Catherine McGrew Jaime

Author, Historian, Lifelong Learner, Teacher, World Traveler

The Joys of Researching

Enjoying Research

As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, Writing Historical Fiction, it’s a good thing I like to write historical fiction as much as I do. Otherwise, I’m fairly sure I could spend all my “writing” time doing research. I get the impression that researching comes more out of a need than a sense of joy for some authors. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I get very excited being able to dig up the facts I need in order to fill in the holes of my novel. In fact, I have to make sure that the time I spend researching doesn’t get away from me, so I generally only allow myself to do research after I’ve done my writing for the day. That way, if (or better said, when) I get carried away with the research, it hasn’t interfered with the day’s word count goal.

Simple Searches

Oftentimes a simple search will uncover the facts I’m needing. How old was Salai when he became Leonardo’s apprentice? And how old was Francesco Melzi when he joined Leonardo’s entourage? Facts like those were fairly simple to track down.

Complicated Digging

But at other times it seems to get a little more complicated. How would Leonardo have traveled from Florence to Milan and back? (And what routes would he have taken and where would he have stayed along the way?) Where was he staying each time he was in Milan or to Florence? (And were those the same places each time he was in those cities, or different places at different times?) Needless to say, the questions like that can go on for quite a while.

Historical Facts

As a historian, I want to get my facts straight. And while I realize it’s a balancing act, I’m very troubled by historical fiction that puts so much more emphasis on the fiction than the historical. I work hard to keep the balance in my writing, and my love of research certainly makes that easier to accomplish.

Machiavelli and the Militia

For my current da Vinci novel I needed to fill in some blanks about Machiavelli and his role with the Florentine militia. Going into this novel Machiavelli and Leonardo had interacted numerous times – though never at Leonardo’s initiation from what I’ve been able to tell.  They worked together for months for the ruthless Cesare Borgia (in my novels that happens in Leonardo: A Return to Florence); Machiavelli talked Leonardo into accepting the assignment for an extremely large battle mural and together they attempted to divert the Arno River. (I include those latter two in my most recent novel, Leonardo: A Return to Painting.)

Current Work in Progress

This novel that I’m currently working on, number six in the Life and Travel of Da Vinci series, starts with Leonardo having to figure out how to go forward from his failed battle painting. Where does he go from here and what will he be doing? Those decisions will be complicated by the lawsuits that he is suddenly dealing with: First the city of Florence threatens to sue him, then there’s a monastery in Milan that apparently wasn’t happy with an altarpiece he had painted almost two decades earlier, and then, not much further down the road, he finds himself in court with family members (half siblings) who are angry that he is named as the sole heir to their uncle’s estate.  A complicated legal time in Leonardo’s life, to be sure.

Leonardo and Lawsuits

But, what does any of this have to do with Machiavelli and a militia, you might be asking. Well, at this time in Leonardo’s story, Machiavelli is secretary to the Florentine city council. As such, he will likely interact often with Leonardo yet again. And while I don’t really want to make Machiavelli my antagonist, because I do think he and Leonardo at least had mutual respect for each other, I think it will work well in this story to have him working for the main antagonist. The head city councilman at this time is Pier Soderini and he is likely the one who either threatens or initiates the lawsuit against Leonardo for the uncompleted battle painting. But I don’t think Soderini would have had many direct dealings with Leonardo; I think he would have left the dirty work to his secretary, Machiavelli.

More Machiavelli and the Militia

Ah, so now we can at least see the importance of Machiavelli in this next story. But maybe not the connection to the militia. This story starts in May 1506. I had read somewhere that Machiavelli was busy trying to set up a militia for Florence until sometime that year and I wanted to have an idea when in 1506 that was. If Leonardo and Machiavelli are interacting several times while Machiavelli is focused on setting up the militia, surely the topic would come up between them, especially after they worked together for so long with Borgia.  But if the militia was already a thing of the past for Machiavelli, any conversations about it would certainly have a different feel to them.

But, it turns out, when I finally found what I was looking for, that Machiavelli was just getting the militia going in 1506, and actually continued to work with it for some time after this. So how to use the militia in defending the city, and the advantages of militia over mercenaries will definitely be an important part of conversations Machiavelli and Leonardo have during the early chapters of the story. (And, likely, any future conversations, as well.)

Digging for Details

I spent several hours tracking down the information about Machiavelli and his role with the Florentine militia. And in this case, I can see it coming up numerous times in this upcoming book. But I have to admit that I’ve also spent hours trying to track down details of much less consequence, including where the gates in the city walls around Florence were located and which one he would likely have returned through, or where in Rome his good friend Donato Bramante would have been living when Leonardo first visited the city. Those are often hours of research that turn into a few paragraphs (or less) of actual writing.

How it Might Have Been

Leonardo’s Original Madonna of the Rocks

When I can find the information, I’m willing to invest those hours in order to do a better job with the historical part of my historical fiction. When I can’t find the information, that becomes much more frustrating. I’m still trying to track down more details on the Milanese monastery that hired Leonardo to paint the first Madonna and the Rocks altarpiece. These are the folks I mentioned above that threaten to sue Leonardo twenty years after the fact. But I’m currently having a great deal of difficulty tracking down even basic information on where the church was located, where the altarpiece hung within the church, etc. I will likely spend some more time this week trying to nail down some of those facts, but it may turn into another one of those times that I have to write a fictional version of that part of the story. (And then explain that clearly in the Author’s Note at the end of the book!)

Random Tidbits

Needless to say, I can’t really relate to authors who write historical fiction but who don’t enjoy doing historical research as much as I do. (I think the ones who can afford it, hire research assistants to help with that.) But for me, learning these random tidbits as I work on my writing is part of the fun! I consider myself both an author and a historian and the ongoing research for my historical novels is such a great way to combine those two interests.

