Ask A Wench – Wenches on Writing

The Wenches were asked to answer some questions about writing and the publishing industry, and today we’re replying to the first one – How do you decide on a title? Is it the editor or you or what?

OnceASoldier FinalMary Jo:  Titles wars, all authors know them well! Ideally, authors and editors work together to come up with titles that in just a few words will convey the genre, the essence of the story, and also have a marketing punch. Not surprisingly, this is difficult! 

In my first book, my heroine was a gifted musician so my working title was the rather uninspired THE MUSICAL LADY. Later, my brother-in-law, an amateur musician, suggested LADY OF NOTE, which was better since it conveyed both music and being notable.

The book sold quickly on a partial manuscript, but coming up with a good title was another matter. My first editor always insisted that her writers come up with good titles. We would produce pages of possibilities, which she would dismiss with a few heartless chuckles. When I'd say in exasperation that she should come up with a title, she had a whole prepared speech about HOW MANY BOOKS she'd edited over the years, how could she possible do any more???  Cowed, I'd slink off and produce more lists, which were all shot down posthaste.

Read more

It’s called WHAT? Thoughts on Titles

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

Titles are an important part of how books are perceived, so this month's Ask a Wench Question was:

How do you come up with titles?  How hard is it? Do titles matter? Have you had your publisher give your books a title you didn't like?  And if that's happened, did it sell well?  <G>

Pat Rice:

Rice_Christmas200I’ve written over sixty books and a dozen novellas and coming up with a title only gets more difficult, because by now, I’ve used up every romantic word that can be put on a front cover. And over the last three decades, every possible title has surely been used at least three times, so finding a unique one… requires help, lots of help. (Fresh Christmas title, anyone?)

Before self-publishing, my editor and I used to create long lists of romantic nouns and adjectives and try to piece them together when we couldn’t agree on a title. We’ve come up with the perfect title and been shot down because another author came up with that same title sooner. Now that I’m out here on my own, I call on friends and fellow authors, and when times get desperate, I have social media to fall back on. My new Unexpected Magic series and the first three books were titled entirely by readers, because my friends and I had simply run out of Magic ideas.

If you think that making up titles sounds like fun, sign up for my newsletter and see what you’re in for!


Read more

Queen Hereafter: A Conversation With Susan Fraser King

Susan Bookmark Hello, Nicola here, and today I am very pleased to share with you a conversation I recently had with Word Wench Susan about her new release, Queen Hereafter, A Novel of Margaret of Scotland. There is nothing that I enjoy more than a good historical novel and as soon as I picked up Queen Hereafter I was hooked. I stopped writing, there were no walks for the dog and no one was fed until I had turned the final page. Not only does Susan create the most vivid setting for the book, making 11th century Scotland come alive for the reader (more on that later) but the love story of Margaret and Malcolm had me riveted from the start.

Here are some of my questions to Susan; I hope that you will have plenty of your own and join in the conversation!

NC: Susan, Queen Hereafter focuses on the life of Margaret of Scotland. What was it that made you want to tell her story? Why did you choose her?

SFK: The contrasts in Margaret’s life were so interesting—piety and power, gentleness and temper, obedience and mischief, saintliness and worldliness, all that was part of her, as I discovered in the research. We know a fair amount about the 11th century, though little about individuals, let alone the women, and yet Margaret emerges as a real person thanks to a rare biography written by her friend and confessor. He idealized her, but left tantalizing hints of a vital, fascinating young woman.

NC: It's interesting that her biographer also fell under Margaret's spell! That says something about her personality, I think, as well as the style of biography at the time. Margaret does indeed come across as a very real and fascinating character but there is also a lovely fairytale element to her story. Tell us a bit about that.

SFK: The fairy tale aspects of her true story are naturally romantic, and that attracted me too. A St Margaret's Hope  beautiful young princess in exile, a shipwreck, love at first sight, a brawny royal husband who adored her, eight healthy children, enough charm to win the affection of a resistant country, yet some inner torment kept her from being truly happy despite all she had – who could resist!

