Catherine McGrew Jaime

Author, Historian, Lifelong Learner, Teacher, World Traveler

Category: Writing (page 1 of 2)

Writing hints from an independently published author of many years.

A Christmas Carol: 19th Century Writing and Publishing

Enjoying “A Christmas Carol” with Family

Christmas at our house just isn’t complete without a fairly large dose of Scrooge, the Cratchits, and the various ghosts that accompany them. In fact, we consider it necessary to watch/listen to several versions of A Christmas Carol throughout the month of December. Some our favorites include: the version with George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart’s version, the Muppets Christmas Carol, Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carol, and the Focus on the Family audio version.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas”

So, it should come as no surprise that I find the story behind Dickens writing his 28,000 word novella to be fascinating. For those of you who haven’t seen it (and you really should), The Man Who Invented Christmas depicts Charles Dickens as he struggles to write A Christmas Carol. (And while we really can’t credit Dickens with “inventing” Christmas, he was instrumental in solidifying many Christmas traditions.)

Dickens’ Process for Writing his Novella

The movie fascinated me from another perspective – watching the process (albeit a fictionalized version of it) of Dickens writing his famous story. Much of the movie involves him having conversations with his characters as he works through the story he is trying to write. I have only written historical fiction at this point, so I don’t have the same opportunity to make up an entire cast of fictional characters – but it was fun to watch the process he was going through, deciding who would be in his story, what their character traits would be, and even what he would call them.

And in other scenes he sits at his desk with multiple pages of his handwritten story laid out in front of him, scratching things out, adding things in. Even though much of my writing is done on a laptop these days, I do follow some of Dickens’ process. I often use a notebook or a legal pad to sketch out ideas when I’m away from my computer. And I often have pages spread out in front of me as I try to figure out where I’m going with certain aspects of my story. And while my pages are usually printed on a laser printer before I get to the editing stage we saw Charles performing, I make the same kind of additions and deletions that he was doing.

Dickens and Self-Publishing

One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that Charles Dickens, a well-known popular author of his day on both sides of the Atlantic – basically had to self-publish this Christmas story when he first wrote it. And not the inexpensive, print on demand self-publishing that I’ve been doing for the last seven years, but a much more expensive, almost “vanity-style” publishing that predated print on demand, where the author picks up the tab for getting his story in print.

Now Dickens did have an advantage over most of us, with one or more bookstores that were willing to take pre-orders on his new book, and to sell it in the store once it was printed. So, he wasn’t spending all that out of pocket money so that he could have a garage full of books that he was then trying to sell, a book or two at a time, as he found the buyers.

Our Process versus His Process

Sadly, that’s not quite the situation most self-published authors find themselves in today. I just finished the rough draft of my most recent novel (#6 in the da Vinci series). Now I send it off to beta readers who will give me feedback on everything from what doesn’t work in the story, to typos or grammatical mistakes.

In a few weeks, maybe I’ll have received all that feedback and have made the changes and corrections that need to be made. Meanwhile I’ll hire someone to design the cover. Dickens hired an illustrator who took care of the inside pictures, but at least from the movie, it looks like Dickens himself planned out his cover – much simpler than covers of today – but he wasn’t in need of the same type of “grab the readers” type of cover that authors generally need today to be noticed by potential readers in an increasingly crowded market.

The Dickens’ Masterpiece

But, regardless, Charles Dickens went from story idea to printed book in six weeks, spent the money along the way to hire an illustrator and the first printing of his book – which proceeded to sell out in the first five days. The book would continue through countless printings, later be translated into numerous languages, and has not been out of print since its original 1843 printing. And more than 150 years later, we are still watching, reading, or listening to Dicken’s little Christmas tale.

“God bless us everyone.”

Cathy

My Da Vinci Deadline Looms

The writing continues as I press ahead to finish the rough draft of my next da Vinci novel. As I mentioned in a post in mid-October,  my new goal for finishing this rough draft is the end of November. I’m not quite at the end of the story, or at the end of the month, so the race is on.

Enjoying the Research

As always, it is easy to get caught up in the research. Learning new things about Leonardo and the era and areas in which he lived is always fascinating to me.

This particular novel covers the period in time when he is back and forth between Florence and Milan several times. Those are both cities that I have entire books set in, since in earlier periods of his life, he spent many years at a time in each of them.

