Monthly Archives: May 2011

Monday’s Challenge: Write a story around a compelling object in 100 words or less

I had two takers for last week’s challenge, about writing an atmospheric opening in 150 words or less. So I’ll start by talking about them. The first entry is by Chrissie Elmore. My comments are in BLOCK CAPS:

I look down at my hand holding the pen; the skin crinkles with every movement, only taut where the curving blue pencil lines of veins stand proud. (WONDERFUL DESCRIPTION THAT ECHOES THE WRITING INSTRUMENT HE IS HOLDING.) The hand that once she called elegant, the hand that has lain against her cheek; that would have drawn her to my side forever, but came away empty.

I prefer to regard my room; full of the words of greater men than me, their writings wrapped in luscious red, deepest blue, lizard green, titles gleaming in the firelight, warming the soul with the possibility of oblivion within their tooled leather. (ANOTHER WONDERFUL DESCRIPTION). A chair for her is set beside the fire in this, my favourite place. But she is not there, has never been.
And my pen scratches upon the cream parchment with it’s thick black border.
‘My dearest Anna’ (LOVE THIS PROVOCATIVE ENDING, WHICH RESONATES WITH ONE OF MY FAVORITE NOVELS, “ANNA KARENINA”)

I love the setup with the lover/admirer starting a letter to his beloved, who may or may not exist (But she is not there, has never been) except in his imagination. Wonderful writing by Chrissie Elmore, done in 135 words. I have one question:  Chrissie, are you British? I only ask because of your spelling of “favourite” with a “u”.

Next entry by Jennifer Norris. Again my comments are in BLOCK CAPS:

Light shone under the bedroom door; a closed door, and I did not know if I ever wanted it to open. For not only would the brightness enter my room but he would too and I needed him to stay the other side, to pick up his bag from the hallway and to leave. (SOUNDS SUITABLY SINISTER). If he hesitates, if you believe that his hands are empty do not be deceived for they will always be full. “Busy carrying part of you with me wherever I go,” is what he will say. However, I wish that he would fumble, would drop that perfect image of me upon the ground so that in front of his eyes I would crack and break. Then as I came tumbling out in my imperfection he would realise that after what I had done to him I was in the place I deserved to be; the dark. (NICE TWIST).

This is very noir-ish. Sounds like a great beginning to a mystery, or possibly a horror novel. But what a great twist. And aren’t you dying to find out what she’s done, that she thinks she deserves to be in the dark? Jennifer, I suspect you are British too, with your spelling of “realise” with an “s”. Am I right?

Congratulations to Chrissie and Jennifer on their wonderful writing!

Now for next week’s challenge. In one hundred words or less, write a story around a compelling object. Here is my effort. It’s called THE RED BOTTLE:

It gleamed through the window of the apothecary’s shop, one cold drizzly night. The red bottle stood erect and tall, beckoning. He paused. He had sixpence in his pocket. Should he buy that tincture his wife needed for the cough that kept her up all night? The doorbell tinkled as he walked in. A bespectacled man appeared.

“The red bottle―”

“Not for sale, sir.”

“I’ll give you one hundred guineas.”

“Begging your pardon, sir. But you don’t look as if you’re made of that kind of money.”

He put the sixpence down, grabbed the bottle, and fled.

As before, feel free to post your own efforts in the comment box below. Or you can critique my effort. You have until midnight EST Sunday, June 5. Have a wonderful Memorial Day week!

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.
 

 

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Websites to watch: GOODREADS, BOOKBLOGS and THE INTERNET REVIEW OF BOOKS

Today, I am showcasing two blogs that are wonderful venues for finding new friends online and one that is a great place to promote your new novel.

GOODREADS is a forum where you create a bookshelf of all the books you’ve read, and read and review new ones. In the course of doing this, you find other people. The website is organized into five areas: home (your home page), my books (shows the books that you’ve read, are currently reading, or intend to read), friends, groups and explore, where you can explore books by list and genre, swap books, or join a discussion about books.

As you can see, joining Goodreads is one of many things that you can do as an author to find your audience. And if you become an author, you can claim your author page and become a Goodreads author.

I love it, because it is so low-key and friendly. But Goodreads is not just limited to reading and reviewing books. You can also showcase your writing on your profile page.

BOOKBLOGS is also a way of finding friends and tapping into the writing community online, but the focus is on blogging, rather than books, although many members discuss books. It is set up so that you could use it as your blog, with a Your Page tab that leads you to some templates and colors you can use to customize your page. I have tried many times, but have never managed to get it to work. No matter. You can invite your friends, post content, join groups, participate in discussions, all those things you need to do to make yourself visible. I am fairly new to this site, but have already found its members to be helpful and friendly.

