I thought #NANOWRIMO would never work for me. Historical fiction doesn’t lend itself to blasting out any old words and hoping they make a story. So far, my HistFic efforts have required some degree of research for nearly every sentence. Writing in an unfamiliar period means zero assumptions.
However, while waiting on Alpha Reader feedback on my first novel, I’ve been planning several other projects. The research all overlaps, meaning I have a much better foundation without having to search through twelve interlibrary loan tomes before moving to the next bit.
As it happens, I’m just about ready to rough in the text of two projects. As such, I’ve decided to use #NANOWRIMO to jack me up and see what develops.
I will start with one novel but allow myself to shift to the other when I get stuck. And I will get stuck. If I run out of steam on these two, I have two others waiting in the wings. If I end up with an enormous pile of random scenes for any of these projects, I will consider it a “win”. With everything else in my life, I can’t imagine getting to 50K words, but shooting high will go farther than shooting low.
I fully expect all hell to break loose now that I’ve put this out here. Besides, it’s still 2020, so anything can happen.
Squeezed onto a hard bunk, high up the compartment wall, she settled into the night journey. She would not see the countryside slip past the black window below. But she was alone, on a train, and headed to a far-off city that only three years earlier had been forbidden.
On Christmas Day, 1989, after crackers and pudding, she had gaped with others at the TV screen – BBC images of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, bullet-ridden.
Now she lay in the dark, the ceiling so close her breath circled back to her face; aware of the other women in the cabin – crinkling paper, digging about in baggage, whispering in an unknown tongue. The piercing whistle. The ka-chunk, ka-chink, ka-chunk, ka-chink. The shush. Shush. Shush. The steady rocking of the bunk – so began the long night.
She did not sleep but lay in adrenalin fueled alertness, absorbing every metal-on-metal screech, every curve in the track, the way her center of gravity shifted on the vinyl and pressed against the compartment wall.
Through the mesmerizing rhythm a new sound broke. Stomping, clapping, fiddling. Young men’s voices singing patriotic folk songs built to a crescendo as the train reached a station; the celebration fading into the distance as it moved further east.
Throughout the night the same pattern: mid-night celebrations, rising and falling, as new recruits set off to join the army in a changed world.
Our train won’t make it from Mombasa to Nairobi in time to greet some important visitor at the airport. How could a guy who’s lived in Africa for five years keep getting this wrong?
What does he do? Come to my compartment before light and tell me we need to get off. I slide out of the dark upper bunk, hoping I won’t disturb the other passengers.
Get off where? Where are we? Not sure? Just need to get off? Oh, walking to Nairobi will be faster? Hush, hush. You’ll wake the sleepers.
He’s spoken to the conductor. There’s a village coming up. They’ll stop the train so we can get off.
He grabs my bags. I follow down the narrow corridor stumbling side to side through broken florescent light. What else to do?
We drop into a sleepy village; earth and huts amber in the rising sun. People stare. They’re drawing water, washing, building fires for breakfast. A Korean guy and a white girl with packs are traipsing through their world at dawn.
We reach the main road. Dead straight and empty – both directions. Just scrub, asphalt and sky. In the middle of Kenya. But we’re late. So, I guess walking makes sense.
When the eastern horizon becomes a large, dark sedan, he sticks out his thumb.
We climb in. Two men. I’m thinking – we’ll never be heard from again.
Turns out, they are headed for Uganda. Returning home from a business trip. Will be going right through Nairobi.
Two years from my last post – a sensible time for an update!
Yes, I’m still here. In fact, I am still pursuing that same 3:30 a.m. rising time mentioned in my last post. 3:45 a.m. seems to be my sweet spot. I’d like to make it earlier. I have other responsibilities which begin at 5:30 a.m.
Last year the Day Job consumed me – 77 hours/week for months on end. Meanwhile, my aging parents need increased assistance. Even so, many days I got up and at it before dawn. In July I made a change to my Day Job which means a lot less money but – sanity!
But, the big news is:
I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY FIRST NOVEL!
(Yes! I’m shouting!)
That happened sometime in September. Odd thing was, there was no parting of the clouds. No heavenly choir. I simply came to a stop and thought – right, I believe that’s all I’m going to do here. Time to start back at the beginning. Then it dawned: End of First Draft.
So, that’s what that is like. Huh.
Since then I’ve been clarifying character backstories and nailing down research details – all with the aim of starting back at page 1 on January 1st, 2019.
