writing

  • Historical fiction as a time machine

    Fifth Avenue, Vanderbilt mansion and Plaza Hotel, 1910

    Historical fiction as a time machine

    What is the appeal of historical fiction – does it function as a time machine?

    If you’ve ever pored over an old photograph like the one above, it might be the mystery and appeal of a lost world.

    There’s something romantic about vanished buildings like the Vanderbilt mansion – the largest private residence ever built in New York City.

    No one will ever walk up those steps to the entrance ever again. No one will ever walk the hallways. No one will ever pull aside the curtains and look out onto Fifth Avenue.

    It is a ghost house that recently drew my attention when a coloured version was posted on a Twitter account.

    The family who lived there are all dead. The maids who dusted and cleaned are long gone. The street looks very different today.

    The only way to visit this world is to study photographs. Or to read accounts of the area and the vanished house itself.

    Of course, with fiction, we can not only visit the past but use it as inspiration for new stories.

    What if there was a similar mansion belonging to a fictional family? Who might this family be? How did they build their fortune?

    And what dramatic events might take place in the house? What mysteries and secrets? Not just among the family, but also among those who worked there.

    Lost houses and mysterious houses are a common theme in fiction.

    Cornelius II Vanderbilt Mansion

    The real house was built in 1883, along the west side of Fifth Avenue to West 58th Street. It was a product of the Gilded Age and possessed 130 rooms.

    The owner, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was the eldest grandchild of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the family fortune.

    It wasn’t the only house Cornelius II owned, and 13 years after moving in, he suffered a stroke. His last three years were spent in a wheelchair.

    The house was six stories tall, not including the basement. On the first floor, there was a two-story ballroom and a two-story dining room, plus a salon, a smoking room, a den, an office, a library, a breakfast room, and much more.

    His wife’s bedroom, boudoir, bath, closet and dressing room were on the second floor. Cornelius’s bedroom was also there, along with his bathroom, dressing room, closet, and private study.

    In addition to the 130 rooms, there was a stable and private garden next door.

    After Cornelius’s death, his wife Alice lived on at the mansion with the 37 servants required to run the house. But she no longer entertained guests. Eventually she sold the house in 1926. Since the developers were only interested in the land, and not the house itself, it was demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman department store.

    Vanderbilt mansion, 1908

    The Gilded Era

    In The Age of Innocence (1920), which is set in the 1870s, Edith Wharton describes a house of this type early on. I’ve bolded anything relating to the description of the Beaufort house:

    The Beauforts’ house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ball-room (it antedated even Mrs. Manson Mingott’s and the Headly Chiverses’); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought “provincial” to put a “crash” over the drawing-room floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ball-room that was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.

    To be able to shut up a ballroom for 364 days of the year is a sign of pure luxury… and pure waste. Further down the page, Wharton says:

    … and two years after young Mrs. Beaufort’s marriage it was admitted that she had the most distinguished house in New York. No one knew exactly how the miracle was accomplished. She was indolent, passive, the caustic even called her dull; but dressed like an idol, hung with pearls, growing younger and blonder and more beautiful each year, she throned in Mr. Beaufort’s heavy brown-stone palace, and drew all the world there without lifting her jewelled little finger. The knowing people said it was Beaufort himself who trained the servants, taught the chef new dishes, told the gardeners what hot-house flowers to grow for the dinner-table and the drawing-rooms, selected the guests, brewed the after-dinner punch and dictated the little notes his wife wrote to her friends. If he did, these domestic activities were privately performed, and he presented to the world the appearance of a careless and hospitable millionaire strolling into his own drawing-room with the detachment of an invited guest, and saying: “My wife’s gloxinias are a marvel, aren’t they? I believe she gets them out from Kew.”

    And further down still:

    The Beaufort house was one that New Yorkers were proud to show to foreigners, especially on the night of the annual ball. The Beauforts had been among the first people in New York to own their own red velvet carpet and have it rolled down the steps by their own footmen, under their own awning, instead of hiring it with the supper and the ball-room chairs. They had also inaugurated the custom of letting the ladies take their cloaks off in the hall, instead of shuffling up to the hostess’s bedroom and recurling their hair with the aid of the gas-burner; Beaufort was understood to have said that he supposed all his wife’s friends had maids who saw to it that they were properly coiffees when they left home.

    Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses’) one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.

