black and white image of neon sign says "do what you love"

How a Tribe Can Make You a Better Writer

 

By Darryl Bollinger

I recently celebrated a birthday and received a wonderful card from dear friends. On the cover, with pictures of Dorothy and her three traveling companions in The Wizard of Oz, was the inscription It’s not WHERE you go . . . It’s WHO you meet along the way. How appropriate. All of us have the innate desire for tribal affiliation. While an anthropologist could do a far better job of explaining that longing, my simple perspective is from a writer’s view.

All of us have the innate desire for tribal affiliation. While an anthropologist could do a far better job of explaining that longing, my simple perspective is from a writer’s view. Click To Tweet

It is also a subject foremost in my mind these days, having relocated from Florida to North Carolina in the past year.

black and white image of neon sign says "do what you love"What a joy to spend a week surrounded by my writing tribe in beautiful Fernandina Beach, Florida for the Amelia Island Book Festival, a “family” reunion. We stayed with close friends who live there, one of whom is writer Dr. J Author. We reunited with long-time “relatives” including Andrea Patten, Nancy Blanton, Samuel Staley, my editor, Heather Whitaker, and discovered new ones, such as Amelia Indie Authors. The subject of a writing family led to this post. How does a writing tribe make one a better writer?

It is both comforting and selfish. It is relaxing to be in the company of people who love and accept you without reservation. A place where you can be yourself and lower the guardrails. Where it is okay to make a mistake, where you don’t have to constantly be on guard parsing your responses and comments. While writing may be the one common link, I am amazed at the diversity within the circle. There may be other common elements we sometimes share, but there are also areas within which we can respectfully disagree.

It is both comforting and selfish. It is relaxing to be in the company of people who love and accept you without reservation. A place where you can be yourself and lower the guardrails Click To Tweet

Selfishly, it is an opportunity to gather something of great value. I always leave feeling that I am leaving with more than I came with. My mind is racing to the point of insomnia, flooding my brain with thoughts and ideas triggered by lively conversation, helpful suggestions, and insightful commentary.

It is an opportunity to share and to give back to my tribal community. To help others benefit from my mistakes. A testing ground and sounding board for thoughts and dreams. To laugh together and share unique life experiences and the benefit of acquired knowledge and wisdom. Prompts, motivation, and challenges abound.

It is an opportunity to learn. The stimulation and mind-expanding are tangible. The writers in the family bring their significant others into the tent, with even more experiences to add to the stew. I never cease to walk away from these gatherings invigorated and challenged beyond my wildest expectations.

What do you look for? In the words of my motorcycle riding friends, If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand. As I search for my tribe in my new residence, I am asked, “What are you looking for?” and I don’t know how to answer. It’s like asking what you look for in a friend. Certainly, fundamental traits such as honesty and loyalty are important, but it goes far beyond that. I think of close friends, several of whom were there and how on our initial meeting, we instantly bonded. Why? I can’t explain. If I could, I’d write a book on that subject and probably be set for life. All I can offer is to try on different groups and you’ll know when you find it.

I hear people say that writing is a solitary endeavor. While it may be true that the actual task of sitting down at a keyboard and putting words on paper is solitary, writing is very much a collaborative effort. Family is important. Find your tribe. It is a gratifying experience for the soul. 

##

Find Darryl on his website, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Goodreads!

Amelia Island Book Festival — Day 2

One of the wonderful staples of our local book festival is the writers’ workshop that takes place on Friday at the community college. Traditionally, while there are classes about craft there have also been workshops about the publishing business. This year, the social media and marketing section was conducted by our very own Dr. J — writer of romance and erotica.

The evening’s gala took place at the Ritz-Carlton and included both a  fund-raising auction and an author panel. The opportunity to name a character in a Diana Gabaldon novel was auctioned for a staggering amount of money before the assembled group got to hear the author panel answer questions posed by the honorary festival chair, Steve Berry.

