Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The 25 Sub-Categories of Historical Fiction

What is Historical Fiction?

Is it a boring lecture about history you're forced to sit through in 8th grade? Is it a bodice-ripping, powdered-wig romp? Well, yes—and no. People who immerse themselves in history say it's anything but boring. Sometimes they say it's even shocking. Reading the memoirs of a Victorian explorer, a fugitive slave, or a Concentration Camp survivor puts you in their shoes and shows you a world you never knew existed. By reading between the lines, making logical deductions, and perhaps embellishing some of the unknown, the writer of Historical Fiction can bring a one- or two-dimensional character to life. The possibilities for setting, plot, and characters are limited only by the imagination of the author. And thankfully, the possibilities for intrigue and entertainment are endless.

So what exactly is Historical Fiction? 

The generally accepted definition is a novel set in the past, usually 50 years before the date of publication. 

Now, to make things even more complicated, Amazon has added 25 sub-categories for Historical Fiction. 

Now you can search not only by setting and genre (as in thriller or suspense) but by time period as well. For those of you who like Historical Romance you may continue to search under the Romance subcategories for new releases.

For illustrative purposes, I have listed a few examples from each subcategory (with the exception of Religious and Short Stories). Pick a category at random and dive in. You never know, you might learn something your 8th grade history teacher failed to mention...

Biographical:  The White Princess, The Aviator's Wife, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Paris Wife, Paths of Glory, Bring up the Bodies, The Kingmaker's Daughter, The Spanish Queen, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

Fantasy:  The Golem and the Jinni, Deck Z, The Spirit Keeper, The Witch's Daughter

Classics:  Dr. Zhivago, A Tale of Two Cities, Forever Amber

Mystery, Thriller & Suspense: The White Princess, The Key to Rebecca, Hornet Flight, The Odessa File, The Eye of the Needle, The Abominable, Pillars of the Earth

Regency: Mr. Darcy's Noble Connection, Mr. Darcy's Promise,  and all the Mr. Darcy Spinoffs, The Arrangement, Lord Love a Duke

Women's Fiction:  The Sisterhood, The Paris Wife, Rainwater, War Brides

African:  Roots, Cleopatra: A Life, Nefertiti: A Novel, A Spear of Summer Grass, The Heretic Queen, The Princess of Egypt Must Die, The Burning Shore

Asian:  The Last Empress, The Ghost Bride, The Far Pavilions, The Sandalwood Tree, The Maharajah's General, Race to Tibet

Australian & Oceania:  The Thorn Birds, The Light Between the Oceans, Fiji, A Wicked Deception

British: Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, The Tudor Books, The Regency Books, Paths of Glory, Remarkable Creatures, The Orchid House, The Captain's Daughter, The Kingmaker's Daughter, The 
Other Boleyn Girl, The White Queen, Pillars of the Earth, Fall of Giants, Queen Elizabeth's Daughter, The Chalice, The Crown

Caribbean & Latin America: Island Beneath the Sea, The Pirate's Daughter, Brazil, 100 Years of Solitude, The General in his Labyrinth, Pirate Latitudes, Transfer Day, Wide Sargasso Sea, Island on Fire, and The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton

Chinese: Shanghai Girl, The Valley of Amazement, Dreams of Joy, The Ghost Bride

European: Mozart's Sister, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Marrying Mozart, The Lost Wife, Hornet Flight, The Visit of the Royal Physician, Loving Søren, The Time in Between

French:  An Officer and a Spy, Day of the Jackal, Sarah's Key, A Place of Greater Safety, Claude and Camille, Sunflowers, Madame Tussaud, The Lavender Garden, Paris

German: She Wore only White, City of Women, All Quiet on the Western Front

Irish:  The Girl on the Cliff, The Princes of Ireland, The Yellow House, Galway Bay

Italian:  The Shoemaker's Wife, The Midwife of Venice, The Contessa's Vendetta, The Light in the Ruins, The Book of Madness & Cures

Japanese: Memoirs of a Geisha, King Rat, Shogun, The Gilded Fan, the Mask Carver's Son

Middle Eastern: The Haj, Exodus, Jasmine Nights, Jerusalem Maiden, Birds Without Wings, The Source, The Dovekeepers, Ben-Hur

Norse & Icelandic: Burial Rites, Oleanna,

Russian:  Rasputin's Shadow, The Winter Palace,  The Russian Concubine, Dr. Zhivago, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin, Most Beautiful Princess

Scottish: Drums of Autumn and Anything with Highlander in the title

United States Gone with the Wind, The Writing Master  Centennial North and South, Lonesome Dove, The Kitchen House, The Wedding Gift, The House Girl, Mrs. Poe, The Signature of All Things, Hawaii, The Help, Water for Elephants, The Winds of War, War and Remembrance

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The 5 essential elements for every good story

By Keith Ogorek

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to be part of three Book-to-Screen Pitchfests where authors  learn how to pitch their book as an idea for adaptation for film or television and then have the opportunity  to pitch to entertainment executives in a speed-dating like setting. They have been great events for the authors and the entertainment executives alike. There have been hundreds of requests for different books.  One has been optioned and there are a number of others that are under consideration.
If you break down every great story, it has these elements
What has been most interesting to me is  no matter what the genre, there are some common elements to every great story. The books that get noticed have these elements. The books that Hollywood execs often pass on are missing one or more of these.  In fact one exec said to me, “If you break down every great story, it has these elements”. So what are they?
1.          An inciting action. This means open the story with some event that sets the characters and action in motion.  Get my attention in the beginning and give me a reason why I am going to care about the people and the story going forward.
2.          Conflict. There needs to be some challenge to overcome or some quest or mystery. The character or characters need to have some type of struggle.
3.          Resolution. Make sure the conflict gets resolved by the end of the book and don’t come up with some crazy way to solve the matter. One thing I have noticed about authors’ books that get close to being requested, but often get a pass is the resolution to their story doesn’t make sense. They set up the conflict, make the characters interesting and then resolve it with something that comes out of the blue. In their efforts to be creative, they end up making the ending implausible and that hurts the story.
4.          Protagonist. Give me a character I want to care about and can understand. Help me understand why they do what they do. Sounds simple, but it is very challenging.
5.          Antagonist. Life is often about struggle and opposition and so great stories present those challenges as well. Many times it takes the form of a person. As with the protagonist, make the antagonist interesting. Help me understand why he or she presents the opposition.
Now none of these five elements should be surprising, but I have been somewhat surprised at how some books are missing one of these elements, have them underdeveloped or make them implausible. How about your story? It would be could to do a quick review of your manuscript to see if you have these elements included. All good stories do.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Preview: Race to Tibet