Happy reading!

Cathy

Working on My Da Vinci Series

I’ve been hard at work this summer on the next novel in my “Life and Travels of da Vinci” series. With the 500-year anniversary of Leonardo’s death looming in the relatively near future (May 2019), I’m doubling up my efforts to complete my da Vinci series by then.

My First da Vinci Novels


In my earliest years of novel writing I was able to complete an average of one novel per year. (These are relatively short novels, technically more “novella” size, so one per year with everything else I was doing was generally attainable.) I kept that pace fairly consistently for the first four novels: Leonardo the Florentine, Leonardo: Masterpieces in Milan, Leonardo: To Mantua and Beyond, and Leonardo: A Return to Florence. But I slipped a little between the fourth and the fifth, not completing Leonardo: A Return to Painting until this past spring, more than two years after the previous one had been finished.

At Least Nine Books

By my current calculations, there should end up being at least nine books in the series by the time I’ve completed it. Which means starting this year I will need to write more like two books per year to finish in time. Again, considering the lengths of these books, and the fact that as of January 2017 I am now semi-retired, this should be completely doable.

Setting Goals

One of the things I love about self-publishing my books is that I get to set my own goals. (Of course, as the two-year gap shows, sometimes goals where you only answer to yourself can get away from you!) But typically, I’m better at setting goals that I can attain, and actually meeting them.

Daily Writing

I can easily write 1,000 words or more each writing day. (On good, productive days I often hit more than 2,000 words, and when the story is clicking I’ve done as many as 3,000 – 4,000 words.) Considering my last da Vinci novel was the longest, and it came in at only 42,000 words, you can see how writing the first draft isn’t a long process when I’m working on it daily. (Six days a week is my goal during the peak of a “writing season” for me.)

The Rough Draft

I’m almost half way through the rough draft of this next story, hitting 21,000 words in just over three weeks. I’m allowing myself the next two weeks as a break from writing for two reasons – to do some more research for a few parts of the story and to spend more time with the children and grandchildren who are visiting.

Where to Begin

One of many sketches Leonardo made for the battle mural.

It’s exciting to see the story develop before my eyes. I knew where the story would begin – basically where the last one ended: Leonardo had just walked away from a large mural he had been painting for the Florentine city fathers. There was a large disaster involving the paint he had used, and the painting was effectively destroyed. What Leonardo (and the city fathers) would do next was a huge concern. (And became a bigger concern when they threatened to sue him for breach of contract.)

Other Interesting Events

All of that was a known part of this next story that I’m writing. Along the way to researching and writing those portions I have found several other interesting events during that time period in Leonardo’s life: He built a model for a flying machine that he tested with one of his apprentices; he was threatened with a lawsuit for an altarpiece he had painted in Milan twenty years earlier; and he was asked to assist a good friend in Florence with a set of life-size sculptures for the Florence Baptistery.

Learning enough about each of those events to weave them into this story is my current project. As with all my historical fiction, I want to have as many of the facts as possible, while still trying to make an interesting story.

Until next time,

Cathy

Remembering Travels Through Journals

Photo Pages and Photo Books

There are several ways to remember a trip. In these days of smart phones with great digital cameras, photos are certainly one great way. As I mentioned in last week’s post on Creative Learning Connection’s website, it’s easy (and inexpensive) to make photo books and photo pages from some of those wonderful digital pictures that tend to accumulate on our phones and computers. (The Croatia page was made using PowerPoint, but Canva.com has become my new favorite way to may photo pages.)

Travel Journals

As a writer, I also appreciate the value of the written word. Travel journals are a great way to record the portions of a trip that seem so “unforgettable” at the time, but will certainly be forgotten in time. Travel journals can include anything we want to remember from a trip:

  • Where we stayed
  • What we ate
  • Purchases we made
  • Where we visited
  • History we learned
  • Maps
  • Photos
  • And so much more…

My First Travel Journal

I wrote my first travel journal when I was nine-years-old. My family was driving from Panama, through Central America and Mexico, and up the east coast of the United States to Massachusetts. As the oldest in my family, I was tasked with recording a vast array of information from that six week adventure. Amazingly enough, my father found my hand-written journal more than 40 years later, and typed it up for me.  Being able to go back after so many years and seeing what we did on the trip is beyond amazing!
 

Lewis & Clark Trail

 Fast forward many decades and I was the parent taking several of my children on a trip – this time to follow the Lewis and Clark Trail. It was time for another travel journal. That travel journal has come in handy numerous times when others have asked us for specifics from our journey.

Returning to Panama

Soon after that I made my next trip to Panama, returning with my siblings, my father, and several of our spouses. From the beginning of that two week trip, I was writing my standard “here’s what we’ve been doing” travel journey.  It is also a great way to go back and look at the fun we had on that vacation.

Horsey and Friends

But then, a fun and different way to write travel journals came to me. My brother was having a great time taking pictures throughout our trip of a small, stuffed horse. “Horsey” quickly became the star of a fun, light-hearted travel journal that soon became the first book in an entire series of travel books starring “Horsey and Friends.”

These are just a few of the fun journals I’ve written on my various adventures across the country and around the world. And in these days of so many print-on-demand options, it is not only easy, but fairly inexpensive to make and print your own travel journal (whether you want one copy or ten!). So the next time you are off to see exciting parts of the world, may I strongly encourage you to make a more permanent record of your vacation. In the future, when looking back at it, you will be glad you’ve taken the time.

Happy traveling (and journaling).

Cathy

History Along the Road

Even in the early 1500s the Colosseum was in ruins.