THE INTERNET REVIEW OF BOOKS, which obviously models itself on the New York Review of Books, claims to be “An Intelligent Guide for Intelligent People.” It reviews recent books in the fields of science, social science, history, art, music, current affairs, and fiction with attitude and passion. If you want some help in promoting your book, such as putting a screen shot of you book cover on their site, or letting them post a link to a favorable review in the New York Times of Kirkus Reviews, they are happy to help, for a FEE. I do not know what their fees are, but they claim that they are “better than reasonable”.  If you want to learn more about fees, click here. For inquiries about fiction, click here.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI by C. W. Gortner

When Elizabeth I of England said that she greatly feared this ruler, she was not speaking of her well-known enemy Philip II of Spain, who launched the Spanish Armada. She was speaking of Catherine de Medici, Queen Regent of France, and ruler in all but name from her husband’s sudden death from a jousting tournament in 1559 to the ascension of her son Henri III in 1574. So devious and cunning was she, that some historians have contended that without her, the French monarchy would have fallen 200 years before it finally did in 1789.

Gortner has a fascinating story to tell in a period riven with drama, in this case the religious wars of the 16th century. However, I have read fascinating stories in periods riven with drama by authors who did not have the technique to carry it off. Instead of being glued to the page, I found myself bored and distracted by the frequent tells and head-hoppings that characterize authors who will not apply craft, or editors who are too careless or lazy to do anything to help them.

This is not the case with C. W. Gortner, who produced a flawlessly readable novel. Instead of being distracted, I found myself fascinated by the characters that jumped off the pages. Gornter has the talent and the technique to make these men and women come alive. I will give a few examples.

As I emerged from the courtyard, I spied Margot with her women. She wore a nectarine silk gown with a ruff so wide it framed her head, her face powdered and her elaborate coiffure sprouting plumes, her throat and bosom glittering with tourmalines.

Why is that word “nectarine” so powerful? It is exactly the right word. Here is a powerful description of Coligny, during a tense meeting with Catherine:

A spark surfaced in his eyes. I’d forgotten how self-contained he could be, how unrevealing of his self. Now that he was before me I recognized that mastery he’d always had over his emotions, a talent I only now was beginning to grasp. With him, everything ran under the surface. Everything was hidden.

Here is a description of Catherine’s nemesis the duc de Guise:

With a start, I found myself staring at Guise.

I’d not seen him since the massacre. Against the red of his cloak, his doublet was a dark velvet skin molded to his muscular torso, his white-blond hair cropped close to his scalp, like a soldier’s, his lean face proud.

This novel a sumptuous feast for the senses, that also humanizes the much maligned Catherine de Medici. Of course she made mistakes, but what I loved about this novel was the way it traced her motivations, from the naive young girl who just wanted to be loved, to a woman who was determined to fight for her children’s legacy. My most favorite moment is when Catherine confronts herself:

Left alone I sank into my chair. I did not think, I simply put my face in my hands and wept as I hadn’t in years. I mourned a thousand loses: for the child I’d been and the family I’d left behind, for the country I barely recalled anymore and the country I now fought to save. I wept for my dead children and my living ones, who’d grown up infected by the poisonous hatred of our religious wars. I wept for my friends and my enemies; for all the lost hopes and illusions.

But most of all, I wept for myself and the woman I had become.

Wonderful. Five stars.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Monday’s Challenge: Write an atmospheric opening in 150 words or less

Today, I’m going to try something different. I’m going to challenge all of my readers to write an atmospheric opening in 150 words or less. Feel free to post your entries in the comments box below. If that doesn’t sound like fun, or you’re simply too busy, feel free to critique the stab I made below. I call my morsel (which comes in at 138 words) FOOTSTEPS.

Footsteps. Hard, metallic, the heel striking the pavement, they approached.

Dusk settled along the estuary. He stood there regarding the grey water. A breeze stroked his curls. A black cloud came up and over, moving inexorably towards him. Rain stung his cheeks. It passed and went east.

The footsteps stopped.

He turned.

“Evening,” a voice said.

He was hard to make out from under the hood of his cloak. Except for the long nose and full lips.

“Hi.”

“D’you live around here?”

“What’s it to you?”

He shrugged and turned to sea. “Don’t know these parts.”

“I’m visiting.”

“Me too. I’m looking for a pub. The Queen’s Arms.”

“Town’s over there.”

“Right.” He ambled off.

A wind shook the leaves. He lit a cigarette. Where had he seen him before? And why was he dressed in a cloak? [138 words]

I invite you to leave your atmospheric opening or critiques in the comments box. You have until Sunday Midnight EST to post something.

Have a wonderful week!

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Websites to watch: HISTORICAL NOVELS and THE WORLD OF THE BLUE BELL TRILOGY

Today, I am showcasing two blogs that in their different ways show authors how to promote their work.

