Tag Archives: historical fiction

My Writing Apprenticeship at Pan Historia

I earned my writing chops at Pan Historia.  Day in and day out, for more than ten years, I have logged in to my alternate self.  In the halcyon early days I am quite sure that I was averaging probably a thousand words a day easy, some days more, some days less.  The stories were numerous and varied.  I like a lot of different genres, and sometimes I found that what I liked to read was different from what I like to write.

I wrote historical fiction set in Ancient Egypt, the American West, and sometimes Rome.  I wrote science fiction, particularly beloved was the now sadly lost in time and space, “Forever is Far Too Long” (please forgive me if I slaughtered the title).  Forever was the brain child of one of my closest friends, a writer of amazing imagination and craft.  It was a real challenge not only to occupy a world created by her, but to occupy a character created by her.  I hope I rose to the occasion.  I know I surely learned a great deal.  I feel like it was a sort of apprenticeship.  I also wrote noir detective fiction with a fun bunch in our grand “Marlowe Detective Agency“.  That was an idea of brilliance, if I say so myself.  When I look at the way that people’s attention spans have shortened, even in the last ten years, it’s probably impossible to do now, but basically each episode was a complete mystery.  One person wrote the detective, and it was the detective’s job to actually solve the mystery the other writers crafted for him. Later on I moved to horror. I have never been a big fan of horror movies, but I have always enjoyed horror fiction from Edgar Allan Poe to Shirley Jackson to Stephen King.  I found great joy in crafting tales of dripping ickiness to disturb and creep out my readers.  I discovered I have something of an ability in creating villains that people love to hate.

For a long time I was so involved in my exploration of the American West through the eyes of Wyatt Earp and his brothers that I had great, and rather grandiose, plans for writing a fictional autobiography of his long life that was going to be so historically precise, and so magically astute as to his psychic and emotional landscape that it was going to be the final word on the subject.  The desire to take what I had learned from my near daily collaborative and role-play writing to a novel has always seemed to be a natural progression to me.  But for a long time I couldn’t get started. It seemed like I had this great idea, enough passion for the project, and yet I continued to divert myself with the small episodic posts in the collaborative environment.  The good was that I was writing everyday; the bad was that I wasn’t moving forward on my long term goal.

Finally I realized it was the project itself that was bogging me down.  My scheme was too research laden, too definitive, and too constrained by my own expectations and the structure of history.  My character, Wyatt Earp, couldn’t breathe. I simply knew too much about him, and yet too little at the same time.  My version of Wyatt Earp, the one I have now been writing for ten years, is not the same as the historical.  He’s grown into a very complex, and intelligent man, with a gift for the gab – which the real Earp never had.  I realized that I didn’t have to finish this project just because I had decided on it years before. In fact, after finally writing a version of the shootout at the OK Corral for my collaborative version on Pan, I realized that I had already written volumes on the man, and that my legacy to him was there – on the boards.

I was free to pick a different project.  Now I’m fifteen chapters and over 30,000 words into that novel, and I feel great about it.  My writing is solid (but there is always room for improvement!).  My ability to structure the novel and plot it has been aided by ten years of collaborative writing, but I’m missing the collaborative element.  With that in mind I am considering a coauthor, someone that has worked with me on this story as it existed on Pan Historia.  I’m hoping that another set of eyes will rectify the mistakes, point out the inconsistencies, and increase the liveliness.  What better way to build upon the many positive foundations that Pan Historia has provided me with?

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Writing Goals for 2010

As we approach 2010 I have an opportunity to reflect on my goals. It’s been a month since I wrote anything in my blog here – and what a busy month it’s been. My last post here was about my new writing group hosted at my interactive fiction/collaborative writing & role-play site Pan Historia called Write Together. I’m here to report that even in the middle of switching jobs and surviving the crazy holidays it’s been a great success for me so far. I re-committed myself to a writing regime and am currently twenty pages into a new novel. Not only have I written several chapters but I have been enjoying a great deal of inspiring research for the project. The novel is fiction, but it’s set in a very specific time period (mostly 1926) with lots of exciting historical characters that need to be authentic to make the story work.