The Joys of “Being There”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been a history buff for decades now. And while I love reading (and then writing) about history, particularly historical fiction, nothing beats being where history took place. And for any that know us, it should come as no surprise that my family tends to take that concept to extremes. I’ve crossed the Old North Bridge in Lexington where the British and Colonials fought in the early days of the American Revolution more than 200 years ago; I’ve stood in Jamestown where John Smith and the other settlers had been 400 years before; and I’ve walked the streets of Rome pondering both Leonardo da Vinci and Martin Luther having walked those streets almost 500 years before me. (The title photo is from a visit to the underground cities near Cappadocia, Turkey – cities that date back more than 1,000 years. That visit started me off on my first historical short stories.)

Historical Journeys with the Family

Several years ago, seven members of our family followed the Lewis and Clark trail for almost two weeks. It was amazing to be in various places along the route where those men (and the one woman) had stood almost exactly two hundred years before us.

The castle near where we lived in Wuerzburg, Germany.

When my family was in Germany many years before that, my children were quite confident that they had been to every castle in the country, though of course, they had not. But we had certainly seen lots – and every one of my kids had a pretty good idea of what life was like in the Middle Ages in Europe as a result.

Once we returned to the states, we took a family trip along the east coast that involved stops at numerous civil war and revolutionary war sites. Again, the common thought among the kids was that we had stopped at them all, but sadly it was merely as many as we could work into our several week trip. I could certainly have found more, had time not been an issue.

An Unscheduled Stop at Gettysburg

So it should come as no surprise that when we have time to kill on a road trip we often fill it with historic stops. On a recent trip to the northeast my oldest daughter and I had some extra time as we drove from Virginia to New York City. Plotting our route for the day we discovered that Gettysburg was on our way. What a wonderful way to fill a “few” extra hours!

We decided it would be fun to have an audio tour as we drove around the battlefield this time, so we started at the Gettysburg National Park Visitor Center. There were too many choices! We finally asked a National Park employee for a recommendation. After he narrowed it down to his favorite two, we plopped down $30 for the Gettysburg Field Guide (narrated by Wayne Motts) – 2 CDs and a book.  And off we went.

Enjoying the Audio Tour

One of the countless monuments at the Gettysburg Battlefield

We spent an enjoyable two hours driving through just over half of the battlefield (that got us to Stop 9 of the 15 on that audio tour). Even knowing as much as I already did about the battle of Gettysburg, I learned more as we did the drive. I liked the CD because the narrator had a very conversational tone and shared a lot of stories as he spelled out what had happened there over 150 years before. (A note about this particular CD set – we don’t recommend it for a drive through the battlefield with younger children or others who don’t want to hear graphic details of the battle – this narrator very much “told it like it was.” For the two adults listening to it, it was fine.)

Touring Gettysburg Again

Fortunately for our newly revived interest in Gettysburg, we were crossing back across that section of Pennsylvania a mere five days later. When we got back to the area, we made our way across the park to Stop 9 and spent the next hour or so finishing up the remainder of the CD. And we pondered what life must have been like that July for those in the sleepy town of Gettysburg who suddenly found themselves caught in the crossfire of these two large armies.

A depiction of Pickett’s Charge

As we drove, and listened to the stories, I found myself wanting to re-watch the movie Gettysburg. And I found myself reaching for my phone and Wikipedia on several occasions to fill in even more of the details.

Trying to Imagine Pickett’s Charge

No matter how often I watch the movie, make that drive, or stand on the edge of the field where Pickett’s Charge started (or ended), I never tire of thinking about the countless men who gave so much in that bloody conflict.

There are many things we can learn from a study of history, but remembering the sacrifices of those who fought for our freedom should certainly be high on that list!

Please remember, history must be learned in order not to be forgotten.

Happy learning.

Cathy

Writing Historical Fiction

Researching the Facts

I love to do research on almost all things historical. For some topics that means sifting through a seemingly endless amount of information to find what is the most important/most interesting. Of course, for many other topics, it’s the opposite problem, and available information is scanty at best. But that’s also one of the reasons I’ve been enjoying writing historical fiction for the last seven years – it gives me an excuse to research AND an excuse to creatively fill in the blanks when I just can’t find the answers I’m looking for. At those times, it becomes important for me to write in such a way that “it could have happened this way.”

Finding Topics

In my journey as an author of historical fiction I’ve written on a variety of topics from both U.S and world history – always about something I was already interested in, and almost always about something I’ve been teaching. Along the way, I’ve done several single title historical fiction books – about the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Constitutional Convention, for example. And those were certainly fun to research and write.

But one of the advantages to the da Vinci series that I’m currently writing is that I get to keep building on the information that I have learned. And, when I discover something that could have fit into a previous book, it’s fairly easy to work it into another book, often in the way of a conversation – “remember when…”

Working in New Facts

That is happening some with the current book I’m writing. The previous book in the series, Leonardo: A Return to Painting, covered Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa and working on his extensive battle painting. I had quite a bit of information on both of those from my years of research on da Vinci, but I’ve still managed to uncover more fun facts in the few months since that one was completed. So guess what I’ll be working into this next novel I’m writing? Of course.

Hazy Timelines

In addition to discovering new information that went with previous books, another issue I sometimes encounter during my research are the historical facts that have to fit in somewhere, but for some reason the timeline seems a bit (or a lot) hazy. Years ago I ran into some tidbits about Leonardo helping a Florentine sculptor with his designs for a particular project. I almost worked those into a much earlier book, but discovered that the timing of that book was clearly too early compared to the event. As I’ve continued my research I’m not 100% sure whether the event happened before, during, or after 1506. Before would have put it (chronologically) in my previous book, and I didn’t get it in there, so either way it goes into the current one. (Authors Notes are great places to explain such problems, so I try to make good use of them with all my historical fiction.)

