Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reprint: Guest Blog Post with Author Lisa Bilbrey

Yes, I am recycling again. I'll knock it off soon, I swear.

In the meantime, this is a guest post that was originally put up on March 18, 2012. My other posts have dealt with my already-published work My Apple Tree, but this one deals with my upcoming historical novel, The Truth Seekers. Release of this novel was delayed because I just didn't feel like it was ready yet, so I am looking forward to seeing what kind of reception it gets now that it's been overhauled and revised within an inch of its life. Take a peek and see what you think, and while you're at it, check out Lisa's blog!

The Story behind the Truth Seekers

[This year,] my novel The Truth Seekers will be released by Renaissance Romance Publishing, and I couldn’t be prouder. Or more completely freaked out.

It’s a little nerve-wracking to let other people read this book, partially because it marks the first time my work is being read by anyone who doesn’t feel some sort of social pressure to be nice to me, and partially because of the kind of novel this is. I am a writer of snark, a speaker of snark, a blogger of snark… as a general rule, just very snarky. And yet, here I am, cranking out a debut novel that is not only snark-free, but also quite serious. As anyone can tell you, our serious, deep emotions are the ones we keep hidden from the rest of the world, lest our poor little hearts are broken by mockery and malice. It takes a special kind of bravery to put those kinds of feelings on display, particularly in front of strangers, as any man who has proposed in public can tell you. You suspect that you look completely barmy, but you don’t want to draw attention to it in case no one else has noticed yet. At any rate, publishing this particular novel feels somewhat like a group of strangers just caught me singing “Dancing Queen” in front of my mirror into my hairbrush/microphone. Not that I’ve ever done that.

So why write it in the first place? It all started with some words: words that would not get out of my head. They rolled around and around in my brain like the prose was full-on stalking me. At last, desperate to get my own brain back, I sat down at the computer and started to type what I “heard” in my head. It began, "I may miss you, but I will not canonize you. You were a sinner, your soul was a fire, and I backed away to save myself even as my eyes were snared by the wild beauty of your burning.”

It turned out to be a letter from a heartbroken woman to a man she desperately loved. It was elaborate, it was elegant, and it was passionate. And yet I had absolutely no clue what the back-story behind it was. Who was this woman? To whom was she writing? What had happened to separate them? No answers appeared to be forthcoming, so I closed the document and turned my attention to other things, just chalking it up as one of those weird writing phenomenon that make the rational world convinced that all novelists are slightly mad.

Then the next night it happened again, only this time, it was the gentleman’s response that was bouncing around in my brain. Surrendering to the inevitable, I pulled up the document and more or less took dictation from my imagination. It flowed onto the page almost effortlessly, but when he’d said his piece, the tap shut off abruptly. I still had no idea what their story was, only this time I was really eager to find out.

All this happened not too long before November, which is a significant month to novelists the world over. For the uninitiated, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. A wonderful non-profit organization called The Office of Letters and Light organizes a month-long novel writing challenge: write 50,000 words in thirty days. There’s no real prize for “winning;” you just get the ego boost of knowing you crossed the finish line. Not everyone does. I had never attempted NaNo before, but I decided to take my two letters with no story and build a novel around them.  

I won the challenge that year by the skin of my teeth. The nature of the NaNo beast is that you are so focused on your word count that you are forced to ignore your inner editor entirely if you want to have any hope of victory. There simply isn’t time to second-guess yourself, so you find yourself tossing everything but the kitchen sink into your book. You write down every random, crazy idea that pops into your head because, even though you may have to edit it out down the road, right now it’s another five hundred words that you didn’t have before. Because of this “anything goes” feeling, I postponed reviewing the manuscript for several months after NaNo ended – I was attempting to psych myself up to face the catastrophic mess I just knew I’d made.

Imagine my shock when I finally read it and found I actually liked it. Oh, it wasn’t publication-ready by a long shot, but it had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and they all happened in the correct order. There were only a few continuity howlers instead of the great hairy beasts lurking behind every corner that I had expected to find. Eventually, the lovely people at Renaissance Romance Publishing got a look at it and threatened to cut off my caffeine supply if I didn’t let them publish it, and the rest is history. Or it will be, once I finish the final edits.

The story itself is a product of a place from which I have pulled quite a lot of inspiration over the years: Chautauqua Institution in New York State. Chautauqua has served as a hub of creativity, philosophy, art, religion, music, and dance for over two hundred years, and I can’t imagine anyone with a soul not responding to it on some level. My parents began taking me there for a week each summer when I was a little girl. I swam in Lake Chautauqua in my Wonder Woman bathing suit. I met my pen-pal there. I took a puppet-making class. I saw the Temptations perform live. I walked across a miniaturized version of the Holy Land. It was wonderful.

And it was there that I had one of those Life Moments that you remember forever. Madeleine L’Engle, author of the astoundingly wonderful Wrinkle in Time trilogy and many other equally amazing books, came one year as a guest lecturer. It was there in the Amphitheater that she gave me the first advice on writing I ever received. I met her afterwards and was completely seduced by her charm and wit. This encounter marked a huge shift in my life; I stopped mucking around with little snippets about rock stars and really started to focus on writing an actual book. Madeleine L’Engle essentially had shown me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I think the experience fundamentally changed my hard-wiring for life.