Race to Tibet
3 Courageous Explorers Determined To Be the First Living European To Reach Lhasa.
1 Woman on a Quest To Find Her Missing Husband.
What they discover is a land of mystery and intrigue, a land of danger that promises them only one thing:  death.

In the end, just one of these intrepid adventurers will succeed  in reaching Tibet, but he will be haunted by it for the rest of his life.

"Race to Tibet" is the story of Gabriel Bonvalot, the determined, but overconfident French explorer whose greatest ambition is to be the first living European to reach Lhasa, the forbidden capital of Tibet

When the pretender to the French throne, Robert, Duke of Chartres, offers to finance Bonvalot's latest expedition on condition that he take along his dissolute son, Prince Henri d'Orléans, Bonvalot's dream seems almost guaranteed. Before he leaves, Bonvalot is approached by a beautiful young woman, Camille de Villiers, who offers to pay him 2,000 francs to join his caravan so she can search for her husband who disappeared among the passes. Bonvalot refuses, and he and Prince Henri set off. Along the way, Bonvalot is plagued by debilitating hallucinations brought on by the dead Russian explorer, Nikolai Prejevalsky, who is drawing Bonvalot deeper under his spell, giving him advice that is calculated to kill him the closer he gets to Lhasa

Unbeknownst to Bonvalot, a pair of rival explorers, Francis Younghusband and the Russian Bronislav Grombchevsky, are also mounting their own expeditions to Tibet, and will do anything to sabotage Bonvalot's chances. When Bonvalot reaches the Russian Consulate in Kuldja, Turkestan, he meets up with Camille once again. She has been holed up there for weeks, trying to put together her own caravan, but has not been able to recruit any of the local guides. The Consul begs Bonvalot to take her off his hands, which Bonvalot agrees to do, but only on condition that the resident Belgian missionary, Father Dedeken—who is fluent in Chinese—accompanies his caravan to Tibet.

During the journey, Bonvalot's caravan runs into a gamut of problems from freezing temperatures to impossible altitudes, blinding sandstorms, snow squalls, suspicious Tibetans, hostile Chinese Ambans, and brutal nomadic bandits. When Camille learns the truth about her husband, she decides to take revenge, a miscalculation that almost costs them their lives. Pushed to the brink of his physical and mental limits, Bonvalot must decide if reaching Lhasa is worth paying the ultimate price. In the end, only one of these three explorers will succeed in reaching Lhasa, but he will be haunted by it for the rest of his life.

Inspired by a True Story
Coming in 2014

When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before.
—Rudyard Kipling

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Historical Novelists' 4 Day Book Fair April 12-15

Introducing:  Spy Island

A Girl. A Deserter. An Island full of spies.

Spy Island is an historical spy thriller for the adventure-lover in you. Prepare to be carried away to a tropical island with its potent mixture of suspense, romance, intrigue, and a delightful assortment of island characters who will cast a spell over you. 

If you can imagine a tropical Danish sugar colony during the Great War replete with German spy characters, Old World Danish characters, colorful West Indian characters, Irish sailor characters, blazing Luger pistols, a mad Voodoo Queen, and a daunting & resourceful heroine, then you have a good picture of Spy Island.

Abby Maduro is an adventurous island girl who saves the life of a mysterious stranger who has washed ashore on her Caribbean island. Despite the danger, Abby shelters Erich Seibold, a handsome sailor with a mysterious past, in the basement of her house. Soon, friendship and love blossom between the unlikely pair, even after Abby learns that Erich is a deserter from a German U-boat. When the island's German Consul, Lothar Langsdorff, discovers Erich's true identity, he blackmails him into committing sabotage and murder. Erich is hunted down and thrown into prison, forcing Abigail to risk everything to save his life, but with Langsdorff and his spy ring still on the loose, Abigail relies on her wits, bravery and a little island magic to save her tranquil island from a dangerous German spy. Spy Island is a historical spy thriller for the adventure-lover in you. Prepare to be carried away to an exotic tropical island with its potent mixture of action, suspense, romance, and delightful island characters who will cast their spell over you. 

