Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Under Siege: Notes from a first-time novelist


Indiana Jones and the Temple of DoomThe Matrix ReloadedBridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.  What do these movies have in common besides silly titles?  They are all sequels, and they are all frustratingly, disappointingly, infuriatingly worse than the original.  And the list of failed sequels could go on and on and on.  No matter how good the original, sequels have a tendency to flounder.  There are of course exceptions (The Godfather: Part II; The Empire Strikes Back), but they are disappointingly few and far between.  And the same goes for novels, particularly when the sequel is the second book in a trilogy.  All too often these books leave anguished readers like myself demanding ‘why?’  Why!

Well, now I know why.  Sequels are hard.  The thrill of discovery is gone.  First books or first movies are about establishing characters and exploring the world in which they live.  This sense of discovery helps to drive the story and keep readers interested.  The second time around, the thrill is gone.  This means that plot becomes more important, but this too is problematic, since in a trilogy, the major plot conflicts will not be resolved until the third entry.  So, if the first book is about establishing characters and the third one is about resolving conflicts, what exactly does the second book do?  One answer – one that is particularly popular in Hollywood – is to offer more of the same: take whatever was good about the first film or book and offer a lot more of it.  Unfortunately, Hollywood types seem to have a hard time figuring out precisely what was good about the first film.  But even when they get that right, the problem remains that simply offering more of the same leaves the audience feeling like, well, they’ve already seen all of this before.

So what to do?  How to make the sequel fresh and as compelling at the first entry in the trilogy, and to make it more than just a journey from point A to point B in preparation for the finale?  This is a question that I have been wrestling with as I work on Kingdom, the sequel to Eagle.  When I started writing Kingdom, I was confident.  The book was going to be a breeze.  I had already done all the hard work of establishing characters and building storylines.  Now it was time to have fun!  But to my dismay, the sequel turned out to be harder to write than the first book.  I was writing about very exciting events, but somehow, the tension was missing.  Sieges and battles to the death were coming across as oddly dull.  Seriously, how many times can a man overcome overwhelming odds to save his life before he develops a James-Bondian insouciance?  “Time for you to split,” John smirked as he cut his enemy in two at the waist…

Thankfully, I found the key (or a key, at any rate) to unlocking the sequel before any lines that bad made it into Kingdom.  The problem I was having did not lie in the action or the plot, but rather with the characters.  When I first started writing Kingdom, the lead characters – John and Yusuf – were behaving more or less the same as they had at the end of Eagle.  They had ceased to be dynamic individuals and become something like chess pieces, to be moved about the board at the behest of the plot.  And the book suffered for it, because even more so than parts one and three in a trilogy, the second act is all about character arcs.  Take, for instance, one of the greatest sequels of all time: The Empire Strikes Back.  Not much happens in the movie in terms of plot, but the characters are challenged and taken to new places.  Han and Leia’s relationship deepens.  Luke spends most of the movie fighting against himself – struggling to control his emotions in order to become a Jedi.  Darth Vader transitions from a menacing force of pure evil to a real character, who just happens to be Luke’s father.  Each protagonist must face self-doubt and defeat.  Star Wars created a universe and gave us characters; Empire puts them through the ringer.

And that is precisely what sequels should do.  Once I realized how dramatically the events of book one would have changed John and Yusuf, then the second book took off.  Eagle is all about the relationship that these two men forge.  Kingdom is about what happens when that relationship is put to the test.  In effect, this is what all second parts of trilogies should be about.  There are plenty of ways to do this:

  • Break up relationships that are strong; perhaps even have friends forced to work on opposite sides of a conflict.
  • Force former enemies to work together.
  • If two characters are in love, introduce a third party.
  • Have previously victorious characters suffer defeat, and vice versa.
  • Put established characters in new settings.
  • Change characters’ status in terms of power and rank.  Have the mighty fall or the low rise.

None of this is rocket science.  Successful sequels have been using these devices for as long as people have told stories.  Still, sometimes it’s good to stop and remember what a sequel should be all about.  (Preferably, one should do this before starting to write the sequel.  Oops.)  It’s not about producing a bigger and better version of the original.  Nor, ideally, should it be just about watching the same old characters go through a new set of adventures.  Sequels are about how characters change.  And how will the characters of Eagle change?  All will be revealed next March, when Kingdom is published.  Until then, feel free to guess!

Next week: Who decides what goes on a book jacket? (hint: it’s not the author)

It’s been one, two, three… 125 days(!) since I posted my last blog.  That is a shamefully long time.  I’m sure you’re wondering what I have been doing during my lengthy hiatus.  On second thought, you could probably care less.  No matter, I’m going to tell you anyway.  I’d like to say I’ve been busy working on my next novel, Kingdom.  However, I’ve actually been finishing a project of a different sort: my doctoral thesis.  That’s right, I’ve been writing “real” history.  What’s the difference?  In historical fiction or popular history, the writer tells a story about the past.  In academic history, the writer makes an argument about the past, and every single statement is embedded in a web of arguments made by other historians.  Or, to put it more pithily: history takes a lot longer to write than historical fiction and is not nearly as much fun to read.  Not that my thesis isn’t thrilling – it’s a ripping yarn about the role of revolution in shifting the limits of self-becoming – but it’s not exactly the sort of book you would take to the beach.

