IWSG—November odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group meets the first Wednesday of each month. Participants share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

How has your creativity in life evolved since you began writing?

I’ve been writing since age four, so my creativity has evolved along with everything else on the journey through life. My storylines and characters are no longer so out in left field and overly creative (i.e., implausible). I’ve always been very creative—writing, drawing, cross-stitch, thinking, solutions to problems.

I’m once again a NaNo rebel, though this year, the majority of my wordcount will come from my WIP. Last year, it was about split between a WIP and creative non-fiction in the form of blog posts. I can’t say enough about how writing last year’s 12-part series on The Jazz Singer at 90 gave me back my mojo.

This year, I’m counting blog posts, my WIP, and the story I wrote for the IWSG anthology contest. I resurrected my 18th century character Jinx and her younger sister Myrina, whom I’d shelved in ’92. It got me so excited about these characters, I almost wished I could change my NaNo project and significantly expand that story!

Jinx’s original real name was Marionetta, and her sister was Marilyn, but since those weren’t authentic 18th century names, Jinx’s real name became Iynx (pronounced “inks”), and Marilyn became Myrina. Their mother is a passionate Hellenophile who gives all her kids obscure names from Greek mythology.

I can’t wait to restart this long-shelved series! I have so many awesome ideas, but I need to do a lot of research first—18th century life; 18th century Charleston, New Orleans, Port Royal Island, and Bologna; the Ursuline Academy in New Orleans; the University of Bologna (the first university in the world to admit women, centuries before just about everyone else); and the American Revolution.

I tried to write as many important November blog posts as possible before NaNo, and was able to do the ones about The White Album, and the 1928 films The Wind and Show People. I also started my recent post about the 1928 film Speedy, and the first of my posts on Duck Soup (1933).

I’m making great progress on my WIP. My NaNo project has it as Volume II of A Dream Deferred, though I’m still on the final chapter of Part I. Since Part I has ended up far longer than I anticipated going in three years ago, I’ll be releasing it as one book in two volumes.

I recently ran across a 3-star review of my alternative history on Goodreads. I’m glad to get any reviews, and to see someone mostly enjoyed this book. She took issue with my rather old-fashioned writing style; thought it was confusing to keep track of how everyone in the extended Romanov family was related; felt people repeated themselves sometimes; and thought there were a lot of lists.

I’ve always owned the fact that my writing style may seem old-fashioned in the modern era. While I’ve ditched the archaic God-mode, I still learnt how to write from older books. There’s only so much modernizing I could do without losing my own voice and style. With this particular book, I also acknowledge the voice and style are a bit more old-fashioned even by my own standards.

One of the main reasons I’ve disliked so many recent historicals is that the voice is too modern!

My best guess about the lists criticism is that it refers to dining scenes and descriptions of things like room layout, outfits, and presents received. Again, I own that this is part of my worldbuilding style, which may not appeal to everyone. Many other people love my food scenes, and reading about all those delicious things on the menu.

The repeating things I kind of see, though again, that’s a conscious, deliberate stylistic thing, meant as emphasis of something’s importance.

Are you doing NaNo this year? Do you mind a more old-fashioned style, in a historical or any type of book? Would that style cause you to give a book fewer stars?

Learning from shelved manuscripts and old rough drafts

Just because a book was written a long time ago doesn’t mean it automatically has to be shelved, but many shelved books are indeed a writer’s earliest efforts. Ultimately, it’s not so much the age, but just a feeling that it’s better to let a story go. Sometimes it comes back in a different form, and sometimes you can pull stronger pieces from it and use them in other books.

I created the character Ann-Ann when I was all of 5 or 6 years old. After I graduated from making picture books, I began a juvenile series rather modeled on Carolyn Haywood’s badly-dated Betsy series and some of the other old children’s series I was familiar with. In each book, she went through another grade, till finally she was going to be in college and then married with kids.

Eventually, she ended up living on Unimac Island on the Aleutians, and then underwent a big time switch when she became a 19th century girl named Anne. I had all these plans to write a huge series about her, in diary form, from the early 1840s till her death in the 1950s. The world-building I had for her and her fictional settlement in modern-day Pocatello was immense. Then I just lost interest in the 19th century.

Over 20 years later, I’m planning to resurrect her. I’ve had enough time away from the 19th century that it seems fresh again, and it’ll be really interesting to try first-person again. I have so many ideas about how to recast her story, in a way I couldn’t have done as a preteen.

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One of my other oldest creations was a girl named Jinx, who eventually ended up a Colonial girl who started life in South Carolina, moved to Connecticut, and later moved back to South Carolina. Over 20 years later, I’m really excited at the prospect of resurrecting her story and making a mature saga of Colonial history.

I already know her real name will be Iynx, to explain the rather anachronistic-sounding nickname Jinx. Her mother is seriously into Greek mythology, and gives all of her kids (many of them victims of the era’s infant/child mortality) rather obscure names from mythology. That also explains why her third daughter’s name is Labyrinth.

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I’ll never be sorry I wrote the novella/novelette-length books of my first Atlantic City series. They were embarrassingly awful, but they gave me so many wonderful characters I’ve been with for over 21 years now. I just realized they worked better in the other series I made with them, and that the original series required far too much editing, fleshing-out, revising, and rewriting to be worth it.