Historical Accuracy

As a reader and a writer of historical fiction, I am of the mind that it is a great way to both teach and learn history, so I strive to make my historical fiction as accurate as possible. One of my pet peeves with other historical fiction is when the author plays footloose and fancy free with the facts. And children’s books seem to be the worst in that regards. So, I take my role as an author of historical fiction very seriously.

Too Historical?

As a result, I’ve had some interesting reviews, everything from “It reads more like a biography” to “Learned more than from my old arts teacher.” But I would rather get the occasional complaint about it being “too historical” than take away from the historical accuracy. And yes, I do realize there is an expectation of a good story when someone reads a novel, even if it is historical fiction. And I do work to deliver that as well. When I write about someone like Leonardo da Vinci it isn’t that difficult to accomplish!

Favorite Authors?

Are you as big a fan of historical fiction? If so, do you have a favorite author of the genre? My favorite has long been Jeff Shaara – his American history novels are clearly well researched and he does spin a compelling story – whether he is writing about the Mexican American War, the American Revolution or World War I. (And numerous other wars as well.)

Until next time, happy reading (and listening)!

Cathy

Creativity Comes in Many Forms

No Kidding Camp

I had the pleasure of attending American Shakespeare Center’s No Kidding Shakespeare Camp this past week. I came to the camp primarily because I love teaching Shakespeare. And in this week’s post on Creative Learning Connection’s blog I will share some of the fun things I learned to help me with that.

But in this post I want to share the unexpected insights I gained that will help me as an author.  As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m just now starting novel #6 in the Da Vinci Life and Travels series. (And yes, I did manage to write 2,000 words this past weekend, after our Shakespeare camp finished.) I have been doing research on da Vinci for almost two decades, but I’m always learning new things (often in the most unexpected places).

Shakespeare and Art

For instance, in this week’s camp our focus was Shakespeare and Art. Consequently, we had a lot of art themed segments – including numerous art lessons and several art history lectures. Naturally, I really liked the art history portions, but the art lessons themselves were my least favorite part of the week. Not the fault of the teacher, mind you, he did a great job. I’m just not particularly creative in those areas – tell me to draw something using perspective and my brain cramps. Instruct me in how to draw a portrait, and it practically seizes. But, I not only survived the experience, I bought myself two “learn to draw” books on the very day our camp ended – books that I’ve actually been since. So, it would be safe to say, that a small seed was planted!

                

Da Vinci and Paint

But back to the connection to da Vinci. Our first hands-on art class dealt with making different kinds of paint – grinding chalk for the color and then using eggs, linseed oil, or glue for the bases. We were encouraged to experiment with   colors and mediums. But I went a different direction, spending much of that class experimenting with the bases. I ground a large portion of green and then made a sample with each base. Then I painted a small stripe of each type on my small piece of wood, so I could compare them to each other.

It was an interesting experience – I wasn’t surprised that the egg-based paint dried the quickest. (After all, that was why Leonardo generally stayed away from the use of egg tempera paints.) What did surprise me was the smell of the linseed oil – yuck! I will definitely have to mention the smell in my next da Vinci novel (since Leonardo liked to use linseed oil in his paints). The other surprise was how smooth the glue based paint was, and how gritty the other two were. (Even though the chalk had all been ground together.) Again, the difficulty in grinding the pigments sufficiently is something I will have to work into the next novel. This entire experience gave me a much greater appreciation for the work artists and their apprentices must do before they are even ready to paint!

Viewing Shakespeare

The staging of our performance of Much Ado wasn’t this elaborate but it was just as good!

In addition to all of our various classes and lectures, we had the privilege of watching several of the ASC actors from their traveling troupe rehearsing for Macbeth (a play I should have the privilege of watching them perform when they come to Huntsville next winter!). We also attended three plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse – with the local ASC troupe. As we had expected, they did an amazing job with all three – though I have to admit, Much Ado About Nothing was my favorite, with Love’s Labour’s Lost being a close second. What can I say, I like Shakespeare more than Peter Pan – so Peter and the Starcatcher didn’t stand much of a chance against two Shakespeare plays.

While most of us don’t even dream of writing as well as William Shakespeare did – we can still learn from his character development and magnificent story lines, and watching his plays, especially performed by such amazing actors, is always a treat.

Performing Shakespeare

In the midst of our art work, and our viewings of plays, we also got to do our own small performance-based stage work. I don’t generally care for the thought of performing any more than the thought of drawing or painting. So, I wasn’t particularly anxious to do those either. We usually broke into small groups of anywhere from two to four campers, to work through some small portion of a Shakespeare scene. The directions were very good, the other campers were all fun to work with. Much to my surprise, I actually enjoyed those activities. In fact, with one of the assignments we only had time to prepare our scene work, but not to perform them for each other, and I was surprised to find myself disappointed by that.

Writing Assignment

But of all the assignments we had throughout the week, I do have to say that the one I enjoyed the most  involved writing. (Surprise!) We broke up into groups of 4 or 5, each with a picture of a painting from a Shakespeare play. My group had the above painting – what looked to me like a dying King Lear. (More on the painting at the end of the blog – I don’t want to give away anything else here, in case you want to try the assignment first. You could try writing your sentences and then comparing what you wrote to what we did.)

We were each given three strips of paper. We received the following instructions one at a time: Write one sentence or less about what you see in the painting. Then one sentence on what you feel from it. And lastly, what do you think about it?

I dutifully wrote out each of my three strips, as did the other ladies in my group. I fully expected that everyone’s sentences would be very similar – we were looking at the same picture, after all. Then we were instructed to take turns reading them aloud – all of the first sentences first, then the second, and finally, the third. I was actually surprised how different each of our sentences were from each other. And I was pleasantly surprised how well my group liked mine. Hey, remember, I had spent much of the week being surrounded by people who could have outdrawn me with their eyes closed.

