuff, though; three books waiting for cover quotes, a new book for review, a short story (no, really!) to be written for an anthology of “noir” crime due this month, further Really Cool artwork from Hoang, needing to be examined carefully and commented on, panel by panel, three high-school and college students wanting me to provide them with information for papers on “My Favorite/Most Influential Author” (this is flattering, but distracting)—I really should make up some kind of standard packet for this; I get a rash of such requests every spring, when it dawns on said students that May is looming and they haven’t even started on their papers—a flurry of travel arrangements (me being the de facto travel agent for the family)—kids coming home for Spring Break and Easter, Doug and me going to the UK in April (more on this, later), a couple of local appearances, and a rash of email interviews.

I do a lot of interviews, what with one thing and another—and one question that seems to be a favorite with a lot of interviewers—they being fascinated by the apparent contradiction (well, they think it’s a contradiction) of my having been a scientist and now being a novelist, is, “How has your life changed?”

Now, to be honest, I always figured this was a) a pretty stupid question (“Well, I used to teach and run around forests, and now I write books. Duh?”), and b) a symptom of laziness on the part of the interviewer, who had plainly not read any of my books, knew nothing about them or me, and couldn’t think of anything more interesting to ask. I know they’re just hoping I’ll blather on sufficiently for them to pick up some interesting detail or quotable line; I’ve certainly never seen any material like this in a published interview, or c) is code for, “So, are you Rich and Famous now? Tell me some juicy details of disgustingly conspicuous consumerism I can quote.” (“Well, I used to cook spaghetti for dinner four times a week, but nowadays we mostly eat at Vu or L’Orangerie…oh, and did I mention my brand-new Audi S6, with the Lamborghini-Gallarda V-10 engine? It’s blue.” (In all honesty, my husband’s favorite two meals are spaghetti and beanie-weenie—followed closely by macaroni and cheese. He’d be perfectly happy to eat these in rotation all week, perhaps with pancakes and sausages for a treat on the weekend.))

Still, I always make an effort to answer just about anything anybody asks me (a conditioned response from decades of teaching and motherhood). So—ways in which my life has changed:

1. I don’t—thank God Almighty!—have to get up at 7:00 AM every day. Probably the greatest benefit of doing what I do is being able to work in accordance with my own biorhythm, rather than in answer to some insane morning-person’s notion of a universally desirable schedule. (Spring is also Career Day season; I’m always asked to go talk to various school classes about the chief benefits of being a writer. These would be Not Getting Up Early, and Not Wearing Pantyhose to Work, though the teacher in charge always looks a little startled when I tell the kids this. I don’t know what the heck they think would be a good benefit.)

2. Dress. The first thing a man does upon quitting work to write full-time (or for any other reason, come to that) is stop shaving. Women buy sweat-pants. I used to work in sweats, but the fact is that I live in a desert and have a husband who still fortunately looks at me on occasion. Sweats are Rather Warm, and tend to cause adverse comment on the home front when worn for more than three days running. When I work up in Flagstaff (I inherited my old family home up there, and escape up to the mountains a couple of times a month to write by myself), I wear…well, actually, I wear pajamas until I feel hungry enough to go out for lunch, and then I put on the most comfortable available thing. At home, though, I normally work in jeans and a Foxcroft (aka non-wrinkling) cotton shirt in some bright color. This is comfortable, but sufficiently attractive as not to make my husband recoil, and sufficiently respectable as to allow me to answer the door without making the FedEx man blanch and drop his package.

The other side of Dress, though, is the public aspect. Now, this isn’t a big problem for authors until and unless they get published. At that point, the specter of Promotion raises its grinning head, and the hapless author is suddenly confronted by the problem of what to wear whilst addressing the local Friends of the Library, or appearing on the local cable-channel’s book-discussion show.

(You don’t wear red on TV, and you don’t wear things with busy small patterns, and you really don’t wear black-and-white checks. Neither do you want to wear a white shirt/blouse, because it casts unflattering shadows on your neck. Ideal is something blue or violet, or something in the rose/mauve/pink line. Tailored or draped is fine, but avoid ruffles or anything fussy. OK to wear jewelry, but make sure it isn’t the kind that swings or rattles, and don’t wear too much of it. You do want to learn to do at least basic makeup, because most TV stations no longer make up their guests, and you will look dead if you go on without blush, concealer, and eyeliner, at least. This is not hard; go to a department store on Saturday morning, and have somebody at the makeup counter “do” you, so you can see how. It ain’t rocket science.)

