Back to Work!
I recently returned from vacation and have a solid few weeks of work to do for the class in writing historical fiction that I’m teaching. In addition, some of my regular readers are complaining about the intervals between updates to my blog. Of course, I’m not going to announce my vacations or post pictures on Instagram! That’s a good way to attract uninvited visitors to one’s home, though plenty of people I know do it and have no problems except pots full of dead houseplants when they return.
I have one of those too. Rosemary seems to be very sick, and I don’t know if I overwatered before I left, it dried out while I was gone, or it caught some sort of plant illness. Any insights or suggestions would be appreciated. In general, I’ve only had spider plants, which are very difficult to kill and often aggressive when placed next to other plants. A few years ago, one of my spider plants strangled an adjacent basil plant and took over its pot. I’ve heard that the only way to get rid of invasive spider plants is to overwater them.
While I’m asking for advice on keeping poor Rosemary alive, I am mentoring three writers of historical novels this summer, my first experience working one-on-one with writers as part of the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop in Historical Fiction. Several weeks ago I gave a lecture on setting, which was the same topic as my lecture the previous year for the Summer Camp in Fiction, but I rewrote the lecture to focus specifically on historical fiction. My earlier lecture emphasized the importance of setting for contemporary novels, because beginning writers of contemporary realistic fiction often assume readers know the setting and thus skimp on those details. With historical novelists, it’s often the opposite.
We write historical fiction because we fall in love with a time period, place, and way of life. We cherish every detail, including ones that don’t move the story forward. Among other topics in my lecture, I offered advice on how to pare down the details to what readers need to know in order to feel immersed not only in the time and place but also in the lives of those specific characters. As a result, setting details need to do double duty — establish where the action is taking place and reveal aspects of character, reinforce the theme, and/or foreshadow later events.
I look forward to reading and commenting on my students’ manuscripts. I hope that my lecture was helpful as they revised their work for my comments, and I hope my comments offer helpful advice and direction for the next steps. Obviously, writers taking these classes hope the comments will consist of “great, it’s ready to send out, here’s the name of my agent,” but the most important thing is to learn something valuable from the experience of taking the class and sending the manuscript for a thorough reading. The comment “great, it’s ready to send out, here’s the name of my agent” doesn’t sound to me like a thorough reading. Every manuscript can be improved. Even one that an agent takes on will go through multiple rounds of revision with an editor, and some of those revisions can be quite significant.
The suggestions that the other faculty and I make are designed to make this specific manuscript better, but they should also help the writer grow in general by offering insights into the elements of a successful story. What the writer is doing well, and the areas that need focus in upcoming revisions, can be transferred from one project to another and kept in mind when the writer is coming up with new ideas and approaches. This is why it’s important for writers to take classes and apply for mentorships, and why free mentorship programs like the one through We Need Diverse Books (applications open from mid-August to mid-September) are so crucial. Opportunities to develop one’s craft, and ultimately to see one’s story published, should not be restricted to those who have the financial resources to invest.
So it’s back to work for me — and maybe for you as well!