Starting a book

Anne here, writing about the process of starting a new book. I'm thinking about this, not simply because I'm starting a book at the moment, but also because a few romance-writing friends of mine are in town and we were talking last night about our different writing processes. And since a few of you have asked about how we approach a book, I thought I'd write about my process today.

When I start a book, there's an initial time when I'm doing very little writing, but a lot of dreaming and spinning story ideas, scribbling bits down by hand in a book or on the back of an envelope and researching possibilities. It's a process of gradual coalescence as odd ideas and aspects of character come together and I start to see the possible shape of a story.

My hero and heroine usually do one of two things — they either emerge slowly, making themselves known to me over a period of a few chapters. I write and rewrite and change their names and personalities and backgrounds until they come to life and start interacting with other characters and the chemistry is right. This happened with Tallie's Knight — my original heroine was a young woman called Serena and she was cool, collected, unflappable and ever so slightly annoying. As was my hero, so of course, it didn't work. So I replaced her with a much younger and more naive girl, a vulnerable, warm-hearted day-dreamer with decided opinions, and the moment I put her on the page with the hero, they created sparks and the story was off and running.


Alternatively, characters arrive fully formed on the page and proceed to take over, taking the book in a direction I hadn't planned. Gideon, from Perfect Rake is the perfect example. I'd actually planned to write a hero who was dark and dangerous, and Gideon just strolled onto the page, being funny and flippant and taking right over. I wrestled with him for ages, before giving in and letting him be who he was. And if it sounds like I can't control my characters — I am aware of how silly that sounds — but it's true. 

For the last few books I've made story collages. A number of authors I admire use this process so I became curious about it and when I experimented with it, I found I really enjoyed the process. More, I found it revealed to me relationships and story possibilities that I might not otherwise have noticed. And the best thing about having a collage is that it plunges me right into the world of the book — invaluable after an interrupted working day.


I'd always used location pictures and the odd evocative image, but I'd never had photos of my hero or heroine — in fact I always resisted questions that asked what movie star I'd have play my characters. I have a clear picture of them in my mind, but there's never a 'right' face of picture. The faces I use in my collages are not so much my characters, but representative of some aspect of them. For instance in this collage for Perfect Kiss, it's the expression on the hero's face that's important, not his features. My hero had darker hair and strange yellow wolf's eyes, but he had that mix of control, confidence and deeply hidden vulnerability that I see in that photo. There's an element of the gothic in that book, and the setting plays a large part — and you can see that from the collage.

It's quite a different feel to The Stolen Princess Collage or His Captive Lady collage, both posted below. Can you tell which is which?Princesscollage2

I also like to have a theme song, or songs. For the Devil Riders series, every one of my theme songs has been a song sung by Katie Melua — she's a young singer, born in Georgia (former USSR) and raised in Ireland and England, and there's something about her beautiful haunting voice and lyrics that have clicked in my mind with the books.

It wasn't quite my theme song for His Captive Lady, but a song that linked with the mood of parts of the story was Katie Melua's Piece by Piece. Beautiful, heartbreaking song. I won't explain, don't want to spoil the story, but if you've read the book, you'll know which parts the song suits.

The theme song of the next story, To Catch A Bride, (Sept 09) is another Katie Melua song - The Closest Thing to Crazy. Listen to it here and feel the gorgeous goosebumps.


How can I think I'm standing strong,
Yet feel the air beneath my feet?
How can happiness feel so wrong?
How can misery feel so sweet?
How can you let me watch you sleep,
Then break my dreams the way you do?
How can I have got in so deep?
Why did I fall in love with you?
This is the closest thing to crazy I have ever been
Feeling twenty-two, acting seventeen,
This is the nearest thing to crazy I have ever known,
I was never crazy on my own…
And now I know that there's a link between the two,
Being close to craziness and being close to you.

But finally, all the playing with images and songs and dreams and ideas brings me to the moment when I just have to sit down in the chair and, as Barbara Samuel once said, 'begin to ruin it" — when I try to put the story that's dancing in my head into words on paper. So I write the first page. It's a page that I'll rewrite a number of times–the opening scene is so important — but sometimes, just sometimes, you can hit the right note first up and it will start the story unfolding in the best, most dramatic way. That's when it's magic. 

What about you? As a reader, do you find it interesting to hear about the writing process, or would you rather not know how it happens? And if you're a writer, how do you approach your stories? And if you have any questions, feel free to ask .

When the lights go out

Anne here pondering about weather and power and light…

Recently it seems like people all over the world are having extreme weather, often accompanied by power blackouts. In North America it's blizzards and ice-storms; in Australia, it's record heat waves, lightning strikes, bushfires, cyclones or floods, depending where you live. And no power…

We're so dependent on electricity that we take it completely for granted — until it goes.

