On Research

In the Q&A session after a recent talk I gave,  someone asked how I go about  the research involved in writing historical fiction.   SInce I am now in the early planning stages for my fourth novel, it’s a subject that is very close at hand, and I thought I would say something about it here.

  I have tried out a number of research strategies in the course of writing my novels, and I have settled on a method that works  efficiently and effectively for me.  First, I spend a number of months just reading about the era in which a book will be set.  I read histories, cultural studies, biographies, and anything else that seems essential to a basic understanding.  At this point I’m not sure who my characters are going to be, or even what the personality of the main character will be like, but it’s important to have a good sense for what their culture makes them likely or unlikely to do, think, or say.

As I study, I am making note of particularly colorful people and events, to see if I can figure out a way to work them in. As the chronology and cast of characters begin to emerge, I figure out a timeline and settings for the novel. Because I always have a strong female point-of-view character, I can then give her a date of birth, a name, a family background, a place of residence, and so on.  From there, I build my initial plan for the novel, incorporating a broad outline of the key characters’ life stories into the chronology I have established.  Unlike some authors I know,  I don’t outline in any more detail than this, because I’ve learned from experience that the story will turn out differently as I get to know the characters better.

There’as an amazing point in every book where the characters take over, and I feel more like the recorder of something that really did happen than the inventor of it. Emile Zola called his works “experimental novels,” meaning that when a character is put in an situation ( i.e., a new experiment), who they are will drive what happens.  That’s when a book begins to have a life of its own. I know generally how my characters will react to their situation and what decisions are consistent with who they are, but I don’t know exactly what they will do or say next.  Sometimes they surprise me as my fingers fly over the keys, but I end up realizing that what I wrote was consistent with who they are at a deeper level than I had understood before. When they take on additional depth for me, they do so for the reader as well.

Because I usually get inspired to start writing before I have studied more than the best general sources, I stop often to fill in the gaps in my knowledge on a need-to-know basis.  The advantage of this approach is that the research doesn’t drive the novel, but rather the needs of the novel drive the research.  I don’t like it when a historical novelist intrudes to share background information, regardless of how interesting it is.  To me that’s fictionalized history rather than historical fiction.  The characters and the story have to come first on every page, and the task is to find a way to share interesting information through the characters.  If a writer is thinking about how to build in as much as possible of the research he or she has already done, the priorities will shift away from the most immediate tasks at hand, character development and plot.

No research plan is perfect.  It can be a little scary starting to write without having all the material I need.  Perhaps in earlier times more research was necessary from the beginning. Today, with information about almost any topic available in seconds online, I favor keeping my mind as free as possible of anything except the immediate writing task at hand, and the floor of my study as clear as possible of stacks of books I may or may not ever use.  And for that, my ever-patient and supportive partner (who shares that study with me)  gives a big thumbs up as well!


Coming Down with a Book

I’ve named it CWS, this affliction I suffer from: Chronic Writer’s Syndrome.  It starts out simply enough, with the feeling that just maybe you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to take on the challenge of writing a full-length book, and before you know what’s happened, a few years have passed and you don’t feel you’re living at your fullest unless you are writing  a book. 

I have written four books in six years,  beginning  in early 2004 with UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, and ending with a finished first draft of THE LAWS OF MOTION in September 2009, so I know how CWS sets in.  You get,  say, 80 percent of the way through one book, and you find your mind wandering to what might be next.   It’s a subtle, almost unnoticeable process by which another set of characters from another place and time start tiptoing into the study and sitting down to wait quietly for you to notice they’re there.

Next, I find my breaks from writing being taken up with online bookstore crawling for works on the subject of the next novel, as well as quick online searches for answers to little questions that start lodging in my mind.  At this point, there might still be a battle going on between several ideas for books– probably lucky those characters aren’t really sitting in my study, since it might get ugly!  I haven’t been grabbed yet by one idea or another, but by some subtle process I can’t explain, one concept, or era, or character emerges, and everything else is put aside as I  acknowledge to myself that yes, I now know what I will write next.

Diane Ackerman very wittily calls this stage of the process “coming down with a book.”  And I have come down with one.  This is the stage where writers tend

With Diane Ackerman at a reception in her honor at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center
With Diane Ackerman at a reception in her honor at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center

 to be very possessive and don’t  to share much, so all I will say at the moment is that it will be set in Iberia in the era known as Age of Exploration.  It will be  a multi-generational saga, set in the richest cultural and historical  setting I  have ever worked with. It will be the most difficult challenge of my career as an author, and I am ready for it.

