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!


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.


A Quick Update

I must confess, I don’t have a blog post prepared for this week, but since I haven’t missed a post in a long time (it might even be over a year), I didn’t want to skip it completely.

Since I don’t really have anything planned, here’s a picture of my dog, Logan. He’s a good boy.


As for real updates, I’ve been writing like crazy, working on my WIP. After some research and plot-timing hiccups, I have now made it to 60K words, so I can happily say that the 40K Slump is over. Whew!

I’m also now into the three month countdown to publication day for The Wardrobe Mistress on August 15th, so I’m working on some special Marie Antoinette/French Revolution themed stuff to be posted soon!

Oh, and I’m on Instagram now –  @meghan_m_author. Come find me there!


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.


Reflections on My First Writers’ Conference

I recently went to my first writer’s conference, something that I’ve had the best intentions to do for a long time, but never have. In my defense, I do also have a full time job separate from my writing, so that takes a lot of time, but I finally got organized and went to a conference and I’m so glad I did.  Hosted by the Writer’s Guild of Alberta, the conference was held in my hometown and featured some excellent presentations and workshops. I also got a decent haul of books, and managed to get all of them signed.


With such a great selection of books by Alberta authors, it took a valiant effort to stick to my budget.

One of the best parts of the conference was having the opportunity to mingle with other writers. As the saying goes, and it’s a true one, writing can often be a solitary business. Getting the chance to chat with other writers was fascinating and fun and inspiring. In general, only other writers are interested in discussing the writing process at length, and I enjoyed hearing all the different things people had to say. For instance, one young writer sitting at the same lunch table as me posed a question to the group: when starting a new project, which comes first, the character or the setting? My answer was both, since it varies from project to project, and everyone else had different answers. It sparked such a great conversation that I skipped dessert!

I think my favourite part of the conference was watching the way writers blossomed when talking about their work. At first, we all seemed a bit shy about talking about our work. I was, for sure. When someone asked me about my upcoming book, The Wardrobe Mistress, I delivered my pre-prepared blurb, but I felt too shy to elaborate much, burdened by an awkward modesty and a worry that they’d find it boring. Fortunately, this feeling eased once it really struck me that I was surrounded by other writers and all of us loved talking about stories and books. I think a few others must have had a similar realization. As the day went on, I noticed people stopped giving quick summaries of their books, almost shrugging them off, and instead launched into bright-eyed, animated discussions of settings, inspirations, the difficulties of choosing a character’s name, or plot points they struggled with. All that creative energy and enthusiasm felt infectious.

During a conversation about character, I found myself describing the way Giselle (my protagonist in The Wardrobe Mistress) and her entire family burst to life inside my head as soon as I stumbled upon a bit of research about Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, who was a watchmaker and an ex-member of a spy ring called the secret du roi for King Louis XV. Beaumarchais had several sisters, none of which who seem to be prominent in history, so I invented a fictional life for one of them as Giselle’s mother. With that connection established, dark family secrets and internal rivalries started cropping up all over the place, and it hugely affected my plot, as well as Giselle’s character.

Aside from the bright enthusiasm for writing and for individual projects, there were also a lot of other highlights. After his dauntingly intelligent keynote presentation on the way literary artists engage with the world, and the particular kind of happiness that writers know, I chatted with Greg Hollingshead about all the fantastic quotations he used in his speech. I laughed continuously  at Will Ferguson’s hilarious and outrageous anecdotes, but I also took some notes on his very good advice. I participated in a workshop on character development with Marina Endicott, and was unashamedly thrilled that she remembered working with me fifteen years ago (!) when I was a high school student and she was Writer-in-Residence at the local library. I made some local writer friends and now I have more books on my to-buy list, and their readings at local bookstores to look forward to.

Pictured: an approximately of my 'To Be Read' pile. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

Pictured: an approximation of my ‘To Be Read’ pile. But I wouldn’t have it any other way!

And it’s a good thing I enjoyed this conference so thoroughly, because I’m actually going to another one in August, a three day event called When Words Collide. I’m participating in six panels and two ‘Blue Pencil Cafe’ sessions, where I’m going to help provide feedback on the first pages of a few manuscripts. I guess this means my newbie conference days really are over. If you’re in the Calgary area in August, come see me at this conference!



Manuscript Completed!

A very brief post to say…I finished my French Revolution novel! At least the main draft. There will be revisions – there are always revisions.

I’m very excited, and the fact that I finished it on a Friday night makes it even better for me. Now I have the whole weekend to relax and do crazy things.

Crazy things will probably be household chores that have been terribly neglected in the past week while I was working extra hard on the final push to get the book done.

I shared an excerpt of the book once, but I didn’t have a title at that point. I’m now calling it Lady of the Revolution, which may change, I don’t know for sure. I’ll post another excerpt soon.

To close, I shall illustrate how I feel with images of kittens:


happy kitten 2


happy kitten 3

kitten yawning


kitten asleep in food


I’m pretty happy, but also really tired.