##

Above: Authors Nancy Blanton and Andrea Patten meet Diana Gabaldon. The photobomber is Nancy’s sister Daphne. We wanted her up front!

 

 

Authors Ridley Pearson, Tess Gerritsen, Diana Gabaldon and Kristen Ashley answer questions posed by master of ceremonies Steve Berry.

 

 

 

Amelia Island Book Festival – Day 1

The organizers of the Amelia Island Book Festival will have my head but there is so much going on at the festival it should probably be spread over a few more days. <ducking and hiding>

Thursday’s kick-off luncheon was an opportunity for authors to connect with one another over lunch and then listen to witty banter between bestselling authors David Baldacci and John Grisham.

 

Thursday's kick-off luncheon was an opportunity for authors to connect with one another over lunch -- and listen to David Baldacci and John Grisham. Click To Tweet

In addition to an appreciation for the authors’ very different work styles, attendees also came away with a copy of Grisham’s latest — The Reckoning.

After a short break, several authors went off to facilitate the Teen and Tween Scene and spend time with young readers and writers.

Others of us went off to co-host AIBF’s first #indieauthors reception held at The Book Loft on Centre Street. It was wonderful to see authors rekindle friendships from festivals past as well as to meet others they’ll try to spend some time with on this busy weekend.

In addition to food, friendship and music event hosts The Book Loft and Amelia Indie Authors put together an author-specific raffle. The results are on our Facebook page (please “like” it if you haven’t already done so) and repeated here.

* “Cover out” shelf placement at The Book Loft: Lauren Gilbert
* The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron went to Leah Ward-Lee
* Special placement (near checkout) for Mike Arsuaga
* Author platform review for Meredith Spencer
* Colette Willis has a copy of The Business of Being a Writer waiting for her at the bookstore
* Mike Sanders’ book will receive “creative placement” at The Book Loft
* Adair Sanders won a copy of Brand Yourself Royally and a review of author branding by Nancy Blanton.Author
* Laurie Robertson will be interviewed on the Amelia Indie Authors blog
* A 25-page pre-publication manuscript review went to Louise Jacques
* John Cagle’s titles will be part of a front window display!

In addition to food, friendship, and music event hosts The Book Loft and Amelia Indie Authors put together an author-specific raffle. Click To Tweet

Congratulations to all the prize winners. And all Amelia Island Book Festival indie authors are invited to tag their own pages in the comments so we can follow you.

See you Saturday at the book expo #aibf2019

It’s Pretty Much Always Love – interview with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon

This month the Amelia Island Book Festival welcomes Diana Gabaldon as one of the headlining, bestselling authors. She is already well known to many in our community. But for the rest of you, she’s the Arizona-based author of the Outlander Series—compelling historical fiction set initially in Scotland, featuring mystery, adventure, love and war, and even time travel between the 18th and 20th centuries.

More than 20 million copies of her books have sold worldwide, and the books—eight, so far—also have been adapted to an addicting television series on Starz. But that’s not all.

Dr. Gabaldon (pronounced GAA-bull-dohn—to rhyme with stone) holds three degrees in science: zoology, marine biology, and a Ph.D. in quantitative behavioral ecology. She also has an honorary degree as Doctor of Humane Letters. She worked as a university professor before turning to fiction writing. She and her husband have three adult children: two daughters and a son.

Now working on the ninth novel in the Outlander series, “Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone,” Diana graciously agreed to an email interview prior to her arrival in Nassau County. After the hundreds of interviews she’s done in the past year or so, many of which can easily be accessed online, I offered questions I thought would be of particular interest locally. 

NB: Amelia Indie Authors is thrilled to welcome you for the annual Amelia Island Book Festival. It is a wonderful event surpassed, just only slightly, by our Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. I’m sure readers are dying to know: how do you like your shrimp?

DG: Tempura fried. Or cocktail style, with horseradish-laced cocktail sauce.