The earliest drafts of the earliest Max’s House books, and the earliest portions of Cinnimin, also have taught me how not to write, and how to improve when it’s editing time. I look at the original material in the 11th Max’s House book (working title Winter Vacation), and I look at the crappy material inserted from the second WTCOAC book, and it’s like night and day.

Absolutely terrible. I should have known better, at 21, than to insert so much of it verbatim, simply because their timelines overlapped. So much of the WTCOAC series, and a lot of the original material in the first Max’s House book, is like a bad after school special. Such corny, forced dialogue and situations. It’s like I had a mental checklist of what I were supposed to include in a book about adolescents. Most of it doesn’t even freaking fit with the established storylines or the characters as they’d developed since then.

I can say this because I love her so much and literally grew up with her, but Cinni comes across like a bit of a self-centered, heartless bitch in Saga II and early Saga III of her eponymous saga. Absolutely terrible mother and beyond-immature adult. She’s also quite mean to Levon many times, the supposed love of her life, when he’s chosen to spend his life with her even knowing his Armenian bloodline will start diminishing. And yet I truly didn’t realize she came off like this.

She alternates between treating her small children like miniature adults, her best friends, and political comrades in arms. WTF, threatening to burn her overly sensitive son Karl’s teddybear because he won’t stop crying when she tells him he’s “too old” (at something like 3 years old!) to sleep with a stuffed animal? Telling her sister Babs, her midwife, to throw her fourth-born child in the garbage because she thinks it was a stillborn? (Cinni was convinced it was yet another boy, and Babs told her there was no Ainsworth. She didn’t realize that meant it was finally a girl.)

That’s what happens when a teenager tries to write about adults as main characters. I had no life experience or mental maturity to know how normal, real adults act towards their kids, their romantic partners, or their friends. None of my adult characters had much mental maturity at this point in my writing development.

Kit’s dysfunctional, very darkly comedic relationship with her mother is funny because it’s so deliberately over the top and well-developed. This girl absolutely hates her mother, to say the very least, and it’s made funny by how everyone around them reacts to it, like it’s no big deal and Mrs. Green is unreasonable in her criticisms of Kit’s behavior. There’s a big difference between hyperbole and dark comedy, and just not knowing how to write an adult character.

The appeal of the 18th and 19th centuries

It’s kind of odd, but in spite of the issues I had with my earliest drafts of my earliest 20th century historicals, the 18th and 19th century stories I wrote when I was even younger had a lot more historically accurate details. Perhaps it was because I was more familiar with those centuries from all the books I’d read set during the pioneer and Colonial eras, and because I was always going to museums and soaking up the old artifacts, reconstructions, books, writings, and recreations from those centuries.

Ever since I was a kid, I loved going past old apartments, houses, and buildings, and wondered what life must’ve been like 100 years ago, when immigrants lived and worked there, or when they looked much different, or when people lived a much different type of life. I felt a yearning from deep within to climb back in time and experience life in those centuries, in those buildings. I used to fantasize about walking through a time portal into the 19th century, like when I was going on a long walk in the woods or on a trail, or going through a cave.

Now I know that there was nothing romantic about living in old tenements and family apartments, but I still feel the same sense of wonder when I go past old buildings. Like, I wonder what life must’ve been like when downtown Albany was a nice place, before the majority of its buildings were heavily subdivided into apartments, when those buildings were actually mansions, when that part of my city was a working-class, immigrant neighborhood, when it was considered our version of the Lower East Side, before all the businesses and families with money left for the uptown neighborhoods.

My shelved manuscripts about Anne Terrick and Jinx were rife with details about things like butter-churning, old toys, clothes, one-room schoolhouses, making and dyeing clothes, growing and harvesting food, you name it. I idealized that simpler, slower way of life, when you made and grew everything yourself, when most people had their own farms, livestock, and gardens, before we had this constant electronic barrage on the senses, when children knew how to entertain themselves without computers and video games. People read more than today, and found other ways to have a good time besides the movies or tv. They valued the important things.

I know now how much backbreaking work it was to run a farm, harvest crops, make dye, make clothes entirely by hand (at least I’ve tried sewing machines and made the choice to skip them), build your own house from scratch, make all your food from scratch, wash clothes by hand, constantly boil and wash diapers (though I’m 100% pro-cloth diaper and am very glad they’ve come a long way), grind your own wheat, etc. But there’s something to be said for doing some things yourself, instead of just going to a store and buying them, or pushing a button and walking away. There’s no sense of hard work or accomplishment.

When new, important inventions came along, there was a genuine sense of wonder. They’d never seen things like moving images or heard recorded voices in a box before. Today’s kids would think I grew up in a very deprived generation, because our computers were black and white, we had no Internet or e-mail, most houses didn’t have cable or VCRs, and there were far less toys and games based on commercialized characters. Creative play is becoming a thing of the past. Children’s toys are also way more sex-typed than they ever were when I was growing up. Pink is not a “girl color.” It is a COLOR, and a color that was considered masculine till about the 1940s. Blue was considered feminine till then.