It’s a little rocky for me right now, since I don’t really want to be coming down with another book quite so soon. I am always  exhausted physically and emotionally after finishing a project, and I order myself not to jump into the next thing.   And this time I was doing a little better.  I’ve been writing book reviews for various publications,  creating  new materials for my  humanities classes at San Diego City College, and developing presentations for upcoming appearances. But  it’s not feeling like enough.  I’ve learned that, surprisingly, I could do all those other things and be writing a book too, since having less time is good motivation to use all time well. 

My good friend and fellow author Stephanie Cowell gave me this beautiful advice about this dilemma:  “It’s hopeless to fight it. The wonderful stage of beginning something is it’s so free…you don’t have to make the thing come together as a whole piece. You are just wandering in a wonderful new country like a tourist with money in her pocket and no place she has to be, sitting in a cafe, drinking wine thoughtfully….”

I like it.  And who says CWS has to be all bad?  How about a few tapas with that wine?
With author Stephanie Cowell in New York
With author Stephanie Cowell in New York

A Super September

Thanks to all my website readers for making September the most-visited month yet since the launch in January 2009. 

I broke the 1000 mark for  the first time, having 1068 unique visitors, who made 1951 total visits to the home page over the course of the month.  The number of foreign visitors has been steadily growing too, the most numerous being German, Canadian, Dutch, French, and British. 

 By far the most popular part of the site is the diary, which had over 3500 hits, many of these directly from the RSS feed. The most frequently hit diary entries include “Begin Again, Ernest, and This Time Concentrate,” Will the Woman in the Corset Please Get Off the Court?” and “Judging a Book by Its Cover.” 

Interestingly to me, all four of my books, fiction and non-fiction, published and unpublished, got roughly the same number of visitors to their sections on the site.  Hope that’s a good sign of interest in my future work! 

In a few months, I’ll soon be doing another major update and refurbishment to the photo gallery and the books section, so I hope you’ll keep checking in.  Again, thanks for your support not just of me but of  all those who work hard to write better than they think they can.


A Poetry Lover Confronts Her Closet

All you liberal arts, English major types might enjoy this.  It’s a poem I wrote after staring at my closet one day and having verses from a couple of poems flit into my mind.


A Poetry Lover Confronts Her Closet2881576414_fee6127938


About clutter I was never wrong.

And had I but world enough and time, I might have more.

Clutter to the left of me, clutter to the right of me,

But clutter is junk and junk clutter.  That is all I know on earth and all I need to know.


Today we have the purging of clothes.

Oh shorts, thou art stained—no grandeur in these dappled things.

Ignorant stray socks have clashed too long by night,

And your gossamer threads caught somewhere, oh my tights.


I’m martyr to a surplus all my own.

The apparition of these t-shirts in a pile

Is too much with me and lays waste my floor.

There is no going gentle into that top drawer.


Two earrings diverged on an unknown trip.

One with somewhere to go sailed calmly on.

Safe in its alabaster chamber, its mate’s forlorn.

Nevermore, I quote the raven, to be worn.


Here are some pants against which I have no official complaint.

But will there be time?  Will there be time

To arise and go, and go to Hems R We

Because rolled bottoms are too old for me?


I real cool.

I shopping fool.

Beware the credit card, my son—

Since feeling is first, we want no dream deferred.

Getting and spending in ah!—bright hopes,

Little we see in paychecks that is ours.


Shall I compare thee to what so much depends upon?

 The chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Or perhaps that is not what I meant at all.

Perhaps that is not it at all.


Authors Galore!

With author William Powers at the 2008 Backspace Conference in New York
With author William Powers at the 2008 Backspace Conference in New York

The Fourth Annual San Diego City College International Book Fair is just around the corner! It opens on Friday eve., October 2, with two speakers and a knock-your-socks-off concert by Perla Batalla, and then continues all day Saturday, October 3. I’m really excited and deeply honored to be one of the writers on the program.

The biggest excitement for me is the chance to connect again with a fellow author I met several years ago on a panel at a conference in New York. William Powers writes with quiet dignity and eloquence about what he calls the “soft world.” His subjects are indigenous people living amid the cultural onslaught and environmental degradation of international corporations in places like West Africa and South America. His books UNDER THE PANDA’S THUMB, and BLUE CLAY PEOPLE are must-reads for people advocating for true global citizenry, and Bill himself serves as a good example of what one tenacious person can accomplish.

He would be a hard enough act to follow, but looking at the schedule I see that I also have to come after someone who is arguably the best-known person on the program. Marilyn Chin is a renowned poet who has now written what sounds like a very entertaining debut novel about two young Chinese women trying to balance assimilation with traditionalism while driving a delivery van for a (bad) Chinese food joint.