Early October had me leaving Atlanta with the clothes on my back to reach Jacksonville in time to evacuate my parents from what was supposed to be a Cat 4 hurricane grinding up the coast. Two hours south of Atlanta I received a call asking me to be a Team Lead for a different company – a gig that would put working me in Jacksonville for a while at least. So, I said yes. After a crazy evacuation, I began that assignment, only to have it finish two weeks later. However, by then, I’d had another offer for a long-term opportunity that would allow me to sleep in my own bed for the foreseeable future. I took it.
Then we launched into the endless holidays. All the three and four-day weekends filled with either a backlog of chores not done while I was constantly away or holiday preparations at my house and my parents’. This was the first holiday season for them in their “new” house and the first for me at mine for several years.
All good stuff but meant none of my “free time” got me any further on my writing projects.
I was so long-term exhausted after months of running full-tilt and then the 12 hour/7 day Team Lead phase that I was falling asleep at 7 p.m. – which meant I was waking up around 3 a.m. Once mind and body had recovered, I realized that, with my new job and new life at home, getting up to write at 3:30 a.m was really my only option AND completely DOABLE!
And so, that’s exactly what I have been doing. It’s still nothing like enough time. And my weekends continue to fill up and not provide the larger chunks of time that I need to make this all happen. However, it’s a lot better than nothing and I keep thinking if we can get beyond the extras (backlog of tasks and holiday stuff) I might finally GET an additional 3-4 hour session on Saturdays, and/or Sundays.
That makes it past time I complete this post that’s been simmering in draft mode for months.
I finally read Water for Elephants last winter. I know I’m swimming against the tide – again – but I didn’t really get the excitement over it.
I’ve not seen the movie, but I imagine the potential visuals were a strong driving force for the project. But the main story? Meh. Sorry, I didn’t find it that interesting. It was just a love triangle set in a circus environment. The lesson here might be that great word-crafting and an exciting context still requires a compelling story with compelling characters. Of course, the book received endless 5-star reviews. So what do I know? But I find it interesting that the critical movie reviewers complained that the two lovers lacked chemistry on screen. There might have been any number of causes: the acting? the directing? the screen play? the editing? But, I found the same problem in the book. The characters didn’t make me care and so I wasn’t convinced all the drama was worth it.
However – really big however – the circus story is narrated by the main character, now a nursing home resident. This character – present-day Mr. Jacob Jankowski – made an immediate, deep and lasting impression on me.
At 90+years-old, Jacob is fighting for self-determination. His nurses are kind and do their the best for him. They are trying to keep him out of trouble; keep him from danger. But he longs for freedom and he proves that he is capable of much more than they are comfortable with. No doubt they have residents with varying abilities, and so, like all institutions, they must standardize and systematize, reducing everyone to a lower commonality or else they would be undone. But Jacob clings to every last bit of control he can grasp.
The Take Away – I am helping my parents make the continuous adjustments that come with growing old: Dad no longer drives. Mom got rid of all their glassware. Throw rugs are gone – taken up to prevent falls. And now we are working to get them moved from ten hours to ten doors away. Water for Elephants sent up all sorts of flashing lights for me – not circus lights, warning lights. And they continue to flash every time I am about to make a decision that affects my parents’ lives: Am I making a decision for them based on my own preferences? Is this choice something they can and should still make for themselves? What do THEY want?
Jacob constantly reminds me: Let them have a say in every possible decision. There will be enough, and increasingly, fewer choices for them. Stop first and consider: Is this a question of danger in any way? If mom wants her new walls painted marigold when I would use a cooler color – what’s that to me?
Find every opportunity to let our elders retain their self-respect and determination.
10,000 new words in six days! Whew. Mostly rubbish but something to work with. I’m trying to set short-term goals based on what looks possible within the next chunk of time. Those six days were spent away from home, helping my parents with their move. While I am with them, we have a standing agreement that I spend my mornings working on my writing. I am often able to squeeze additional time (mostly reading, research and social media) into the evenings.
I’d set myself a minimum of 1500 words/day while there – see here – enough pressure to keep me focused but not so much to make failure inevitable. I’m not sure of the exact final count because I often delete chunks of in-line notes along the way. But I definitely averaged above my 1500 word/day goal.
Now I am home again – for about a week. This time must include unloading and finding room for the belongings I always cart south by truck and small trailer on these trips; quarterly and 2014 tax paperwork, phone calls regarding all of the preparation needed to establish Mom and Dad in their new home: new doctors, Invisible Fence estimates, lawyers; buying paint for their “new” house, the usual personal catching up (laundry), and, if the weather will allow, some exterior painting on my own house.