After days of working on things outside my comfort zone, I had finally come to an assignment that was right up my alley. From there we had to combine the strips any way we wanted as a poem on our small poster board (doing any type of editing along the way that the group approved of).

My Contribution

My three sentences started out as:

  • A sense of sadness at the end of life.
  • All gather around, comforting the dying old man.
  • Time to say goodbye; has it been a life well lived?

Our Group Poem

When we were done combining and editing, our group poem read like this:

Staging Our Poem

Then we had some time to try to figure out how to stage our poem/picture. Needless to say, the entire task was a very creative process – but this time, it was one that I felt particularly comfortable in. It was a fun way to help bring to closure a week of creative endeavors.

I always leave these types of events with a combination of brain-overload and excitement. Much gets thrown at us from many different directions and in many different ways. But as I expected, I left the camp even more excited about teaching Shakespeare and continuing my writing.

Happy writing and learning!

Cathy

*Full disclosure on the Lear painting. I was confused when I saw it, since Lear’s daughter Cordelia actually dies before he does, but apparently Benjamin West was representing the two of them being reunited towards the end of Act 4; and they don’t each die until different portions of Act 5.

The Importance of Breaking Down a Task

Preparing for a Trip

Not quite what our rental Jeep looked like, but you get the idea.

My oldest daughter and I were preparing for our upcoming three week trip. We were departing in four days and the list of things we HAD to accomplish before we left was huge! It was very easy to look at the list and be overwhelmed by all that had to be done. But when I returned from swimming the next morning, we took the list and broke it down into what could easily be done at home that first day.  (I was home after more than two hours at the pool and not anxious to go back out again that day.) With roughly 25% of the list, it was much easier to tackle what needed to be done, check it off, and by late afternoon, actually have accomplished everything that we had decided had to be done that day. And looking at each of the next several days’ lists we could more easily face those required tasks as well.

Breaking Down a Big Task

That simple concept – breaking down the bigger task (in this case – getting ready for our next trip) made it easier to set our goals and not be intimidated by the longer list that had loomed out in front of us.

Planning for Mock Trial

I try to approach my upcoming travels that way, my teaching that way, and even my writing.  One of the teaching responsibilities I have yet to give up is coaching high school Mock Trial (though after more than twenty years that time is probably fast approaching). One of my parents from last year called recently to get some information on this year’s practices/teams. It was easy to feel overwhelmed at her request – I was preparing for an upcoming trip (see above!), and I knew I had two more trips in August/September that were going to require my time and attention.  So I not only hadn’t started to think about the fall Mock Trial, I hadn’t even thought about WHEN to think about it!

But once I broke down the task into smaller pieces, I was able to tackle it. I had to determine when (around those next trips) we were going to hold our Open House, when we would need to put teams together, and when I would actually be able to start practices. In this case, I had to first determine what information I needed to work out, and then break out the calendar and decide where each task best fit. Looking at the whole of “When and what will we be doing?” was frustrating. But taking each piece one at a time simplified what I needed to do.

Writing My Next Book

And I’m about to do the same thing with the next book I want to write. I completed book five in my da Vinci series (Leonardo: A Return to Painting) in March 2017. But I want to finish the series by the 500 year anniversary of his death (May 2019). In order to accomplish that I’ve already determined that I will need to pick up the pace, and get at least two books written each year between now and then, rather than the one per year I’ve been averaging.

I’ve been focusing on other important things in my writing career this spring and summer (getting both of my websites going, starting and keeping up blogs on both of them, and trying to market my new Audible books: Leonardo the Florentine and Failure in Philadelphia?). But the time has come to start the next book.

Writing My Previous Novel

 To put this in perspective – my last da Vinci novel covered the time period that Leonardo was painting the Mona Lisa, working on his ginormous Battle mural, and trying to divert the Arno River. So the outline of that novel was pretty easy to write, and it was fairly easy to weave in the details I wanted to include. But for novel number six, I’m currently looking at a blank Word file. I know I will pick up the story soon after the Battle mural failed and Leonardo walked away from the project. But I haven’t determined much more than that.

Breaking Down My Writing

Rather than feeling completely overwhelmed by how little I have to work with at this point, it’s time to break down the task, set some reasonable goals, and get started. (And the beauty of those kinds of goals is – I like to set them, but I know I can always move them if life gets in the way.)

So for now, I need to get beyond the blank page and start a story. I find that I can generally write at least 1,000 words a day on a story I’m working on, often even more than that. (As a comparison, most of my blog posts come in at about 1,000 words, more or less. – this one is about 1200 words) And with writing, it’s always easier to have words you end up not needing, than not having words at all.

So, it’s time to begin. I’m going to be attending a Shakespeare camp for adults this week, with a fairly full schedule. So I’m fairly sure 1,000 words per day this week would not be a reasonable goal. But I should at least be able to start making some notes and start thinking about what directions I could go with this next story.  So, this week’s goals will be to make some notes for the novel every day. No particular amount for this week, because I know so much else is going on, but at least a little movement in the right direction.

My Upcoming Writing Schedule

Starting next Saturday (July 15) I will be aiming for at least 1,000 words per day on the story itself.  I’ll still be on the road at that point, but the schedule shouldn’t be quite as hectic once the camp has ended.  Since I will be starting to write in mid July, and my novels are on the short side, it should only take me six weeks or so to get the rough draft written. So my current goal for the completion of the rough draft is the end of August or the beginning of September. (I’ll let you know how that goes!)

Then I have to spend some time on rewrites and get it to the lovely women who proof and edit for me.  Maybe by the end of September I will be moving towards publication. (Somewhere before then I’ll have to have a title and a direction to go for the cover, so that my cover designer can design another fabulous cover for me. But I’m nowhere close to that now.)