Danish gendarme with trusty revolver and sword in a tropical Danish colony circa 1916.
The office of Assistant Policemaster Peter Larsen juts out from the interior walls of Fort Christian into the courtyard—like a tiny fortress within a fortress—and boasts an enormous wooden desk, a filing cabinet, and a rotating fan whose loud whirring drowns out the din of the prisoners. The policeman knocks on the door and waits for permission to enter.
Larsen, a middle-aged bureaucrat with a curly mustache and wearing a white, single-breasted tunic, sits upright at his desk, composing a letter in elegant Danish longhand. The only other objects that occupy his prominent desk are a large police registry book, an inkwell, and a copy of the Tidende. Hanging on the walls behind him are pictures of King Christian X and Queen Alexandrine, who gaze down on the proceedings with the proper noblesse oblige.
"Chief Larsen," says the policeman, jingling his keys. "A girl came here sayin' she brought food for de no-name prisoner. Says she wants to see him."
"If it's food she brings, you may show her in," says Larsen without bothering to look up. The policeman snatches a jagged key off a hook on the wall and says, "Dis way, Miss."
I trail the policeman through the courtyard, attempting to avert my gaze from the hissing prisoners as I search for any sign of Erich. We halt in front of a cell in the prison's southern wall. With my heart beating wildly in my chest, I peer through the bars, hoping that at last I will see Erich. When my eyes finally adjust to the darkness, I make out its sparse furnishings: a metal bed, a thin, dirty mattress, a yellowed, threadbare sheet, a porcelain receptacle in a corner, a pile of cigarette stubs on the floor. Sitting on the bed with his back to us is a silent, sulking prisoner.
"Put that basket down and run along," says the policeman. "Dese prisoners are a violent, rowdy bunch."
"Please Sir, I have to see this man. He has no family to bring him food. I must give it to him myself. I'm the only person he trusts."
"You have five minutes and no more, then be on your way," he commands, inserting the key in the lock and calling out, "Hey Kaiser man, you have a visitor."
When the prisoner turns around, my relief is boundless. Although his face is obscured by the shadows, I have no doubt that it's Erich. As soon as he sees me, Erich bolts upright and starts toward us, but the jailer holds up a huge, powerful hand.
"Not so fast, Kaiser man," he yells. "Stop right dere. Talk from ovah dere."
The policeman turns and retraces his steps through the courtyard, leaving us alone for a few precious minutes. With the door ajar, I slip inside Erich's cell and throw my arms around him.
"Erich! I thought I'd never see you again. Are you alright?"
"I’m fine," he says, with a mixture of shock and relief. "And what about you? How the devil did you manage to get in here?"
"I have my ways," I say. "I did what anybody would do under the circumstances. I had to see you again, no matter what. What are they going to do to you?"
"They're charging me with espionage, but only after they hand me over to the Allies for interrogation. We might as well say goodbye now, Abby. I'm sure I'll never see you again."  
I hiss in his ear. "Listen carefully. I'm going to get you out of here. Just do as I say…we've no time to lose."
"What? You must be crazy!"
"I'm quite serious," I affirm, pulling out the gendarme uniform. "This is our only chance. Put it on quick. The outside gate is still unlocked and there's only one policeman on duty right now. Larsen's in his office daydreaming and if you hurry, you might be able to slip through the front gate. I calculate you have about two minutes."
Erich's eyes go wide as he assesses the uniform. He tears off his clothing and pulls on the uniform with a ferocity I have never seen. First the jacket, carefully fastening all of its buttons as he mutters, "This is the craziest thing I've ever heard" and then the trousers. Finally, he replaces his shoes. He smooths back his hair, tops it off with the cap, and lowers it until it almost conceals his eyes.
"If they catch me, they'll shoot me. You realize that, don't you?"
"Shhh!" I caution. "He's coming back." 

Danish sailors and naval marching band parading down a street
in Fredericksted,  St. Croix, 1916

Charlotte Amalie, once an important sea port in the Danish West Indies
 looking just like it did during Danish times.
Typical island scene as painted by Danish artist Hugo Larsen ca. 1904-07
Danish gendarmes and police posing in front of portraits of King Frederick VIII and Queen Louise
Fort Christian, the site of a suspenseful prison breakout scene in Spy Island
Another gorgeous painting by Hugo Larsen
The National Bank of the Danish West Indies, the site of a tense scene with a mad Voodoo Queen.
Important Danish officials and sea captains await the final lowering of the Dannebrog at the side of Fort Christian.
Post Office Square, just in front of the Grand Hotel

Aerial photo St. Thomas Harbor and Hassel Island © Don Hebert
Here is a link to the kindle version of Spy Island. Treat yourself today!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

To kill off or not to kill off: Some thoughts on killing off a character

I was several years into writing my first novel, a spy thriller, when I had a sudden revelation. If I changed the nationality of a beloved character, I could breathe new life into him. Let me give you an example. In my novel, "Spy Island", the protagonist, a girl named Abigail, is compelled to cross the Caribbean Sea by steamer during WWI to live with her spinster aunt. On the journey, she strikes up a friendship with her room steward, a plucky Venezuelan named José whose character is vital because he teaches Abigail all about the nature of German spies and how she can protect herself from catastrophe. In so doing, José awakens in Abigail an innate love of adventure and intrigue that drives the story forward.

Yet something about José's character remained flat; I couldn't make him dance off the pages. He was nice and everything, but not memorable. And then I had the afore-mentioned revelation. If I turned José into Ian, an Irish sailor, I could incorporate those witty Irish expressions and that unmistakable Irish sense of humor that wraps around you like a Shamrock wool blanket. I recall wrinkling my brow at the notion. Could I do that? I asked myself. Could I just wave my pen and turn José from Maracaibo into an Irishman? Well, I did. And all at once, José took on a whole new life. As Ian, his Irish red hair burned the pages of my manuscript. His Cheshire cat grin, his twinkling eyes, his Gaelic sense of humor and manner of speaking, and his vulnerability captivated my Writing Class. And now we come to the "killing off part". Out of a sense of duty and patriotism, Ian stalks a wanted German spy and turns up dead—a corpse lying in a pool of blood—on the boat deck.

Could this be Ian McShane, our intrepid Irish sailor/amateur sleuth?
The ladies in my Writing Group bristled at the notion. They demanded a rewrite. "But it's crucial to the development of my story," I argued. "If Ian doesn't die, Abigail has no reason to hunt down German spies."  They shook their heads. "Change it!" they demanded. Again my brow wrinkled. Change it? And so, pen in hand, I kept the ominous pool of blood but removed the corpse. The ladies were satisfied. But the question remains. When is it appropriate to kill off a character?