And then, suddenly, you realize how very dependent we've become on it for all sorts of things and I don't just mean for serious things, though one friend of mine was without power in below freezing conditions, another lost several weeks worth of food that thawed and spoiled, and another was flooded and couldn't phone for help as her cordless phone battery had gone flat and there was no way to recharge it. The power failures caused really serious problems for many, many people.

But not for me. I wasn't in any danger or even seriously inconvenienced. I was just hot. It was our third day of 45º heat (that's 113º F) and the house, the dog and I were hot. But in the city people were stuck in lifts for hours in the heat, and stuck in packed trains, unable to get the electricity operated doors open. For them it was truly dreadful. 

But not for me. My only problem—and it wasn't really a problem—was that I was bored. It was too hot to do housework or anything physically active. I couldn't listen to music, work on the computer, do the washing, or do anything useful (I told myself.) So I did what comes naturally — I started reading a book.

All well and good, you say, but then the light started to go, and the print started to fade. Simple, I hear you say — light a candle. I did, but still found myself squinting at the print. Light another one, you say — yes, but it was 113ºF and I wasn't going to add to the heat if I could help it. Candlelight

So I sat there, pondering my problem, doing nothing useful, and thinking how not so long ago, we lived without power. For me it's a living memory. When I was born, my parents were in a "back to the land" phase, and living in an area where the electricity grid hadn't yet reached, so until I was four, we didn't have electric light. My mother came home from a full days teaching in a hot army hut school building, teaching 40+ little kids, none of whom spoke English. At the end of the day she came home, cooked a meal for a family of six on a wood stove, did all the washing by hand, boiling the sheets up in a big copper kettle and who knows what else? 

Of course she was clearly barking mad, doing all of this when we could have lived in town and had electricity and all the mod cons, and by now you're wondering why I'm telling you this, but I'm taking you through my very slow thought processes at the time (After 3 days at 113ºF  the synapses fire slowly.) So, I was reading a good book and didn't want to put it down and the light was fading and it was, I felt, too hot to light two candles.

And thus my mind turned very naturally to the sweat shops of London, where hapless women were crammed into rooms to squint over a seam or a hem or fine, delicate embroidery, for which they were paid a pittance. The conditions were appalling and the light was worse because, of course, candles and lamp oil were expensive. The cheap candles threw, at best, a feeble light and were smelly and smoky. Fine sewing for long hours in poor light ruined the seamstresses' eyesight. As finishing this book in the fading twilight was likely to do to mine (see, there is a point to all this.)

As I considered my problem, I remembered that seamstresses used to put a candle behind a glass globe filled with water, which acted as a lens. Would this work for me? I wondered. So I experimented. 

I lit a candle and took a photo of a book – that's it, above. No flash of course.  Then without moving the candle or the book, I put a bowl of water in front of the flame and took another photo from the same position. Thirdly I tried using a large plastic bottle of water to see if that could be a lens, too. It could. It made an appreciable difference, as you can see.   Bottlelight

It was a bit tricky for reading; you had to move the page around a bit to get the best light, but it was clearly a workable alternative. 

Then the power came back on, so I experimented no further.

When it came time to write this blog, I did a search for some nice historical images of hapless seamstresses. There is a distinct lack — mostly there are paintings of a nice middle-class woman sewing by the window of a large, well lit room, or sitting outside in some idyllic setting, in the grass or on a rock. (You can tell the artists never had to get grass stains out of white cotton!) I could find no images of women in a sweatshop bending over a sputtering tallow candle, catching its light through a bowl of water.


But I did find this account by a Mrs. Roberts of Northamptonshire of how light was provided for a large number of lacemakers, in the school she attended in the early 19th century: 

"In the evenings eighteen girls worked by one tallow candle, value one penny; the 'candle-stool' stood about as high as an ordinary table with four legs. In the middle of this was what was known as a 'pole-board' with 6 holes in the circle and one in the centre. In the centre was a long stick with a socket for the candle at one end, and peg holes through the sides, so that it could be raised and lowered at will. In the other six holes were placed pieces of wood hollowed out like a cup and into each of these was placed a bottle made of very thin glass and filled with water. These bottles acted as strong condensers or lenses, and the eighteen girls sat round the table, three to each bottle, their stools being upon different levels, the highest near the bottle, which threw the light down on the work like a burning glass."

[Quoted in Findings By Mary Carolyn Beaudry. p157 Published by Yale University Press, 2006]

Anyway, I finished my book in bright electric light, basking in a cool air conditioned breeze and feeling very grateful that I wasn't born a seamstress in a sweatshop in the early 19th century.