Finishing a Book

Maybe, if all goes well, Leonardo da Vinci book number six will be available for sale by the beginning of October. Do I really expect that to happen? Oh, probably not. But it gives me something to aim for. I like deadlines, particularly self-imposed ones. I try not to get particularly upset if they are missed. I just make new ones and keep plugging away. But by having stated goals, I am generally moving in the right direction.

So, whatever task it is that is looming over your head, what can you do to break it down? Is it something you need to accomplish in the next several days (like our current trip), or something that may take you months to do (like my next book project)? However it breaks out, taking it in smaller chunks, with reasonable deadlines will likely do wonders for what you can accomplish (and lower your stress level significantly at the same time).

Happy goal-setting!

Cathy

Musings of an Author

Our Local Group of Writers

I have the privilege of “running” a small group of local writers who meet once a month or so. That used to mean hosting it at my homeschool resource center, but now that those doors have closed, we’ve been rotating it between various homes.

Refreshment and Encouragement

Even when there are only a few of us, I feel refreshed and excited about writing after each meeting. And while I’m generally the “veteran” writer there (it helps that I have been around for decades more than most of our typical attendees), I always learn new things from the others.

J.R.R. Tolkien

This past meeting I was introduced to a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien that I wasn’t familiar with – Leaf by Niggle. One of the other authors mentioned the story in the context of a “Fantastic Fiction” co-op class she will be teaching in the fall. I was intrigued by her description and promptly bought the Audible version of it. I enjoyed the story for multiple reasons, not the least being that it’s a very different type of story than what I usually associate with Tolkien.

I’ve been a big Tolkien fan for decades. But to me Tolkien equates to the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Period. I’ve been a C.S. Lewis for almost as long, and I had realized he wrote much more than just the Chronicles of Narnia. But for some reason I was limiting Tolkien in my mind.

Variety within Writing

In addition to discovering another fun story when I listened to Leaf by Niggle, it encourages me as an author.  In addition to reading lots and lots of books for their entertainment and educational value, I also read a lot about the art of writing. And in too many places the instructions to authors (new authors, in particular) are to find your niche and stick to it. In other words, the goal is generally to write in only one particular genre.

But as an author whose interests go much beyond one subject (history, politics, economics, Shakespeare, science, and more), it is very difficult for me to imagine only writing in one little corner. Even within history my interests (and therefore my books) are all over the map – Leonardo da Vinci, the American Revolution, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, just to name a few. It would feel like punishment to limit myself and my writing.

So, it is good to be reminded that some of my favorite all-time authors (Lewis and Tolkien have to be at the top of that list), did not stick to one type of writing either.  If Lewis could write non-fiction and fiction works and Tolkien could write more than just the fantasy style, I had pigeonholed him in, then, I can too!

Happy writing!

Cathy

Update on Visiting Venice

I wrote a previous post, Upcoming Visit to Venice, a few weeks before my latest trip to Europe. I thought it only right to give an update now that the trip is over.  In case it’s not already clear, Venice is one of my favorite cities to visit!

Housing

Rialto Bridge

I’ve now made four trips to Venice (I do get to count before and after the cruise as two times, right?).  On my first trip there I found a reasonably priced hotel recommended by Rick Steves; it was right off the Grand Canal, fairly close to the Rialto Bridge.  On my second trip there we stayed in a hostel on Giudecca, across the Venetian Lagoon from Venice. (I didn’t have anything to do with setting that one up, but considering we had a dozen or so women in bunk bends in one room, I can’t imagine the per person cost was very expensive there.)

Struggling to get into our San Polo Airbnb the first and second time was one of its downsides!

And on this trip we rented two apartments through Airbnb – one in San Polo, very close to the Grand Canal, and one on the mainland, in Mestre. Each different one had its own advantages.  The San Polo one cost a bit more, but was conveniently located near the stop for both the San Stae ACTV water bus and Alilaguna water bus (more on those in a bit). The second one was easy to get to on the #2 bus  (which we were happy to find out was covered by our passes).

Before you make your final decision on where you want to stay, it’s a good idea to determine how you will get there. What looks like a good deal may be more trouble than it’s worth if getting there is a pain. Or that great deal you thought it was may not be so good if transportation turns out to be more expensive than with other options you turned down.

Another view of the Grand Canal

Case in point, my husband had to fly into Venice the day before the rest of us. After some searching I found an inexpensive hotel on the mainland. But when I investigated the transportation requirements of him getting from the airport to the hotel, it was actually easier, and almost exactly the same total cost to put him up that night at the hotel closest to the airport. So I cancelled the first reservation and made a new one. With the hotel next to the airport he was able to get there quickly with their shuttle bus. Then he shuttled back to the airport to meet us the next morning. Simple, and not more expensive when hotel AND transportation were considered.

Transportation

One of our many views of the Grand Canal

As I mentioned above, the airport is on the mainland. Once there you have several options to get to the city itself – train, bus, or special water buses being the three cheapest. (These are Alilaguna water buses, not the ACTV Vaporettos discussed below). A train or bus is a cheaper way to get to Venice, but arriving on an Alilaguna, and approaching by water is certainly more fun and seemed more poetic. (My third time in Venice was actually the first time I arrived in Venice that way, the first two times I had come by train.) You will have the option of buying a round trip ticket, but we knew we would be getting back to the airport a different way, so we only bought one way tickets. (Most of us purchased them when we arrived at the airport, but I think we could have saved a euro for each ticket if we had ordered them online.)

Within the islands that make up Venice you have two general options for getting around – by foot or by water. Walking is great, but you will likely find yourself crossing lots of canals, which means crossing lots of bridges – something I don’t recommend doing with luggage. (Which of course means we did lots of that as we waited to get into that first Airbnb!)