With the holidays over (I don’t count New Years and intend to spend it sedately as always) I am recommitting myself to my blog as well. My New Year’s resolution, if you will, is to complete my novel in 2010 but also to maintain a steady stream of collaborative fiction and blog posts. Now I just have to remember all the good ideas I have had over the past month that I have been too busy to realize. I have a far better note taking system with the audio and notebook functions on my Blackberry as well as a nice little pocket Moleskin notebook, but somehow I still have to get ideas from brain to my devices, whatever they may be. I’ve been pretty diligent when it comes to the new novel but less so when it comes to other ideas, including poetry ideas, I have been slacking. Developing new habits is a matter of practice however and with all the ways that I can take down my thoughts for later I have no excuses this year for not improving.

My new job is going to help a lot. I haven’t really posted much personal stuff in my blog and that remains my intention, but I can share that when you are in a negative place, worried about finances and bullied by bosses that are less qualified than yourself, it sure can handicap your ability to be creative and productive in other spheres. My new job was a step back on the hierarchal ladder since my move across country, but it is a return to the sector that I excel in and where I have opportunities for advancement. My new bosses and coworkers all seem to be people I can respect, and I look forward to relaxing into my new position. My primary ambition in life is as an artist. Whether it is with paints, pens, or pixels, I have to remember that my job is not my career and sweat the small stuff a little less. I think 2010 promises me that freedom.


Write Together

I’ve been even more quiet than usual when it comes to my blog and twitter but I have an excellent excuse. I had a brainstorm of an idea – one that helps to make Pan Historia an even better destination for writers as well as one that is helping motivate me to write my own novel. I started a writing group at Pan for those of us who want to move from just writing ongoing collaborative fiction to finally finishing and publishing a novel of our own. This concept does not exclude collaborative projects (I hope to include a version of my zombie novel in this mix one day) but does focus on story structure, discipline, craft, and actually sitting down regularly and making time to write.

For those of you who know me or know me through my blog you’ll be aware of my intention to write a novel and how I have been working on one based on the life of Wyatt Earp for just about forever. Mostly it’s been in the endless research phase with a sort of Mobius strip of trying to work out my new ‘fresh’ angle on this particular subject. When I started the new writing group Write Together at Pan I fully intended to finally write and complete this work. Our group is really fortunate to have a published author of a sort of mentor consultant and the first thing she asked me is “why am I writing this particular story” and I could no longer answer the question. I got some good feedback from my fellow writers and had worked out some possible interesting twists on the Wyatt Earp story and how to tell it in an engaging way, but there was no real purpose for me. I ended up answering that question with “I’ve been researching it? I have a book case full of books on the topic?”

Beep. Not good enough.

So I decided to shelve the project and immediately begun work on another novel idea that had been flitting around my mind for a while. This time I jumped into a genre that I have come to love writing in: horror. I’ve started work on a sort of supernatural thriller set in the 1920’s full of glamorous characters, many of whom are historical, and dark sinister magic. I’m very excited about the story and using all the resources of my novel writing group as well as the many great resources I have found since using twitter and blogging, I have already got a good working synopsis, a stable of interesting rich characters, and the beginning of an outline using a classic story structure. The basic storyline and characters has been something I have been working on for quite a long time on Pan as a collaborative novel, but my focus will be on my own ideas and characters and developing a plot that has not been told in the collaborative forum so it’s all original.


Research and Socializing at Pan Historia

One of the distinctive features at the Pan Historia collaborative writing site that I haven’t covered too much in my blogs is the section that we like to call the ‘Reference Library’. Back when Pan was created the theme was definitely of a library. We even used a color scheme that was vellum for interior pages and a green leather background for dust jacket style pages. Eventually the theme loosened up due to the way that the members used the site, but there are still many remnants of the library scheme remaining – like the ‘reference books’ that populate the reference section of Pan.

Reference books are a collection of bulletin boards similar in design to our ‘novels’ but devoted to the discussion of various topics, as well as the dissemination of links, books, and ideas from around the internet. They are a place to kick back with friends and talk about some of the stuff that fascinates you. For instance I am a member of Black & Blue for the discussion of true crime, crime drama, and forensics because I like to write my cop character Red King. I’m also a member of Wild West for the discussion of western history. This book is very handy. When I’m looking for info for one of my posts I might pop over there, but I often find myself posting to share something I have found that I figure will be of interest to other writers. Of course writers can also find more than just reference. We have The Writer’s Block and The Tenth Muse for discussing writing and for poetry respectively.