Needless to say, I’ve already studied Renaissance Florence and Renaissance Milan quite a bit.  But that never stops me from further studying.

Renaissance Milan

Map of 16th Century Milan

Some of the things I learned recently about Milan:

  • It was larger and richer than Florence during the Reniassance.
  • It was the gateway between the Italian peninsula and Northern Europe, particularly France and Germany.
  • Milanese armorers were so important to Milan that they had special privileges, much like the glassmakers of Venice.
  • It was the first region in western Europe to build navigable canals

Renaissance Florence

Map of 15th Century Florence

Florence on the other hand had these qualities at that time:

  • A large industrial city with much trade and manufacturing
  • The guilds there were particularly important, and each had their own officers and their own churches.
  • The top 7 guilds there were: bankers, druggists, furriers, notaries, silk weavers, and wool merchants.
  • In fact, the quality of wool in Florence was the highest in Europe.
  • Other important guilds in Florence included: bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, innkeepers, grocers, and shoemakers (and 8 others).
  • Florence spent much of this time period (actually from 1498 – 1509) fighting their neighbors, the Pisans.
  • The oldest bridge across the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio, was crowded with shops, including butchers and tanners.

Leonardo, our Renaissance Man

And, of course, I’ve continued learning about Leonardo’s life during this time period. Some of the following may or may not make it into this novel, but they were interesting tidbits, nonetheless.

  • When Leonardo left Florence in the summer of 1506 with his battle painting incomplete, the Signoria (City Fathers) required him to leave 150 florins – money he would lose if he didn’t return from Milan by the end of the three months they were giving him.
  • In July 1507 King Louis referred to Leonardo as “our dear and good friend, our painter and engineer.”
  • Sometime in 1507 Leonardo started his painting, the St. Anne Madonna, and he completed it sometime in 1508.

Preview from the Draft Below

For any who are interested, I’ve included a preview from the current version of my story, where Leonardo gets the message that he needs to leave Florence and head to Milan.

Happy writing and reading!

Cathy

As Leonardo took the message the servant stood straight again. “I have been instructed to wait for a response. I actually bring you two messages that are somewhat connected to each other. The first is that the friars at the Chapel of the Franciscan Brotherhood are unhappy about an altarpiece that you did for them with the de Predis brothers. They are requesting that Governor d’Amboise require you to come back to Milan and complete the altarpiece to their satisfaction.”

The servant stopped, looking for a response from Leonardo. But Leonardo merely stood there, considering the implications of this message. The altarpiece in question had been his first commission in Milan. A commission that went back more than twenty years. He had not thought about the Madonna of the Rocks in years. But he had completed that painting. Why were the friars bringing up it after so long?

Leonardo thought about the money the three artists had been promised for completing the altarpiece. Now that he stopped to think about it, he wasn’t sure whether they had ever been paid in full. He had started working for the Duke of Milan soon after they had completed the altarpiece and he had left the final financial details with the brothers. Suddenly Leonardo realized that the French servant was standing silently in front of him, as if waiting for Leonardo’s full attention to deliver the rest of his message.

“I’m sorry,” Leonardo mumbled. “I was thinking about the altarpiece. Did you say there was a second part to your message?”

The servant smiled and continued, “Governor d’Amboise requests your presence at his Milanese court.”

35 Great Writing Quotes

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post with quotes about traveling and warned that more  might follow. And sure enough, here I am today with more quotes. This week they are all about writing. And you may notice that almost every one of these is from authors. I think you will admit that there are some great writing quotes here, for both writers and readers. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did:

  • “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.”   Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)
  • “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”  Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)
  • “There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”  Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)
  • “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”  Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
  • “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”  Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)
  • “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see.”  Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924)
  • “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”  Anton Chekhov (1860 – 1904)
  •  “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.”  Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943)
  •  “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.  G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936)
  • “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”  Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)
  • “Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”  Frank Kafka (1883 – 1924)
  • “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”  Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976)
  •  “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”  F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940)
  • “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”  William Faulkner (1897 – 1962)
  •  “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”  Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
  • “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”  Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
  • “The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.”  Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
  • “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”  E. B. White (1899 – 1985)
  • “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”  John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968)
  • “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”  Graham Greene (1904 – 1991)
  • “A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.”  Roald Dahl (1916 – 1990)
  • “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”  Madeleine L’Engle (1918 – 2007)
  •  “There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”  Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986)
  •  “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”  Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)
  •  “You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”  Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)
  • “The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.” William H. Gass (1924 – )
  •  “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)
  • “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”  Toni Morrison (1931 – )
  • “Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow.”  Margaret Atwood (1939 – )
  • “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Louis L’Amour (1942 – )
  • “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001)

Again, I hope some of these quotes got you thinking!