What about you? Have you had any extreme weather or power blackouts recently? What problems did it cause? Tell us about it.

My Life on the… Lounge

Anne here, with Chloe-dog. 

There is a TV show called "Your Life on the Lawn" where people whose houses have become too cluttered carry all their possessions out onto the lawn, and then carry back inside only what they really, really need. Whatever is left behind they dispose of, by garage sale, charity donation or rubbish skip.

They have to do this because there are TV people there to make them do it, and there are thousands of people watching, going, "Oh good grief, what a lot of rubbish! How ever could they live like that? Tsk tsk!"


Yes, it's a horror show. About torturing innocent and hapless hoarders.

"Embarrassment on the Lawn" or whatever it's called isn't quite my cup of tea, you'll have gathered. You couldn't pay me to be on a show like that. I would face the cameras with sharpened pikes and boiling oil and put a muzzle on my dog to pretend she's a fierce guard dog, and warn them that all that wiggling and wagging were Menacing Moves.

However early in the new year my beloved old computer died a gentle death — actually it's in a coma — and I had to get a new one. So I thought, okay, this is a good time to get a new desk as well. But the new desk inevitably led to the need to rearrange my study and, well, the moment you start rearranging furniture, feng shui creeps in, doesn't it?

As I heaved furniture around, I realized my study had become quite cramped and full of Stuff. No idea how. I suspect that it, too, creeps in.

Feng shui isn't too keen on Stuff, so I decided to commit a private Life on the Lawn exercise. And since there was rather an embarrassing amount of Stuff and a lot of it's paper, and likely to blow around the neighborhood, the lawn didn't seem like the best place for it. So I carried it all out and dumped it in the living room (I don't really have a lounge, but the alliteration was better). It's a long room with a couch and big comfy chairs and TV and coffee table at one end and dining table and dresser and chairs at the other. 


One end of the room now looks like this.

The other contains this (below right), rather perturbed by all the activity.


I'm determined to have a good purge. But it's so hard. Apart from the hoarder genes I inherited from both parents, there is the historian gene from my father's side, and it whispers in my ear, "These are historical records you're throwing out. Whole PhD's have been written on a box of household receipts found in an attic years." 

"You have no attic," I mutter to Historian Gene. "Nobody's ever going to look at this as anything except rubbish."  Gene sniffs.

So, there go all my notes from years of being a teacher. I left the most useful stuff behind when I left. These files and folders and boxes represent years of work, lesson preparation and assignments I sweated over, but I'll never use them again, so out they must go.

There go all my romance writing magazines, RWR and HeartsTalk (aussie mag) and NINK from years back. Sob. But I haven't read them in ages. And besides, NINK at least is archived on the web. Thank you NINC. So I'll just cut out the Barbara Samuel GITB columms, right… Because they never go out of date.

I come to my old records — remember records? —those big vinyl disks I haven't played in years… but oh, the memories they evoke. And all my cassette tapes. But I haven't played them in years, either. Goodbye, records and tapes. I must be strong, invincible and woman. And clutter free, or if not, at least slightly feng shuied.

Oh dear, willpower wavering. I pulled out a fistful of records to take a photo for the blog, and I cannot get rid of these ones… Maybe I'll just keep a few. Or see if I can get them in CDs. Yes, I know, it's the thin end of the wedge…

And then there are the books. The study is lined with books. The living room, hall and bedrooms all contain large bookcases stuffed with books. I have just carried out of the study several boxes of books and I have no shelf-room for them anywhere. So I must get rid of books… I tell myself that someone in a charity shop will love these books… but it's torture, I tell you, torture! 

Nobody told me a new computer would lead to this!

And the thing is, there is a Rule of the Universe that the minute you throw something out, you will need it again. It's true.  Years after I had stopped wearing my old platform soled shoes, I finally tossed them out. A month or two later, my friends and I formed a band and what did we call it? Platform Souls. I had to scour the charity shops for shoes.

I go to wikipedia and look up compulsive hoarding and compare the pictures there with the sight of my dining room. Ulp! I'm not there yet, but… oh dear…

Feng Shiu tells me to remove everything in my room that is broken, is not useful or does not please the eye. Okay. I swallow, straighten shoulders, take a deep breath. That's my mission, and I choose to accept it.

So… are you a hoarder? What do you hoard? What useless item could you never throw out, and why?

And if you're a purger, what's your secret? 

(A signed book will go to one intrepid commenter. One less book 😉

Happy New Year, everyone!

