Productivity for Writers and Other People

It’s interesting to me to see how conversations change over time. Not so long ago everyone was praising multi-tasking as the best thing ever. Hey, I can write the world’s greatest novel while reading blogs while checking every new email the moment it pops into my inbox while keeping track of every ping on Facebook and Twitter while walking the dog while doing my taxes while binge watching Netflix while juggling watermelons while yodeling to the tune of “O Solo Mio.” At the end of the day I’d wonder why I hadn’t written more. Had I really lost an entire day watching cat videos on YouTube? Then I realized that I didn’t want to spend more time working. I wanted to get more done.

Around this time, I started seeing articles about how multi-tasking may not be all it was cracked up to be. We weren’t putting all our attention and talent into any one task; as a result, we weren’t working to the best of our abilities because our attention was too scattered. Enter the discussion about productivity.

I think the reason there are so many articles about productivity is because so many of us are struggling with the same issue—how do we work more efficiently so that we’re getting more and better work done in less time? Here are a few tricks I’ve learned lately that have helped me stay focused while I’m working. I wrote this post from the point of view of a writer hoping to steal back some of her precious time to get more writing done, but I hope anyone who is having some concerns about their productivity will find these tips useful.

  1. I changed my homepage for the Internet.

Since I’ve had the Internet in the mid 1990s I’ve used AOL as my homepage. My email address is through AOL, so by using AOL as my homepage I could check my email as soon as I logged online. But you know how it goes…there are the news links, the entertainment links, the books links, along with any other links that might catch my eye. Once AOL and The Huffington Post joined hands, I was done for. I’d spend an hour reading blog posts and getting no work done in the process. Was it fun? For sure, though there were definitely times when I was wondering why I was reading about celebrities I didn’t even care about. I had just wasted an hour I could have spent getting my work done.

About three months ago I changed my Internet homepage to my own website. That might sound a little self-serving, but it helps me in two ways. First, I can do a quick glance at my site to see if there are comments I need to respond to, which I can often do in under five minutes. Second, there are no news feeds to distract me so I’m able to get right to whatever it is I need on the Internet. Yes, I have to click on one or two more links to get to my email, but it’s worth it to me to skip over the distractions.

  1. I check my email twice a day.

I check my email in the morning to see if there’s anything imperative that needs seeing to, and then I check my email at the end of my work day to see if there’s something that came in since the morning. That’s it.

  1. I removed the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone and iPad and stopped all social media notifications.

Now the only way I can access Facebook and Twitter is to log in on my computer. This extra step helps to scratch the itch that used to lead me to check my social media pages every five minutes to see if someone posted a new cute cat photo. I check Facebook and Twitter twice a day, quick scans to see what others are up to and if there’s anything I need to respond to, which, again, I can usually do in less than five minutes.

I also removed all social media notifications. I no longer get instant pings whenever I get a new email or message on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. When I was getting the notifications everything else stopped until I discovered who sent the message and what it said. One day, in a burst of wisdom, I realized that most of the pings were about things of extreme unimportance. I decided that I wanted to focus my attention on things that are important so I turned off the notifications, and I don’t even miss them.

  1. I schedule my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn posts.

I use Hootsuite to schedule my posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It takes about an hour to schedule a week’s worth of posts, and then I’m done and don’t have to search every day for what to post on social media.

  1. I started using Google calendar to schedule my daily tasks.

For years I used paper and pencil notebooks and planners, but in my new wish to downsize my belongings (I love Marie Kondo’s books about decluttering) I’ve become totally electronic. Google calendar is heaven sent. It’s free, and all you need is a gmail account, which is also free. You can share your calendar with others, or you can keep it private. So now I know each day what I need to accomplish.

For example, today I had several tasks to tend to: complete my word count for the first draft of Down Salem Way, write this blog post, and find five sites to advertise Her Dear & Loving Husband, which is once again free. When those tasks are finished, I’m done with my work for the day, which is always a good feeling. Knowing what I have to do helps me stay focused. When I wasn’t keeping track of my daily tasks I just floated about looking at stupid stuff on the Internet because I was never sure what to do next so I’d go back to those cute cat videos on YouTube.

On a side note, I also find that it helps to know exactly what I’m looking for when I go onto the Internet. Right now, I’m back to researching the Salem Witch Trials for Down Salem Way, and I’m also looking for places to advertise When It Rained at Hembry Castle and Her Dear & Loving Husband. I have those tasks on my Google calendar too so I know what I’m searching for. It stops me from going back to (you guessed it–the cute cat videos).