When it came time for me to create a novel about two passionate, star-crossed lovers from the past, it was almost ridiculously easy to place them in this wonderful world. Since the buildings are protected and maintained zealously, it takes no effort to imagine that you’ve been transported back to 1900. It was walking in the Hall of Philosophy where my protagonists first meet that I found the title for the novel. Along the floor are a series of mosaics, one for each “class” year. The mosaic for the Class of 1896 was titled “The Truth Seekers,” and this struck me as a perfect description of my young lovers.

Many of the other locations mentioned are actual places in Chautauqua, like the hotel across the street from my hero’s lodgings. The real St. Elmo Hotel (demolished in the late 1980s and rebuilt as condominiums) was also the inspiration for the screenplay for St. Elmo’s Fire, which was written by a lovesick bellboy one summer. The governor’s mansion is based on the Packard Manor, and even the assorted benches and paths have real life equivalents.

Of course, I was not in the same position once my hero absconded to Italy. However, thanks to my art history studies (I was something of a Renaissance junkie in college) and the terrifyingly heavy textbooks I’d held onto, I was able to at least send my imagination on the journey while a crew of men tore off and replaced the roof on my house. I’d love to travel to Florence, but I’m far keener on keeping my home in one piece. For the time being, I’m content to just live vicariously through my imaginary friends.

This is a novel I didn’t see coming, but it is also one that ties into many different important areas of my life. Because of this, it is intensely personal on many levels – as is all good fiction, I think. My characters were certainly insistent that this story be told, and I hope that Geoffrey and Miranda capture my readers’ hearts and imaginations as much as they’ve captured mine.

Check out the original post here:

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Writer's What-If

Sometimes I think I’m more interested in the hypothetical than in reality.

Case in point: when I was a child, I went through a phase during which I mowed through reams of grid paper, drawing up blueprint after blueprint. I can still vaguely recollect designing an elaborate building intended to be a residential summer camp for children. There was also a fantastic artist’s loft, a multi-storey mansion complete with secret passages, and a weirdly pragmatic office building. I loved creating the designs, but I never felt the urge to bring them to life. The dream of a career in architecture or interior design did not grip me. I just enjoyed looking at how spaces might work and ruminating on how people would exist – together or individually – in the environments I’d thought up.

When I was very young, I also did something that I am told is painfully common in girls: I dreamed up designs for wedding dresses. Of course, I grew up and got one of my own (it was lovely), but I found that my manic single-minded attention to the planning of this event in my life was motivated by a strange sense of obligation rather than any true interest on my part. When I get stressed out, I tend to deliver monologues to any unfortunate person who makes the mistake of asking me how I am. In retrospect, I believe that it was this quirk that was responsible for most of my Bridezilla moments.

Whether that’s true or not, one thing is certain: when I now read a romance that culminates in a wedding, I am profoundly uninterested in the event itself. I wonder if, perhaps, my husband and I had slipped off to the Justice of the Peace instead and kept the idea of a traditional wedding lodged in my head as a purely hypothetical experience, would I still be interested in reading fictional versions? All I can say is that I was not always so uninterested in depictions of the “big day” as I am now.

So I’m sitting here pondering this (hypothetical) insight into myself, and it occurs to me that this may explain my choice in professions. As a novelist, I can create environments, worlds, people, families, scenarios, employment situations, friendships – whatever I like, without any commitment. I can roll around in an ocean of What-Ifs to my heart’s content. And when I’m done playing in one sandbox, I can walk away and go create another.

Consider the phenomenon that is fiction writing. Generally, the process begins with a What-If that has niggled its way into the author’s brain like a badger. What if there was a door to another world in the back of a wardrobe? What if a boy discovered he was really a wizard? What if a governess fell in love with her employer, only to discover his mad wife was locked in the attic? What if there was a chocolate factory that really was as magical inside as any child could possibly imagine it?

Once the question has been asked, the author begins construction. This part of the process can take many forms. Some writers prefer outlines and character sketches and copious background research. Others prefer starting at the beginning and then stopping once they’ve reached the end. Some even start in the middle and work in bits and bobs until the whole is gradually fused together. It doesn’t matter much how this step is accomplished, since the end product is the same.

There are buildings and towns and planets that didn’t exist before. There are people with families, friends, loves, hates, pets, and pet peeves who have been hypothesized into existence. A world is created, designed, populated, and observed – and then the novelist presents his or her grand What-If, complete with all the trappings of a fully indulged imagination, to the reader.

I wonder if this means that the novelist by definition must then be the sort of person who cannot commit to one particular lifetime – the sort of person who feels compelled to try out all the possibilities without ever settling down to one path. Instead of living these possibilities, bouncing around their real lives aimlessly until they are introducing themselves at parties as magician-physicist-pilot-archeologists and living in their mothers’ basements, they can allow these wild conjectures to come to life through their writing alone. So many authors have day jobs – I suspect that coworkers might be surprised to learn that quiet, helpful Mary in Accounting goes home and writes BDSM vampire novels in her free time, or that George in Shipping has a healthy fan base for his epic sci-fi alien war games series.

Would Stephen King actually like to live one of his novels? Doubtful. He strikes me as the sort of rational person who appreciates the merits of not being slashed to ribbons. He is simply indulging, developing, and sharing his What-Ifs with the rest of the world. The reality is not necessary (thank goodness).

Perhaps fiction writers are gypsies in a world of possibilities and What-Ifs. Novelists must have talent, determination, and passion for their work in order to successfully bring those possibilities to life through pen and paper.

The most critical element by far is that they must enjoy the journey.