NC: Certainly not me! I loved that combination of history and fairytale romance, and I really enjoyed your blog about the fairytale element of the book here on Word Wenches. (The picture above is the site where Margaret is supposed to have landed in Scotland after the shipwreck). Getting back to the historical aspects, though (you can tell I’m a historian – I’m fascinated by this!) Margaret is a part of history at a critical moment, the period of the Norman Conquest of England. In what ways did the wider political background influence her young life?

SFK: She had a cosmopolitan upbringing between her early years in Hungary, a pious and Byzantine court, and the sophisticated Norman-influenced English court. Her Saxon father brought his family to England when Margaret was about ten, but her father, who would have been king of England, died within days of their arrival. Although a Saxon princess, Margaret was a foreigner in the English court, and when William of Normandy invaded England, she and her mother and siblings fled. She was royal and privileged, raised in a culture of warriors and saints—and she was a refugee in great danger until she and her family came under the wing of Malcolm Canmore of Scotland.

Margaret and Malcolm 16th c Seton Armorial NC: How much is really known about Margaret as a historical figure? You’ve already mentioned that there is a biography of her written by her personal priest, Turgot, but are there other contemporary sources to draw upon? (This picture is from a 16th century armorial book).

SFK: Bishop Turgot created an amazing document in his Vita S. Margaretae, written for Margaret’s daughter—it’s full of anecdotes, insights and verifiable facts. Other primary sources mention her and her family, such as in annals and charters, and information from the monk-chronicler Simeon of Durham. The rest of the picture is provided by historical events and the actions of her husband, Malcolm Canmore, her brother, Edgar the Aetheling, and others. And of course there are lots of historical gaps, and some extrapolating and leaping needs to be done by either a novelist or a historian to create a complete portrayal of Margaret’s life. 

NC: Queen Hereafter isn’t just Margaret’s story, of course. It is also told through the eyes of Eva,Lady Macbeth trade  kinswoman to Gruadh, Lady Macbeth (whose story you have also told). Can you tell us what sort of contrast Eva provides to Margaret and why you chose to narrate this story through these two women in particular?

SFK: Eva came about as a fictional character for two reasons: I wanted to highlight the contrasts and comparisons between Margaret’s more European upbringing and the Celtic nature of Scotland when she became queen – and I had to work around Margaret’s piety. I began writing the book as a first-person narrative by Margaret, but her deep faith and constant prayerfulness were not easy to portray that way. So I switched to third person and created Eva to give another perspective of a queen who, as gentle, kind and devout as she was, sometimes bordered on fanaticism and obsession in her personality. The story needed another viewpoint, so Eva was a good vehicle for that.

NC: Combining a narrative from a real and a fictional character is a very interesting thing to do. What do you think are the pitfalls about writing about real historical figures – and what are the advantages? In what way does writing a fictional account of a historical figure differ from writing non-fiction or biography?

SFK: We’re making stuff up about people who actually lived – essentially, that’s the advantage and the pitfall, all at once. History can be a guideline for novels such as these, giving us some landmarks, but the rest needs to be filled in and invented. As novelists writing about actual historical people, we are writing history from a different perspective. I think there’s a certain responsibility to create an authentic picture with touches of accuracy, while letting imagination have full rein too. Finding nuggets of logic and insight that help to fill in the story is a fascinating challenge too. And while sometimes there are journals and diaries and biographies available, sometimes there is very little to go on, and the author then creates within the parameters of what makes the most sense for that time, those events, those people. How did they get from A to B – well, maybe this way. Maybe they realized this, felt that, did that.

Edinburgh Castle NC: As I mentioned at the start, one of the hallmarks of Queen Hereafter is the fascinating 11th century Scottish background and setting, which you portray so vividly that they are almost another character in the story. How do you set about achieving that?