The Writing Process, with Fancy Words


The writing process starts with an airy feeling of confidence, best summed up by the word ‘halcyon.’ Maybe you’re in between manuscripts, enjoying the freedom to watch old episodes of Rome without feeling guilty for not writing. (Uh, other people still watch that, right? Even though it’s been over since 2007?) You probably spend time daydreaming, without serious intent, over the magnificent story you will write next, with the deepest characters and most profound subtle messages of everything you’ve ever written. It will be your masterpiece.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere the spark of an idea comes to mind. Tiny but powerful, this idea latches on to you, insistent and unforgettable. Maybe it came from seeing Julius Caesar scheme to consolidate power, or maybe it popped into your mind from a trivial exchange at the grocery store. It doesn’t seem important at first, but it’s the Big Bang of narratives. The whole story will be born out of this scintilla of an idea.


He's definitely scheming

He’s definitely thinking military strategy.

As the story unfolds in your mind, the characters start to speak, begging for their story to be told. Sometimes they yell and swear, and are generally quite rude. (Thinking of you, Blackbeard). As you start to learn who they are, you wonder about their names, trying out different combinations in your head. Unless, of course, it’s a historical figure, in which case the name is already known, but then a nickname might be needed to bring the character to life.  Once you choose names for the most prominent characters, relief and excitement will make their names sound positively mellifluous to you.

Most likely, no one else will understand your obsession with these characters, or why you puzzled over their motives and appearances for so many hours. People don’t even know you’re thinking of them all the time, and instead mistake your grouchy scowl of concentration for irritation at them.

“What’s wrong?” your husband, for example, might ask. “Are you mad at me?”

“I’m trying to figure out why my French revolutionary love interest isn’t from Paris. He’s insisting on having a different accent,” you might sigh in exasperation, causing your husband to arch a confused brow and slowly ask what the heck you are talking about. Actually, if it’s my husband, and I think it’s pretty obvious that this example is lifted straight from my life, he doesn’t do that. He launches into an enthusiastic brainstorm of ideas, because he’s awesome.

The point is, you are now infatuated with your characters, and no one else is, because you haven’t written much down yet. It’s good though – they need your passion to make them come alive on the page, and with luck, eventually have others be infatuated with them, too. (By the time that happens, by the way, you will have moved on to a vague sense of irritation for those same characters).

As the writing, and perhaps research, begins, the story feels fresh and exciting. Even though you spend hours hunched over a keyboard, life feels full of thrills, thanks to the vicarious existence of your probably more interesting characters.

Unfortunately, this stage is fleeting, fugacious. All too soon, every writer is crippled with the bane of lethologica, when you think of something but the word for it escapes you. Unable to recall the correct word, which is absolutely vital for conveying the sentence properly, or so it feels at the time, you might make a note in your manuscript along the lines of, “CHECK THIS LINE, WHAT IS THE F-ING WORD FOR THIS??” Of course, it never fails that you remember the word in the middle of the night. That’s why there are bits of paper with random words scrawled on them drifting all over your house, and the Notes app of your phone makes no sense. (Advice: try to remember to go back and find this note in the manuscript before you share it with any beta readers, unless you want to amuse them/spark an intense debate about the correct word).

As the story passes its halfway point, the chill touch of atychiphobia creeps in. Is this character likeable? Are her motivations clear? Is the story good? Are you even good? This is not your masterpiece. Maybe you are failing utterly at this whole writing thing. Luckily, infatuation for the characters and vicarious excitement for their adventures still flashes through sometimes, giving you the heart and strength to keep going.

Near the end of the story, you expect to be be excited for the monstrous task of writing a novel to be finished. Instead, you start to feel strangely finifugal, avoiding the ending in a desperate attempt to prolong the final moments of the story, and your relationship with the characters. Hatred of endings probably also stems from your fear of failure, because once the book is done, it’s time to comb over it and find all the flaws left behind. Don’t worry, they are all fixable, and finifugality passes. (Unless you’re me, reading The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George. I adore that book, and while I’ve read it about three times, I’ve only managed to scrape up the emotional courage to read the ending once, even though I know what happens, historically. The same follows for Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman).


Anyway, eventually, sick and tired of your characters and their stupid dramatic lives, you finish the book in a tumult of hard work and crazed thoughts, just to get it over with. The exhilarating feeling of typing the last sentence makes you leap up, gamboling about the room, grinning like a jack o’lantern and singing along to Muse’s cover of ‘Feeling Good.’ (Yeah, okay, this is me again. Except for the one time I finished a book at 1:30 am and just went straight to bed).

The last stage is the best one, and contrary to expectations of the frustration of editing, it lasts through the whole process, and if you’re honest with yourself, it was there through nearly every minute of writing the book.

My dictionary denotes the word as ‘prudence or moderation’ but I think there is additional connotative meaning, and I found an image that sums up the feeling better for me, although maybe it is still not quite the right word. (Lethologica strikes again!) While you forced yourself to make time to write, and then strictly enforced time to relax, so you wouldn’t burn out, juggling time to create a balanced life, this feeling was there. Sophrosyne, characterized by self-control, moderation, and a deep awareness of one’s true self, results in true happiness, and you felt it the whole time, on some level, because writing stories is exactly what you want to do.