I can't really say. I told myself for years that I wasn't writing, because being "a writer" was a class of being so far above lowly little me. So I always considered myself more of a "dabbler with words", rather than "a writer". Even today, it's hard for me to actually say "I've written a novel". That sounds so presumptuous of me. To me, they'll always be just "stories" that I wrote for fun, although if I ever turn a profit on them, that will certainly be a nice bonus.
In the end, I can only ascribe my evolution into writing as something God must have wanted me to do, since no one in my family or among my friends were writers. I grew up reading and loving the "feel" of words, but not in an environment that particularly encouraged me to write. Not that it discouraged me, either. My gradual desire to write seemed to come out of nowhere, and yet I know that can't be so. Again, all I can do is assume it was something the Lord, knowing me better than I knew myself, prompted me to gradually undertake.
How long have you been writing, or dabbling, as you put it?
I started "dabbling" with writing around 7th grade and throughout high school. Some of my early, (thankfully never completed) stories in those days included a hybrid of "Dark Shadows Meets Star Trek," "The Big Valley Meets the Next Generation of the Three Musketeers," and an earnest attempt to rewrite "Hamlet" and give him a happy ending. I've always been a sap for happy endings.
In college (University of Arizona), I began my first sincere effort at writing an original novel. By then, I was majoring in history, and it took me all six of my college years (bachelor and master degrees) to complete the novel...a rather complicated medieval romance. Despite its many flaws, the victory was that I did stick with a single story all the way to the end and, unlike earlier efforts, completed a novel-length story I had started out to tell.
What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?
I fly by the seat of my pants. I can't stick to a plan to save my life. I usually start with a pair of characters (hero and heroine) that I ultimately want to get together, plop them down into some kind of "situation", and let them run with it. The challenge and adventure are figuring out along the way how I'm going to get them through the obstacles that face them, to reach that "happy ending" that the romantic in me is determined they achieve.
How do you choose your characters' names?
Oh, my! I can literally spend hours and hours pouring over names before I assign one to each of my characters. Each name carries in my own mind a physical description. For example, if I'm looking for a dark haired character, a name like Tristan or Robert or Etienne will jump out at me. A blond man might be an Alan or a Therri or an Edward. I know that's not true in "real life", but it's a peculiarity of mine that helps me narrow down names for individual characters, depending on how I envision them physically.
Since I write medieval fiction, I have spent years pulling together a list of as many "authentic" medieval names as possible. I do this by reading medieval non-fiction, and adding every new and unusual name or spelling mentioned in use during that time period, to my list. Also, I stumbled across a splendid book entitled, The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, by E.G. Withycombe. The author not only includes a roster of English Christian names, past and present, but traces most of them back to their historical roots. An example: "Alan is a Celtic name of a popular early Welsh and Breton saint. It was introduced to England at the time of the Norman Conquest. In French, it was Alain and Alein, and the spellings Allan and Allen have both been used in England. Alain is still a favorite in Brittany, but is not much used in the rest of France. Other variants are Aleyne and Aleyn."
From this information, I know that if I want to include a character named some version of Alan, my time setting in England must be after the Norman Conquest (October 1066). If I want to use the name for a lower class character, then it should be as a result of an intermingling of the English and Norman races, or I need to set my story a few centuries later when Norman names have "seeped down" to the lower classes. A character from England or Brittany will likely be named Alan, whereas a character from France will be Alain or Alein.
What type of writing schedule do you have?
It has varied from book to book. With my recently published medieval novel, Loyalty's Web, most of it was written by hand, sitting on my bed at night after all the "day's work" had been done.
The next book in this series, Illuminations of the Heart (working title), I wrote mostly between the hours of 5-8 AM on the computer, before the "day's work" had begun. A third book in the series, still in very rough form, was drafted during the afternoons, when I would set a timer for, say, two hours and tell myself I couldn't get out of my chair at the computer until the timer went off, whether I wrote anything or not. Inevitably, I would become so bored sitting there, I would finally start typing something on the screen, and more often than not, I had accomplished some good, workable text by the time the bell went off.
The lesson I learned for myself, is that I need to be flexible with my writing schedule, according to the times and seasons of my life.
How did you do your research?
I have an extensive personal medieval library that I've accumulated through the years, ranging from the very general (the Life in a Medieval Castle/Town/Village series by Joseph and Frances Gies), to the more specialized (Medieval English Gardens, by Teresa McLean, Fabulous Feasts, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman, Medieval Travellers, by Margaret Wade Labarge, etc).
Although I do some initial research regarding the political setting my characters will be interacting in before I start writing, I tend to do the bulk of my research "selectively". Having obtained a good, general background "feel" for the era through my college study and early readings and writings, I do most of my specific research as I write. For example, rather than looking up everything possible on medieval herbs before I start a project, I will wait until I'm writing a scene that involves knowledge of specific medieval remedies, and then pull out my medieval garden/herb books to find the information I need to include in that scene. If I need a description of a medieval bath, I'll go to my books and look that subject up, then draw on my research for that scene. Once I wanted to describe a medieval castle fireplace. Again, I paused in my story to look up various descriptions, until I found one that seemed to fit my scene. As a reader, I hate being "hit over the head" with long-winded history lessons in the middle of a good story, so I try not to overwhelm my readers with more than is necessary to set an authentic "feel" for the period.
Do you get blocked? Any hints on how to stave it off?