    Newland Archer, as became a young man of his position, strolled in somewhat late. He had left his overcoat with the silk-stockinged footmen (the stockings were one of Beaufort’s few fatuities), had dawdled a while in the library hung with Spanish leather and furnished with Buhl and malachite, where a few men were chatting and putting on their dancing-gloves, and had finally joined the line of guests whom Mrs. Beaufort was receiving on the threshold of the crimson drawing-room.

    Edith Wharton’s book was written long after the 1870s, but it still acts as a time machine. Wharton herself described it as “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America… it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.”

    In an article in 2020, Hillary Kelly wrote that Wharton’s “status made her story more than believable—it made the story real … Novelists before Wharton understood that storytelling was an act of exposure, but she built it into the architecture of The Age of Innocence and weaponized it.”

    The Age of Innocence is available on Project Gutenberg for anyone who wants to read it. The excerpts above are from Chapter three.

    Wikipedia article on the house.

  • #NaNoWriMo Burnout

    #NaNoWriMo burnout
    #NaNoWriMo burnout

    Are you currently engaged in National Novel Writing Month? Have you been furiously writing away and watching your word count build as the days go on? With the middle of the month approaching, maybe you’re already suffering from #NaNoWriMo Burnout?

    Maybe you’ve even fallen behind or dropped out. Due to that one or two days when you couldn’t get any writing done… You felt like you’d failed and you dropped out.

    Or maybe you picked up your thread again, but those missing days still bug the hell out of you.

    Don’t heap unnecessary pressure on yourself

    The truth is, with everything else that’s going on – Covid, lockdowns, restrictions, job worries – you don’t need the added stress of writing obligations.

    Or a feeling that you’ve somehow failed.

    #NaNoWriMo is great for getting people engaged in an activity for a fixed period of time, where you can also talk to other participants.

    But if you find it’s all getting too much, it’s perfectly okay to drop out.

    Your health is more important than a word count

    First of all, your health and wellbeing come first. Secondly, your writing won’t necessarily benefit from you feeling stressed out and under some kind of obligation to produce.

    If you feel that NaNoWriMo is the boot up the backside you need to get you motivated, there are others ways to get the same results. And they don’t involve the same short-term pressures.

    If you can find a writing group – including an online writing group – that would certainly help motivate you.

    You could also try and find some accountability partners. It can be one or two and then check in with them periodically. Set reasonable goals for the next check-in.

    Never set unreasonable goals. You’re just setting yourself up to fail and feel bad about it.

    And that can keep you trapped in a negative downward cycle of ‘what’s the point’ and ‘I can’t do this’.

    One technique I found helpful in the past

    One thing I’ve found helpful in the past is writing down a word count for each day. Even if it was just 30 words. Tiny word counts were fine because there were other days when the count would be in the thousands.

    Momentum was the key.

    I could count up the words at the end of each month, each quarter, each half-year, and each year.

    Over the years, the overall word count went up dramatically.

    At first, there was novelty and enthusiasm. Then there was the sense of obligation and the grind of having to do it. This is why even allowing small word counts can help. After a while, I had to write and if I didn’t there was a feeling of dissatisfaction. I didn’t associate it with a sense of failure or duty either. It had more to do with the feeling that writing was such a part of my daily life that I missed it and didn’t feel right when it wasn’t there.

    Nevertheless, we’re all allowed breaks.

    If you feel that a month of writing isn’t for you, it’s fine to take a step back. Never mind what other people are doing. Writing is not a competition – though it might feel like it is sometimes when you’re on social media.

    Still intent on finishing #NaNoWriMo?

    If you’re feeling a bit burned out, but you still want to continue, remember to take breaks. Go for a walk. Listen to music.

    If you need help concentrating, you can use a social media blocker like Cold Turkey.

    You can also use a Pomodoro timer to pace yourself.

    Whatever you write this month is just a jumping-off point, not the end goal. You can rework it later. Or even run off with a side character and live happily ever after in a new plot/novel!

    More posts from the blog

    You need author photos but you’re camera shy

    Social media blockers

    Is dialogue ruining your scenes?

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro technique

  • Should you dust off that old novel?

    Blog image for Should you dust off that old novel?
    Should you dust off that old novel?

    I’m currently analyzing a novel that received very fast agent attention some years ago.

    Later it piqued the interest of literary scouts. There was international interest. But in spite of the initial promise, the novel failed to get an English-language deal. And because of this, the international publishers didn’t take it either.

    The main issue was that it needed a developmental editor.

    A common piece of advice is to ditch a rejected novel and get on with the next one. This is not bad advice in the short term. But it could be a mistake to ditch it forever.