HISTORICAL NOVELS  has FIVE THOUSAND historical novels on its site, organized by time and place.  It is also a wonderful resource for aspiring writers of historical novels. At the bottom of the sidebar are links to the resources page with links to useful websites, and the writing tips pages with links to useful articles that discuss the special problems inherent in writing an historical novel.

THE WORLD OF THE BLUE BELLS TRILOGY is a website devoted to just one novel (THE BLUE BELLS OF SCOTLAND by Laura Vosika, the first in the trilogy). I picked this website because the author has done a wonderful job of blending background and foreground in her design of the website that conveys a feeling of the beauty and wildness of Scotland in the Middle Ages. I like this idea so much I am going to try it out on my new website.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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O JULIET by Robin Maxwell

You’ve heard of ROMEO & JULIET, so you don’t feel like reading an historical novel about them. But you would be wrong. For Robin Maxwell’s O JULIET performs the remarkable feat of taking a well-worn story and making it fresh and new.

Set in 1444, when Lucrezia Tornabuoni marries Piero dei Medici (an event that actually happened), the story of the star-crossed lovers is woven in with this historical event. Eighteen-year-old Juliet Capelletti is best friends with eighteen-year-old  Lucrezia Tornabuoni. But whereas Lucrezia is fond of her 25-year-old fiance, Juliet is disgusted by her fiance, Jacopo Strozzi, who is physically unappealing, stiff and clearly in it for the money.

Sadly, Juliet goes to the ball to celebrate Lucrezia’s betrothal, knowing it will be the last time she will partake in the Virgin’s dance (for she is soon to marry the revolting Strozzi), when her wrists are grasped by a masked figure. In the garden of the Bardi Palace, she discovers an attractive young man who loves Dante’s poetry as much as she does. They cannot stop talking. But before their encounter ends, Juliet learns that Romeo Monticecco is the son of her father’s worst enemy.

But love wins out, for a time, and Romeo is able to reconcile the two families. Is it possible that Romeo and Juliet can live happily ever after?

To find out, you’ll have to read this novel.

I have praised this novel to the skies, because I think it deserves it, both for its lively characters and well-developed plot line. But there is one problem I feel I must mention, because it pulled me out of my fictive dream. There are too many TELLs in the text. What do I mean by that? I mean narrative where the author tells the reader what is going on, rather than allowing her to discover it for herself. Let me provide two examples from many in the text.

Example No. 1:

“Do you not fear God’s punishment?”

“What worse punishment can he have in store any greater than this?”

Lucrezia’s face was full of anger. I needed to make her understand.

The last sentence is a TELL. I would rewrite it as:

Lucrezia was silent. Her jaw clenched and a vein throbbed in her temple. How could I make her understand?

Example No. 2:

I heard voices echoing in the hall outside the salon door. My father’s was clearly recognizable, as was Jacopo’s. I strained to hear Romeo’s but was unrewarded. Trying to remain calm, I asked permission to go and relieve myself.

This excerpt is replete with TELLs. I would rewrite the excerpt as follows:

The sound of voices echoing in the hall outside the salon door struck my ear. My father’s soft baritone intermingled with Jacopo’s nasal whine. But where was Romeo’s mellifluous bass? I folded my shaking hands, lowered my lashes and took breath. “May I be excused?” I said to the Contessina. “I need to visit the commode.”

I don’t know how these mistakes crept in. I noticed them, because i was recently called out by a prospective agent for making the same mistakes. He told me that “Like a beginning writer, I had a tendency to overwrite.” And then pointed to mistakes of this nature in my manuscript.

Ms Maxwell is such a talented writer. But all writers need editors to help them perfect the text. It is a shame that the editors at Penguin’s New American Library imprint did not do that.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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What a difference a theme can make!

Well, I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised. I’ve actually been able to work with my wordpress.org site WITHOUT using much code.

How come my experience is so different this time? In one word, THEMES.

Be careful which Theme you go for, because it can make your life hell.  As many of you know, a few weeks ago I decided to shift my site over to WordPress.org because I wanted to have my blog and website all in one place. The person who advised me to do this, raved about THESIS theme from DIY themes. And it is true, THESIS has gotten a lot of rave reviews. So I plunked down $87 to buy the license, thinking I could get my website up and running in a few hours. How wrong I was. I found it impossible to work with, because it demands that you know a lot about html code. So I got my $87 back and gave up.

But I’m publishing a novel this fall, and I need to have Google Analytics on my website. When I found out that WordPress.com doesn’t support GA, I was obliged to rethink my decision.

I reactivated WordPress on my Yahoo hosting service, and picked the TwentyTen theme to work with. What a huge difference that made! I found it to be almost exactly the same as working with interface at WordPress.com. The only difference was that I now had access to a whole lot of plugins that I didn’t have before.

What have I achieved so far?