SFK: Thank you! It’s cumulative, I guess, from years spent studying Scottish history and culture, writing stories about Scotland, travelling there and just loving everything about it. What we love most we absorb in our heads and hearts, and it’s then easy to write – it’s almost second nature for me to write about historical Scotland now, like it’s second nature for you to write your wonderful stories about Regency England!

NC: Now I’m blushing! Thank you! I love that idea that what we love most we absorb in our heads and our hearts. I’m wondering what you find to be the most challenging and the most rewarding elements of writing historical fiction?

SFK: The research is the most challenging—and the most rewarding. I love doing research, I love following historical trails as I’m putting stories together, love solving historical puzzles. For Queen Hereafter and Lady Macbeth as well, I was able to make little historical leaps and insights here and there that were rewarding for me as a historian and as a novelist. But it’s tedious work, and takes up gobs of time to not only research it, but then to “world build” like a fantasy writer does, creating a historical world in which the reader feels comfortable as they move through the story. And you don’t want the research to show, which is tricky to pull off as well. 

NC: And what do you consider to be the qualities that make a good historical novel?

SFK: Personally I love novels that are so beautifully written and crafted that I’m just sucked into the book. I like books that make me toss away that red pencil I carry around in my head. I do enjoy historical novels that are accurate and authentic as well, evoking the whole bubble of the era—setting, atmosphere, true characters and so on. And I love a story that’s accessible. Most importantly, I love a cracking good story. I can easily forgive historical wobbles for a great story.

I'm going to turn the tables now… Nicola, I’d love to know what you, as a British reader, knew about Margaret and Malcolm 2 Margaret and Malcolm and the whole situation when you sat down to read Queen Hereafter. Did you have a basis of knowledge about her, being raised in England with an awareness of British history? Is she considered Scottish or English/Saxon?

NC: I knew very little about Malcolm Canmore although I have always enjoyed reading the history of the Kings and Queens of Scotland. In contrast, I remember reading about Margaret first when I was a child, though whether that was as part of my formal history lessons or purely out of interest, I am not sure now. Certainly I remember her identity being very firmly Scottish in the books that I read about her, which is very interesting now that I see her original background was quite different. To me as a British reader she was very much a Scottish heroine because Scotland has such a strong national identity and Margaret has become firmly associated with that identity.

SFK: And what do you consider the qualities of a good historical novel?

NC: For me, Queen Hereafter has all the hallmarks of the best historical novels – a story that grabs the reader, draws you in and doesn’t let you go; a book that creates a vivid and authentic world that you don’t want to leave. I love research too and I think that the best historical novels are beautifully written and researched but they wear that research lightly so that the reader barely notices that it is there. That is a real skill! 

Queen Hereafter That is the question we would like to ask everyone – What qualities do you enjoy in a good historical novel? Susan is giving away a signed copy of Queen Hereafter (which as you can see has a stunning cover and looks beautiful on the bookcase or teh TBR pile!) to one commenter who posts a comment by Sunday morning (12th December) EST.

There is also the chance to win a very special Wench Prize this month! The Word Wenches will be giving away a fantastic prize on January 1st 2011 – a Word Wenches Library containing a book by each of the Wenches! For a chance to win, all you have to do is comment on one or more of our December blog posts. We'll gather the list of names on January 1, 2011 and pick a winner! (If you've already posted in December, you're already entered — comment again for more chances to win!) Good luck to all and Happy Holidays!

Historical Honesty

0003 Funny how things bubble up in the news that reflect something we're already thinking about. I saw an article that touches on what's on my mind again lately, writing-wise … the question of historical accuracy vs. historical honesty in fiction.

Mel Gibson made a new comment on William Wallace, all these years after the film "Braveheart" (1995 – woh, has it been that long??) … he was quoted in the UK news saying that in reality Wallace was not the hero depicted in the film–but a "monster" and a berserker, and that the film was not historically accurate.

Not accurate?! Not too surprising for those interested in medieval history, or for those who've seen the film — the writer and filmmakers made stuff up about Wallace, basically. It's a necessity in creating historical fiction — enhancing the historical record, speculating, extrapolating, obscuring fact or inserting fabrication. And it's a constant dilemma for writers of historical fiction (books or films) — to tweak, or not to tweak?