In Peter Benchley's "Jaws", the death of the beautiful, young Chrissie, is the inciting incident for the entire novel. Her death and the subsequent death of a schoolboy are what arouse the feelings of horror and revenge in the protagonist. Likewise, in Sarah's Key" by Tatiana de Rosnay, the tenuous fate of little boy locked up in the closet gives his sister a vital purpose. She must escape in order to save him. Other times, the death of a character gives a novel a natural ending. Think "Rainwater" by Sandra Brown, "Sunflowers" by Sheramy Bundrick, and "Anna Karenina" by Tolstoy. In these cases, the death of a main character signals either a peaceful closure or an ignoble ending.

According to Codey Amprim in Killing off Characters-Knowing When to Drop the Guillotine, there are three conditions to killing off a character:

1) Moving the plot forward. There must be a valid reason for killing off the character and not just as a convenient way of removing him from the story. Make sure a valid outcome arises from his death.
2) Are you killing the character merely for dramatic purposes? Are you trying to shock or frighten your reader like in a horror novel, or does his death enhance or improve the story?
3) Before killing off the character, consider the bond between you, the character and the audience. According to Amprim, some writers become so attached to their characters that they make sure their life is like an aspirin commercial: they're always bundled before they go out and their insurance premiums are always paid. In certain cases, that is a form of torture to the reader because they read to vicariously experience danger through those characters. There are valid and appropriate reasons for killing off certain characters, but withholding the axe may hurt more.
In the final analysis, killing off a character finishes off that part of the story. If his death doesn't cause an unnatural break in the narrative flow or doesn't leave gaping holes in the plot, readers will generally forgive you. But tread carefully. In the words of one blogger, make sure his death doesn't make them want to throw your book across the room.
Writers and Readers:  Let me know what you think.  Did you ever get furious when a beloved character in a favorite novel was killed off?


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Traveling the World through Historical Fiction

In a recent review of Spy Island, a book blogger writes, "Sophie really managed to make me feel like I was right there with the characters in this (novel) and it added a lot to my enjoyment of the book. Plus it's made me feel as if I need to travel to these places." Naturally the book reviewer got me to thinking, when did my fascination with exotic and mysterious settings first take root?

One of my fondest childhood memories is the day my fourth grade class discovered a new book sitting  unobtrusively on our library shelf. One glance at the title, The Cay by Theodore Taylor, and its depiction of castaways on a deserted beach, and we proceeded to fight tooth and nail over the book. Over the next several weeks, The Cay was the most checked-out book in our school library. And for good reason. The protagonist, Phillip, was easy going and likable, and Timothy, the elderly deckhand from Charlotte Amalie, could have been any one of the old men we saw playing dominoes on the waterfront, or over at Market Square. Taylor's characters and settings were so real, they captured life in Willemstad, Curaçao, and the deserted cay to perfection. The book recreates the feeling you get when a good friend travels to an exotic location and tells you all these first-hand, intimate details about his experiences. I dreamt of traveling to Willemstad Curaçao—now a UNESCO world heritage site—for over 20 years until I finally flew down and saw it for myself. Part of the reason was to catch a glimpse of Phillip hidden somewhere among the colorful denizens of Willemstad.
Willemstad, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles
Another historical novel with an exotic location that captured my childhood imagination was Exodus by Leon Uris. Uris' retelling of the legendary story of a ragtag group of Jewish refugees who make it to the modern-day land of Israel, and then successfully wrest control away from the British Mandate is nothing short of miraculous. Uris' descriptions of Jerusalem, the Jezreel Valley, Acre, Haifa and even Cyprus fascinate the reader, and make him feel as though he is experiencing the events first hand. His characters are flesh and blood people, with all their human quirks and failings. But like all true heroes, they inspire the reader to not just sit back and observe life's events like a spectator, but to strive to somehow make a difference in the world.

Standing at a height of 29,029 feet, and straddling the borders of Nepal and Tibet, Mount Everest is undoubtedly one of the world's most inaccessible spots. Yet despite the tremendous odds of dying on the mountain, the lure of conquering Mount Everest continues to haunt mankind's more daring elements. In addition, the Himalayas hold a strong spiritual and geographical fascination, and none possessed it more ardently than George Mallory, a British mountaineer who set off in 1924 with the young, inexperienced Andrew Irvine to conquer the roof of the world. Lovers of Historical Fiction who relish the chance to relive this epic adventure can find it in Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer, a marvelous retelling of this heroic and unforgettable tale.
Mount Everest
The Thorn Birds took the world by storm with its searing depictions of life in Australia's Outback and its cast of unforgettable characters who struggle against life's obstacles and tragedies. The imagery of sheep country is unflinching; the characters are almost feral in their realism. The Thorn Birds is one of historical fiction's greatest crowning achievements for its grand scope and its minute attention to detail. But through it all, the single unchanging element is Australia, a land that can never quite be tamed.

