How important is “place” in writing?

My recent trip to Ireland has me thinking again about the importance of place to a writer. Ireland has a rich written history, including literary greats James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yates. Those names were prominent as we toured the Emerald Isle landscape that inspired their writing.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates' poetry.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates’ poetry.

At the 2,000-year-old Drumcliff Church, we visited W.B. Yates’ grave and then, as we drove through the countryside where Yates lived and wrote, we were treated by our guide Eilo to recitations of Yates’ verses.

After choosing subjects for his verse from a number of other countries, Yeats said:

“I convinced myself … that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end.”

In view of Benbulbin – Yates’ favorite mountain – I listened to the rush of a waterfall, gazed at sheep pastured in fields ringed with ivy-covered rock walls, and knew exactly why Yates came to the conclusion to center his writing on this place.

Woven into Irish place are centuries of conflict – British vs Irish, Protestant vs Catholic – aspects of Irish place that continue to influence Irish writers today. 

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

A treat during the tour was having lunch with historical fiction writer David Lawlor. We met via social media and I’ve become a big fan of his writing.

In 1921, at just age 20, Lawlor’s grandfather joined scores of IRA men in an attack on the Dublin Custom House. Lawlor’s grandfather survived; others did not.

Each day, Lawlor walks to work past the Custom House, a symbol of British rule in Ireland. The social and political history Lawlor traverses daily inspired his series of novels set in the years surrounding the Irish War for Independence.

Everywhere I travel, I am inspired. In fact, inspiration is one of the reasons I hit the road. But, as I left the emerald landscape of Ireland and returned to the green fields of Iowa, I was affirmed in my own decision to write stories based in Iowa, past and present. I also know that if I ever need more inspiration, it will be waiting for me in the homeland of Yates and Lawlor.

To read more about Lawlor’s grandfather and other ‘bit players of history’ visit Lawlor’s blog History With A Twist.

If you enjoy historical adventure stories, you’ll enjoy Lawlor’s book “Tan” and the subsequent books in the series.

How much of historical fiction is history?

Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard FlanaganThe 2014 Man Booker Prize winner was announced this past week. The accolades judging panel chair A.C. Grayling heaped on Richard Flanagan‘s WWII-era novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, included this seemingly odd comment:

Historical fiction is not history.

The comment seems odd because by definition, historical fiction is about history. Or is it? Grayling’s comments raised intriguing questions: Is the story more important in historical fiction? Or the history?

Every writer of historical fiction makes choices about what and how much historical detail to include. I know I wrestled with this question as I wrote Go Away Home. Two historical novels I read this month demonstrated the broad history-to-story spectrum authors can explore.

a-time-of-traitors, David LawlorA Time of Traitors is David Lawlor‘s third novel featuring Liam Mannion, a young Irishman who fought in the Great War and then returned to Ireland and became active in the Irish war for independence in the 1920s. Lawlor’s books are fast-paced action stories featuring vivid characters and strong plot lines. Twists and turns kept me on the edge of my seat, totally engaged because I cared about the characters and what happened to them. Oh yes, I also learned a lot about the IRA and the fight for independence.

A Time of Traitors will appeal to readers who enjoy action adventure. They’ll learn about Irish history without realizing it’s happening.

Ambitious Madam Bonapart, Ruth Hull ChatlienIn The Ambitious Madam Bonaparte, author Ruth Hull Chatlain goes to the other end of the spectrum. Historical details abound – clothing, furniture, modes of travel, historical figures in government, design of cities, architecture. Chatlain’s research is meticulous. Characters and story line take a back seat to descriptions laden with historical details.

The Ambitious Madam Bonaparte may appeal to readers more interested in 18th – 19th Century history than the characters around which the story is built.

Fortunately for us authors, there are readers for all types of novels.

How do you react to the comment: “Historical fiction is not history?” If you write historical fiction, how do you balance telling the story with telling the history? As a reader what do you expect?

NOTE: A.C. Grayling’s comments were included in an article in the Daily Mail. His comments add nuance to the quote I pulled out for this post.

A few of my favorite blogs – One Lovely Blog Award

When I began blogging in 2009, I posted my writing for a full year before telling anyone I was doing it. I was trying out my voice, learning the “rules” of blogging, and seeing if I would stick to it. one-lovely-blog-award_thumbFive years later, I’m still at it, my topics as eclectic as when I began.

Since I could not stick to one topic (one of the rules of successful blogging), I was surprised and honored when author Bernice L. Rocque nominated my blog for the One Lovely Blog Award this past week.

On her blog 3Houses, Bernice shares family history stories, recipes, seasonal crafts. Her topics are eclectic (no wonder I like her) and fun. I encourage you to take a look at Bernice’s blog.

As I reflected on all I’ve learned and the many friends I’ve made in the blogosphere, I thought this an appropriate time to recognize them and say thanks.

Here are the Rules for this Award

  • Thank the person who nominated you and link to that blog.
  • Share 7 things about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 bloggers you admire (or as many as you can think of!).
  • Contact your bloggers to let them know that you’ve tagged them for the One Lovely Blog Award.