I liked how there were so many big families back then, though I also had read enough to know about childhood mortality. I was familiar with once-almost-vanquished diseases like measles, mumps, diphtheria, and whooping cough, diseases which are making frightening comebacks thanks to the anti-vaccination cult. I hope they break their fucking arms patting themselves on the back for being such special snowflakes and sticking it to “The Man” with all their anti-scientific, pre-modern woo bullshit. Countless people used to die and be maimed by these diseases. They did not just Magickally, coincidentally disappear just as vaccines appeared. Who really believes such utter bullshit?! Guess what, they’re coming back because people like you are refusing to vaccinate your children!

Doctors made housecalls, as primitive as medicine was in many regards. Birth was not considered a dire medical emergency that needed tons of interventions for no evidence-based reasons. The higher infant and maternal mortality rate in those days had nothing to do with where birth took place, but because people didn’t know about germs, and there weren’t ways to deal with legit emergencies. Infant and maternal mortality actually went up significantly when birth moved into the hospital in the early 20th century, and took at least 20 years to start coming down.

People still wrote letters, and reused things instead of throwing them out after one use. Clothes were not consigned to the rag pile if they tore or were outgrown. Clothes were also a lot better, in spite of the barbaric corset. And I love how summer vacations lasted weeks, even months, instead of only a few days.

That’s why I read and write historical, for the rich period details and a slower-paced way of life. I don’t want to read Gossip Girl in period clothes, or contemporary stories dressed up with a few background details and set in the past.

Back to the 18th and 19th centuries!

(This is Part I of a post about two long-shelved historical series. Part II will delve into why I was interested in those eras in the first place.)

My character Anne Terrick, who started her life as An-An (or Ann-Ann?) when I was all of 5 or 6 years old, eventually wound up in the 19th century and becoming an early pioneer to Oregon Country, settling in what is now Pocatello, Idaho after she runs away from home and gathers together some friends and extended family. I had plans to write her entire life, from 1840 till her death in the early 1950s, as the parade of history unfurled around her. There wasn’t much of a plot, no real stakes, just a long, sweeping historical saga as recorded through the eyes of a pioneer.

I also had plans for a series about a Colonial family starting in the 1750s in South Carolina, moving to Connecticut, and eventually moving back to SC by the time of the American Revolution. I wrote the first book, set in I believe 1756, when sisters Jinx (real name Marionetta) and Marilyn are holding down the fort while their parents are up North scouting out places for a new home. During their parents’ absence, Jinx and Marilyn do chores, go to the one-room schoolhouse, go into town, and house a runaway. I think his name was Jeremy and that he was about 13. Jinx might’ve been 10 or 11, and Marilyn was probably 7 or 8.

Jeremy turns out to have been lying to them at the end of the book, right before their parents come back. He’s not some abused kid who ran away from home (that was probably the fish story he fed them), he’s a runaway indentured servant with a warrant out for his recapture. He’s also done some bad things (though I can’t imagine or remember what in the world he could’ve done that was so criminal at only 13, even in 1756). Jinx was upset that he disappeared only until she found out what he was really all about. She and Marilyn don’t breathe a word to their parents about what went on.

Later on, he was going to come back to town and kidnap Jinx when she was 17, and her boyfriend/later husband Zed was going to save her from being raped. I still remember the scene I had in my head, of Zed coming upon them and pointing a rifle at Jeremy.

Jinx’s parents come back (in the first book) with a baby sister, Labyrinth, Lady for short. (At that age, I thought Labyrinth was pronounced La-BREEN-ith, and that Lady was a perfectly normal, intuitive nickname, to say nothing of the plausibility of an outlandish name like Labyrinth on an 18th century child.) Up in Mystic Seaport, CT, they would later get a brother, and maybe another little sister?

I do remember that the last child, born when Jinx was already married to Zed and had her own baby, was to be named Peace. Jinx named her Peace because their mother died in childbirth, and she thought either her mother or the baby looked so at peace. I remember Jinx was Peace’s wetnurse.

After the death of the mother (can’t remember how I wrote the dad out; maybe the Seven Years War?), Jinx took her younger siblings back to SC, where they lived on one of the state’s little islands. As Jinx raises her siblings, the American Revolution would unfold. By this point, Marilyn is married to a guy named Herb (or was that the only brother’s name?) and has triplets.

I think I abandoned both Anne and Jinx when I was about 12 years old because I felt I were growing up and moving on to more mature projects. I was embarrassed by my older writing and the often implausible storylines. (Let’s not get into all the excessive drawings and scenes of corporal punishment in Anne’s first volume of her diary again!) And the longer I was away from those eras, the more unfamiliar they became. I found my niche in 20th century historical, and grew to love it above all other eras. I also was turned off when I found out what a bum deal women and minorities had in those eras.

But both characters have remained in my head all these years. It must mean something when you don’t forget characters you retired over 20 years ago. Maybe they were meant to be all along, I just needed a lot of time away from them to rethink how I wanted to tell their stories. And since I’m a much more mature writer than I was as a preteen, I’m sure their stories will be even better. Some radical surgery, and they’ll be fine.