NB: I noticed in your “Want to watch me write?” post on your website, you are accompanied by what appears to be a stalwart black dog. And there are two canines in your Thanksgiving 2017 photo. We are mostly dog lovers here. What is your daily writing routine, and what role do your dogs play in it?

DG: Unfortunately, one of my dogs died on New Year’s Day (complications resulting from a freak accident), so I have one standard dachshund right now, named Homer. The dog(s) mostly just sleep at my feet while I work (I work mostly in the middle of the night). 

NB: Can you describe your writing routine for us?

DG: Well, it depends a bit on where I am in the book (it normally takes me two to three years to write one of the enormous historical novels). In the beginning, I don’t know much about the story, nor the specific background, so am doing a lot of research and thinking, writing relatively little—but writing every day; if you stop, the inertia builds up and it’s hard to get going again.

As I move further into the story and begin to know more, I write more. “Walking pace” through the main part of a novel is roughly two single-spaced pages (about a thousand words) a day; some days I make more, but if I get that much, I’m satisfied.

And then, as I get near the end, and know almost everything, I’m not having to do much research, but am writing madly; the story develops “critical mass,” sucks me in, (and people are calling up from New York, yelling about where is this story), and we enter what I call Final Frenzy. In this stage, I’m writing for as long as I can sit at the computer, maybe twelve to fifteen hours a day, and barely eating or sleeping.  Luckily, this stage never lasts more than two or three months, or I’d die.

During the long middle portion of a book, though, my daily routine is more or less this:

Get up around 9 AM, exercise, take the dog for a walk, then go upstairs, answer email and do my daily list, to get a foothold on the day. Lunch with my husband, then an hour or so of actual work after lunch, followed by whatever business or errands need to be done, then gardening, dinner-shopping, dinner-making, dinner-eating…then a spell of family time; watching Perry Mason reruns, reading while husband watches football, whatever. My husband likes to go to bed early, so I tuck him in around 9 or 10 PM and go lie down on the couch with a book and the dog. If no one needs me (and now that the kids are all adults, the chances that someone will are substantially decreased, but it still happens now and then), I’ll fall asleep after a bit, and nap until about midnight.  Then I wake up, stagger back upstairs with a Diet Coke and work until around 4:30 AM—that’s my prime writing time.

That said, I don’t think there is such a thing as a normal day in this profession.  Every day the email brings me astonishing things—this morning I was invited to come to Ottawa in November and give a speech at the Canadian War Museum, to be a featured guest on a cruise, and to appear at three different conventions. This is in addition to all the email about books, contracts, and Extremely Odd business suggestions (like a line of scarves adorned with quotes from my books, to be made in India).

NB: From studying pinyon jays to writing comic books, and then to marine biology and scientific computation, you made the leap to your true calling. Do these past work experiences inform your writing, or do you ever find modern-day technical information invading your prose?

DG: Well….no. Why would it? So far as I know, everybody has an assortment of language styles that they use for different things; if your mother calls you on the phone, do you talk to her as though you were one of your ancient Irish characters? <grin>

As to experience—everything a writer sees, hears, thinks, does, is, and has been, informs your writing to some degree, but it’s seldom directly autobiographical.

NB: It takes a lot of courage to write and publish fiction—not to mention the amount of work—because the writing is much more personal. From the start of your fiction-writing career, what has required the greatest amount of courage? How about in your life?

DG: Just starting. Anything. Once you start, the most difficult thing is not giving up. But that’s basically how you do anything: start, and don’t stop.

NB: In a recent interview, you said some scene writing could be “like chiseling rocks out of a hill and then pushing them uphill with your nose.” I love this and have experienced the pain. What would you say is at the heart of this struggle? And, are there any remedies that help you through it?

DG: It’s just hard work. Parts of everything you do are hard. You just do it anyway. What does help is the knowledge that you’ve done this before. Hard as it may be now, you can probably do it again.