  1. I turned off the TV.

The TV is not completely gone because I do love my Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming. For years, even if I wasn’t watching a show I had the TV on acting as background noise. Now the TV is off, as in off off, with a blank screen and everything. I started listening to music because music always helps to get my creative juice flowing. I’ve also started listening to podcasts because I realized I’d rather listen to some intelligent conversation than some TV show I don’t care about, and I can listen while I work. Rather than distracting me, the podcasts tap into my inquisitiveness about the world and they help me think, which is always a good thing.

My podcast tastes are pretty eclectic, like everything else about me. I love podcasts about writing and the publishing industry like Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn. As I’m learning more about productivity, I’m also learning more about how to be centered and healthy in this crazy world of ours so I listen to Shawn Stevenson’s The Model Health Show and Pedram Shojai’s The Urban Monk. The School of Greatness with Lewis Howes is also pretty cool, and Shambhala features talks by famous meditation teachers in their podcast Meditation in the City. I recently discovered the History Chicks’ podcast, a great listen for a history buff like me.

  1. I had to learn to stop checking everything everywhere.

We’ve all heard of the social ill the Fear of Missing Out (affectionately—or not depending on your point of view—known as FOMO). I was right there with everyone else, checking my social media every five minutes, worrying that what was going on over there was more important than what was going on over here. Also, because I’m a writer I was constantly checking my stats on my website and my book sales. Why did I sell more books on Wednesday than Monday? How come this book’s sales have slipped? Why did this post get more views than that post? I’d check my Amazon sales page five or six times a day, as if things were going to be that different between 3 and 5 pm. And then when things were the same I felt disappointed that some magical sales boost hadn’t happened.

Not only is this kind of constant worry exhausting, it isn’t productive. When I was worried about book sales or website stats I should have been writing. There was some time there when I was a writer who wasn’t writing—or at least I wasn’t writing as much as I could have been. I was so concerned about all these other aspects, some of which were beyond my control, and you know what? They don’t matter. Sales don’t matter. Website hits don’t matter. The only thing that matters is how I feel about what I’m doing. I was allowing other people’s perceptions of me (or even worse, my own perception of other people’s perceptions of me) to affect how I felt about myself, and that, my friends, is never a good thing.

As a result, I put myself on my “no checking stats” rule that I live by to this day. I no longer check my Amazon, BN, or Kobo sales pages. I no longer check to see how many page views my latest blog post has. My one exception is that when I’m running a promotion I may check my book sales pages to see if the promotion is worth its weight in beans, but otherwise my Amazon page is a no-go. Because you know what? My books are going to sell as many copies that day as they’re going to sell whether I’m compulsively checking or not. Why make myself crazy and waste time in the process? Yes, it does takes some self-restraint to go from checking 10 times a day to zero times a day, but it is possible. If you’re not able to go cold turkey like I did, maybe try checking just once a day and see how that goes.

  1. I started paying more attention to my health.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I wasn’t eating well. I was eating and drinking way too much sugar, and my exercise habits had all but disappeared. As I’m working toward becoming a more productive writer, I’m also learning more about health and wellness (mostly from the afore mentioned Model Health Show podcast from Shawn Stevenson). I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but for now I’ll say that whoever you are, no matter what your profession, you have to get up and move. You have to put healthy food into your body. You have to drink more water. The better you feel, the more productive you’re able to be because you’re healthier. It’s hard to be productive when you feel lousy. Do what you can to help yourself feel better.

I am definitely getting more work done in less time. I’m no longer wasting time—or, more accurately, I’m wasting far less time. I still spend more time on Pinterest than I need to, but hey, no one’s perfect. For the first time, I’m writing two books at a time, which is something I’ve never been able to do before. By whittling away at time wasters and finding ways to streamline my work time, I’ve been able to get more done. From now on, instead of multi-tasking, I’ll be focusing on productivity.

What I Learned About Writing from Coloring Books

As I’ve said before (in this post), I’ve joined the coloring book craze. I loved coloring when I was a kid, and as it happens I still love to color. I consider myself a wannabe crafter, and I used to dabble in painting with acrylics, and while coloring isn’t actually crafting or creating an original work of art, it still allows me to play with colors.

Peacock

This is definitely one of my better pieces, maybe because I love peacocks.

I’ve found that, at least for me, there is a meditation-like quality to coloring because the coloring itself is all I’m thinking about while I’m engaged in the activity. I’m not worried about schoolwork I have to do, crazy professors, and all the writing I have to get through. All I’m thinking about is the page I’m coloring, what colored pencils, crayons, or markers I want to use, and which colors I think will look best. The more I have to do, the more I appreciate the simplicity of sitting down with some crayons and filling in the pictures.