 Anne here with Chloe and her Christmas rubber duck.
For those of you who are snowed in or bestormed, warm hugs. Here it's early morning, clear and bright, and rainbow lorikeets are hanging upside down taking bites out of the ripe plums on my plum tree, while out the front of the house the scruffy young magpies are warbling. I am very tempted to raid my worm farm and give them some breakfast. I love magpies, especially the adolescent ones who never quite achieve the dashing svelte magpie look.RainbowLori2
But instead of feeding gawky, squawky magpies, I've taken a couple of pics of the rainbow lorikeet pirates. 

So bold they were. I was only six feet away from this rascal, and he nibbled on a plum, gave me a cheeky look, then calmly wiped his beak before moving on to the next plum.

And so, 2008 has come to an end. It's been a difficult year in many ways for so many of us, I know, but I prefer to leave it thinking about the good things that came out of it. So for me, some highlights from 2008 were my short holiday in England, catching up with my English friend Jenny and meeting some legends of English romance writing; meeting my current and former editor in NY as well as my agent and many wonderful writers while I was at the NINC conference; appearing on a national TV book show in Australia;  being part of a traveling romance writing conference that traveled to some far corners of Australia; becoming a Word Wench;  finishing up as RWAustralia President and seeing the organization surge forward afresh; and realizing how very, very blessed I am in my friends.  And since I can't possibly leave out books, my favorite new-to-me authors of 2008 were Joanna Bourne and C.S. Harris. Another highlight hasn't happened yet, but in a week or two I'm going to be interviewing one of my all-time favorite authors, and I'm so superstitious, I'm not going to say who it is until I've done it. But I'm very excited and I'm really looking forward to 2009.

For me the only way to see out the old year and welcome in the new is to the sounds of pipes and drums, the song Auld Lang Syne and watching the fireworks. The best firework displays ever are those on Sydney harbour — that setting is just magical. This is last years pic from the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. Stunning, isn't it?

So what was a highlight for you, and what were some of your favorite books in 2008?

It’s Boxing Day!

Anne here with reindog… sending all you wintering souls some sunshine from downunder.

The presents are all opened, the heavy Christmas dinner slept off and in the UK , Canada, New Zealand and Australia, it's a public holiday called Boxing Day. It's not anything to do with the pugilistic arts; it's an old tradition of gift-giving from the rich to the poor or dependent. There are many variants of the tradition. In most British churches, an alms box was kept, to which people contributed. It  was opened the day after Christmas and the money divided between the poor. The 26th is also St Stephen's Day, when Good King Wenceslas gave the poor man meat, wine and wood. In England, the rich gave the servants who had worked on Christmas Day a holiday the next day and leftover food from the feast in a box. It's the origin of the Christmas bonus and the custom of leaving out out small gifts for those who deliver to our homes — the paperboy, the postman, the milkman.Hunting

Boxing Day in England is also traditionally the day for the Boxing Day hunt. Here in Australia, we continue the tradition, only without horses, hounds or foxes. It's the noble sport of Bargain Hunting! Most of the big stores have massive sales on Boxing Day – the shops will open at 7 am or sometimes earlier and there will be a huge feeding frenzy as shoppers go wild over bargains.
    For those not interested in shopping, there is cricket. Most north Americans don't understand cricket and don't see the appeal. It's a seemingly slow sport and a match will take all day, with Test Matches (international ones) playing out over three long, generally hot days, but the game ignites powerful passions in such diverse countries as India, Pakistan, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and, of course, the UK. It's one legacy of colonization that wasn't discarded, and these days it's stronger than ever. There's a wonderful reggae song with a chorus that goes, "I don't like cricket, oh, no… I love it!
    Cricket is a passion with many Australian, and the tradition of going to the Boxing Day match in Melbourne, at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) is long and beloved here. In many families the men go to the cricket while the women hit the shops.
Beach cricket
    And for those who don't do either, there's beach or backyard cricket. All it takes is a bat, a ball — a tennis ball will do — and a rubbish bin or three sticks that will act as the wicket. The bowler aims to get the batter out by bowling the ball and hitting the wicket or forcing the batter to hit a catch, the batting side makes as many runs as possible. 100 runs (known as a century or a ton) is a score any batsman is proud of. There's a song celebrating backyard cricket called "I made a hundred in the back yard at Mum's." Beach cricket was a big feature of my childhood, and this picture by Australian writer illustrator Elizabeth Honey sums it all up perfectly for me.Sh01
    Another big Boxing Day event downunder is the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, a major international ocean-going race that  covers 630 nautical miles (1,170 km) often in very dangerous conditions. Watching the international fleet of competitors sailing out of Sydney harbour accompanied by hundreds of smaller crafts is a stunning sight.

    Whatever you're doing today, whether it's shopping, playing  sport or watching it on TV — or simply curling up with a good book, have a wonderful Boxing Day.

    What do you usually do on 26 December?