Physicality in Fiction

Recently, I read a thought-provoking and helpful article on Writer’s Digest on using physicality to bring your characters to life. There’s some great advice here. Incorporating different senses and the physical signs of emotion can help immerse the reader in the setting, even in the mind of the protagonist. Being grounded in the story world makes it feel that much more real – and exciting – as a reader.

 

I think this can be especially important in historical fiction. The genre brings its own unique challenge of trying to recreate a time long past, and sometimes, as a writer, it feels like grasping at echoes. Of course, one of the joys of historical fiction – both as a reader and writer – is that once the details and story click into place, you do slip into another world entirely. I love the way being drawn into a historical world feels like new, uncharted territory, but history has left just enough imprints on the present for it to feel a little bit familiar. You might know the bare bones of the time period, but not what happens to the protagonist, or maybe you find comforting kernels of ‘sameness’ in the characters. People haven’t changed so much, really. Three hundred years ago, they still wanted to find love, or worried about their children, or struggled under the weight of family pressures.

Trying to capture the sounds and textures and the smells of the story’s setting bring it to life. For me, while I’m writing, trying to show those things end up helping me connect more strongly to the world, help me to better polish it for the reader. It makes the setting more vivid, so a reader can easily imagine the acrid black smoke from the burning Réveillon wallpaper factory, or airy softness of one of Marie Antoinette’s muslin gowns, or picture the scum of half-congealed blood tarnishing the Tuileries after it was violently mobbed, to use examples from my novel The Wardrobe Mistress.

That last one was a little dark. Sensory depictions can be delightful, too, especially if they’re food related. I still think fondly of the way Crystal King’s description of kitchens and food in her Roman historical novel Feast of Sorrow made me clearly imagine I could smell the mouth-watering aromas of Parthian chicken or the tang of mustard beets. Sounds and music can pull readers into the world, too. I can still remember the rebellious thrum of music in the Prohibition ‘juice joints’ that Bonnie (of Clyde and Bonnie fame) frequented in Jenni Walsh’s novel Becoming Bonnie.

A story or character can also be deepened by plot, as the Writer’s Digest article that sparked this whole post suggests. The article mentions a Stephen King novel where the narrator is diagnosed with cancer. Another example I can think of that I particularly enjoyed is Julia Heaberlin’s novel Lie Still, where the protagonist is heavily pregnant throughout the story. It added an extra layer of tension. As danger escalated all around her, I feared not only for her, but for her soon-to-be-born child.

Habitual gestures or nervous tics can strengthen characterization, too. Outlander fans know that Jamie Fraser often taps his two stiff fingers (from being broken) against his thigh when thinking. In Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, her character Eve struggles with a stammer, which sometimes intensifies during moments of high stress. While reading, it makes you ache with sympathy for her – especially because the high stakes WWI environment makes everything extra scary and intense.

What physical description or sensory element has really stood out to you in a book? Please share!

 

Publication Day Approaches!

It feels like I’ve been talking about and excitedly anticipating the publication date for The Wardrobe Mistress forever. And it has been a year! But now the big day is actually within reach, and I will freely admit that I’m pretty much bouncing off the walls with exhilaration. I received my first copy in the mail and I can hardly describe the thrill of holding a real copy of a book I wrote! A bit surreal, but wonderful.

To share my excitement, I’ll be updating my blog more often in the next couple of weeks, counting down to pub day with lots of interesting facts about Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. A few of them are guest posts elsewhere, so I’ll post the links on my own page as well.

Of course, I’ve written about Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution a few times here before, including her beloved dogs, that time she made a really bad decision, how researching her gave me luxurious tastes in hot chocolate, everything I learned about the guillotine, and how loyalty became a theme in The Wardrobe Mistress.

I’m also sharing pictures of historical fashion items, similar to what the characters might have worn, on my Instagram page.

Last thing, the prequel short story The Diamond Deception is still available as a freebie for newsletter subscribers. A copy gets emailed as part of the confirmation of sign up. I’ll close off this post with a snippet from the story.


The queen of France tosses the sheaf of papers aside, paying no attention as one of the pages drifts to the floor like a crisp autumn leaf.