As coloring became more popular, suddenly there were countless posts and articles about how to color. It’s similar to what happened with writing and indie publishing—suddenly there were all these experts shouting about the right way to do things. Something that should be relaxing and fun becomes stressful as we try to keep up. There’s nothing like an expert to take the fun out of something.

I had the realization (while coloring, of course) that my attitude toward coloring was the same as my attitude toward writing. I had to decide for myself how I wanted to color, just like I had to decide for myself how I wanted to write. Here are a few things I learned from coloring books and how they relate to writing:

  1. Use the colors you want to use.

The experts in coloring will tell you to choose your palette first—use a color wheel to help you determine which colors to use. They’ll tell you which colors go with each other, and if you use that other color combination, look out! The Crayola Police will hunt you down. Hey, they say, that’s how painters do it, so that’s how coloring people should do it too!

And then I realized that I could use any color combination I want, just as I can write my stories however I want. I don’t like choosing my colors ahead of time. I like to choose my colors one by one as I’m coloring in the picture. Sometimes I have an overall idea of the color scheme I want to use, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m happy with how the pictures turn out, sometimes I’m not. When I’m writing, I have an overall idea of how I want the story to turn out, but I’ve also learned to get out of my own way and allow the story to find its own path. If I prefer choosing my colors as I go as opposed to choosing them first then I can do that. If I prefer letting my stories find their own way, I can do that too.

  1. Stop comparing yourself to others.

There are some amazing coloring websites out there where the coloring people post their finished pages. Some of those colored pages are indeed museum ready. They’re absolutely beautiful with shading and light and the way the colors blend together. My pictures don’t look like that (as you’ll see from the examples in this post). I love playing with colors, and some color combinations I try I like, some I don’t like as much, but so what? I wouldn’t know what I liked unless I allowed myself the freedom to experiment.

I have no desire to become a professional artist. Making myself crazy trying to make my pictures look like some of these artists’ pictures doesn’t work for me. I don’t have a lot of time to color because I’m so busy with other tasks, so when I do have time to color I don’t want to spend my time being stressed because my picture doesn’t look good enough compared to what other people can do. Where’s the fun in that?

Writers often have severe cases of compare-itis. We’re always looking to see which writers are selling more books, getting better reviews, or winning more awards than we are. We have to remind ourselves that we’re not in competition with other writers. This isn’t a race. Our careers as writers are just as unique as we are as people. No two writing careers are alike. We need to remember to focus on ourselves and helping our own careers move forward. Like runners, if we keep looking back to see who might overtake us we’ll lose steam and slow down.

  1. Outline if you want to (and it’s okay to color outside the lines).
Blue Birds

You can see that I outlined the leaves in dark green and filled them in with light green.

When I was reading posts of coloring tips, a number of the experts said not to outline your drawing. Apparently, with outlining you’re not going to have a realistic looking product and that’s not how the professionals do it. Oh well. I’ve always liked to outline my coloring pictures. Even when I was a kid I’d outline the shapes with whatever crayon I was using. A lot of times, I’ll outline with a darker color and fill in the shape with a lighter color (as evidenced in the picture to the left here), and I like the way that looks. Is it wrong? Not to me. It’s my coloring page and I’m going to do it the way I want to. It’s the same with coloring outside the lines. I like it when my coloring pencils or crayons end up outside the line because then when I’m filling in the next color they blend a bit. How maddening, to feel like your coloring page is all wrong if your hand slipped and some color ended up on the other side of the black line.

There are many posts out there for writers about the right way to do things. Write in these genres if you want to make money. Publish this many books a year. Set your books at these prices. Grow your social media presence and build your author platform. But what if you don’t want to limit your writing to certain genres, or what if you have another life outside of your writing like I do and you can only publish one book a year? Does that mean that you won’t have any career as a writer? Not at all. It means that you get to decide what kind of career you’re going to have.

Here are my own tips for coloring (and they apply to writing as well):

  1. Choose what you want to color. You don’t have to start at the beginning of the book. You decide where to start. If you don’t love the picture, colorng it will be a chore. The same goes for writing. Write something you’re excited to get back to. If you’re not excited about it, it’s going to be hard to convince readers your writing is worth their time.
  1. Choose your own colors. You can use a color wheel to examine which colors go together, or you can choose whatever you want to choose because you want to choose it. You can choose them ahead of time, or you can choose them in the moment, whichever feels right to you. For writing, you get to decide how you use language. You have the final say in how you’ll string phrases together. You may not like the way some of it turns out. That’s okay. You tried it, you didn’t like it, so try again until you find something you do like.
  1. Don’t compare your pictures (or your writing) to anyone else. Find your own style.
  1. Coloring (and writing) should be fun. Listen to your favorite music. Turn off your electronic devices and other distractions. Make your coloring (and your writing) time special so you’re looking forward to getting back to it.