A Graham Greene novel is a like a travelogue of expatriate communities in former colonies around the globe. Take for example The Heart of the Matter, which takes place in Sierra Leone, or Our Man in Havana, which takes place in Cuba on the brink of revolution, or The Comedians, which takes place in Haiti, Greene's novels accurately portray the culture, setting, and the political turmoil and upheavals that the citizens faced on a daily basis. While not technically historical fiction since the events depicted occurred during Greene's lifetime, the novels are excellent research material for writers looking for an accurate depiction of the mindset, attitudes, and behaviors of people who lived during some of the most epochal times of the early 20th Century.
Havana, with its cavalcade of perfectly preserved 1950's era automobiles.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Thoughts from a Bookseller

Reblogged from The Huffington Post

This Book Will Change Your Life
by Allison Hill
President & COO, Vroman's Bookstore and Book Soup

I was working in the bookstore late one evening when a customer asked for me. "I'm looking for a book," he said, "and I saw your staff picks around the store and thought you might be able to help me." I asked him what kind of book he was looking for. He paused for a moment, then his voice caught and it seemed like he might start crying: "I'm looking for a book that will change my life."
In 20 years of bookselling, I've had customers share surprisingly intimate details of their lives with me. A woman in her late 50s asked me for books on relationships, but after I walked her to the section, she started crying and confided the story of her daughter's marriage to an abusive man, and how she needed a book that could save her. A well-dressed couple, him in a suit and her in a wrap dress, came in over the holidays and asked me for books to give a friend who was just diagnosed with terminal cancer. They had tried searching on Amazon, but the titles that came up were about the mechanics of how to survive, not the particular poetry of living with dying. More than once someone has asked me for a good novel, "something that will make me laugh," only to admit once I'd found a book for them, that they needed something funny to distract them from some trauma or drama that they then proceeded to share with me. A hipster asked me for books on personal finances; she was determined to begin the long crawl out of a deep debt. A famous actor admitted his stage fright and asked for a copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. A young woman asked me for books on recovering from loss; she had recently lost a child...
In the wake of Internet competition, bookstores have been feeling like publisher showcases and promoting ourselves as literary curators. But our true value may be as basic as this: often people come to us simply to talk to another human being. In a world that is more and more automated, computerized, web-based, sometimes, someone just wants to tell their story to another human being, feel like someone heard them, and take away hope that things will change -- hope in the form of a book.
I walked with the customer downstairs and we went through my staff picks that he had seen earlier:Going to Pieces Without Falling ApartA Woman's WorthThe Gift of Fear. At various points these books had all shifted my perspective, changed my way of thinking, even saved my life one could say.Diet for a Small Planet inspired my conversion to vegetarianism when I was 18. The Comfort Traphelped me bring necessary closure to my 10-year marriage. Wherever You Go, There You Areintroduced me to meditation and a new mindful approach to my life. As Thoreau wrote, "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book."
These recent years have marked a new era for all of us, one full of changes. And for many people, those changes felt dramatic and alarmingly sudden. But they were years in the making, the results of hundreds of decisions we all made every single day: who we voted for, who we trusted, where we shopped, where we didn't shop, what we chose to not pay attention to, and so on. I'm not saying the global economic meltdown is our fault, but I am suggesting that perhaps right now we are making choices every day that will influence our future. A decision to save $6.00 on Amazon, multiplied by thousands of customers every day, means that your local bookstore, the place where you hang out, meet friends, met your partner, or found the book that changed your life, may not be there next year...
But for now, many of us brick and mortar booksellers are still here, committed to what I believe is a noble pursuit: putting the right book in the right person's hands. Tonight when I left work there were 30 people lined up for the grilled cheese food truck in our parking lot. There were another 40 people in our event space to hear a first-time author read. There were 10 members of a book club discussing a new novel, and another dozen folks in our coffee shop, most of them reading or writing. A family in the children's department was reading picture books together, and another 15 people quietly browsed the bookshelves. It is in these moments that I am awed by the role a bookstore plays in a community, a feeling made even more awesome by the realization that today we sold 1,087 books, any one of which could change someone's life.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Favorite Historical Fiction

My friend, Mary Tod, from A Writer of History tagged me to list my five personal favorite historical fiction books. As is often the case, some non-fiction books are often just as suspenseful as a great novel and I have listed those as well.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling.  I read this book in 2012 as research for my forthcoming historical novel about the Great Game and Tibet. What I didn't expect was that Kim would change my life forever. It affected me on such an emotional level, I was reduced to tears after only a few paragraphs. Kim challenged everything I thought I knew about parenting and about life in general. Kim won Kipling the Nobel Prize in Literature and contains some of the most unforgettable characters ever written, most of them based on real-life people.

The Sea Wolf by Jack London. Having fallen under London's spell, I checked out The Sea Wolf from the local library and was immediately gripped by Wolf Larsen, the tyrannical captain of the eponymous ship. Just before reaching the climax, my kids lost the book, forcing me to pay a huge fine to the library. Of course I could just buy the book from Amazon to find out what happens in the end, but I'm too terrified to return to that ship of horrors.

Longitude by Dava Sobel. A non-fiction book that reads like fiction, Longitude tells the incredible story of John Harrison, an 18th century clock maker who entered into a contest to create the first clock (chronometer) capable of withstanding the rigors of sea voyage so that mariners could determine their correct longitude at sea. When the organizers of the contest balked at awarding Harrison the prize, he took his fight to court. A spellbinding tale that became a mini-series starring Jeremy Irons.

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny Le Couteur. Organic chemistry intertwined with history to dramatic effect. This fascinating tome will answer questions like: What do Mexican yams have to do with ovulation? And: What does olive oil have to do with philosophy, logic, and the beginning of rational inquiry? Read this book and you will never look at nutmeg the same way again.

QBVII by Leon Uris. I was a bored high school student on summer break in 1980 when my father dusted off this book and gave it to me, an act that would set off a chain of events that would change my life forever. Left with no choice, I opened up this courtroom drama and couldn't put it down. After all these years, I believe even more firmly that it's books like QBVII that have set the standard for great historical fiction, and it's up to our generation to push it even higher.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Galileo's Moons

If I could sail a thousand miles;
Just to be with you.
I’d navigate to the stars above,
and Galileo’s moons.
Polaris and the Southern Cross,
Are stretched so far and wide.
They light my path and give me hope;
I’ll have you by my side.

When seas are calm I hoist my sails;
And bid a fond farewell.
Then soon enough the skies grow dark,
As seas begin to swell.
It matters not how long it takes,
The danger or the gloom.
For on starry nights your face appears
In Galileo’s moons.