Seven (7) Things About Me

  1. I played the accordion for many years as a child. If I strapped an accordion on now today, I expect I could still play “Lady of Spain” and “The Beer Barrel Polka.”
  2. At my son’s urging, I joined him for a day of sky-diving. The thirty seconds of free-falling was a close to flying like a bird as I’ll ever get.
  3. I grew up on a dairy farm and actually enjoyed milking cows. If I could find a B&B that included milking cows, I’d be there.
  4. I have a prairie patch in my front yard where I enjoy learning the lessons of life and the names of each of the native plants. Someday, I plan to study the medicinal uses of each of these plants.
  5. My publishing company Rising Sun Press is named for the small unincorporated village I live in. I would have called it Rising Sun Publishing, but that was already taken.
  6. Enjoying the moment is a skill I continually work on. I work hard to remember, “Just this.” “Just now.”
  7. Oct. 1 – An edit after posting – I frequently miss details, like there were supposed to be 7 things about me 😉 Or maybe this was another rule I broke.

Bloggers I Admire

My Blogger Friends
Many moons ago I vowed to pass on the endless stream of chain mail-like opportunities that come through on social media. It’s a personal decision. No offense intended to anyone who likes them, participates in them, or tags me. Yet here I am. Many thanks to Bernice L. Rocque for nominating me.

I thank each of you for the wisdom and enjoyment I’ve gained from reading your blog. You’ve enriched my life. Please know that I release you from any obligation to continue this award/chain.

My Reading Friends
I find each of the blogs I’ve listed to be well written, interesting, entertaining, and educational. Check them out. You may find them worth regular reading, too.

Tips for being in two places at once

The magic of a modern-day book launch.

file0001820510540I’m not in the habit of defying the time/space continuum, but this month I’ll be giving it my best shot. July is the official launch of my World War One-era novel Go Away Home, and the month is packed.

My first event is a library book talk today. The week of July 8, I return to eastern Iowa where I grew up for three events. At the same time, I’ll be zipping through cyberspace making the first four stops on a virtual book tour. The rest of the month repeats the challenge with more blog stops and more in-person events each week. July’s last event (at least that I know about right now) is July 25.

Maybe the best I can hope for is not to meet myself coming and going. I’ve taken these steps to ensure a smooth launch:

  • Written four versions of a presentation that focuses on Writing History. It’s a challenge to anticipate what audiences will want to hear, but my journey from memoir to fiction with an emphasis on the historical commonality seems a good place to start. With four outlines in hand, I can adapt on the go as the presentation evolves based on audience questions.
  • Wrote a multitude of guest posts. Invitations by author/bloggers Shirley Showalter, Annamaria Bazzi, David Lawlor, P.C. Zick (July 9),and Christoph Fischer (Aug 4) to visit their blogs have helped me prepare for interviews, focus my thinking and get the word out. I’m grateful to them for hosting me.
  • Product in place. My eastern Iowa events are in towns without bookstores. Since I know from my memoir experience that people want a local place to buy the book, I’ve arranged with two pharmacies, the county historical society and a library to stock copies.
  • Media outreach. I’ve returned to my public relations roots to prepare media materials and made them available on my website. I’ve targeted pitches to key media for interviews. I’ve made sure local media in the geography surrounding my events have news releases and images well in advance.
  • E-mail marketing. On the theory that people who know me will be most interested in hearing about Go Away Home, I’ve sent a series of targeted e-mails to everyone on my list. The response has been encouraging and sends me forward on a wave of good feelings.

Modern technology is a wonderful thing. Without the Internet, wi-fi, and cell phones, this would not be possible. Time will tell how my body reacts to being in two places at the same time.

No doubt, I’ll arrive at the end of the July exhausted. During the month, I know I’ll have reconnected with old friends, met many new friends, and had a lot of fun.

I think I’m prepared. I hope so. But are there other things I should be doing? If you think of something, let me know. It’s not too late. After all, if I can be in two places, surely three can’t be that difficult 😉

History wrapped in a gripping story – Author David Lawlor

THE GOLDEN GRAVE - David LawlorI’m pleased to welcome Irish author David Lawlor to my blog today. For anyone with an interest in historical fiction, WWI, and action/adventure stories, this will be a treat.  Lawlor’s just-released novel THE GOLDEN GRAVE continues the story of Liam Mannion, an Irishman who fought valiantly in WWI but now is trying to outrun his past. Mannion finds himself back in France with his war buddies reviving the horrors of trench warfare as they pursue a treasure buried during the war.

Though THE GOLDEN GRAVE can be read as a stand-alone story, you’ll be missing a bet if you don’t go back and pick up TAN, too.

Welcome, David!
Thanks, Carol

What’s the most interesting thing to you about writing historical fiction?
I’m intrigued by those times when people were really tested and wonder how I would have fared. Questions like that inspire my writing and my delving into the past. With my first book, TAN, I delved into the world of the frontline soldier and also into the textile industry of Manchester. These things intrigued me.

What kinds of research did you do to ground yourself in the WWI era?
Some of the technical research was tedious. I nearly went mad trying to understand and describe the workings of a textile mill, but I felt it was worth it to give a sense of what my main character, Liam, was going through.