An hour of inspiration followed by an hour that promises lots of laughter, and then it’s my turn. Gulp.

Nevertheless, I must admit that I am truly excited about the opportunity to speak about UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. Most of my appearances since the publication of THE FOUR SEASONS have been about that book, and I have been hoping for opportunities to share with audiences what I learned from writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. After a short introduction to the book’s specific subject matter—Jews who fought back against the Nazis in Vilna, Lithuania—my experiences writing the book will be the primary focus of my talk.

The fair is an important part of San Diego City College’s emergence as a hub for writing in the San Diego area. It’s the brain child of Professor Jim Miller, the original director, and thrives now under current director Virginia Escalante, with the enthusiastic support of college president Terry Burgess, the City College Foundation, and many local sponsors. Come on down, if you can, and bring your kids–there a whole children’s area for budding authors. Here’s a complete list of speakers and events.


Happy New Year and Thanksgiving

medtashlichviIt’s mid-September, so what’s up with these greetings? My Jewish friends will understand the first. This weekend marks the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”). The High Holy Days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, are a time for reflection on the past year in a uniquely Jewish way.

One important part of the process is a meditation known as Vidui. It’s essentially an inventory of all the ways a person can fall short of the mark. Though much of the prayer is focused on what is perceived as improper behavior toward God, there are also sections in which the focus is how we might have let ourselves and others down by not being the best person we can be.

The idea is to identify shortcomings and make amends if these have caused harm to others. Being sorry is not enough. One has to act on that sorrow with a genuine desire to heal the damage, directly if possible and indirectly if not, and then resolve to not fall short in that way again.

It’s a deeply moving process, if taken seriously. I have found in my own life that the High Holy Days have helped me come to grips with the unfinished business of the past, find a healthy and forward-looking resolution, and truly feel I can move on. Whether a believer of another faith or not, reviewing the Vidui for yourself can function as a form of self help–free therapy from an ancient rite! Those who want the secular take can scroll quickly through the rest.

So why is it Thanksgiving? This is more personal. There’s a ceremony on the first day of Rosh Hashanah called Tashlich, where Jews throw bread upon water as a way of casting aside the last year and moving into this period of renewal. I feel I keep a pretty close watch on myself year-round. I think I do a pretty good job of being mindful of the needs and feelings of others, and I do my best not to behave in a way that loads others down with burdens that rightfully I should carry. I’m pretty good about finding what requires atonement and doing it at the time. Since I’m not very good at coming up with a long list of things to repent, I use Tashlich a different way.

As I stand at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, I do my best to be grateful for something specific as I throw each morsel of bread. I’m grateful for friends and family; for meaningful work to do; for a comfortable standard of living; for opportunities to grow artistically, intellectually, and spiritually; for good health, and for so many other things. I give thanks, in essence, for the opportunities life provides me for happiness and the ability to move on from the things that stand in the way. May it always be so. Happy New Year!


The Same Me

“You know, there’s someone else with the same name out there publishing books,” an acquaintance said to me a few days ago.

“Seriously?” I’m definitely listening.

“Yeah–I saw the titles online. They were really different from your books, though.”

A light is starting to dawn. “Were they mostly about countries? Shorter books maybe, for teenagers?”

“Maybe….” She still looks puzzled, but I’m not. “That’s not someone else,” I tell her. “It’s the same old me.”

When I launched this website in January 2009, I made a decision to streamline a lot of what had been on my separate websites for THE FOUR SEASONS and UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. One of the things I eliminated was a page about the books I had written


when I was just starting to write for publication. My first published volume was for Lucent Books in 1999, a Young Adult (YA) book on Kenya. I followed that over the next several years with sixteen other YA titles, mostly in a series called Modern Nations. My other strong interest was Judaica, and I ended up writing several YA books on aspects of that (images of the book covers for those are shown here).

I stopped writing for Lucent Books in 2004, when Michael Bart asked me to be the author of UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. It was a good experience writing for young adults, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in trying out the idea of a career as a writer. I discovered a great deal about the overall process of publishing a book, including all the behind-the-scenes roles others play. I learned to work within parameters for such things as word count and level of reading difficulty. I learned about meeting deadlines and following formats, and about the reciprocal expectations of author and editor. But most of all, I learned to write more clearly and succinctly, and to explain things well. This above all played a role in my successful transition to adult non-fiction with UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH.

Lucent Books publishes primarily for libraries, so if you’re interested in books by the “other me,” or in the subjects I’ve written about, you might want to check out your kids’ or grandkids’ school library, or your local branch of the public library.