3. Books. You get to read and call it work, and BOOKS ARE TAX-DEDUCTIBLE!! (Theoretically, this applies only to books you use as resources in your own writing—but given the kind of indescribable stuff I write, that’s pretty much everything, including THE PLEASURES OF THE TORTURE CHAMBER, THE SEX LIFE OF THE FOOT AND SHOE (which provided the genesis of Mr. Willoughby), and THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY (cf., Willie, above).)

4. Public Life. I don’t cite this as a benefit, so much, but it’s one of the more obvious ways in which life changes when you become a professional novelist. See, most people have only one life: their marriage, their family, their job, their religion, their hobbies–and one life is frequently more than most people seem able to handle, judging from the stuff one sees on Jerry Springer.

In order to become a writer, though, you have to develop a whole new life—an interior life, where it’s just you and the page and the people inside your head. The difficulty often lies in balancing this second life with the first one. I know a lot of people who say they’d like to write a novel, but who just can’t manage to carve time and energy out of their first life—and never do. I also know a lot of people (though fewer, and all men, for obvious reasons) who are now divorced, because they went too far into their interior life, neglected their mates and families, and are now left, red-eyed and unshaven, staring into a computer screen all night.

Well, the thing is, if you’re lucky enough to be not only published but popular, then all of a sudden you have a third life. This is your public life—the requests to go on three-week book-tours, to address the local library, to give lectures in Florida, Hawaii, and Alaska, to do radio and cable-TV shows, to do print interviews, to have lunch with readers passing through town who think it would be great to meet you (I once had the president and vice-president of the Arizona Turtle and Tortoise Society turn up unannounced on my front porch and invite themselves in for a chat—nice gentlemen. [g] The president was a fan of my books and had been recommending them to the vice-president, who was visiting from out of town, and as the president knew me from the university where I used to work and knew where I lived…), etc., etc., etc.

And if you don’t learn to control and balance this third life, it’ll eat both the others alive. On the one hand, you certainly want to promote your book—and you like to talk to readers, and—up to a point—it’s fun to travel and see interesting places (though in all truth, you don’t see a heck of a lot on the average book-tour save hotels, airports, and bookstores)—but on the other, you really, truly do need to have time in which to take care of your family, and to write.

So if I have to say no to many kind invitations these days—it’s with reluctance, but out of a sense of realism. I physically can’t accept all the invitations I get—or even half of them—but I do appreciate them, nonetheless.

5. You do occasionally experience things that the average person doesn’t. For instance, I spent all of Saturday at the local Rennaissance Faire, judging the Sexy Knees in a Kilt contest (well, so that didn’t take all of Saturday; I also wandered round with a friend and my three (adult) kids, marveling at the amazing diversity of human form (all the proof one needs that God not only exists, but has a pronounced sense of humor, I think), to say nothing of the ways in which said humans decorate their forms, and had a very tasty chocolate milkshake)—I’ll put up a couple of pictures that a kind fan who was present sent me, on the website.

I spent the first weekend of the month doing a gig in San Antonio (for a trade organization of campus booksellers), at which I met Wally Lamb and Greg Mortenson (THREE CUPS OF TEA)—both great guys—and the second weekend doing the Fountain Hills Library Festival, at which I met Joe Garagiola (also a great guy [g]).

And the National Trust for Scotland did invite me to come to the dedication of the new Visitors Centre at the Culloden Battlefield (in Scotland) next month. So yeah, there are definitely perks to this, the lack of health insurance and 401(k) notwithstanding.

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How I Write – Part II – Logistics

HOW I WRITE – Part II

Well, first, a brief digression in re logistics, to answer Midge’s question as to how I handle all the bits and pieces. It’s pretty simple, really, but it works.