“Henriette, you’ve made excellent time. I didn’t expect you to arrive until this evening.”

“With good roads and a fast coach, the road from Crespy is not so long.”

When she smiles, happiness sparking in her blue-grey eyes, I feel my own mouth curling in response. Her charm can be irresistible, and I’m glad she summoned me back from the country estate. The last few days especially, I’d felt quite ready to return to court and my position as the first lady-in-waiting to the queen. Since she’s currently at her beloved retreat of Petit Trianon, the pastoral village within the grounds of Versailles, instead of the grand palace itself, I can ease back into the structure of court life.

“And Monsieur Campan and the family are well?” Marie Antoinette rises from her seat on the sofa. The toes of her violet shoes peek out from under the white muslin fall of her skirt as she approaches.

“Yes, thank you. My in-laws are preparing for the grape harvest.” It’s kind of her to ask, especially since she always remembers names and details. The queen meets so many people that I’m proud she remembers my family. I suppose after the fifteen years I’ve spent at her side, serving as one of her femmes de chambre, she must feel almost as if she knows them.

As we chat, one of the queen’s other attendants quietly retrieves the scattered piece of paper, stacking it back into the pile.

“I was just rehearsing,” the queen says. “I think I wrote you that I’m to play Rosine? Le Barbier de Seville is quite an amusing play.” She reaches for the script, casting a brief smile to the helpful lady who straightened the papers. “I’d like to rehearse now, if that suits you. No one else reads as well as you, Henriette.”

“Of course, let’s begin.” Although it’s customary between us that I often read aloud to her, while she’s sewing or in the bath, the praise still settles over me like a beam of sunshine. I’m glad to see she is in good spirits; I’d wondered a little about that strange visit from Monsieur Boehmer, while I was away, but the issue must have been resolved.

“Leave us, please.” She dismisses the other ladies, fanning the script in the direction of the sideboard. “We had tea earlier. I think there’s some left, or lemonade, if you’re thirsty.”

I cross to the sideboard, relaxing under the more casual atmosphere of Petit Trianon. We’d rarely sit at such ease at Versailles, where there’s always an audience or a person wanting an appointment. I pour for myself, and also for her since I’m fairly certain she’ll want to moisten her throat after reading Rosine’s lines for an hour.

She takes the cup with a graceful dip of her head, sweeping her skirt aside to sit back on the sofa. There’s a rose leaf caught in the ribbon of the pale blue sash tied around her waist, and though I’m sure she’s unaware, it fits with the rustic, carefree charm of Petit Trianon. Marie Antoinette is always happier here, briefly escaping from the rigorous ceremony of daily life at Versailles. She can truly be herself here, enjoying flowers and fresh air and harmless amusements like plays.

As we rehearse, and I read for the other characters, the queen finds more strength in her delivery of Rosine’s lines. After an hour, she smooths the script pages against her lap, and sits back with a pleased smile.

“I think that will do. The performance is tomorrow. Just friends, of course, both acting and as audience members. I do enjoy these amusements at Petit Trianon.” Her smile fades, and after she finishes her lemonade, she clears her throat. “Henriette, I must ask you why you sent that dreadful jeweler, Boehmer, to me. He called unexpectedly, giving your name, but I would not see him. I have nothing to say to him.”

Dread clutches at me.  I certainly had not sent Monsieur Boehmer to Her Majesty. In fact, I’d told him the opposite.

 

 

The Best Conference Ever

Last week, I got to check an exciting writer’s goal from my list – I attended the Historical Novel Society conference. I’d been dreaming of going for quite a long time, and it was amazing to finally make it to the event. I realize this sounds incredibly nerdy, but whatever, I love history and I love novels, so it’s the perfect combination as far as I’m concerned.

#HNS2017 (check the link for various fun tweets from the conference) was held in Portland, Oregon. I arrived the afternoon before the conference started, which gave me time to explore the city a bit. I went to a history museum (of course), saw some beautiful roses, and met some very nice people in a cool little wine bar.

