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.

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

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

Writing Timeline Games

My Writing – All Over the Place!

I know a lot of authors seem to focus on one type of writing. But like I’ve mentioned before, my writing is all over the place. While I write primarily on history topics, I often get going in a different direction – into the world of Shakespeare, science, or art, to name a few.

And even when I’m in the realm of history, my writing doesn’t fit as easily into one category as some authors. I write on different time periods (from Leonardo da Vinci to the American Revolution and beyond). And I write both fiction and non-fiction, both in fairly large quantities.

Writing Timeline Games

Because of my combined love of history and using games to make learning more fun, I also like to write timeline games. While that’s not the type of writing most people think about, I think it qualifies. Like with other types of non-fiction history writing, timeline games require a lot of research.

Our First Encounter with a Timeline Game

We first encountered timeline games in the form of Chronology, a game I found on a shopping trip to Walmart one day many, many years ago. The price was right, and the premise sounded cool – history and timelines. For the budding historians in the family (myself included) it was a great way to learn and review world history. Another thing I immediately liked about the game was that while they introduce the dates of important events, it isn’t necessary to have the dates memorized in order to play the game. (I’ll explain the basic game play below, but for now, suffice it to say that timeline games are about the flow of history, which this historian things is much more important than the memorization of dates and names.)

Years passed after we discovered that initial timeline game and we wondered if the Chronology folks would come up with any other cool games covering subsets of history, but we waited in vain. (They did come up with some topical versions – but they were things like Sports and Entertainment, so not quite what we were looking for.)

Making Our First Timeline Games

So in time my sister and I started developing our own line of timeline games. We started with the Civil War and the American Revolution, since they were history topics I had just spent significant amounts of time researching and teaching. For each of those historical topics I had already made pretty extensive timelines as we studied, so converting my timelines into games didn’t require much additional effort.

A sample page from the Astronomy timeline I made later.

The neat thing about timeline games is that they can be used with just about any history study. All you need is a list of important dates and events to put on cards. We generally put our information into the forms on our computer, but you could even hand-write them on index cards if you wanted.

Sample page of cards from our Presidents Game.

Our Current Timeline Games

Over time we’ve made timeline games on a whole host of topics. They’re currently available individually or in a bundle as downloads on CurrClick.com and my hope is to have them all collected soon in a paperback version on Amazon (currently they are only available on Amazon as part of topical studies on the various topics),

  • American Revolution
  • Astronomy
  • Civil War
  • Civil Rights
  • Leonardo da Vinci (if you know my writing at all, that doesn’t surprise you!)
  • Lewis and Clark
  • Presidents
  • Space Exploration
  • Statehood

Once again, you can see some of the variety of topics I have written about. And you can make your own timeline game on pretty much any other history topic of your choice.

Playing the Game – the Rules

It’s also a game that lends itself to small or large groups. We’ve played it with up to ten players, and anywhere between three and eight players works especially well. You can even play the game with non-readers by modifying the rules only slightly.

And explaining the rules to new players is quite simple:

Everyone starts with one card in front of them, face up – the start of their personal timeline.  The remaining cards are face down in a draw pile in the middle of the table.

One person turns over the top card and reads the event on it to the person to their immediate left. That player doesn’t need to know the exact date on the card, they just need to point out whether the card would go before or after the card currently in their timeline. If they are right, they add the card. If they are wrong, the next person gets to guess.

Play then moves around the table. Of course, once a player has multiple cards, picking the right location becomes progressively more difficult (since each card could potentially go at the beginning of the timeline, at the end of the timeline, or between two particular cards).

Play continues until one player has built their timeline of the predetermined length (eight is a nice number, but you can decide in advance on a lower or higher number if you prefer).

Modification for younger players: Have one person read all the cards aloud, rather than having the players read to each other.

Modification when playing with an expert player: You can always handicap someone who knows the topic too well by requiring them to place more cards and/or by requiring them to actually give the date, instead of just the location.

And that’s all there is to playing a timeline game.

Happy learning! (And writing!)

Cathy

Becoming a Full-Time Author

Retired or Changing Careers?

Within weeks of closing the homeschool resource center I had owned for almost fourteen years, I was filling out my application for Global Entry (more on that in a previous post, “Tips for Packing Light and Traveling Smart”). One of the questions on the form was “occupation.” I considered briefly putting down “retired” in the space, but I hesitated. Yes, my days as a business owner and as a homeschool teacher are primarily behind me (my own twelve children have all graduated and my teaching schedule has shrunk to almost nothing).

Occupation – Author

And yes, when people ask me what I’m doing now, I generally tell them that I’ve retired in order to travel more and write more, both of which are completely true.  So, instead of putting retired on the form, I listed my occupation as “author.” Fortunately, the TSA agent who conducted my five minute interview a couple of months later didn’t ask me my occupation (because by then I might have forgotten putting that on the form!), but instead merely commented on it. Something to the degree of “So, you’re an author?” I’m not sure why that seemed to surprise him, and he wasn’t really in the mood for talking (I’m sure there were dozens more people coming in behind me for the same five minute interviews), so that was as long as that conversation lasted.

But, had we actually talked more, I would definitely have said, “Yes, I am an author. I have been for a long time, though I write full time now.” Contrary to what I’ve read on some places on the internet, I think someone can write part time – I did that for many, many years, and wrote a whole lot of books that way! But it is nice to be a full-time author now, whatever that really looks like.

Full-Time Writing vs. Part-Time Writing

Like most anything else in life, I think writing (full-time or part-time) looks different for different people – or even at different times for the same person. Just like what we write can look very different: I guess there are authors out there who focus on only one genre of writing, though I have never been one of them.

Answering the “Difficult” Questions

I find that, like my interests, my writing is all over the place. I guess that makes it tougher to establish a specific brand or to attract a specific following, but it’s a little late for me to change that. It is almost as difficult for me to answer the question “What do you write about?” as to answer “How many books have you written?”

In fact, at the dentist last week I was catching up with my semi-retired dentist that I hadn’t seen in a while and he was asking me if I had written any books recently. My hygienist hadn’t realize that I was an author and of course she asked the typical question about what I write. I still don’t have an easy answer for the quantity of books. “Eight novels, three short stories, one textbook, a series of art appreciation books, and a variety of other non-fiction books” is a bit of a mouthful, after all. The slightly shorter answer to her “what” question was something along the lines of “I write on a variety of topics and historical fiction is my favorite.”

The Joys of Historical Fiction

As I mentioned in my previous post, “Seeing Stories Everywhere” I like historical fiction a lot. I read it, I listen to it, and now I write it. But just as I hope to continue writing historical fiction as long as I can, I am confident I will keep writing non-fiction just as long. I enjoy economics almost as much as I enjoy history (hence the first textbook I wrote was an economics textbook).

Writing about Economics

And when I can combine economics and history all the better. I put together a book on one of my favorite economists of old: Notes from Frederick Bastiat’s Essays on Political Economy and another one on Machiavelli: A Brief Look at Machiavelli and the Prince (that one combines history and economics). Someday I hope to take a closer look at some of my other favorite economists, including Adam Smith. Since few people have the time and energy to sit down and read the more than 500 pages in his book, The Wealth of Nations, I would like to do an annotated, abridged version of it (like I did with Bastiat and Machiavelli).

Timeline Games

Another thing I enjoy putting together are timeline games, but that’s a topic for a future post.

If you are also an author: Do you write part-time or full-time? What do you write about? (Can you answer the question easier than I can?)

Happy reading and writing!

Cathy

Older posts
Top