NB: The central characters of Outlander (Claire Beauchamp, an English WWII nurse, and James Frazer, a Scottish laird) and the conflicts around them are so intriguing they have hooked millions of readers. In a recent podcast, you were asked whether you’d been surprised by a character or had said ‘no’ to a character. With other authors in mind, would you talk a little about how such surprises can enrich a story? And perhaps about the role your surprise character Mr. Willoughby played to enrich Voyager?

DG: I have no idea which characters might have been surprises to any other authors, so can’t really answer that one. Don’t know why a character that was a surprise to the author should do anything different to a story than one who wasn’t, though.<grin> 

As for Mr. Willoughby…he’s an outsider (a real outsider) in the culture he accidentally found himself in. The parallels to Claire, an outsider by token of her time-traveling, are pretty obvious, though, in this instance, she chose to come to a strange place. An outsider, though, always provides one or two specific things: an empathetic connection with the reader (who is also an outsider to the story), and thus a way of providing information about the strange circumstances in which they find themselves, and/or commentary on social situations/conditions (often it can be subtle (or not-so-subtle) commentary on contemporary conditions, as well as on the historical/fantastic conditions of the story).

NB: Your pirate villain Stephen Bonnet in Drums of Autumn rings some bells on Amelia Island, where local lore claims, “the island was so full of pirates that at one point, most of the 300 or so vessels anchored in the harbor were pirate galleons.” What might you suggest to an aspiring author who wants to weave one or two of these plunderers into a novel? After the initial trip to the library or local museum for general pirate information, how would you proceed?

DG: Well, look. There really isn’t a formula for doing this. You’d just let the information you’ve picked up inform what you write (i.e., you’d know what his ship might look like, how he (or she) might dress, how pirates of your specific time period conducted their affairs, etc.), choose a name for your pirate and turn him loose (unless you’re the sort of writer who plans things out ahead of time—perfectly OK, mind you; it’s just not how I work).

NB: Writers naturally improve and change over time and with each project. Since your first book in the Outlander Series, how has your writing evolved, and what has affected you most? Has constructive editing been important? Or has your growth as a writer been mostly internal? 

DG: Nothing affects writing as much as the act of doing it, believe me. <grin> I’ve never had an editor tell me anything about the actual writing; such revisions as we do are almost entirely to do with the structure of the story (e.g., an editor feeling that someone’s motives weren’t entirely clear, or that such-and-such a situation might be misinterpreted by the less sophisticated sort of reader <cough>, or pointing out places (there are always a couple of them, owing to my individual way of fitting pieces together) where I’ve repeated a scene in two different locations, and asking where I actually want it—that sort of thing).

If you keep on writing, you grow older and you have more life experiences, and your critical mass of information increases and your perceptions deepen. Your writing will naturally reflect your personal growth, in terms of what you see and what’s important in your work.

NB: You were beloved and famous as an author long before the Starz Outlander Series. How has the increased hype over the past few years affected you? 

DG: Well, now it takes me four years to write a book…

There’s just more of it—more fan involvement, more PR, more travel, more social media.  I do have a physical involvement with the show itself, though (as opposed to hype): I’m a consultant to the show, which means, essentially, that they show me everything they do—script outlines, scripts, revisions, daily “roughs” while filming, and the edited episodes as they come together. I comment on whatever I usefully can, and while they don’t invariably do what I suggest <grin>, they generally do at least listen to me.

During the nine months (or so) while the show is filming, that means the show is getting one to two hours of my time, four or five days a week.  And this is not counting the increased fan attention with concomitant growth on social media (but see below) or the absolute deluge of invitations (even turning them down politely takes work), or the intrusion of constant travel arrangements.