With TAN’s sequel, THE GOLDEN GRAVE, I found the research easier. I had already got a feel for the times – the clothes, the songs, etc., in the first book. I studied photographs and more accounts of trench life. I also researched tunneling techniques and bunker making.

One thing that drove me nuts was trying to figure out how long it would take to pump a water-filled bunker clear using 1920s equipment. Eventually, I contacted the Imperial War Museum and they gave me an approximate answer. It was little questions like those that held me up, not the bigger ones like how the battlefield looked. The other useful tool I had was a documentary about a WWI bunker. It was this documentary that inspired the story.

The research you did really made the time, place and experiences in your books incredibly real. In TAN, you wrote about the burning of Balbriggan, an historical fact. Where does fact end and fiction begin with your writing?
This historic event is the skeleton upon which I interweave my story. For TAN, I studied photos of Balbriggan and walked its streets, talking to locals. One of their anecdotes about the Tans actually made it into the book. The rest of TAN was fairly loose. Sometimes you can get too caught up in the historic detail to the detriment of the story.

You’ve struck the right balance between historical accuracy and characters with a good story, David. How do you go about creating your characters? Are they based on people you know? Is Liam autobiographical?
I suppose I would like to think there is some of me in Liam. The femme fatale, Sabine, was based on a woman I know, (the less said about that the better 😉 ) Ben Sweetman came easily – he’s a gentle giant, like the Death Row character in The Green Mile.

I’m impressed with your portrayal of female characters. What informed how you write about women – in general – and with regard to the war?
I approach female characters the same way as male ones. I wonder how I’d react in their situations. Sabine had to be clever and manipulative to survive and successfully run a bar catering to aggressive, battle-scarred soldiers, so I tried to show that side of her. Equally, I felt Kate, from TAN, was bound to be smart and feisty, given that her father was a successful businessman and she was living through the whole suffragette movement. Women had played an important part during the 1916 Easter Rising. I felt it was natural that their role would have impacted on Kate.

The women are right in the action, that’s for sure. Pacing is a strength in your writing. The story grabs readers and doesn’t let go. What advice do you have for writers (like me) who’d like to improve pacing?
I don’t think I can give much advice to anyone, but I try to see the story as you would a film. I leave little cliff-hangers at the end of sections and I like to flip between scenes quite quickly. I think that can be used to inject pace or to slow things down when events get too frenetic.

When you have a story idea, how do you go about building the story?
I build a clear plot before writing but leave enough room for the characters to take me on tangents. In a new book I’m working on I have one character whose basic role is clear but who I know will be intriguing; how exactly that will be revealed, I’m unsure.

David LawlorI’ll be waiting, David. I’m a fan! I could go on asking questions, but we both need to get back to writing. Thanks for joining us today.

If you’d like more info about David’s take on history, he celebrates the bit players of history on his blog: History With A Twist http://historywithatwist.wordpress.com/

And here are more ways to find him and his books.
Tan (US site) http://goo.gl/HMUKS
Tan (UK site) http://goo.gl/nK1li
The Golden Grave (US site) http://goo.gl/MwZtJ
The Golden Grave (UK site) http://goo.gl/XcMuv

Twitter: @LawlorDavid

On Goodreads:
The Golden Grave http://goo.gl/89pJZ
Tan http://goo.gl/2fb87

TAN – A story of exile, betrayal and revenge – Book Review

TAN David LawlorTAN by David Lawlor is a gripping novel that tells the story of Irishman Liam Mannion, beginning before World War I and continuing into the Irish War of Independence. Framed for a crime he didn’t commit, Liam is exiled to England and endures five years of trench warfare in France before making his way back to his homeland as a member of the infamous Black and Tans, a group that served as a brutal strong arm force for the English crown. Stationed in his hometown of Balbriggan, Liam is forced to confront his own divided loyalties, as well as those of his own family, and face the brute who framed him.

Before reading this novel, I knew little about the Irish War of Independence. In fact, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard the term “Black and Tan” until I picked up this book and then, coincidentally, they were mentioned in the current season of Downton Abbey. But this is why I love historical fiction. In the hands of a skilled author like Lawlor, I’m transported to another place and time to learn about events that mattered a great deal.

Lawlor is a fantastic storyteller. He created characters I cared about, crafting even minor players in ways that made them memorable and real. I was pleased to find that the women in the story were written with intelligence and courage, substance and compassion. Lawlor builds the action in scene after scene in a way that makes the book hard to put down. Fortunately the frequent battle scenes that create an abundance of tension and anxiety are balanced with moments of humor.

The author’s sympathies are clearly with the Irish, but the story fairly points out that both sides in a war are capable of brutality, both sides have legitimate points of view. Because Liam’s own brother sides with the British, readers face the complicated reality of families torn apart by war. No one gets off easily in this one.

Many characters speak in Irish vernacular, which took me a while to settle into, but which ensured I was immersed in Ireland. The dialect didn’t get in the way of enjoying the story, since it could all be understood in context.

TAN made me want to know more about the Irish War of Independence. Lawlor has me eager to read his next book.