Water buses (ACTV Vaporetto) are a great method of traversing Venice and the surrounding areas. As a general rule you DON’T want to buy single time tickets (at the time we were just there a single ticket was 7.5 euros, a 24-hour-pass was 20 euros, and a 48 hour pass was 30). We decided in advance that we wanted to do the 48-hour-passes for our first 2 days in Venice. We had actually thought about going with just a 24-hour-pass when we returned a week later. But, after refiguring it, we went with the 48-hour pass then too. It only takes 2 trips each day to break even, and we did considerably more than that on each of the 4 days we were in the city. If you have the time and energy to do LOTS of walking, you may not need the water buses as much as we did – though I personally think they are a great way to see the city!

Gondolas

When people think of Venice they almost always think of gondola rides. And we did take a gondola ride this time (which because there were six of us wasn’t outrageously expensive). But, honestly, it’s not something that I feel like I had missed out on by not doing before. It does take you into some of the smaller canals, which is part of the reason we wanted to do it. But, again, the price is fairly steep, especially if you have a small group. (Oh, and be sure you know where you’re getting dropped off. There was some miscommunication there and we were not dropped off where we thought we were going to be. Which led to even more walking.)

Restaurants and Food Options

One of our many views of the Grand Canal

One thing to keep in mind in Venice is that almost EVERY restaurant will add a cover charge just for sitting at their tables. The amount is per person and should be listed at the bottom of the menu. On this past trip we spent everywhere from 2.50 to 5 euros for cover charges (again that’s per person). But, on the other hand, tips are not expected, so it sort of evens out.

One of my favorite things to buy in any city in Italy is gelato! Be sure to check it out as quickly as possible. (If you’re not familiar with gelato it’s sort of a cross between ice cream and sherbet, only better!) I recommend buying it as often as possible when you are in Italy. Even gelato stands will charge you more if you want to eat at their tables – they don’t charge a cover charge per se, but they generally have “eat in” prices that are higher than their “take out” prices. Because I was traveling with a knee injury, sitting regularly was important to me, and I wasn’t opposed to paying those extra fees.

One of the oddest sights we saw on the Grand Canal

Our first night we ate at a fairly fancy restaurant overlooking a canal. It was an interesting experience – we bought a large fish that had been covered with salt and then baked. Sold by the kilo it was a pricey dish, but it was a different experience and the only time in Venice that we spent that much on a meal. It’s okay to splurge once in awhile. (Okay, there was one meal after the cruise that we dined at a restaurant near our apartment in Mestre that was slightly more expensive – but we were coming off the cruise and ordered several courses – so we actually ordered and ate more at that restaurant, and did pay a bit more, but for just an appetizer and a main dish, the restaurant in Venice was considerably more expensive.)

Close to the Airbnb apartment we rented in Venice we had no difficulty finding a nearby bakery to order pastries for breakfast, a coffee shop for the coffee drinkers, and even a little ice cream shop that sold amazing popsicles and shakes.

We did find one little restaurant near the Rialto Bridge water bus stops that was self-serve and didn’t have a cover charge.  Decent food, okay restrooms, and cheap. Sadly we found it on our last day in Venice, or we would likely have eaten there more than once.

Toilets

Bell Tower near St. Mark’s

Not a usual topic for a blog post, but something to keep in mind when you’re traveling in Europe. Toilets can be tough to locate when you need them. When we were in Venice, waiting near St. Mark’s for family members who were on a tour. I actually found the closest public toilet on my map app. It was kind of tucked away, off the main section, so I was glad I had searched for it electronically before searching for it physically.  Oh, and did I mention, public toilets cost money? We spent anything from half a euro to two euros for a public restroom. Again, money well spent if you ask me.  To avoid having to spend too much money on public restrooms, be sure to use the ones that are available at any restaurants you eat at or any museums you visit!

Things to See and Do

St Mark’s Basilica

Doge’s Palace

As I mentioned in my first post about visiting Venice, the “must sees” include the Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Doge’s Palace. Since I had already seen all of those, I was hoping to make it to a couple of new places – Murano Island, where they’ve been making blown glass for generations, and the Jewish Ghetto (either the first or second ever such ghetto, depending on which history you believe).

Because of some issues getting into our first Airbnb, we lost several hours on the first day, and our trip to the Jewish Ghetto got bumped from the itinerary. (That’s okay, it gives me something to have on the top of my list for the NEXT time I get to visit Venice!)

Glass Blower in Murano

We did make it to Murano. We took a free water taxi out to the island to see a glass blowing demonstration. It was impressive – the prices at the attached shop not so much. But we walked up to some other more reasonable shops and did find some nice Murano glass to purchase.  When we were done shopping we had lunch at a reasonably priced restaurant before taking a water bus back to Venice proper.

After the fact we read a review of the free taxi that said it wasn’t a good idea. But we liked it. It took us through some smaller canals, was less crowded then the water buses (just the six of us), and we got some good pictures. Once we got to the factory/shop who had sponsored our ride we didn’t feel obligated to make purchases there. We enjoyed browsing and moving on.

Burano

Another outer island I visited for the first time was Burano. Burano is known for its lace and for the pretty colors of its buildings. I really hadn’t thought of how few bright colors we were seeing in Venice until I saw the brightly colored buildings in Burano.  The only difficulty with going to Burano was getting back to Venice – it was late in the afternoon by the time we got out there, so the water buses were really crowded going back! The worst lines we ever stood in to get on, and the absolute most crowded, standing room only, water bus we rode on, was that return trip.