Having started writing far back in the mists of time, when DOS-based programs only allowed one to have an eight-character filename (with a three-character extension), all my filenames are in this basic form: [bookname/number][year symbol].[date], wherein the date is the date upon which I began writing whatever file this is. E.g., were I to begin a new scene for AN ECHO IN THE BONE today, the file would be named JAMIE7&.39. (The abbreviation for each OUTLANDER novel is “JAMIE” [g], and ECHO is the 7th book in that series. “&” is the symbol I’ve chosen to represent 2008 (2007 was “@”), and today is March 9. Ergo—JAMIE7&.39.) (This, btw, is how I happen to know that I began to write OUTLANDER on March 6 of 1988; the oldest filename I’ve had is JAMIE!.36. And no, I don’t have this file available anymore; it’s undoubtedly backed up somewhere, but it’s on a 5.25″ floppy disk, which is for all intents and purposes unreadable. It wasn’t a scene that made it into the finished book; just a half-page or so of a young man arguing with his sister while she chopped vegetables—just a place to start, in other words. So I’ve been at this for twenty years—my, time flies when you’re having fun! [g])

OK, so we’ve got filenames. Now, I never leave the computer without backing up what I’m doing to an external medium—these days, that’s usually a USB jump-drive. NEVER. (And I keep whatever word processor I’m using set to do automatic backups every 90 seconds; I hate losing work). But once a week, I set aside an hour or so to do formal housekeeping. This involves:

1. Making a P-file. This is a “printfile”—just a dump of whatever new work I’ve done during the week. No formatting, no nothing—I just pull all new files (or old files that I’ve worked on during the week) into a single file and print it off (with the date at the top) and put this in my hard-copy dump. I’ve luckily needed a hardcopy backup only once or twice in the last twenty years—but nice to know it’s there. Any electronic medium can be corrupted in the blink of an eye and without warning.

2. Updating the MFILE. This is the Master File; I have one for each book (or novella) I’m working on. All this is, is a listing of filenames, with a few keywords following it, which will let me locate a specific file. Here’s a brief sample:

JAMIE#.42 – Death of Simon Fraser (Wheatfield)

JAMIE#A.42 – same as #.42 (compare)

JAMIE7#.413 – Clouds in the water – follows “Laoghaire”

JAMIE7#.414 – fragment at Saratoga – wolves devouring the dead

JAMIE#X.D8 – beer for breakfast

JAMIE7@.410 - Son of a Witch/Sanctuary

JAMIE7@.54 – Simon Fraser’s death – Claire/Dr. Rawlings – Willie’s hat

JAMIE7@.511 – fragment/image – rhythms of sex

JAMIE7A.511 – peelie-wallie, fragment – acupuncture

JAMIE7@.512 – fragment/image – Jem and gem, means of navigation

JAMIE7@.514 – Roger and the chapel (goes w/ @.410)

JAMIE7@.517 – Roger’s faith (goes w/ @.410/@.514)

JAMIE7@.519 – Claire and Dr. Rawlings, injury to hand (Saratoga)

JAMIE7@.524 – fragment – Roger’s faith/father decision (goes w/ @.410)

JAMIE7@.527 – “I’ll just mind it more” fragment

JAMIE7@.528 – numbness – “Bruise me”

JAMIE7@.64 – Lizzie’s Love-Knot (chapter title only)

[“fragment” means it’s not a whole scene, but is a partial scene, or perhaps just a kernel or an image that I wanted to catch, but either didn’t have time to develop, or it just didn’t expand at the time. Additonal letters like “A” or “B” mean it’s the second or third scene that I began on a given day (When I’m really rolling, I often have simultaneous things pop up), whereas an “X” means the scene exists under the original name, but something happened with the computer and it wouldn’t let me save a later version under the same name (Word occasionally corrupts its filenames, or takes exception to the original file having been written in Word Perfect, and won’t let me save unless I rename the file—so I use the original name with the addition of an “X”.).]

That’s about it. You notice that a couple of files in this listing note that they “go with” one or more other files. When stuff starts sticking together—or when I’m on a roll and writing sequentially—I get files that I know are part of the same bigger chunk. Eventually, all the smaller files get attached to one of the filenames, and that grows into a large piece of 10,000 words or more. At that point, it becomes a “chunk” [g], and I’ll likely save it as “CHUNK 2 (rev) – GREAT DISMAL” (for instance). When I have five or six chunks, I can usually arrange them in rough chronological order, and at that point, will probably have a decent idea of the timeline underlying the book. Often—though not always, I’ll also see the “shape” of the book at this point.

I have to go and buy bagels for lunch, so will post this for now. With luck, I’ll be back later tonight to resume—if not, see you tomorrow!