I’ve sailed so long; I’ve sailed so far;
The days turned into years.
In all that time I’ve kept my faith;
And pushed aside my fears.
My compass is my aide-de-camp;
My mast and rudder too.
And when it’s dark I search the skies,
For Galileo’s moons.

When I was young I hatched a plan
The dream I tried to hide.
But life took hold and swept me up
And took away my pride.
Now here I stand alone and old;
My heart still young and true.
If I reach your shores its thanks alone
To Galileo’s moons.

I wrote this poem back in 2011 after I'd read a beautiful book called "Galileo's Daughter" by Dava Sobel, one of my favorite non-fiction authors. Inspiration can come from almost any source!

Announcing Giveaway for Spy Island

Visit my friend Larissa's review blog, The Howling Turtle, for a special March giveaway for Spy Island:

And please let me know by commenting how you like the cover.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Glimpse at Some Locations in Spy Island

This post is for readers who are interested in seeing what some of the locations in the novel look like. Since the 1917 transfer of the Danish West Indies to the US, the islands have not changed significantly in appearance, so these pictures give a good idea of life looked like back during colonial days. I took these pictures during my "location scouting" trip in August 2007, when the average temperature was a sweltering 95°F and most of the islanders were hiding out on the beach.

This is the pavilion in Emancipation Park where the pivotal assassination scene takes place. This park is only a short distance from Fort Christian, which was undergoing renovations during my visit and was gated off to the public. I daresay I look pretty confident for a person about to embark on a major, life-changing event, although I wasn't aware of it at the time!

These scary-looking cannons line the driveway of Bluebeard's castle. I suppose at one time or another they were fired at marauding pirate ships and privateers, but in these less-dramatic times, the harbor is mostly bombarded with cruise ships and rich yachts filled with eager tourists.

The Barracks that once held the Danish Gendarmes now houses the V.I. Legislature. Gone are the blue-suited soldiers with shiny swords and revolvers. They've been replaced with the symbol of our generation: over-worked, harried bureaucrats armed with cellphones and Ipads. My how times have changed!

This house on Synagogue Hill was my inspiration for Abby's house. It has a large, sweeping veranda, a beautiful, panoramic view of the harbor, and lots of mysterious doors leading to secret locations.
The Famous Market Square and behind it, the former National Bank of the Danish West Indies, the site of some tense scenes with the mad Voodoo Queen-bamboula dancer, Queen Coziah, whose real-life identity remains a mystery even to this day.
A bedroom in the Haagensen House Museum (a restored Danish house from colonial days) provided tremendous inspiration for Abby's room with its West Indian mahogany furniture, four-posted bed, vanity table, old pictures, and large, jalousied windows.
The Grand Hotel has not been a working hotel in 40 years, but it stands as a reminder of what life was like back in Danish Times, quieter, simpler, less congested. Exactly the kind of life many of us would love to return to!

A Creole kitchen from the 19th Century. You can imagine all the arguing and bickering that must have gone on in this kitchen over the proper way to make kallaloo!
I hope you enjoyed this little tour. If you should ever find yourself in the town of Charlotte Amalie, keep an eye out for Queen Coziah; she's been known to make sudden appearances from time to time:)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

What writers can learn from Slumdog Millionaire

As a writer, I envy people who work in teams. Working in a team is empowering. By collaborating with others, the individual becomes a part of something greater, and when they succeed, their success is shared collaboratively. A writer's success, if he ever experiences any, is one-sided and can never really be shared, making it somewhat hollow. 

The team naturally benefits from synergy, the combined efforts that every member brings to the table, causing the team to become greater than the sum of its parts. But most writers don't have the option of working as a team. A writer’s work is lonely, frustrating, and oftentimes isolating. By definition, writers work in a world they have created in their own imagination. The hours are long, the rewards minimal, and finishing a project seems light years away. There are many days when the writer cannot rely on his sense of humor, because it's non-existent. There are days he can't rely on his strength, because it has ebbed. There are days when he won’t be able to rely on his natural optimism because it has dissipated.

So what does he do?

On days when my positive thinking and physical strength have evaporated, when I have lost my self-confidence, and when the spark of inspiration has dried up, I watch an inspiring video that never fails to move me. On YouTube, there is a video that captures the moment when "Slumdog Millionaire" wins Oscar for Best Picture. Each time I watch that video, I cry. The pride, the joy, the camaraderie, the teamwork, the collaborative effort between the writers, actors, technicians, producers, and director is right there on the stage. Their mutual effort has paid off stunningly by garnering them the industry's highest prize.

My happiness for them overwhelms me because when the underdog wins, all of us win. When "Slumdog Millionaire" won the Oscar, they were the odd man, but they broke new ground in film making at a time when nobody believed in them and nobody would give them a chance. Each and every day of his working life, a writer must do the same. When he sits down at his computer, he has to believe he is breaking new ground. He has to believe in his work and commit himself to it fully each new day. He must write with the idea that he is creating something new, monumental, and worthwhile, something the world is happily waiting for.

In the words of Producer, Christian Colson, "If you have passion and belief, truly anything is possible." Dear writers, heed the words of Christian Colson. Believe in yourself and keep your passion for writing alive. But above all, keep writing. Sometimes the strongest team is a team of one.

Now watch the video and crank up those engines!
Go #NaNoWriMo2019!!! I'll meet you at the finish line!

Monday, February 11, 2013

New Cover Reveal for Spy Island

I am pleased to present the new cover for Spy Island. Does the girl look like she's hiding a dangerous secret in her basement? Does she look capable of bringing down an entire nest of German spies? Read Spy Island to learn the answers to these questions!