But I was still glad we went.  We had no idea what in particular we should do when we got there, so we started by following the crowds. Everyone seemed to start down a narrow road running perpendicular to the canal, so we started down it also. Lots of kiosks and shops along both sides as we headed into Burano.  We had actually found the few little souvenirs we wanted by the time we had headed back just 15 minutes or so. But I’m glad we kept going a bit further. There we encountered a small canal and along it the truly beautifully painted buildings. (That’s where I took the picture shown just above.) So if you can handle the walking, be sure to go back a little ways and do some exploring. There may be even more to see, I’m not sure, but that was as far as we made it.

The entrance to the Arsenal

The fanciest ship in the museum

Another place we got to see a bit of was the Arsenal, an important part of Venetian history. As far as  I know tourists aren’t allowed into the Arsenal itself, but we spent some time in the small, but packed, museum of Venetian Naval History that is right outside the Arsenal. Well worth the time, in my opinion.

Searching for More Information

As I usually do when planning such trips, I did lots of research. Even when I got home I was continuing to search for information for the next time I get to visit Venice.  Along the way I found several informative websites, but one of the most comprehensive ones I ran across was Venice for Visitors. I especially liked their suggestion that to really see the city, a visitor should try to spend a week there – not this time, but maybe next time!

Happy traveling!

Cathy

Update on Global Entry

I love to travel, I really do! And I want to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. But, when I have to fly somewhere, the journey becomes more of an endurance than an enjoyment. I’m not afraid of flying, I just don’t particularly enjoy it. The seats are getting smaller and closer together. And then there’s the “fun” of the airports themselves – with the long walks between terminals (give me Atlanta over Charlotte or Philadelphia any day!) And let’s not forget the ongoing security headaches.

Airport Security

If, like me, you are old enough to remember the ease of pre-9/11 flying, these headaches feel all the more real (and painful!) While we all have some understanding of the importance of the increased airport security, it is easy to long for the “good old days” of flying when all of this didn’t take so long or feel so intrusive.

Global Entry and TSA PreCheck

Since I was renewing my passport last January, I decided it was a good time to apply for one of the programs designed to reduce some of the hassles of flying.  Since I generally fly overseas at least once a year, it wasn’t difficult to spend an extra $15 for the more encompassing Global Entry than the solely domestic TSA PreCheck ($100 for 5 years versus $85).

In a previous post, Tips for Packing Light and Traveling Smart, I spoke a little about my decision and the process of applying for Global Entry. At that point I had obtained my “Known Traveler Number” but I had only had a chance to use the TSA PreCheck portion of it.

But now that I’ve made my first overseas trip since getting Global Entry, I just have to share! I had been under the impression that having Global Entry would save me some time reentering the country when I flew. Oh my, it was better than I had expected.

First Experience with Global Entry

Four of us from our group were traveling back to the states together through Philadelphia – two of us had Global Entry and two did not, so we split up to go through the various security portions. The two without Global Entry got in the back of a very long line and the other two of us walked up to the section with several kiosks and very few people. Within minutes we had processed through those and were on our way to the Baggage Claim section to await our luggage. More than twenty minutes passed before the other two caught up with us there.  I was already happy with my decision to spend the time and money on Global Entry, and we weren’t even done yet.

Full Disclosure: Most of the time we saved going through the kiosks instead of the longer line was then spent waiting for the bags we had chosen to check. Had we just had carry-ons that would have been a true time savings. But the real gain for me was the ability to sit and wait on the bags, rather than standing in the crowded lines – a painful experience for me with my injured knee.

With luggage in hand we headed to the next lines, again splitting between those with and those without the special privileges. The lines there were closer in length, so we probably only saved 5 minutes or so going through the passport check portion.

From there we had to return our luggage to American Airlines for our next flight, and our special status didn’t save us anything – though again, by then the lines were moving quickly, and none of us waited long to get through that portion.

TSA Pre-Check Perks

But then it was time to pass back through security – this time the lines split being TSA PreCheck and non-PreCheck. Two of us were off to the PreCheck line. At first glance the PreCheck line actually seemed longer than the other one, but when we turned the corner we discovered that the non-PreCheck line was significantly longer. This time we probably saved an additional five – ten minutes, possibly more.

To say nothing of feeling like I’m being treated like a real human being when I go through the PreCheck line – the shoes and the sweater stay on, and the CPAP machine and liquids stay in their bags.  Small, but important improvements to my security line experiences! (And since Europeans don’t make anyone take their shoes off going through security – I actually traveled both directions on this trip without that hassle – what can I say, sometimes it’s the little things in life!)

All told I probably saved a half hour or more on my first international trip with the Global Entry perks. And while that may not be a huge time savings for some people, the fact that I was traveling with an injured knee made me appreciate every minute I wasn’t standing in a line.

Luggage

One last comment on this recent trip. Of the six of us in our group, five had been on numerous cruises, and one was a first timer. Amongst us we had five carry-on size suitcases and one much larger suitcase (want to guess which member of the group that belonged to?). As we dragged our luggage through Venetian streets and across canals, both before and after the cruise, and on and off buses and water buses, we were glad that no one had brought two suitcases, and that our bags were generally small.

Carry-On versus Checked

I had planned to bring my bag to Europe as a carry-on, and then check it on the way home. That is my preferred method for international travels – since it ensures my luggage joins me on my trip, but makes things a little easier on the way home. I don’t buy alot of souvenirs (see examples from two of the cities I visited) but I buy enough that it’s nice to be able to expand the bag a bit to accommodate them. On this last trip, American Airlines had other ideas – instead of gate checking my bag on my second small plane of the day, they insisted on checking my luggage all the way to my final destination – convenient – until my bag didn’t show up with everyone else’s in Venice. (It finally did arrive, but not until all the others had long been there, and my stress had risen more than it should have.)

What do you like most and least about flying?

Happy traveling!

Cathy

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