You can let the experts tell you what to do and how to do it, or you can find your own way. Whether I’m coloring or writing, I find it a lot more fulfilling to find my own way.

The Book in Your Head Versus the Book Your Readers Read

Since February 9, When It Rained at Hembry Castle has sold over 1000 copies. Thank you! I’m sure there are other authors who can sell that many in a day, but I think those are pretty snazzy numbers.

After the release of my new book, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow author about what happens when you put a book out into the world. As writers, we spend hours, weeks, years living with a story, and then one day we have to set the story free. But what happens when other people (also known as readers) begin to read that story?

images-1I have a friend who is struggling with this issue while she’s getting ready to release her first novel, a venture into Steampunk complete with Victorianisms and fancy-pants machinery. The fear that nearly paralyzes her is the worry over bad reviews. I’ve tried to explain to her that it’s all part of the game. Every book gets bad reviews. I want you to check your favorite book’s Amazon page. I’ll wait. While you’re looking, you’re likely to see some bad reviews there.

I had a few things to say about negative reviews here. Focus on the people who like what you do, I say. They’re the ones who will look forward to your new releases. And if you really can’t handle book reviews, you can always do what I do—not read them. I kid you not. I don’t read negative reviews of my own books. My mother tried to catch me out once when I was talking about a movie review I had read. “I thought you said you don’t read reviews,” she said. What I said, I explained, is I don’t read my own reviews. I read other people’s reviews all the time.

The discussion with my friend about book reviews led into another conversation about the book writers think they’re writing versus the book the readers read. Think of it this way—when we’re writing a story, we know what we intend to do, why the pieces of the puzzle are set out the way they are, why this character says one thing when she means another. But when readers read, they’re not in our heads, they’re in their heads. Which is just as well. My head is crowded enough with only me in there. Readers have their own experiences, their own likes and dislikes, their own tastes. In the end, it doesn’t matter what I intended when I was crafting the story. To the readers, it only matters what happens when they engage with the story.

UnknownNext, my friend asked how to write a novel that will appeal to everyone. The answer is you can’t. I mean, really, you can’t. I see articles all over Pinterest and Twitter with headlines like “10 Steps to an International Bestseller” or “How to Make Everyone Love Your Book” or “I Don’t Suck at Writing Anymore, and Now You Won’t Either” (for a fee, of course). Here’s the secret that’s not really a secret: you have to write something that could only come from you. I love this quote from Barbara Kingsolver because it explains the point far better than I ever could (yes, I found it on Pinterest): “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the only thing you have to offer.” How true.

When we write, we figure out what we have to say and we say it the very best way we know how. And if what people read is different than what we thought we were writing? As Toni Morrison once said to Oprah Winfrey, “That is called reading.” Readers are going to bring their own perspectives to the page. They’re going to see the characters and the events through their lens, not yours. And you know what? It’s all good. Many times readers see our stories in a completely different light than we intended, and often they see possibilities the writers never considered.

Here’s a case in point, and one close to my heart because it involves Hembry Castle. When I began writing Hembry in 2014, I had just come off the success of the Loving Husband Trilogy and I thought Hembry would be a great way to go back to writing a love story that readers would cheer for. Edward Ellis and Daphne Meriwether were always the focus for me as I was writing the novel. Yes, Daphne has to figure out how to live in this Downton Abbey-like world, but all along I saw When It Rained at Hembry Castle as a great love story. And here’s what happened…

Before I continue I should say that, while I don’t read reviews of my own books, I do read every email that comes my way. Readers who emailed me about Hembry weren’t gushing over Edward and Daphne. They were asking about Richard, Daphne’s uncle, the 9th Earl of Staton. In the reader’s mind (at least those who contacted me), Richard was the center of attention. He is the Earl of Staton, after all. But I was intrigued by their questions about Richard when to me Edward and Daphne are the stars of the show. Is it wrong for readers to focus on Richard? Of course not. But realizing that readers were not necessarily reading the book I thought I had written was a huge revelation to me and a continuing source of fascination.