The museum had many great exhibits, but I was particularly drawn to these hats. Definitely lingering research excitement from writing The Wardrobe Mistress

Special sessions and workshops made up the first day of the conference, and I took a copious amount of notes and got ink all over my fingers because apparently I can hardly write by hand anymore. My first workshop was about pacing in a story, and since I’m at the 80K word count on my latest novel, it was perfect timing for me to work all of the smart and creative tips I learned into my edits. As part of the workshop, we read a paragraph from book with gripping pacing, and then read the same paragraph, only rewritten in a way that made it fall flat. Conference chair and author/actress extraordinaire Leslie Carroll read the pieces aloud, and she’s so utterly compelling that even the poor example paragraph sounded good.

I also went to a workshop on historical firearms, hosted by Gordon Frye who also has a podcast called Gordon’s Gun Closet. It was fascinating to be able to see – and touch – these historical firearms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out muskets are quite heavy, especially with bayonets. The French style was considered to be a little more technologically advanced at the time (and seemed to take a bit more practice to handle than the British one), which I think would have appealed to a few of my characters in The Wardrobe Mistress, who can be a tad smug about the superiority of their country and its revolutionary ideals.

I’m trying to avoid the temptation to over-describe every wonderful little nugget of wisdom, each enlightening conversation I had, every time I turned into a complete fangirl because I spotted one of my literary heroes. There would just be so much if I recapped it all! A lot of highlights stand out in my mind, though. Inspiring keynote speaker Geraldine Brooks talking about the sparks that flare a story to life are the most exciting, but that ‘bum glue’ (gluing yourself to the chair and just writing) is the only way to truly get a book done. I remember glancing around, and seeing other authors nodding just as hard as I was. David Ebershoff, also a keynote speaker, mesmerized the crowd with the moving story of his journey to tell the story of Lili Elbe, which became his acclaimed novel The Danish Girl. Kate Forsyth raised goosebumps on my arms with her enthralling performance of Tam Lin. I’ve never before seen such a large group of people become so silent; I’m convinced she’s as magical as the faerie queen of the story (although much less nefarious, of course). There were so many fun, unique moments, too; sitting in on an impromptu tarot reading (using Kris Waldherr’s beautiful goddess deck), playing Cards Against Humanity near a group of mask-wearing quadrille dancers, staying up far too late because going to bed seems absurd when you’ve made new friends that you might not see again until the next conference, two years away.

So now I’m back home, mostly caught up on sleep, feeling refreshed to get back to work on my writing. I’ve only got about 15K more words before my work-in-project is ready for edits (she says blithely, as if edits won’t be substantial), and there’s a new kernel of an idea unfurling in my mind, something that sparked to life after an evening of socializing and trying absinthe for the first time. Is that cliché? Oh well.

 

Book Update – The Wardrobe Mistress

I’ve reached a milestone as a debut author – getting to hold my novel in book format for the first time. We’re at the galley stage, and I can hardly even explain the surreal excitement I felt as I opened up the box that came in the mail and lifted out copies of my book. It’s so beautiful! I can’t stop looking at it.

Rare author photo, wherein author cannot stop staring at the bound version of her book.

Seeing the story in proper book form even made me want to read it again, an occurrence that I never thought would repeat itself. Through all the writing and edits, I’ve literally read The Wardrobe Mistress at least seventeen times, no exaggeration, and the latest time (during the first pass stage, which is where it’s typeset as it will be for the book, and the last chance to look for errors) I had to read it out loud to force myself to pay close attention. It gets tough, when you know exactly what will happen and why all the characters feel the way they do! It turned out to be very good practise for me though, because I’d been wondering how ‘French’ I should pronounce character’s names at potential future book readings. After reading the whole thing out loud to my cat and dog (very uninterested audience members, by the way) and nearly losing my voice, I’ve figured out what is hopefully a charming compromise of accents.

I’ve been excitedly telling everyone I encounter, pretty much, that The Wardrobe Mistress will be published on June 27, 2017. There has been a slight change, however, and now the official pub date is August 15, 2017. I promise it’s not my fault – I met all my deadlines! – but just due to scheduling. As a debut author, I’m learning that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes with a publishing house in terms of scheduling and planning and marketing and everything. It’s been a really amazing learning experience, and I’m so impressed by how much work goes into a book after it’s picked up, and how many people get involved. While writing the first draft of a book, it feels like it belongs only to the author, but as it moves toward publication, it starts to belong to everyone, in a way. It’s a wonderful progression; I think it makes it feel more alive, more like a real thing and not just some figment of my imagination that I wrote down.