  1. I’ve successfully installed Google Analytics code into my footer.php so that it can track my new site.
  2. I’ve successfully installed Pilcrow, my favorite theme from WordPress.com. I love this theme because it has so much functionality, with a special feature area, two sidebars and two footers. Lots of places to put your widgets!
  3. I’ve discovered that for the reasonable price of $119 I can have a so-called “Happiness Engineer” move all my stuff from WordPress.com to WordPress.org. So I’ve set aside two days in early June to make this happen.

Stay tuned.

Here are some useful links for those of you who are trying to build a site on WordPress.org:

First Steps with WordPress. An invaluable read for those of you new to WordPress.org. Relevant for those of you who have just installed WordPress on your hosting service, and now wonder how to proceed.

Getting Started with Google Analytics, courtesy of WordPress tv. A short video clip that explains how to load Google Analytics into your WordPress Theme, either using a plugin, or manually. Remember that if you CHANGE your theme, you will have to go through this process all over again.

WordPress Main Page, where you get access to all of WordPress.org’s documentation, including how to install WordPress on your hosting service.

Good luck, and let me know how you fare.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Websites to watch: Historical Novel Reviews, The Writing Runner & Historical Fiction Connection

Today, I am showcasing three blogs that in their different ways help authors promote their work.

HISTORICAL NOVEL REVIEW is a well-organized website with novels organized by century, genre, format and geographical location. It is staffed by a group of volunteers who are dedicated to reading and candidly reviewing today’s best historical fiction novels. They host interviews and regularly give away books.

THE WRITING RUNNER is a writer who runs. Unusual. No? In any event, if you are a newbie writer who’s struggling to find an agent, I highly recommend a series of posts done on this blog.

HISTORICAL FICTION CONNECTION. What a gorgeous-looking blog. All those satins, silks and lace ruffles on the covers of the current selection of historical novels. It’s like looking at a box of chocolate! One caution: the Nav Bar (the thingy with HOME, ABOUT OUR CONTRIBUTORS, and SUBMISSIONS is halfway down the page, under the book-box selection, so you’ll have to scroll down to see it. This site is run by a staff of enthusiasts,, including authors Susan Higginbotham, D L Bogdan, Mitchell James Kaplan, Donald Michael Platt and bloggers Robin of “Lady Gwyn’s Kingdom” and Jennygirl of “Jenny loves to read”.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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THE BIRTH OF VENUS by Sarah Dunant

This is a story of an artist of considerable talent, whose dedication to the craft should have ensured greatness. Unfortunately, the artist was born in 1477, and was a woman.

Set during the turbulent years of Savonarola’s stranglehold over Florence (1494-1498), this a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl, who marries a much older man so that she can pursue her dream of becoming an artist.

Needless to say, life does not go according to plan.

I’m not spoiling things by telling you that Sarah Dunant takes us on a journey that explains how a fiery, rebellious teenage artist ends up in a convent, because she provides a frame at the beginning of the novel, that is one of the most tantalizing beginnings I have read in a long time.

This novel is filled with vivid imagery of life in Florence during the 1490s. But what Ms. Dunant does so well is to convey the frustration felt by a young woman of talent who was not allowed to develop her craft because she was the ‘wrong’ sex.

I highly recommend it, especially for those of you interested in Florentine politics of the 1490s.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Why I need to use WordPress.org again

As many of you know, I’ve been struggling with my website recently.

I had a blog on WordPress.com and a website built by Apple Mac’s iWeb hosted by Yahoo.

But wouldn’t it be better to have my blog on my website? Of course.

My first stab at doing this involved downloading the WordPress software onto Yahoo, and trying to create a site there. The problem? You really need considerable programming skills to be able to do this. It’s not that those of us with limited programming skills can’t do this. Just that the learning curve was going to be steep. Unfortunately, I went into this with the expectation that it was going to be quick and easy. I was disappointed.

My second stab at this was to build my website using WordPress.com. All I did was add static pages to my blog, and, as I said in my last blog, created a beautiful website in two days!

My third stab was to cheat and add Google Analytics to iWeb, and pray that it worked, even though I kinda gerrymandered it onto the site hosted by Yahoo. (It did)

So what could possibly be the problem now?

iWeb does NOT support a blog, well not one that functions anything like the way it does on WordPress. And since my blog is an important part of my web presence, I have to have it.

So if I want Google Analytics to work with my WordPress blog, the only way I can do that is to work via WordPress.org, which means downloading the WordPress software onto a host, then struggling with your meager programming skills to get the site up and running. (See Stab One above).

Why can’t I use Google Analytics with WordPress.com? Because it is a plugin, and t turns out that WordPress.com does NOT employ plugins for security reasons.

So back to wrestling with wordpress.org. But this time,

  1. I know it’s going to be hard.
  2. I have my dummies book to help me.
  3. I have my beautiful website up and running on WordPress.com. So all I have to do is mess around with my Yahoo-hosted site.

Stay tuned!

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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