Also, check out this awesome review by Jenn Ritter of Jennation Book Reviews:

Let me know what you think!!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Brian Finnegan's Writing Tips

Reblogged from:  http://www.novelicious.com/2012/10/brian-finnegans-writing-tips.html

Some excellent writing tips today, courtesy of Brian Finnegan. Our full interview with Brian is here.
1. Get a good concept.
You want to be published? Concept sells.
Stephen King calls it the ‘What if…’ as in ‘What if a woman with too much pride fell in love with a man who was prejudiced against her? (Pride and Prejudice); or what if a group of people who got fired from their jobs on the same day formed a film club together (The Forced Redundancy Film Club). Coming up with a sellable concept isn’t easy, but if you are attuned to the idea, you never know what will come your way. Try to reduce the concepts of your favourite novels to one sentence, to get an understanding of what a good concept is. Read lots of true-life stories in newspapers and magazines; keep an eye out for interesting headlines, really listen when people are telling you stories about their lives or about other people. It’s a way to tune into concept. You never know what might come to you when you’re listening out for it.

2. Find a character you love.
My first book is a multiple-narrative, but I would not recommend it. Don’t be worried that you won’t have enough story. If you’ve got a good concept, you’ll find enough plot. The main thing you need to drive your book forward from the start is a lead character you really love, so you can enjoy writing about her story, her thoughts, feelings and actions. Think about the people you really like. What good qualities do they have in common? What contradictions are there in their characters that you notice? Make your lead a composite of the people you love.

3. Learn the Three-act Structure
Most stories come in three acts. In the first act we are introduced to the character and to what is happening in her life. We learn what the character wants (a character must always desperately want something). At the end of the first act, the character will set out to get what she wants.
In the second act, the character pursues what she wants only to be faced with ever increasing (and seemingly insurmountable) obstacles, which she will react to and then overcome. At the end of the second act, the character will have seemingly overcome the biggest obstacle of all and be on her way to a happy ever after.
In the third act, an even bigger obstacle (hugely insurmountable) will be thrown in your character’s way. She will either overcome it or not at the end of Act 3, and in the process will learn something about herself.

4. Find an ending
What do you want to happen to your character at the end of the book? You may say something like ‘I’d like her to live happily ever after’. But what will it take for her to live happily ever after (at least in the imagination of the reader)? The ending doesn’t have to be happy (although I would suggest that in commercial fiction, an unhappy ending will leave your readers feeling unhappy about your book.)
Pride and Prejudice has a happy ending. In order to be happy, Elizabeth overcomes her pride to accept Darcy’s love. Darcy overcomes his prejudice to accept Elizabeth as she is. In The Forced Redundancy Film Club, Katherine is forced to drop all artifice and come to terms with the loss of her father, in order to find love and her happy ever after.
Do you want your character to achieve what she wants? Do you want her to achieve something different and realise what she wanted was not what she actually needed all along? What would ultimately solve the personal difficulties you’re character is experiencing at the very beginning of the story?

5. Forward Motion Only
Your goal at the beginning should be to get a first draft down. Don’t worry about small details, just tell your story in broad strokes. At the beginning of each writing session go over what you wrote the day before, but not with a fine-tooth comb. Just get reacquainted with it before you forge ahead. When you’ve written your first draft, you’ll have a document to really hone and work on. No book comes out of a writer perfectly, and no book ever gets written if a writer wants it to be perfect from the first off.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Announcing Goodreads Giveaway for Spy Island

Enter to Win a Free Copy of Spy Island by Visiting Goodreads Feb. 1st - February 28th! Good Luck!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Spy Island by Sophie Schiller

Spy Island

by Sophie Schiller

Giveaway ends February 28, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Monday, January 14, 2013