How I Write – Part I

Sorry to neglect y’all. I hadn’t much heart to write for a bit, and then was overtaken by the usual fierce rush of events. Haven’t forgotten you, though. [g] I had in fact just been about to answer Midge’s questions about how I write, so figured I might as well resume with that:

It’s almost impossible (I know from experience) for me to describe coherently what’s going on my mind when I write–but fwiw, both sides of my brain seem to work at once.

No, I don’t plan out the structure–of a sex scene, or any other kind of scene, let alone the book. [wry g]

I start with a “kernel”–a line of dialogue, a sense of emotional ambiance, an object whose details I can “see”–anything that I can sense concretely. Then I write a line or two describing that, as best I can.

Then I sit and stare at it for awhile.

I put words in and I take them out. I divide the sentence in half and insert a new clause. Decide I don’t like that one entirely, but don’t want to throw it away, so drop it down a line or two and try something else. Move the gerund phrase from the beginning of the sentence to the middle. Etc., etc.—just trying to cast this “kernel” (whatever it is) for maximum clarity and elegance, just in terms of the craft.

OK. While this sort of mechanical work is going on, the back of my mind is busy throwing up a shower of little questions, like a dog digging in sand: Whose viewpoint is this? Where are we? What time of year is it? Are we inside or outside? How is the light falling? Is a storm coming? Am I hot? What am I wearing? Why is my foot tapping? Did someone just say something? What’s that in my hand? I see a face…

And the scene begins to take shape—slowly. Sometimes I have a specific purpose in mind for a scene—I know that William, say, is doing intelligence work, so we need to see him doing a bit of it. So I may think that’s what’s going to happen here…but not necessarily.

Having that rather vague notion in mind, I began looking for a kernel with which to start the writing (the kernel is where I start writing; this doesn’t mean it’s the beginning of the scene; sometimes the writing goes backward as well as forward from the kernel). I know where Willie starts—North Carolina—and I sort of know where he’s supposed to end up–with General Howe (if he gets there. Will he? I have no idea), but I don’t yet know where Howe was at this specific point in time—because I have no idea what the date is when this happens.

Meanwhile, however, I’ve wandered over to my giant built-in bookshelf (where I keep the five or six hundred books of my central reference collection plus the two or three dozen most important references (so far) for this book) to stare blankly at the collection of Interesting Objects scattered along the shelves (lots of crystals, mineral spheres, psychically active (supposedly) stones, a miniature cannon, a tiny crystal castle, a hand-blown medicine bottle with a glass snake wrapped around it, an antique bronze mortar (full of pens), a reproduction 18th-century inkstand with quills, a (real) powder-flask from a set of 18th-century dueling pistols, six pocket-knives, a beanbag octopus, the dried jaws of a small shark…and I happen to spot one of the books, titled THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY.

Well, I read this book some time ago, and frankly, it’s not all that good—not well organized, and the writing is tedious—but just the name “The Great Dismal Swamp”…well, there’s a thing to conjure with.

And I have my kernel—almost. OK. Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp. I have no idea why, mind you, but we can figure that out as we go. What I need now, though, is a concrete image that I can write down in a sentence or two.

Rather than read the tedious book again (at least not yet), I go and google “Great Dismal Swamp natural history”—and pop up an entertaining article with a lot of detail regarding the flora and fauna of the swamp (and a bit of historical detail concerning Lake Drummond, which is dramatic, so I tuck that away in a spare cerebral recess for future reference)…from which I choose the image of swarms of “tiny yellow horseflies, whose eyes reflect rainbows when you get close to them.”

Now, I do recollect from the tedious book—and check it to be sure—that during one or more of the attempts to drain the swamp, a road was built. Excellent. And so…

“ William marveled at the road. True, there were only a few miles of it, but the miracle of being able to ride straight into the Great Dismal, through a place where he vividly recalled having had to swim his horse on a previous visit, all the while dodging snapping-turtles and venomous snakes–the convenience of it was astonishing. The horse seemed of similar mind, picking up its feet in a light-hearted way, outpacing the clouds of tiny yellow horseflies that tried to swarm them, the insects’ eyes glinting like tiny rainbows when they drew close. “

Now, mind, this is what the paragraph looks like now. It took me probably fifteen or twenty minutes of fiddling before it got this way—and I may yet mess with it more later, but for now, it’s the best I can do.

What happens next? Well, it’s 4:15 AM, so right now, I’m going to bed. [g] Tomorrow, though, we’ll find out (maybe) why Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp, and how I discovered that.