    How to decide if your book is worth saving

    Here are some things to consider:

    • Did the novel show a lot of promise?
    • Have you had positive feedback since on its potential?
    • Do you now have the skillset to address any problems and fix them?
    • Do you want to rewrite the book? (If you don’t, then that’s the end of the matter.)
    • Market trends might also factor into whether it’s time to rework that book
    • Taking a few years out before re-examining the book is also instructive – it’s hard to read your own novel with fresh eyes at the best of times
    • Is this book similar to other books you have written or intend to write? (If it is, that would be a plus.)

    It’s understandable that some books are not worth revisiting.

    But when a huge amount of effort has been invested, as well as research, and the problems can be identified, it seems a shame to close the door on a rewrite.

    After all, revisiting the book is like meeting up with old friends… visiting old haunts. But you also get to meet new people and new places as the new draft takes hold.

    Identify the problems and the solutions

    In the case of this novel, the central issues lie in a problematic triad of structure/location/viewpoint. It’s a classic example of how changing one thing – viewpoint – could actually change the structure of the entire book.

    If the main character is telling the story, the reader can only know what they know and hear things when they hear them.

    This can have a very negative impact on story structure, pushing a lot of twists and revelations towards the latter part of the book.

    And this in turn creates structure and pacing problems.

    This is what happened with the book I’m currently looking at.

    Multiple third-person POVs would make a huge difference, freeing up the narrative. The plot structure would be more balanced. And information, revelations, and so on, more evenly spread through the book.

    If a book has a strong central voice, it might be difficult to let go of it and try something new. But if you really want to give your book a second chance, it will be necessary to change some things.

    This writer intends to rework their book.

    But for other writers in the same boat, the question is, do you want to rescue your novel or not? If you’d rather keep it as it is, and you’re okay with it not being published, then you can leave it. But if you want to publish it, it’s best to look at what can be improved.

    The advantage of returning to an old manuscript

    Here’s the beauty of working on an old manuscript:

    • You know the characters already
    • You know their backstories already
    • You know the locations already
    • You know the plot and subplots already

    So, you don’t have to start from scratch. You already have this information in your head.

    You just need to have the objectivity to know what’s best to keep and what to throw out. Hopefully, your writing skills will have improved enough that you can pull off a good rewrite.

    Never use the old manuscript as a roadmap

    But here’s something to avoid – dusting off your manuscript and using it as the basis of the rewrite.

    What you should really do is read it over and make notes on what works and what doesn’t work. There are things you previously thought were important – maybe you’d happily ditch those things now.

    What is worth keeping? What do you wish you’d done differently?

    Write up a rough plan. Then put the old draft aside and start again.

    Give yourself the freedom to start from scratch. Where you find your enthusiasm flagging, you might have stumbled on something that doesn’t work so well anymore.

    Where your enthusiasm picks up – that’s something worth keeping, or maybe just something new and exciting!

    The thing about tackling an old manuscript is you’ve already done the research and planning. You don’t need to plot the whole thing out again unless you have serious plot holes.

    Maybe the plot is great but it’s let down by the choice of viewpoint or the order of the scenes. Or there’s something off with the structure.

    Or maybe you started your novel in the wrong place and this set off a chain reaction right through the novel. And now you can see how to fix it.

    Not everyone wants to write a lot of novels. Some people would rather write fewer books and spend more time on them.

    One approach is not better than the other. Writers are all just different. This is not a competition.

    Should you dust off that old novel?

    It really comes down to whether you’d want to spend more time with the characters and that world.

    It also depends on the value of the manuscript. If it received positive attention from industry professionals, that might suggest it’s worth revisiting.

    Of course, you could just go down the indie route and publish it yourself.

    But if you want to have another go submitting it to agents, you could put it aside for a while. Even better if it’s been lying around for a few years. The more objectivity you have, the easier you will find it to spot the strengths and weaknesses.

    If you try to rewrite the manuscript by closely following the previous draft, you’re in danger of making the same mistakes again. Because the old draft exerts a certain gravitational pull – where you end up repeating too many things from before.

    In fact, tinkering could actually be harder than throwing out the previous draft (metaphorically) and starting again. Constantly referring to the old draft takes up too much time.

    Open a new file. Here’s your fresh start.

    You know your main plot and characters already. You are free to make any changes you wish. You are free to change the name of your characters, their appearance, and so many other things.

    You can make things better. Use the skills you’ve learned since the last draft.

    This is your second chance.