Over the years, I’ve learned to keep my focus on writing the best stories I know how before sending those stories off into the world with my blessings. Everything else is beyond my control—even how readers respond to the books I’ve written. If, as writers, we can learn to make peace with that, then there will be much more smooth sailing ahead.

Janet Fitch and Avoiding Clichés “Like the Plague”

First of all, thank you to those of you who helped to put When It Rained at Hembry Castle on the Amazon genre bestseller lists. As of this writing, the novel is #15 in the Literary Fiction British and Irish category. I don’t know who else would think to combine a love of Downton Abbey with a love for the books of Charles Dickens, but there you go.

I thought I’d repost this oldie but goodie from two years ago. To this day, I adhere to Janet Fitch’s idea that anything you’ve heard before is a cliché. That’s why I’m always stretching for unique descriptions.

Enjoy!

* * * * *

IMG_0384I’ve always had a hard time writing first drafts. You can see my tips for writing a first draft here. After I finish my first draft, that’s when I sit down at the computer no longer wanting to pop my eyes out with spoons or pluck my hairs one by one. Finally, in the second draft stage, I’m able to find the poetry in the prose. When I find the flow, that’s when the fun of writing begins for me. How do I find the flow? It’s a challenge, one that started 17 years ago.

In 1999, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, for the Oprah Book Club. Fitch talked about how a writing instructor told her that a “cliché is anything you’ve ever heard before—so never use a description anyone has heard.” As I remember it (it was 1999), Fitch spoke about a time she challenged herself to describe a tree with her own unique phrases. I was already well into fiction writing at that time, and her words struck me as truth. I learned that writers should reach to find their own descriptions, and they should never be lazy and allow others to do the work for them.

In a 2006 interview for O Magazine, Fitch explained that when she began writing fiction she had to work on word choices and the music of language. That was what I wanted too. I wanted to work on word choices and the music of language. I wanted to avoid clichés “like the plague” and create images “as sweet as pie.”

It’s a lesson I still hold close to my heart. When I’m molding sentences, I stretch, hands out, fingers pointing there, there where that inchoate image waits, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, for me to probe my vocabulary for the exactly right string of words to illuminate what I see the way I see it. If I’m describing a storm, a small town, a person, an emotion, I need to do it my own way. In their 2006 interview, Oprah mentions to Fitch that such a stretch “seems as if it would be quite difficult.” Fitch responds, “It is. But it means that everything you give the reader is absolutely fresh. We read so that we can be moved by a new way of looking at things.”

I learned a lot from Fitch in 1999, again in 2006, and I continue to learn from her whenever I read one of her novels. Reaching for phrases I’ve never heard before becomes harder with everything I write, but that’s the part of writing I thrive on—creating poetry in prose. And when I do finally find the right words, that is when I love having written.

If you’d like to lose yourself in the poetry of Janet Fitch’s prose, check out her novels or the short pieces on her blog. The 2006 interview for O Magazine can be found here.

Creative Inspiration For Writing Historical Fiction

There’s a joke I’ve seen on Pinterest, a cartoon of a writer watching TV. The character says, “I’m researching!” to the cynical-looking people standing nearby. For those of us who write fiction, we know that watching TV or movies, listening to music, or going for walks really is research because all of it becomes part of the writing process. Writers, especially fiction writers, need their imagination fueled regularly, and it’s the little things we do, such as stealing an hour here or there to watch a favorite TV show or listen to our favorite music, that help to fill the creative well so that we have a brain full of ideas when we sit down to write.

When it comes time to write, especially if I’m writing an historical story, I try to immerse myself in the time period as much as possible. If I feel as if I’ve traveled back in time, then it’s easier for me to carry my readers along with me on the journey. Here are some of the places I found inspiration while writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. My hope is that by reading over my list, writers of historical fiction will discover places to find inspiration of their own.

Books

Nonfiction:

 How to Be a VictorianUp and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool

How To Be a Victorian: A Dusk-to-Dawn Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman (one of my new favorite historians—she lives what she studies)

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London and Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes

To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell

The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette by Thomas E. Hill

Fiction:

When reading novels, I look for books written during the era I’m writing about as well as novels written about the era. Other times I’ll find inspiration in a novel that isn’t necessarily set in that time period but there’s something about the story that provides some ideas.

Bleak HouseThe Buccaneers and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Snobs by Julian Fellowes

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I read A LOT of P.G. Wodehouse (but really, can you read too much Wodehouse?)

I read A LOT of Dickens (but really, can you read too much Dickens?)