In the meantime, while waiting for pub day, did you know that you can read a sample of The Wardrobe Mistress for through “Spring/Summer Sampler – St. Martin’s First”? The e-book also has excerpts from 8 other fantastic authors who have books coming out this summer. And it’s free!

I mean…Ned Stark should really be saying this about winter reading (which is awesome, with hot chocolate and blankets) but since these books are all coming out in the summer, he’s still right

 

 

Troublesome Turns of Phrase

I try not to be obnoxious about spelling or grammatical errors. Language is a minefield of troublesome turns of phrase and some are bound to blow up. Just the other day, I went to a place for lunch that sold ‘ceaser salad’, but I didn’t say anything. There’s just no way to correct it without seeming petty and annoying, (although blogging about it has probably cancelled out all of that restraint).  Anyway, typos happen, especially in this age of mobile device usage. I’m horrendous for making typos on my phone and not noticing / not bothering to correct them. Especially with Twitter, because you have to delete your post and start again due to the lack of edit function.

However, lately I’ve been consistently seeing a few phrases used incorrectly and I can’t hold back anymore. I’m putting on my obnoxious hat and we’re going to have a short grammar lesson, damnit.

Deep seated vs deep seeded

Example: Marie Antoinette’s obsession with her image probably stems from a deep-seeded/deep-seated need for her mother’s approval.

Which do you think is correct?

It’s deep-seated. “But Meghan,” you might be saying, “that can’t be right. Deep-seeded sounds like the characteristic is part of me, and that’s what I meant. It has to be deep-seeded.” I know, trust me, I do. But would all these web sources lie? Besides, if you plant seeds too deeply, they won’t grow. Seeds need to be in a shallow enough depth of soil for sunlight to reach them, or else they die. And you probably don’t want part of your personality to die (well, maybe, I guess it depends what characteristic we’re talking about here). Probably ‘deep-rooted’ would work better for that kind of implication. Deep-seated also has the connotation that the characteristic is stable and solid, like a strong, supportive chair. (I’m realizing that this phrase was probably invented before rolling chairs).

Photo credit: RLHyde via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-SA

Another thing coming vs another think coming

Example: If Hamlet actually believes I’m going to listen to him rant about Ophelia again, he’s got another thing/another think coming.

Which do you think is correct?

Okay, this one hurt me, because I was wrong too. It’s ‘another think’! Using ‘think’ instead of thing makes it clear that the person you’re talking about needs to change their way of thinking, or come up with a new notion of the subject at hand.  The original phrasing of ‘another think’ predates ‘another thing’ by about a hundred years, although the latter has since become more common. ‘Another thing’ really does convey the same thing, but with less precision. In another few decades, I suspect it will be the norm.

Who knows, maybe this will happen with seep-seeded too.

Free reign vs free rein

Example: The way that Caligula has given Incitatus free rein/free reign is absolutely ludicrous and brings shame to the dignity of Rome.

Which do you think is correct?

It’s ‘free rein’, and so I must apologize for my terrible pun, but I don’t really want to because I have a soft spot for awful puns. ‘Free reign’ is commonly used to describe someone who is independently doing their own thing, and it almost makes sense, because reigning implies a monarch who answers to no one. However, the phrase originates from  the equestrian term, where to give the horse ‘free rein’ means relinquishing control and letting the horse choose the speed. In my experience, a lot of the time this will mean snack time for the horse. It makes sense – would you rather run, or eat?

Couldn’t care less vs could care less

Example: Having secured Henry VIII’s affections, Anne Boleyn couldn’t care less/could care less about Cardinal Wolsey’s futile disapproval of her.