Happy writing and reading!

Cathy

Back to My Writing

In mid-August I wrote two blog posts on my ongoing work on the next da Vinci novel – Working on my Da Vinci Series and The Joys of Researching. At that point I was about 20,000 words into my current novel (or almost half way through the rough draft, since my novels are more “novella” length – in the 40,000 word range).

My Progress Since August

Since I can generally write 1,000 words/day or more, at that time I fully expected to have the rough draft done by sometime in September – maybe the beginning of October if I really got bogged down. Alas, plans are great, but as is so often the case – life intervenes. So here I am in mid-October, a full 60 days since I wrote those posts. Any guesses as to how far along I am on Leonardo da Vinci book #6? If you guessed still at 20,000 words you would be correct.

What Excuses Do I Have?

Sadly, until a few days ago I hadn’t touched my novel since mid-August. There are all kinds of reasons/explanations/excuses I could give for the lack of progress. But ultimately, it doesn’t much matter. Here I am in mid-October with half a book left to write.

I could get mad at myself, tell myself it will never get finished, and I should just give up. Or I could dust off my computer and my notes and just get back to work. Which, of course, is what I’m doing (otherwise, I wouldn’t bother to tell you!).

Time For a New Deadline

Since I missed my original deadline, I need to set another one. I would love to say I’m going to knock out the second half in the next three weeks, but at this point, I doubt that’s a reasonable goal. I’ll give myself some extra time for research (part of what had stopped by my forward progress this summer) as well as the other responsibilities I have right now (primarily coaching Mock Trial and helping my students prepare for the Mock Trial competition in early November).

So now, let’s make the new goal the end of November, more like six weeks away. If all goes well, I’ll have a rough draft by then. (Of course, that will still leave the editing stage, so the book still won’t be done – but again, if all goes well, it will finally be well on its way.)

Progress Reports to Come

I’ll keep you posted on whether I succeed with this deadline. In the meantime, it’s back to trying to continue figuring out how many trips Leonardo actually made between Florence and Milan during this time frame. How much interaction did he have with Raphael and/or Machiavelli when he was back in Florence? How much detail do I want to include about the autopsy he did on the 100-year-old man, on the gala he organized in Milan, or on his newest painting commissions? And of course, the list goes on.

So, to myself, and other writers reading this, I say:

Happy writing! And keep going, you can do this!

Cathy

The First Few Paragraphs

In case you’re interested, here’s a small taste of what the first few paragraphs of the story currently look like.  I hope you enjoy them. (Always subject to change, of course!):

Florence, Italy, May 1506

Leonardo walked into the spacious room without seeming to notice Salai and Tommaso huddled in the far corner. Absentmindedly he picked up a small notebook, flipping quickly through the pages. Without a word, he threw the notebook on a nearby table and stormed out of the room.

Salai and Tommaso heard the outside door slam, but for a long moment they both remained in their places, speechless. In the years they had worked for Master Leonardo they had both seen him angry on a few occasions. But never like this. And certainly never for this long. It had already been more than a week since he had walked away from his battle painting in the City Hall. Machiavelli had stopped by almost every day in an attempt to converse with the Master, but as of yet Leonardo had been unwilling to see or talk to anyone. Maybe Machiavelli’s last visit had pushed Leonardo too far.

Finally breaking the silence, Salai asked quietly, “Do you think one of us should try to talk to him when he returns?”

“Not me. No way.” Tommaso replied, with fear practically dripping from his voice. “You are certainly welcome to try. But I am not going near the Master until he calls for us. There is no telling what he might do.”

Salai pondered their options before speaking again. “We can’t continue trying to avoid him for much longer. There is only so much we can do without instructions.”

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

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

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