Anyway…social media. Social media kind of grew up around me; I stumbled into the Compuserve Literary Forum (and the wonderful world of “online”) back in 1985. As other innovations—like AOL <grin>—came along, I’d try them out, but I didn’t keep connections with anything that wasn’t immediately useful. Twitter and Facebook are useful, so I keep those accounts primed. I don’t do Instagram—there’s no real benefit to me in putting up photos (I do that on FB and Twitter when I have something worthwhile) and the need to do it every day would just be a burden. Instagram comments tend to be worthless, in terms of interest to other users, and lend themselves to stupidity and trolls, so why bother?

When the news of Sam Heughan’s casting as Jamie Fraser came out, all the Outlander-focused social media naturally exploded. In the midst of this, he emailed me and said, “Your fans are crazy. How do you deal with this?” So I told him—

Take ten minutes, once or twice a day, no more. During that time, read your Twitter-feed, as many messages as you can manage in that time. If someone says it’s their birthday, stop and tell them happy birthday; if someone says their dog died, stop and say you’re sorry. If someone says something witty to you AND you can instantly think of something witty in reply, say it. If someone says something negative to you, don’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.

Social media is a Good Thing/Tool for a writer, but it’s a bad master. You keep it under strict control, or it’ll eat you alive.

NB: Do you have a mission, a core driver that transcends all the work that you do—often described as ‘the one thing’ that gets you out of bed every morning? What is it and how does it sustain you?

DG: Nothing gets me out of bed in the morning (it’s NOT my time) except a vague sense that if I do go on sleeping, I’ll later regret it because there won’t be enough time to do what-all I want to.

I generally take the dog(s) out, and blearily scan Twitter while waiting for them, then come in, turn on the TV (news, if there’s anything other than The Tedious Usual happening, Outlander re-runs if not) and do my exercise (if I’ve got up early enough to have time for it before the first Thing of the day happens). That’s a mix of yoga, pilates and light weights, routines done according to whim, need and time available.

With luck, I’m actually conscious by the time I finish this and get dressed, and the momentum will usually get me through ‘til lunch (dog-walking, appointments, email, whatever…).

But overall, barring things like having to take children to school or the house being on fire, it’s pretty much always love.

Research, Intrigue and the Internet

I write spy thrillers. I invent devious characters and spin tales about terrible events and I have free reign because my books are, after all, fiction. But I also inject real places and actual events into the body of the story to add a sense of realism. And because readers expect accuracy with regard to anything that is real-life, I do my best to meet their expectations. I have traveled extensively and have visited most of the locations that I use in my novels, but those trips don’t always coincide exactly with the time frame of the story. The challenge, then, is to fill in the gaps between what was and what is. Research becomes the order of the day.

LM Reynolds writes spy thrillers, inventing devious characters and spinning tales about terrible events. Click To Tweet

My latest novel has a backstory that takes place in the early to mid-nineties—in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1990. A total of six (or seven, depending on who is counting) other countries surfaced out of the chaos, along ethnic and religious lines that exposed long-simmering hostilities.

I visited Sarajevo when the city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984—when it was still in Yugoslavia. Shortly thereafter, I coached a few dozen young Yugoslav men and women who had been hired by Pan Am. Eight short years later, the entire region was at war and Sarajevo had become the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The city was also subjected to the longest siege in modern history, from 1992 to 1996. No food, no water, no medicine, no electricity, no fuel, no escape. Nearly 14,000 of its residents perished—over one-third of whom were civilians.

When I was in Sarajevo, it was a lovely and welcoming place; I enjoyed it immensely. I liked the people, especially—warm and embracing and kind. A decade later, nearly every building bore evidence of the mortars and rockets and sniper fire that had rained down on the city for four years. The scarring of the inhabitants, both physical and psychological, was even more disturbing. Families were decimated and men, women, and children maimed. They lived with terror for years and many still have a well-founded fear of open spaces. I was, and am still, saddened and horrified by the events that took place there. I think I knew, even back then, that I would write about it someday.