Sadly, the answer is yes. I used to think I had so many ideas, that I would never experience writer's block. Apparently, I needed to be humbled on that score. During certain extremely stressful stretches of my life, I have, indeed, found myself blocked, not necessarily for ideas, but in my ability to communicate those ideas coherently onto a page. But mostly I remain convinced, from my own experience, that the best way to cope with writer's block is to force yourself to sit at the computer (or with your notebook) for an extended period of time--such as the two hours I mentioned above, but even an hour or thirty minutes is better than nothing--and refuse to allow yourself to get out of the chair until the "bell" goes off. No TV, no music, nothing in the background to give your mind an "out". It's write or spend two hours in mind-numbing boredom. I think most of us would find at least a few words to tap out on the screen, rather than endure the vacant consequence.
What one thing do you like most about writing? Least?
My favorite thing to write is dialogue. I enjoy the energy of character interaction. I'd have to say that my least favorite thing to write is descriptive passages, probably because they're my least favorite things to read, although obviously they are necessary in story telling.
You chose "supported self-publishing" via iUniverse. Please share with us why you made that choice and how you chose iUniverse from among similar print-on-demand packagers.
Well, my experience with Loyalty's Web pretty much went like this. I naively thought it was a romance when I originally wrote it. So naturally, I sent it out to a number of traditional romance publishers and agents. After a collection of personalized rejections, complimenting my writing but adding the dreaded, "Not quite right for us" blow, I received a phone call from an agent who finally summed up what my problem was. Although she "loved my story", she said it had "too much plot for a romance, and not enough pageantry for a historical". (Although she added that if I could add even just one short "love--translate, "sex"--scene, she thought she might be able to sell it.) However as it presently stood, she said she simply didn't know how to market it.
I didn't want to add any sex scenes. I'd written exactly the kind of book I wanted to read but was having trouble finding on the bookshelves: a romance that allowed for some non-romantic plot. By pageantry, I presume the agent meant those "sweeping" novels that carried larger-than-life characters "from the courts of Europe to the wilderness of America, and if they threw in a side-trip to China, all the better". Those were simply not the books I wanted to read or write. I wanted something on a smaller, more intimate canvas. Simply put, I wanted to read, and therefore write, something that fell somewhere between the two genres the agent mentioned.
Discouraged at my failure to find a traditional publisher willing to take a chance with me, I put Loyalty's Web away for many years. But I continued to have faith in it, and in a moment of pondering one day, I thought to myself, "I can either leave this book buried in my drawer for the rest of my life, or I can take a leap of faith, send it out into the world on my own, and just see what happens."
The beauty of self-publishing is that by the time I had reached this decision, technology had now evolved to the point where you no longer need to find yourself stuck with a garage full of books that you're expected to somehow go out and sell. Now there is the option of "Publish on Demand" (or POD). The publisher prints out copies as orders come in, so you're never stuck with an unsold "backlog". Publicity is still mostly up to the author, but copies are printed and mailed out only as orders come in.
I researched several POD publishers on the internet (and there are many out there now), but ultimately settled on iUniverse because (1) I knew someone (Marsha Ward) who had published through iUniverse and was happy with her experience with them, and (2) with a promotional deal, it was less expensive than some other sites I'd looked at, while offering an equivalent or superior package of services, and a little more flexibility in some of the package "options" I was interested in adding on.
What is your next project?
Right now, I'm busy trying to promote Loyalty's Web. But eventually (maybe in 2008?), I would like to polish up its sequel, Illuminations of the Heart, and publish it through iUniverse, also.
What is your advice for other writers?
Don't give up. Never give up. But be patient. Things don't happen overnight. Your dreams may, in fact, take decades to achieve. And know that every word you write, no matter how inept you may feel at the time, has value. Writing isn't only about creativity. It's about discipline. It's about "sticking with it" for better or worse. It's about starting and finishing. Lessons learned through writing can be applied to many other areas of our lives. And on those days when your characters make you smile and you find your heart swelling with affection for them, no matter how "fictional" they are...those are the golden days that make it all worthwhile, and publishing seems far more a pleasant "bonus" than "what it's really all about".
Here's a summary of Loyalty's Web from the published blurb on the back cover:
In twelfth century France, King Henry II of England has just finished quashing a rebellion by his power-hungry sons and now seeks to tame the lawless barons who supported them in this corner of his "Angevin empire." To this end, the king has sent the Earl of Gunthar as his royal representative to ensure that Prince Richard and his former cohorts faithfully adhere to the terms of the peace treaty.
Far from being welcomed with open arms, Gunthar no sooner steps foot in the county of Poitou than he is greeted by a series of assassination attempts. All appear to be linked to the former rebellious prince through the agents of the family and friends of young Heléne de Laurant. A clever, intrepid young woman, she realizes that the only way to prove her loved ones’ innocence is by exposing the true assassin. Heléne races against time—and dark secrets of the past—to unmask the killer before the kingdom plunges back into war.
Fierce determination gives way to mutual attraction as Heléne and Gunthar spar over the identity of the traitor. But their blinding magnetism almost causes them to overlook an even deadlier threat from an entirely unexpected direction.
Loyalty's Web is, of course, available at iUniverse.com, where you can read the first chapter for free. It can also be ordered at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and alibris.com. It is also available in e-book format at a number of vendors listed on my website.
You can read more about Loyalty's Web on my website: joyce-dipastena.com. Check out the Contests & Events page for an opportunity to win some fun prizes!
I can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love hearing from readers, writers, and anyone interested in the Middle Ages!
Thank you, Marsha, for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you today.