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (set in the Tudor era—I know—but she’s such a master of historical fiction I needed to read the books again)

 

Television and Film

For me, TV and film are the same as fiction—some of what I watch is set in the era, some is not, but all stir my imagination in one way or another.

 Downton Abbey (Surprised, right?)

Upstairs, Downstairs

The miniseries of The Buccaneers

 North and South

 Lark Rise to Candleford

 Cranford

 Pride and Prejudice (Colin Firth’s version)

Miss Fisher's Murder MysteriesSense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson’s—and Alan Rickman’s—version)

I tried to watch the TV versions of Bleak House and Great Expectations, but to be honest screen adaptations of Dickens’ work rarely thrill me. They get the drama down all right, but you’d never guess Dickens was one of the funniest authors in the English language from the dreariness of the adaptations. I’m doing a little better with Dickensian, if for nothing else but Stephen Rea’s performance as Inspector Bucket.

Keeping Up Appearances—Another Bucket (It’s BooKAY).

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries—this outstanding Australian show is set in the 1920s, but I love Essie Davis’ Phryne Fisher so much I’ll use any excuse to watch it. Phryne Fisher’s clothes are even more fabulous than the costumes on Downton Abbey. If you have Netflix, give it a try.

 

Music

Since my Victorian story is set in the 1870s, people were dancing to waltzes and polkas. Strauss and Chopin were favorite composers, which works well for me since I love to listen to classical music.

Victorian Love SongsI was also able to find a few mp3s of Victorian-era music. I wasn’t concerned with whether or not these were songs specifically from the 1870s, and the music didn’t necessarily make it into the novel, but I really enjoy listening to music from the general time period while I’m writing. It helps me get into the right frame of mind. Here are a few examples of what I found:

Victorian Dining by Peter Breiner and Don Gillis

Victorian Edwardian by Alexander Faris

Victorian Love Songs by Craig Duncan

If you’re writing historical fiction, I highly recommend listening to music from the era while you write. I find a lot of great songs on Amazon, and if you have Amazon Prime then you can listen to some of the music for free.

 

Pinterest

I adore Pinterest. For me, Pinterest isn’t social media marketing as much as something I do for fun because I love it so much. When It Rained at Hembry Castle is the first novel I’ve written since I started on Pinterest, so it’s the first time I was able to use pictures from the site to inspire my writing. When I needed to describe the sitting room at Hembry Castle, for example, I simply needed to go onto my research board, find the pin for the photograph I wanted to use as inspiration, and describe what I saw. If you’re writing your novel on Scrivener, you can import those photos directly into your novel file so they’re readily available when you need them.

When I was researching the novel, I created a private board for Hembry Castle because I didn’t want to bombard my followers with my many research pins. Then, when I had everything I needed, I created a public board so people could see the inspiration behind the story. Want to check out the board? It’s here.

 

Travel

 I had a few things to say about traveling for research purposes in this post. Of course, it’s not always possible to travel, but if you can then do.

London, England: I’ll have more to say about my journeys to London for research purposes in a later post. For now, I’ll say that London is always a good idea.

Pittock Mansion in Portland, Oregon

Pittock Mansion in Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon: An odd place to travel when researching a novel set in Victorian England, I know. I didn’t actually travel there for that purpose, but when I arrived I found Pittock Mansion, an American, smaller-scale version of an English country house, and Pittock Mansion provided a lot of inspiration for Hembry Castle. In fact, the music room and the library in Hembry Castle were modeled after rooms in Pittock Mansion.

This is just the short list of places where I found inspiration for my Victorian historical novel. I hope you’ve discovered a few ideas for places you might seek inspiration for your own historical stories, whichever era they’re set in.

Nothing is Set in Stone: Allowing Room For Freedom When Writing Fiction

First of all, I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season. I took a couple of weeks off for the holidays, and then a bout of the flu kept me down for a bit. I ended up spending most of my Christmas break revising When It Rained at Hembry Castle. The novel is in its final edits phase, and I’ll have galley copies in print and ebook in a week or two in case any of you would like a free review copy. I’ll send out word when they’re available. If you’re interested, just contact me at my email address: meredithallard(at)aol(dot)com. In fact, I just started a new Pinterest board for the novel with photographs I used for inspiration for clothing, settings, and characters. If you’re interested in the Victorian era, or in the novel, by all means check out the board. I’ll be adding more pins every day.

Scotney Castle--one of the influences for Hembry Castle and the castle used on the book cover.

Scotney Castle–one of the influences for Hembry Castle and the castle used on the book cover.