One of my characters is a Bosnian man who, after a particularly tragic experience, decides to flee Sarajevo and make his way to his family’s home in a town about fifty miles away. But how did people escape from the surrounded city? Not easily. The city lies in a slender river valley that runs generally east-west and is hemmed in by sharply steep hills to the north and south. Hostile Serbian forces occupied nearly all of the territory around Sarajevo, save for a narrow corridor at the southwest—just beyond the airport—which led to land occupied by Bosnian forces. To escape, one had to cross not only the runway but also the open grounds around the airport—at night, through an area laced with coils of barbed wire—and risk being caught in a sniper’s scope.

I was not enthusiastic about my character’s odds of making a successful escape via the airport crossing—too many real people had died while making the attempt. Click To Tweet

I was not enthusiastic about my character’s odds of making a successful escape via the airport crossing—too many real people had died while making the attempt. I considered having him wait it out until a peace agreement was reached. My storyline, however, demanded that he leave the city in 1993, and the Dayton Accords were not signed until late 1995. Time for Plan B. I had a vague recollection of hearing about a tunnel, so I dug in (pun fully intended) to learn more about it. In early 1993, the Bosnians had dug—by hand—a half-mile tunnel to bring supplies into the city. The northern entrance was in the garage of an apartment building, in a neighborhood on the southwest side of the city. From there, the tunnel ran generally south, dropping beneath the runway, and extending to the cellar of a private home to the south of the airport, with Bosnian-held land just beyond. It was a remarkable feat, a perfect display of human resilience and ingenuity.

The owner of the house has since restored part of the original tunnel and today the family runs their own private museum. It has become one of the most popular tourist spots in the city. I needed to learn everything that I could, so, in addition to all of the technical research, I visited travel blogs and other travel-oriented sites and looked at hundreds of photos. As I explored, however, I kept running across references to the private dwelling that hid the north end of the tunnel. I was thoroughly confused. I checked and double-checked. All of the published maps clearly showed the names of the neighborhoods where the entrances were located (Dobrinja to the north, Butmir to the south), that the airport was to the southwest of the city, and that the house and its museum were south of the airport—not north. What on earth was going on? How could so many people have misstated the location? Was I just going crazy?

And then, light bulb! The museum’s collection of artifacts includes a map, designed to provide a visual explanation of how the city was surrounded, and to show the entry points and route of the tunnel. It is a pretty map, a photogenic map—a map that thousands of people have captured on their smartphones and posted and shared on the web. It is also a map with which the artist took a small liberty—by inverting it. The museum map shows the mountains and the Bosnian-held territory to the northeast, along with the airport. With the mountains at the top and the valley at the bottom, it is probably a more aesthetically pleasing composition. Or perhaps the artist was just gazing out at the snow-covered peaks while creating the picture. Regardless, thousands of people automatically associated the map’s top with North and its bottom with South. Thus, if you were using it as a real map, it would only work well if you looked at it while standing on your head.

Whew! I was relieved to know that I had not yet lost all of my marbles. Instead, I had encountered a classic example of how misinformation spreads on the web. It was not malevolent, nor intentional, but it certainly had legs! As a longtime consumer of web content, I have learned which sites to generally (note the disclaimer) trust when I am seeking factual information. But even if one employs the journalist’s technique of verification from multiple sources, one can still be led astray or led to question established fact. While the internet is a glorious place to find information, at your fingertips, in an instant, it can also be a perilous place to wade, with sharks of every description homing in as you splash in the surf.

Make sure that you have your wits about you, that you know which way is north, and that your map is pointed in the right direction! Click To Tweet

The moral of the story is that, if you are conducting research on the internet, be careful about accepting statements at face value. Check your facts, explore multiple reputable sources, use your common sense, and throw in a healthy dose of skepticism. And for all of you digital-map explorers out there, beware! Before setting off on a journey to an unfamiliar place, providing directions to lost travelers, or planning a military invasion, make sure that you have your wits about you, that you know which way is north, and that your map is pointed in the right direction!

~~ LM Reynolds