I recently joined in our Fleur-de-lis reference book to talk about my adventures in gardening. Theoretically I can see that on occasion, as a fiction writer, I might want to find out about a garden plant, but honestly I just joined so I could talk about my plants and hang out with other people in the community that like to garden. There are other books to talk about movies or music, or various periods in history. Our reference books round out the activities on Pan Historia in a very meaningful way: from the purely social to the scholarly, to just being a handy tool for fleshing out your fiction writing.

Not all the people that are drawn to Pan Historia as a community are fiction writers. The Reference Library is a way for them to read and discussion things that interest them, along with the games and general chit chat that is often a signature of the site’s central hub pages. It’s not really a surprise considering how many people first start browsing the internet and using it for more than email by researching a question they have or a topic they are fascinated with. The community at Pan Historia gives them a social aspect to their interests.

Top it all off with an instant messaging system and you’ll never be alone or lacking in things to do or read at Pan Historia. Of course no site is ever perfect and Pan Historia is not excluded from that rule. It’s an ongoing work of social media art as far as I’m concerned and one of the things I would like to see happen is MORE in the Reference Library. Pan also has a blog section but after several years of seeing it in action I realize that blogs, being sort of solitary, are not really the most effective method of interactive at Pan. One of the things I used to include in my blog there was my gardening adventures, but it was sort of static, and static is not what I sign on to Pan for so I moved my focus to the Fleur-de-lis reference book and I’m already have more fun because I’m getting into discussions about my passions.


Why I Love What I Do

Several times I have hit on the topic of the isolation of the writer. After all it’s pretty much just you and your word processor (or for the Luddites amongst us: typewriters or yellow lined pads and a Number 2 pencil). Of course the cliché of the lonely writer pounding on his keyboard is a myth created around the lives of previous writers. Reading an article in the recent New Yorker issue about the teaching of Creative Writing in America breaks through that stereotype to how many writers have learned as part of a group. Self-taught writers might go to local community college workshops or join a writing group on or off line. On Sundays writers join in #writechat on Twitter. The internet has, for many writers, stripped away the isolation and allows for writers to enjoy relationships with their peers and their readers directly.

While I regret the need for writers to be their own publicist these days I don’t regret the moves towards uniting writers with other like-minded people or allowing writers to bridge the gap from written word to the person that is reading that word.

Last night I was logged into my community site Pan Historia and I got a wonderful example of one of the myriad reasons that I love to be involved in a collaborative writing community. One of the members came to me to ask me about whether or not I thought that women during the 19th Century in the Old West would bathe naked or whether they would wear their undergarments. I don’t believe this is a question that could be answered definitively because of the nature of the record from the Victorian Era, but the interaction was fun as we tried to determine what would make a believable historical scene. The person that instant messaged me got immediate feedback and help on what they were writing right in that moment.

When I write a fiction post for one of my collaborative role-play novels there I can get instant feedback – which I hugely enjoy. It’s not always critical feedback, but that’s ok. As writers we need to expand and grow, hone our skills, but more often than not we just want to know that other people are enjoying the tales we spin. By writing and publishing at an online community with like-minded people, both readers and writers of tales, I can interact with my readers and with my fellow writers in one fell swoop. I can get advice, I can find research sources (more on that in a later blog), and I just plain jump up and down to announce my latest effort.

Besides the feedback I get my other pleasure on the site is giving feedback to others. The excitement of logging onto Pan Historia to find a post by one of my writing partners in one of my favorite collaborative novels is akin to seeing the latest book by your favorite author showing up at the local bookstore. With some people it’s just about the pleasure of reading their stuff, but I might enjoy a more critique based relationship with other trusted writers so that we might comment on each other’s work. Another added benefit is that I might get a fresh eye to catch those typos and other errors that slipped by me even though I edit all my work before posting it online.

I know a lot of this sounds like an ad for my own site (and yes, there is an element of shameless plug here) but it’s also probably true for other writing sites that you might have heard of or be involved in. I really think that the potential that resides in the internet is all about social media, interaction, and networking, and not about static information. I actually believe that all this interaction has allowed me to be a writer in a way that I don’t think I could have managed before it. I am far too social an animal to write alone. Having my peers and readers right here at my fingertips, whether on Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, or at Pan Historia, actually liberates and inspires me to write, and to write better.