Braveheart is beautifully done, with enough basic facts in place to powerfully evoke character, emotion, a pulse-pounding story with heroics, complexity, a deeply romantic side and a solid sense of authenticity. It masterfully evokes a historical era and a powerful cause in history.

Wallace sword But Gibson's comment, and the kerfuffle over whether or not the film accurately depicted Wallace's life and times, raises an interesting question. Should we expect total accuracy in a book or a film about a historical subject? Sometimes we do want the facts — and some historical novels provide all the grit and the nasty stuff, the ugly truths, major and minor, the long gaps in the actual timeline, the complexities of history intricately interwoven with the elements of story. These are rich novels and big reads, for the most part. The pitfall in a book like this tends to be pacing, and the risk of information overload.

Sometimes, though, we want a galloping, rollicking good story that informs and entertains –  even if it is history streamlined, dynamic, distilled to its most essential facts and qualities. Historical fiction does not always have to account for every truth in the scope of the subject and the story — it is uniquely capable of evoking and conjuring the past, even if that means taking shortcuts and bending truths here and there.

Lady Macbeth paperback cover I'm a stickler for accuracy in my own historical writing and I will go a far way to make sure the details of what I'm describing are right. But I am not always a stickler for historical truth in every aspect of the book. Story and character come first: I am a novelist before I am a historian. 

Does it matter if the movie was accurate to the real Wallace? We know only a few intriguing facts about Wallace. True, he was probably never the hero in his own day that he's become now. With or without the film, Wallace is half legend in Scottish history.

Braveheart Yet he committed some heinous acts (he flayed the skin from the English treasurer killed at Stirling and made a purse of him; OK, so he had a sense of humor…). It's accurate, but did it belong in the movie? Wallace had his bad moments, but he wasn't a monster – he had good moments, too. As a rebel and a freedom fighter, he initiated an effort that eventually helped liberate the Scots from English oppression at the time. The situation was far more complex than could have been presented in a two-hour film.

There have always been quibbles about "Braveheart" — the kilts aren't right (the kilt we know wasn't worn then, but they were using plaids as cloaks and wraps) and Wallace was more Lowlander than Highlander, so he would have worn chain mail armor as a minor knight rather than a Highlander. Princess Isabella was a child; Wallace was possibly 6'7" (Edward I was 6'6", so of course the Scots claimed Wallace was bigger, yet there is some evidence to support it); the battle of Stirling was fought at a bridge, not on a field; what about that blue face paint…and so on.

My guess is that historical accuracy was never the point of the film in the first place.Christine de pisan There's accuracy. and there's authenticity. A writer often must decide between what will improve the story and what will detract from it. Story must be folded in with facts, but ultimately the result is fiction.

Here's my favorite Mel Gibson/Wallace story… Several years ago in Scotland, I met a historian who had met Mel Gibson during the filming of the movie. This older gentleman did not know who Mel Gibson was as he answered questions about Wallace, Bruce and the Scottish war of independence. He learned that Gibson was making a movie about Wallace, and directing the movie. Then he asked who was playing Wallace, and Gibson answered, "I am."

Wallace_statue The historian paused, looked him up and down, lowered his glasses to the end of his nose, and said tactfully…"Did ye know Wallace was a big man?" 

Ah, but there are camera angles. And there is the skill of evoking. There is authenticity over accuracy. And sometimes we learn more, and find more substance, through characters, plot and emotion than we do with just the facts.

How important is accuracy in historical fiction to you? Is less more in a good historical read — or do you find a detailed read more successful?


P.S. Book giveaway! I'll send an autographed copy of my historically accurate yet judiciously fictionalized novel, LADY MACBETH, to one of the readers of this blog — post a comment and add to the discussion of historical fiction before midnight on Sunday, Nov. 8, and you'll be entered in the drawing!