This is always the point of writing a new novel where I’m reminded of Dorothy Parker’s great saying: I hate writing but love having written. I admit that Hembry was difficult for me to grasp ahold of. I hadn’t struggled like that with a novel since I wrote Her Dear & Loving Husband from 2009-2011. Her Dear & Loving Husband was the most complicated plot I had written up to that point, and I had a lot of trouble understanding how to make the past and present storylines work. It wasn’t until I had the novel professionally critiqued that I understood the flow of the story, and then once I figured it out writing the next two books in the series, Her Loving Husband’s Curse and Her Loving Husband’s Return, came easily because they followed the same plot structure. My next novel, That You Are Here, was such a dream to write. For whatever reason, there were no struggles with that book. I understood who the characters were immediately, and I saw the story play out like a movie, which meant all I had to do was take dictation. The book took me four months to write—a crazy-quick time, at least for me.

Again, with When It Rained at Hembry Castle there were struggles. In a sense I was back to where I was when I wrote Her Dear & Loving Husband—I had this whole new world I had to figure out. The plot for When It Rained at Hembry Castle became the most difficult plot I had yet undertaken, even more so than the plots in the Loving Husband Trilogy. In the Loving Husband Trilogy there are two points of view, from the two romantic leads, James and Sarah, and two time periods, the present and whichever historical period that novel is set. In When It Rained at Hembry Castle, I initially thought I would use the same two person point of view as I had in the Loving Husband Trilogy, but after beating myself about the head for a few months trying to make it work, I realized that two points of view were not enough for this novel. In keeping with its Downton Abbey inspiration, there are upstairs stories and downstairs stories in Hembry, and I finally realized that I needed more points of view in order to make this work. I haven’t yet tried the head-hopping omniscient third person point of view (one of these days I’ll write a novel where I try that one), but for Hembry I opened the field so that we get the point of view of more than just the two romantic leads (in this case, Edward and Daphne). I limited the scope of POV to one character for each chapter–this way it isn’t difficult for the reader to follow.

Hembry CastleFor me, that’s the frustration (and the fun) of writing fiction. Anything goes, which means sometimes it takes a while to figure out exactly what you need to do to bring each new story to life. The two person point of view worked well for the Loving Husband Trilogy, so I assumed it would work for Hembry. It didn’t. There are too many characters in Hembry, and there’s too much going on for my two romantic leads to be everywhere. I needed to let some of the other characters have their moments in the sun. Once I allowed the characters the freedom to speak for themselves, the headaches started to go away and the novel started to resemble the story I wanted to write in the first place.

Once I understand the plot structure and the way the pieces fit together, that’s when I’m in the flow of writing and there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. The first part of writing a novel has always been difficult for me. That’s when I flap about like a fish out of water (or an asthmatic without an inhaler—speaking from experience), spending hours writing scenes that don’t make sense and have nothing to do with the story I want to tell. Every time I’m about to give up, though, I force myself to keep going because I’ve been at this long enough to know that the “shitty first draft” phase will pass and the story will reveal itself in the end. How much hair I have in the end always remains to be seen, but bald or not bald, I know that I’ll figure out whatever it is that’s not working. This is something I need to relearn every time I write a new novel, but most especially whenever I start a novel set in a new world. I also need to remind myself that nothing is set in stone, and I can experiment, play, and try things until I find the winning combination. I could have imposed the two person point of view on Hembry because I know that works and I’ve had success with it before. But it didn’t work in this story, in this world, and I needed to allow myself the freedom to play around until I discovered what did work. Of course, now that all the heavy lifting is done, I can say that I love having written.

Happy 2016!

Writing Tools: Scrivener, I Love You

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I had been struggling as I was writing my new historical novel. Nothing in the story seemed to be working, and for whatever reason I was at a loss as to how to fix it. In this post I talked about how I decided to give myself some time off from writing. It was the best decision I could have made since it allowed me to take the brain break I desperately needed. I’ve been writing long enough to know that the ideas would show up when they were ready, and I was right. Only this time I had some help from an unexpected source.

About two years ago I bought Scrivener as a screenwriting tool. I used it to write a couple of screenplays, and that was that. I saw that it could be used to write novels, but when I looked at the directions they didn’t make sense and at that time I didn’t have the patience to fiddle with it. For whatever reason I found the directions confusing and the buttons and other tchotchkes didn’t make sense. I ended up leaving the program to languish unused and hidden in my Applications folder. While I was taking a break from writing my novel, I kept reading these posts about Scrivener and how all these writers said the program changed their writing for the better. Kristen @ She’s Novel pins these Scrivener Tutorial Posts on Pinterest, and Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn offers a course about how to use Scrivener. As I read these articles, I remembered that I had Scrivener on my computer. I wasn’t sure if the program could help me through the fog that was my novel, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

Before I go on, I should point out that I’m not getting any compensation from the nice Scrivener folks at Literature and Latte for this. I’m simply sharing why I’ve come to love the program and how it helped me write my novel after I had been stuck in the mud for some months.