So, my next short-term goal is: a minimum of 500 words/day on the manuscript (blog posts don’t count!) and putting together some reference lists that I feel I need to finally tackle. I’m at the point in my scribbles where placeholders for the names of minor characters, major articles of clothing, architectural terms, etc, are slowing me down. One can only have so many Whosywhatsits, So&Sos and thingamajigs in a manuscript before going nutso.
Day job, family, (laundry, errands, bills, stray cats and trying to move aging parents to new home), news headlines, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, real life relationships – everything conspires against our creative arts. This past week, with 20x more discretionary hours available than usual, I lost focus. I meandered down every possible rabbit hole. A lot of it was good – I’ve learned about marketing, how to use Twitter, found new resources and finished some research – but I didn’t add one word to my manuscript. I floundered.
Today I’m packing to head north again and wishing I’d used this week at home more effectively.
My life goes from 95% externally structured (when on an adjusting gig) to negligible external structure (between gigs). I have been self-employed most of my life so I am adept at self-structure and motivation. But from time to time even I fizzle out.
So, in an effort at self-help, I’ve added a special page to this blog to track my challenges in focus and productivity. I’ll keep it separate from this main feed in order to not clutter it up. Since technically it won’t scroll like a blog, I will continually update the page text and see if that works. It will include periodic reviews of how I am doing, plus observations, tips and resources to combat this struggle. I can’t promise there will be no pity parties.
Ever wonder about those poor peasants who are always raped, pillaged or wholesale deported to foreign lands?
I love reading historical fiction about movers and shakers; kings and queens whose passions turn the wheels of history. But every time a village is burned and the women and children are dragged off by their hair I think, what about them?
They are the red shirts of history.
Maybe I identify with them. Since childhood, I have read about historical upheavals and wondered, how do the regular folks survive? How did people get on with their lives during the bombing of Britain? What became of the ethnic Koreans deported to the Kazakh SSR? How do you feed your family when Boko Haram is in the neighborhood?
It is hard enough to hold a steady course when my plans are derailed by a sudden car repair..
Kings, queens, statesmen – the important people – are fascinating because they have choices and their choices affect the rest of us. Writers like Sharon Kay Penman and Hilary Mantel get into their heads and humanize them so we can imagine great moments in history through their personalized visions. But from my little person’s view I’m drawn to those who have to constantly adjust to a world not of their own making. Writing my novel is an exercise in answering this question: how does the baker, the miller, the foot soldier, the dairy maid, the sailor navigate this volatile world?
It happened in an instant. I’d read the last page of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, closed the book and saw this kid running through ancient streets. Who was he?
The fact of real people living their lives through cataclysmic events overwhelmed me. How do they do it? How did they do it? Who were they?
It has long baffled me that, in the midst of upheaval, famine, war, and illness, people go on. They cope. They live their lives. Somehow. Whether the British during the Blitz or a nameless dancing boy escaped from a sinking ship, people adjust and do what life requires.
I was compelled to examine this resilience; to imagine their stories. My thoughts flashed to the times and places that fascinate me most – Late Antique Syria and points further east – and I knew I had tales to tell.
That was in 1993.
My life moved on. From time to time I thought about that kid who wouldn’t completely go away. I now knew who he was and what he was doing but I was busy. I left London for the US, got married, then left the US for Indonesia. While on a much needed vacation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, the plot spun out before me over the course of three days. But I still thought I’d never really write it. I was, though, compiling reference materials as I could. All that time the resources were few and expensive. I had to request an out-of-print Amazon search for the book The Early Islamic Conquests by Fred Donner. It was nearly 2 years before I received a notice that they had found it. I paid $80.00 for it in 2001. (It looks like it’s playing hard to get again.)
Life carried on. I returned to the US in 2002, ran a decorative painting/murals business for eight years and designed scenery and lighting for several professional theatre companies. In 2010, we moved to Florida and I started yet another career – this time in a cubical!
About eighteen months ago my work schedule became so crazy that my only possible creative time was the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t going to make it to my downtown art studio at 5am, so I decided it was time to write. The story is finally under way.
What strikes me now is how difficult it would have been to write any of my planned stories back in the early 1990s. There was no WWW. And, few of my primary reference books were published in 1993, most were written much later. If I could have learned to read Arabic, Greek, Latin and Aramaic while camping out at SOAS, I might have had a chance. So, although I’ve taken the long way to it, it’s just as well.
I would love to hear the research methods of others writing about obscure times and places. Do you think you could have tackled your current projects in the pre-Internet world?