It’s ‘couldn’t care less.’ It’s a scathing way to tell someone that you do not have an iota of interest or investment in whatever the subject is. ‘Could care less’ shows that there is some level of caring, even if low, and therefore implies that you might be persuaded to greater levels of interest. It’s not nearly as harsh. And if you don’t believe me, I couldn’t care less, because this one is pretty much self-explanatory. Actually, I think the mix-up happens mostly because of a slurring of the words when spoken, not so much because the difference isn’t understood.

So there we have it, some troublesome turns of phrase investigated and corrected. Now just don’t get me started on the spelling mistake of definitely vs defiantly.

This goat knows the true meaning of defiance

Of course, don’t forget that most of these phrases are kind of cliché anyway.

 

Recreating 18th Century Paris

I stumbled across the most amazing thing this week – an animation recreating 18th century Paris. As an avid history enthusiast (fine, nerd) I would be fascinated by this anyway, but I’m particularly drawn to Paris because of my upcoming novel, The Wardrobe MistressRecreating a historic setting is one of the most fun parts of writing historical fiction, and it’s wonderful to see it in other mediums as well.

I’m the kind of person who gets excited about video reconstructions of the faces of historic figures, too, but this one of Paris has a broader scope because it includes sound. The animation, which is constructed based on a video game platform, walks you through different streets and around corners. As you move, the sounds change based on the settings. You hear everything from the clamour of voices, the cry of gulls, the sound of horses and wagons rolling on the cobblestones, even pigs and chickens in the market. Honestly, that’s one of the things I tend to forget when imagining historic cities. There were animals everywhere. You wouldn’t likely see a pig in downtown Paris now! The water noises at the start of the video are kind of soothing. I felt like they were lulling me deeper into the visual.

The animation is based on the Turgot-Bretez Map of 1739. It’s a few decades ahead of the time period for my novel, which starts in 1789, but it still gave me a thrill to see it, and made me feel like I was back in the exciting early research days of the novel.

view-of-paris-from-pont-neuf

And I know, I’ve once again muddled the schedule for the next 2016 Reading Challenge post. The truth is, I haven’t finished reading the book yet. I’ve been traveling for a couple of weeks, and then catching up on revisions. Stay tuned next week for the Reading Challenge item, this time which is a work translated to your native language. I’m reading Gigi by Colette. If you can get a copy, read along! There’s going to be a quiz this time!

Further Writer’s Conference Reflections

Recently, I attended an amazing conference called When Words Collide, held in my hometown of Calgary during August. It was the first time I’ve gone to a conference that big (it was sold out with about 700 guests), and it was also the first time I’ve presented at a conference. I didn’t do any solo presentations just yet, but I participated in several panels and also some ‘Blue Pencil Café’ sessions where I read the first thousand words of a few different manuscripts and offered my constructive feedback to the writers. It was really fun to get a peek at some of the amazing stories other writers are working on.

The whole event was such a positive, inspiring experience, and I was left feeling refreshed to tackle my own projects again. I’ve been a little drained after a pretty intense bout of revisions on The Wardrobe Mistress. Having the chance to interact with so many different readers and writers was really great as well. If there’s one thing book people love, it’s other book people because you can talk about books to your heart’s content. If you are going to be in the Calgary area next August, or you can make it out here, I highly recommend When Words Collide. I’ll be going back for sure. A huge thanks to the organizers and all the volunteers who made it such a fabulous event!

Thank you cardIn the near future, I’ll probably put up a couple of blog posts on some of the topics. I learned so much from a variety of panel discussions that I just can’t resist.

And in the meantime, I finally feel like writing something new. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster for me in the last few months. I had just finished a brand new manuscript and finished a round of revisions on it, readying for submissions, when The Wardrobe Mistress got picked up by St. Martin’s. Obviously that was (and still is) a hugely exciting moment for me, and for a long time I was wrapped up in that, and then the subsequent revisions. My other manuscript kind of got forgotten. But now it’s knocking around in my head again, wanting a sequel, and I have a story set in Venice swirling around, too. It’s feels like time to be writing something new, and it feels so free, like the world is opening up all around me, and my bones are feather-light, my mind clear but distant… You see what happens to me when I’m not writing something new? I get terribly sentimental. Time to go back to work.

inspiration