When I decided to try Scrivener for novel writing, I looked at the directions again, and again they didn’t make sense. This time, though, I was motivated to keep trying, and I watched some of the Scrivener tutorials on YouTube. The tutorials were integral in helping me understand what the buttons and tchotchkes were for and how they were used. My suggestion is to not try Scrivener without first watching a few of the videos or taking an online class. Where most computer programs can be figured out by twiddling with them, I find Scrivener needs further explanation. It seems confusing at first, but after I watched a few videos and played around with it I found it rather easy to use.

Scrivener Manuscript with Synop and Notes

I’m not going into step-by-step details about how to use Scrivener since there are so many tutorials that do that far better than I can. I’d just like to point out some of the features that helped me get my thoughts straight. First of all, I like that you don’t have to write your novel in one long file. You can write your story in separate chapters or you can write your story in scenes if that’s the way you think. You’ll notice on the left-hand side of the screen the different folders for each section I have so far. On the same screen you can also see your synopsis of the section you’re writing, and you’ll notice I added my research notes in the bottom right hand corner. This way I don’t have to go back and forth between my research notes and the section I’m writing—the notes are right there on the screen. If you find those doo-dads on the screen too distracting, you can use the full screen mode so all you see is the text you’re writing.

Scrivener Split Screen

Now here’s something I really love about Scrivener—the fact that you can import photos. The novel I’m writing is historical fiction, set in England in 1870, and so of course I need references about clothing, buildings, gardens, furniture, etc. If I want to see a particular photo, all I need to do is scroll down to the folder where I store my photos, click on the one I want, and there it is. If I split the Scrivener screen (another handy-dandy function) I can have the photo right in front of me as I describe it. In the example you can see the photo of the church in the beautiful English countryside, which is the photo I used as inspiration for the funeral scene that happens at the beginning of the story. With the split screen I can look right at the photo while I’m writing. Since I tend to use photos to inspire my writing, this feature alone makes Scrivener a winner for me.

Scrivener Corkboard

Another thing I love is the corkboard. I know a lot of writers who have real corkboards on their walls in their writing space. They write scenes, ideas, notes, etc., on index cards and pin the cards onto the corkboards. I’ve always loved that idea, but I don’t have enough room on my walls for a corkboard so I was never able to try it out. With Scrivener’s virtual corkboard I don’t need room on my walls. I can create virtual index cards with all of the same details—characters, plot, research, ideas, notes—and I can rearrange the cards however I like. This feature actually helped me figure out the plot because I could see at a glance that the order of some of the scenes didn’t quite fly and I kept rearranging the cards until I liked the way the scenes flowed. I was also able to spot that there was some missing information—missing scenes, if you will—and I was able to add new cards with information about what will happen in that scene.

Research Split Screen

I also like the fact that I can add my research notes. Since my novel is historical fiction, I have pages and pages of research notes that I need access to while I’m writing. Instead of keeping a messy pile of notebooks around, which is the way I used to do it, I typed my notes into the Research section of Scrivener. From now on, instead of handwriting my notes I’ll type them into Scrivener. If you’ve typed your notes on another program like Word, Scrivener allows you to import them so you don’t have to retype them. And just like with the photographs, you can split the screen and look at your notes while you’re writing. As I said earlier, I like to add my research notes to the bottom right hand corner of the page, but if I have a lot of research notes for a particular section, I’ll probably split the screen so I have easy access to all the information.

Through the process of adding my novel to Scrivener, deciding on the folders I needed, using the corkboard, and importing the photographs and research notes, I was able to sort through the story. As a result, a lot of the problems I had are gone. I understand the characters better, I have a plot I’m happy with, and I can see where the story is going and what the underlying themes are. What Scrivener did for me was allow me to think through the story in a step-by-step way that helped me see what was missing and what needed to be reorganized and revised. I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but at least now I have a direction, which I didn’t have before.

I’m definitely on the Scrivener bandwagon. It isn’t crazy expensive ($44 when I bought it), and to me it’s worth the price for the way it allows me to organize my work. They even offer a free 30 day trial so you can try it out to see if you like it.

Have you used Scrivener? If so, what has been your experience? If not, are you going to try it?