    Useful links

    If you want to check out my editing services, I offer developmental editing, manuscript critiques, beta reads, and custom reports. If you don’t see the particular custom critique service you’re after, you can email me at: karen@indiecateditorial.com

  • The #1 thing writers need to succeed

    The #1 Thing Writers Need To Succeed

    The #1 thing writers need to succeed

    What’s the #1 thing writers need to succeed? Is it a particular word processing program? Is it a particular writing app? Perhaps it’s attending a particular writing school? Or maybe it’s a question of networking or building up a big social media following?

    There’s no doubt some of those things are at least helpful – a decent social media following or a writing network can be very useful. Not just for marketing but also for feedback on your work.

    But there’s one thing that towers above everything else and it’s not something you can buy. It’s not something anyone can give to you. So, what is it?

    And the answer is…

    In a word: discipline.

    Boring, I know. Maybe even disappointing. But here’s the thing – if you want to be successful, you need discipline.

    Whether it’s allocating distinct time periods for writing and not compromising or giving into other temptations. Whether it’s meeting deadlines – particularly important if you have a contractual deadline. Whether it’s setting aside the time to learn or refine techniques or skills. You need discipline.

    Procrastination and distractions

    Writers are often plagued by distractions and/or procrastination. Why is it so much easier to open a social media app than to get started on that piece of writing? The truth is, if you want to succeed you have to get tough!

    This is no different to a small business owner building their business. Like an editor, or a graphic designer, a copywriter, or any other kind of business owner or freelancer, writers need to build a sense of discipline.

    What are your weaknesses?

    What does this mean in real terms? Well, you might want to start with examining your own particular weaknesses. What stops you from writing? What are the most common excuses you give for not getting on with your work?

    You could be suffering from a social media addiction, which leads you to constantly check Twitter or Facebook. Or perhaps you’re stuck or experiencing writer’s block, and you’re avoiding the issue by looking for distractions. Maybe you are suffering from imposter syndrome and don’t really believe your writing is worth the time and discipline needed to succeed. Maybe you don’t believe you can succeed.

    Defining success

    There’s also the question of what success really means. This differs for different people. For some, having even a small number of readers amounts to success. Especially if those readers left good reviews. For others, just finishing a book is an achievement in itself – and they’re not wrong. Not everyone is out to be a working writer. Sometimes writing a book is an item on a bucket list – something to tick off. A goal attained.

    Want to be a full-time writer?

    Let’s say you want to be a full-time writer one day. Not an easy goal, nor necessary for a writing career. Many great writers have had day jobs. But to achieve that goal, you need to develop some discipline. (To write around a day job also requires discipline.) You need to become your own boss.

    You need to learn to set goals and commit to them. Time to get tough – with yourself and also with other people who make demands, and who don’t take your writing seriously. Also, never forget that if other people see you don’t take your writing seriously, they won’t think twice about interrupting you.

    Block distractions, set goals

    While you can’t buy discipline, you can start to research ways to help yourself get there. Learn how to focus better, how to block distractions. Find out the times of the day or week when you seem to be most productive. Maybe there are particular environments you work best in.

    Try social media blockers, set timers, allocate times for writing. Block Twitter for three hours and commit to write in that period. Don’t allow writers’ block to defeat you. Set yourself goals and keep at it.

    Discipline is like a muscle – you have to keep exercising it. Your stamina will increase over time.

    Start with achievable goals

    You can start by setting yourself lower targets and gradually increasing them over time. Don’t judge yourself according to what others are doing. Compete only with yourself. How much writing did you get done three months ago? Now, how much writing are you getting done today?

    Never stop learning and developing

    And it’s not all about writing – there’s research, editing, developing your writing skills (CPD), marketing (when you get to that point). If you were an editor, you’d be expected to continue your professional development, periodically taking refresher classes or courses to upgrade your skills.

    As a writer, you can also continue to expand your skills.

    Of course, by itself, discipline won’t guarantee success. You also need a certain amount of talent. But talent is often the result of study, and study requires discipline. You need to research your market, and that requires discipline. You need to weather rejection, pick yourself up and carry on. And that too is a type of discipline.

    And finally…

    Think about what you’ve achieved so far, and plan out some writing goals for the next year. Achievable goals. You could aim to submit to certain writing publications. Perhaps there’s a novel you need to finish. Maybe you’re struggling with developmental issues like show versus tell, point of view, structure, characterisation, worldbuilding, and so on.

    Time to draw up a curriculum!

    Or perhaps you’d like some feedback on the opening chapters of a novel or memoir you’re working on. You might be interested in my opening chapters edit – the word count can be adjusted to your particular needs.

    Most of all, keep writing and keep learning. You never know where it will take out!