Instructions from My Imagination

Funny how a misunderstanding can sometimes lead to an entirely unrelated insight. A few days ago my partner was talking about a paper he was working on in his scientific field, and I heard him say, “it’s an instruction from my imagination.”

“That’s exactly what writing is like for me!’ I replied.

Turns out what he actually said was “it’s a construction from my imagination,” and that’s apt too, but fiction writers already know that our work is constructed out of our heads. It was the misunderstanding that provided real insight into my own creative process.

Some people may picture the Muse as a creature with a toga and a crown of laurel muse_erato1(which I like to think of as a Laurel Corona). She sits on a writer’s shoulder and sings inspirational songs while accompanying herself on the lyre. My muse isn’t like that at all. She’s more like a drill sergeant barking orders. Get up! Get to work! Stay put! You have a novel to write! With all my novels, it was like getting instructions from my imagination, instructions I had no choice but to accept.

I’m not saying I don’t love my Muse. She has never let me down (although, as for all authors, the Muse’s relationship to our unwritten books is yet to be seen). But writing is a real taskmaster, and writing a book feels like going to a very, very long boot camp.

Long indeed. I realized the other day that I have written four full-length books–three novels (THE FOUR SEASONS, PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, and my in-progress work, THE LAWS OF MOTION) and one narrative non-fiction work (UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH) in six years. I have never not been writing a book since the beginning of 2004, and in some cases, most notably with UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, rewriting and heavy editing overlapped with creating the first draft of THE FOUR SEASONS.

Those are some pretty serious marching orders! So I’ve been appreciating the fact that, with the first draft of THE LAWS OF MOTION done (and with no editor yet to take the place of the Muse), I have no orders at all. I’m back to having only one full-time job, teaching humanities at San Diego City College, and it is really a treat to be able to give it my full attention. Who knows? I might actually do some reading for pleasure this fall. Play a little more tennis. Get back regularly to the gym. Read more than the headlines in the paper. This could be fun!

But I’m keeping quiet about it. You never know what the Muse might do if she starts feeling insecure about her hold on me. But I don’t worry too much. Whenever she wants to return I will welcome her with open arms–that is, after dropping and doing a few sets of push-ups.


Yes to School

I’ve just finished the first week of instruction of the Fall 2009 semester at San Diego City College. It was a great first week, filled with all the affirmations that have kept me doing my job with a lot of joy in my heart since I went back to teaching full-time about fifteen years ago. Here are some of those affirmations:

YES to students who believe in the power of education to change their lives.

YES to students who are full-time workers and parents, who manage to work it out so they can be sitting in classrooms ready to learn.

YES to students who WANT to go to school with people different from themselves.

YES to students who have never given up on themselves despite the stunning obstacles they have faced.

YES to students who don’t give up on themselves despite the stunning obstacles they face right now.

YES to students who come up and say “this class sounds really hard, but I like that.”

YES to students who think the same thing and keep it to themselves.

YES to students who believe they have a voice that should be heard, and know that learning to express themselves articulately and passionately will help make that happen.

YES to students who ask questions.

YES to students who’ve already started reading the book.

YES to students who respect their teachers.

YES to teachers who respect their students.

YES to colleagues who pull out all the stops to be the best they can be.

YES to staff who remain good humored when professors are flaky and disorganized (and sometimes downright rude).

YES to Fall semester 2009.

And, YES, I’m glad the first week is over.



United Through Reading

This from the website of UNITED THROUGH READING:

“What began as one woman’s vision for separated military families has now benefited over a half million people, both military and non-military, through the power of reading aloud. Today, United Through Reading offers parents separated from their children by distance or circumstance a opportunity to be recorded on DVD reading storybooks to their children from nearly 200 recording locations around the world.

“Imagine a US Army Soldier entering a tent in Afghanistan, dropping his gear and picking up a copy of Goodnight Moon to read to his son at home. Imagine a child, living in foster care while her mother is incarcerated, sitting down with a brand new copy of Go, Dog, Go! in her lap and being read to by her mother. Imagine a child getting to know his great-grandmother because, even though she can’t travel, she can read him a bedtime story from her local library. Now imagine doing that for over a half million people, and you have 20 years of United Through Reading.”

I can’t imagine a charity that could be more inspiring–or timely–as we experience war and social upheaval in our own lives. I recently became aware of this group when Dr. Sally Ann Zoll, CEO of United Through Reading, contacted me to ask if I wanted to donate my time as part of a silent auction item at the organization’s upcoming Storybook Ball. It will contain eight signed copies of THE FOUR SEASONS, and a restaurant lunch for eight with me coming as their featured guest to lead a book discussion. This is something entirely new for me–an honor of course, and what a lot of fun in an excellent cause!