Gus is gone

Thanks, guys, for all your prayers and good wishes. I’m more sorry than I can tell you to have to say that Gus is dead. His kidneys shut down entirely, and there was no choice but to euthanize him. Doug and our younger daughter (who lives in town) came down to the hospital, and we spent a good (if tearful) hour with him, petting him and telling him how much he meant to us–what a good dog. Then the kind doctor gave him a shot, and we brought him home and buried him out back, under a big eucalyptus tree, beside old Ajax, our doberman who died a couple of years ago. We buried him with a MilkBone between his paws (his favorite), and a small bouquet of fragrant herbs from my garden–rosemary (for remembrance), lavender, and sage. He always loved to help dig in the garden.

We’re very sad, but relieved that he’s out of his trouble. It’s been a bad few days.

Sick Doggie

Sorry to be so absent for the last bit; out of town for several days, during which our Fat Dachshund, Gus (whom some of you have met in the pages of BROTHERHOOD OF THE BLADE [g]) developed pancreatitis and kidney failure of unknown cause. Our son was watching house and livestock for us, and called to tell me Gus was having bloody diarrhea (sorry for the details), so I asked Sam to take him to the emergency veterinary clinic (this being the weekend). We thought we might lose him at least twice over the last two or three days, and he’s frankly not doing well–but he’s still got a chance, and we want him to have it, as long as he’s in good hands and not suffering. So he’s on “supportive care” at a very good animal hospital, and…we’ll hope he gets better. All good thoughts much appreciated.

I’m going down to the hospital to visit him now (they let you visit 24 hours a day); will give him all your good wishes. Thanks.

Pam’s "Ode to a Penis"

PAM’S “ODE TO A PENIS”

(As in—I did NOT write this—proud though I would have been to do so [g]. No, no—this is the stellar handiwork of Ms. Pamela Patchet, multi-winner of the Surrey International Writers Conference Silly Poetry Contest, Honorable Mention (more than once) in the Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing Contest, and holder of many other distinguished titles, I’m sure. Many thanks to Pam for giving me permission to post her poem here!)

[ahem]

How does a writer describe the aroused male member in a romance novel without tarnishing the family jewels?

Despite thousands of words used to describe Wee Willy Winkie (Mark Morton lists 1,300 in his book The Lover’s Tongue: A Merry Romp Through The Language Of Love And Sex), none seem to adequately convey the language of love, with its most obvious method of delivery, without giggles. One might argue the biggest organ of love is the brain, but a man’s brain is not the organ which makes its presence most boldly known in the throes of passion.

But how does a writer of romance describe ‘It’ without ruining the moment? There’s no denying ‘It’ is there – its presence is as keenly felt as the relentless prodding of a Labrador’s nose against an outstretched hand.

One might wish to use a soft touch and describe a poet’s Dart of Love. A knight shields his Lance of Love, his Excalibur seeks its sheath. A fighting man thrusts his Hooded Warrier, or if angered, his Bald Avenger. The CEO fires his Executive Staff Member, the chef heats up his Meat ‘n Potatoes, the outdoorsman handles his Rod and Tackle, and the butcher unwraps his 100% All Beef Thermometer.

No, I think for romance to work, allusion is everything. I humbly offer up the following poem:

Ode to a Penis

or

Advice For Romance Writers

I think that I shall never see,

a penis lovely as a tree.

Though both can be described at length,

it’s best you don’t.

Please show some strength.

For ample members are best left

(even when one’s hands are deft)

untouched by writers’ florid prose,

whether roused,

or in repose.

So drop the little one-eyed snake,

of other things you should partake.

Admittedly, they do enthrall,

but after one, you’ve seen ‘em all.

Graphic Novel Update!

Just to let y’all know that I’ve posted a sample page of the graphic novel script–so you can see what one looks like–and a page of Hoang’s layout sketches. Layout sketches are rough drawings, made so that we can be sure Hoang and I have the same vision of what the page looks like; that he has the composition and perspective I was envisioning, and whether there are any small details that I forgot to include that should be present (or that he’s added, but that oughtn’t to be there for historical or plot reasons).

Yes, that _is_ Jamie in the third panel. And yes, he is young [g]–remember, he’s only 22 here.

As always, I’m fascinated to hear what y’all think!