Thoughts on Writing: 10 Ways to Get Your Chapter On

Reblogged from Susan J. Morris on Amazon's Omnivoratious

First paragraphs should always be gripping. Not just of the first page of the first chapter of the first book in a series—the first paragraph of every chapter. They should tempt you to read on, even though it’s past your bedtime. Even though you have to get up early for that meeting/class/cat-wrangling boot camp you signed on for. Even though you just know that if you get to the end of that chapter, you’re going to have to read the next one, too.
But even if that chapter start was the most memorablist, most awesomist chapter start in known creation—and you totally finished the whole book that first night on the strength of that one chapter start—that doesn’t mean every chapter should start that way. Because really? That would be boring, for both the reader and the writer. Especially when there are so many incredibly intriguing, utterly unique, and perfectly practical chapter starts out there just waiting to be plunked onto chapters of their very own.
So, just next time you’re feeling ruttish and looking to start with something a little different, here’s a list of ten of the most common chapter starts out there, along with some of the pros and cons of each. Go ahead and play! It’s just one paragraph, and you never know what you might discover to be the perfect fit.
Narrative Distance: Medium or Tight
Pros: It’s common wisdom that pulse-pounding action scenes are a good way to grab your reader by the eyelashes and glue them firmly to your book. And when done right, it’s like the epitome of “show don’t tell”—showing us the conflict, the world, and what the characters are like without a single infodump.
Cons: Contrary to popular belief, action—on paper, as in a sequence of active, blood-and-guts words--is not inherently interesting. It can, in fact, even be boring. And it most certainly runs the risk of being disorienting, especially when you have a tight focus. So it’s important to make sure both that your reader knows what’s at stake, and that the scene itself is a creative and arresting display of action and character.
Dialogue Narrative Distance: Medium
Pros: An inciting line of dialogue can be a very strong statement, and an awesome way to both set the mood and to pique the reader’s interest. It has many of the benefits of starting with action, while enabling greater complexity of expression. It’s great for humor, tension, and drama.
Cons: Do not try this with small talk. And it’s very hard with baseless (but not base-having) wit—and congenial conversations you expect to go on for quite some time. In fact, I wouldn’t try it with anything but arguments (unless, of course, the dialogue is merely serving as window dressing for some other kind of chapter start)—as arguments come equipped with tension, social drama, the potential for action and serious fallout, and still leave plenty of room for humor. Of course, that argument can be a funny one, that sets a humorous tone—or a dead-serious one that shows the depths of the hero’s despair. Totally up to you!
Direct Thought Narrative Distance: Tight
Pros: Direct thoughts generally occur in super-tight narrative distances, so that immediately tells us that the character is either having a hyper intense & focused moment, restraining themselves verbally, or completely lost in thought. It works well for humor, self-aware moments, and emotional scenes.
Cons: Thoughts and emotions are heady stuff; a little bit goes a long way, and a lot can get out of hand super fast. You don’t generally want to throw in direct thought when you’re in anything but a tight narrative distance, as that can be jarring, and you have to be careful when using it for humor that you’re not letting the desire for wittiness trump the needs of the character. Additionally, you want to make sure you’re adding flavor and insight with the direct thought—and not just telling rather than going to the trouble to show.
Narrative Distance: Any
Pros: Description is a classic way to set the scene. When done well, it is unbelievably immersive, letting you step right into that world before the characters even start talking. And the very best descriptions can set a mood faster than candlelight and fine beverages.
Cons: Description is classic, all right. Sometimes? Too classic. Those trees! That sky! And oh, what a sun! Be careful, when using description to start a scene, not to describe things just because you think you ought to—only describe things that add to the reader’s experience. It certainly doesn’t have to have anything to do with fashion or weather! In fact, if the choice is unusual, that can make an interesting statement all its own.
Transitional Summary Narrative Distance: Far
Pros: Novels that don’t necessarily want to record every waking instance of their characters’ lives tend to speed up time a little in between climactic scenes. But you can’t always just skip huge swathes of time without giving the reader some clue as to what transpired. This is the place for transitional summaries. A transitional summary uses the narrative voice to tell the readers where the characters are, in terms of time and plot, along with a cursory summary of what the reader missed—and it is a classic introduction technique. It is generally written in the narrator’s voice, and can set almost any tone the writer could wish for.
Cons: If you’re skipping stuff? I’m going to assume it’s not that important. I mean think about it: how many times do you read a book and come away raving about the awesome transitional scenes? When it comes down to it, it just can’t really carry intensity.
Mirroring Narrative Distance: Medium
Pros: Mirroring the end of the previous chapter in the beginning of the next--with different characters, or else a drastically different time--can be funny, poignant, or even just a good way to draw a connection that could help your readers better understand the themes of your book.
Cons: Like anything that can be funny, you want to make sure it’s not funny at the wrong time. Like the epic battle at the end, for example. Total loss of tension, right there. It also stands out, no matter what it’s used for, so you want to make sure you don’t do it too often.
Philosophical/Historical/Geographical/Biological Waxings Narrative Distance: Far
Pros: Waxings, philosophical or otherwise, can operate as extended metaphors (lending deeper understanding to the situation at hand), emotional touchstones, character insights, or even just worldbuilding with a side of foreshadowing. More importantly, they can give the world a tremendous sense of gravitas and realism.
Cons: It’s bad form to wax on for too long, if the waxing isn’t what the book is actually about. No matter how well-written, philosophical, historical, geographical, and biological thoughts are only so gripping when the alternative is a drama- and action-filled fantasy novel.
Flashbacks or Dream Sequences Narrative Distance: Medium or Tight
Pros: Flashbacks and dream sequences are ridiculously tempting to many authors just due to the sheer number of things they accomplish. They provide a chance to infodump, give a character backstory, allow the reader greater empathy with an otherwise unlikeable character, and give insight into the character’s current situation. They’re an excuse to play with your writing style (and subject matter) in fun and innovative ways, and can set a mood like nobody’s business. A good dream sequence or flashback, usually centered on something of great emotional and symbolic importance to the character, is riveting.
Cons: Due to their ridiculously tempting nature, they are, tragically, a trifle overused. And, of course, by their nature, they can also be a bit confusing. So try to only use them when they trump more traditional methods of passing said information along—and when you do, make sure you polish that scene to a fine sheen.
Tight Focus on a Symbol Narrative Distance: Medium or Tight
Pros: While I’m a big fan of saying it straight, sometimes, the most poignant way to make your point is obliquely. Generally, you’ll find this kind of chapter start when putting the subject bluntly wouldn’t give it enough emotional weight, or would require too many words (and in doing so bury the point). And sometimes, it’s also when the hero themselves doesn’t understand where their headspace is, or when you want to foreshadow something the hero doesn’t know.
Cons: Symbolic beginnings, like garlic, can come off very strong. Occasionally, strong is just what you want—for example, when the character is supposed to come to some sort of understanding through the symbolic reference, or when hunting vampires (re: garlic). However, other times, keep it brief and subtle, so as to avoid ruining the effect.
Waking UpNarrative Distance: Any
Pros: Most everyone has woken up before . . . It’s universally applicable! Seriously, though, it’s actually excellent when it’s actually applicable—meaning, when the waking up is in some way unusual, like after a period of missing time, or after being knocked out. Also, it gives the character an excuse to think about everything they otherwise wouldn’t, and in doing so provide a pretty clear picture of things for the reader.
Cons: It’s kind of cliché, especially for first chapters, so proceed with extreme caution. And if you find yourself knocking your character out all the time, just to change chapters? It may be time to work on those transition-writing skills.

About Susan J. Morris
A very logical child, Susan grew up reading stories about monsters by night and looking for them on the playground by day--scientifically rigorously--because she couldn't believe the world would be so boring as to be born without monsters. Dark, poetic, gritty sci-fi/fantasy and YA are her favorite inspirations, but she maintains that "It was there" is also a perfectly valid excuse to read a book.