Little Boy with a Wooden Sword

appetineAccording to Helen Ginger’s blog this morning “History Sells” and that’s good news for history genre writers everywhere. I’m not really addressing the financial possibility of that because for me writing is an art form, and as such if I put a dollar figure on the activity from the start I’m doomed to write dross. But knowing that other people out there love to immerse themselves in the past as much as I do is a consolation and a motivation – but why do they?

My last blog post addressed how people from a hundred years ago would view the passage of time differently and that’s just one of the numerous ways that our ancestors differ from us. I don’t believe there is any one thing in terms of the details that singles out why historical fiction appeals to people. Certainly it’s not the little things like time or clothes or what people ate or the weapons they used. Even though each history buff has a specific interest or period that draws their attention what makes a genre appealing to particular people is always something transcendent from the details. I believe there is something fundamentally different in historical fiction from all contemporary fiction and that is the presence of clearly defined roles and expectations. Whether or not we are talking about a heroine who breaks the rules the comfort lies in the rules itself.

Much as I think that overriding appeal of the fantasy genre is the ability to have very clearly defined good and evil, something unbelievable in contemporary stories, historical fiction allows men to be men and women to be women. Before everyone screams at me and throws cupcakes (or is that cream pie?) let me elucidate a little further.

As a man working in an office four days a week the idea of walking down Allen Street with a Colt .45 Peacemaker in my holster and a clear purpose in my mind, to arrest the bad guy or shoot him if necessary, is a form of freedom from restraint. In my historical world I can dust up a guy with my bare knuckles over a matter of honor and not be considered a macho asshole with too much testosterone. For a woman, though she might be inclined to grab up a saber on occasion, I believe it is often equally liberating to be free from worrying that if she appears beautifully dressed in satins and velvets, with her hair done up in a delicate net ornamented with pearls that she is not being frivolous or submitting to sexism. After all it is 1600 what else would she be wearing? I simplify, of course, but I think you get the point.

Historical fiction makes dipping into the mores and culture of past ages sexy and safe. I really wouldn’t want to be walking around in the French Revolution, particularly if I was a nobleman, nor would I want to be a woman dressed so tightly in a corset that I need smelling salts to revive me every time I had to breathe, but to have the freedom to imagine myself there through the writing or reading of historical fiction is a form of wondrous time travel that is, literally, timeless.

Returning to men and women – we can remake history in our own likeness when we are the authors. The heroine can pick up her skirts, trim them short with her dagger, and then take up saber to fight for her cause. We can make sure that the good guys really are good and that the cause was just. Or we can be gritty and endure the past and all its injustice and social inequality knowing that once we close the book we have returned to our own time, our own culture. How many women with two jobs, two kids, and a mortgage enjoy the adventures of a Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, or an Ancient Egyptian Queen? How many men with a cubicle existence embrace the single-minded duty of Richard Sharpe as he leads his small doughty band of men in the war against Napoleon?

Life might be rough, or dirty, but it’s clear and uncomplicated compared to our daily lives – and we get to play with swords.


The Limit of Art Cannot Be Attained

I have felt the need to share some of my Pan Historia fiction here – but rather that copy and paste I decided to share a link. There is a little history to this selection, and not all the writing is my own.

This was a collaborative fiction novel with its roots in the old role-play site Ancient Sites. On that site you would join up with a name from some period/place in ancient history and that would define you. At the time Ancient Egypt was my bag and all my early collaborative writing pals hail from this period. There was definitely much more of a role-playing element to the site than there is to Pan Historia – for instance I would log in and BE the Pharaoh of Egypt in many of my online conversations. It was fun while it lasted though I certainly have no talent for that anymore. For a while at that site there was a very unified Ancient Egyptian group but over time schisms developed (all human societies/cultures fragment and evolve, even in the ether), and thus was En Intw Djerew Henet created. En Intw Djerew Henet roughly translates out as “the limit of art shall not be attained” and the writers that participated in recreating an alternate history Ancient Egypt were some of the most talented I worked with; both in capturing the drama of their characters and in the depth of their research for the project. My main characters in this fictional narrative are Tjeti and Itet.

So here it is with all the remaining existing posts by the writers that gave their permission to be reprinted and those that still had copies of their work: En Intw Djerew Henet: The Limit of Art Cannot Be Attained.

And for those among you that love Ancient Egypt here is a link to my old web pages: The Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian Religion. Sadly this project remains incomplete, but it still has tons of very useful information in it.