And now, at long last, it is done.  I am officially a doctor of philosophy.  So if you are suffering from nihilism or some other philosophical illness, I’m your man.  Or, if you’re having a heart attack, I can offer you a brief history of the treatment of heart disease.  Heart disease was rare before the 20th century because most people had diets low in fats and carbohydrates.  In his Canon of Medicine (1020), Avicenna suggested the use of the root zarnab as a remedy to heart troubles, and recent analysis has shown that it is an effective calcium channel blocker.  Further significant advances would have to wait until the early 20th century.  In medical terms, a “heart attack” is referred to as a myocardial infarction…  Oh wait, you’re dead.  What is this history degree good for again?

Actually, I’m very excited to be a newly minted PhD.  I can now insist that my friends refer to me as Doctor Hight or The Doctor.  I get a cool hood that makes me look like a Jedi.  And, I don’t have to work on my thesis anymore!  All joking aside, the best part of getting a doctorate is that I learned a lot about history and even more about writing.  A doctoral thesis is a big project.  It takes years of archival research.  Sometimes this work is fascinating; for instance, trial dossiers for suspects in the 1848 June Days uprising in Paris often contain large amounts of gunpowder, because having a cartridge was considered evidence of sedition.  Nothing makes history come to life like having to brush gunpowder off of witness testimony before you read it.  (On a side note, maybe I’m crazy, but storing gunpowder-filled files in an archive overflowing with extremely dry pieces of paper seems like a bad idea.)  On the other hand, historical research is often mind-numbingly dull.  I once spent an entire winter at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris, reading a thousand hand-written letters a day in the hopes of finding one or two that interested me.

All of that is to say that historical research teaches patience.  And patience is hugely important for a writer because all writing – whether a thesis, novel, play, or screenplay – takes time, and lots of it.  Starting one of these projects can be daunting.  I know plenty of people who were initially paralyzed by the scope of their thesis.  I know plenty more who want to be novelists, but who balk at the notion of writing an entire novel.  One of the most common things that people say when they learn that I am a writer is something in the nature of, “Wow, how do you do that?  I could never sit down and write a whole novel.”  I sometimes feel the same way when I start a new project.  “How,” I ask myself, “am I ever going to get through this?”  Sometimes, this question becomes so overwhelming that it’s hard to even get started.  This is what is generally known as writer’s block.

I’m sure that different authors deal with writer’s block in different ways.  I discovered my method while writing my thesis.  The secret is to remember this one fact: you’re not actually writing a thesis, or a novel, or a screenplay.  And that’s a good thing, because sitting down and writing such a big project in one sitting is impossible (or at the very least, ill-advised).  Instead, start small and set modest, achievable goals.  When I began my thesis, I didn’t sit down to write the whole thing, or even an entire chapter.  Instead, I broke each chapter into finite, two- to five page projects.  And you would be surprised what a difference this makes.  It is much, much easier to start a five-page project, which you know you can finish in a day or two, than to make yourself sit down and write a fifty-page chapter or three-hundred page thesis.

It works the same way with novels.  When I write fiction, I write one scene at a time, and scenes rarely last longer than 4 pages.  This allows me to set goals that can be completed that day, and ending the day having finished something is hugely satisfying.  It makes me feel good and eager to come back the next day to write more.  If I set goals that are too big – finishing a chapter in a day, for instance – then I inevitably fail, which makes me feel like, well, a failure.  And writing is hard enough when I’m in a good mood!

So that is the big lesson that I learned from my thesis: start small.  Write one section or one scene at a time.  Eventually, those scenes will add up!  And on that note, it’s time that I get back to work on Kingdom.  If I hurry, I can still finish a scene before supper.

What is the secret to writing a bestselling novel?  What is the formula to use to ensure that the dialogue crackles, the plot moves with pace, and readers are hooked?  There are as many answers to these questions as there are how-to books touting that they alone have the elusive formula for successful writing.  There are broad formulas: hook the reader in the first chapter with the inciting incident; introduce a complication / confict in the second chapter; etc.  There are more specific formulas.  I’ve been told that comedy happens when characters are in situations where each of them knows something the other doesn’t, and that it happens where the reader knows something the characters don’t, or that it happens when trivial circumstances impede a character’s dreams (drama being when non-trivial circumstances impede a character’s dreams).  Advice on writing great dialogue ranges from the fittingly terse—keep it short—to the fiendishly complex—make everything your characters say have both a surface meaning and a deeper meaning that reveals character or plot.  Um, really?  Everything they say?

All joking aside, the truth is that a lot of writing is formulaic.  Genres follow recognizable rules.  That said, I strongly believe in a deeper truth: there are no magic formulas. Successful writers do not spend a lot of time worrying about tricks that will make their writing good.  They are more concerned with plot, character arcs, themes, and style.  And they should be!  These are what make for good writing.  And improving your writing is all about one thing: work.  Like any craft, writing is something that you’ll get better at the more you do it.  And like any piece of craftsmanship, novels improve the more time you put into them.

Now, in my experience, most people either don’t believe this or don’t want to believe it.  They would prefer that there be some sort of short-cut, which would lead to instant success if only they could discover it.  My mother-in-law, for instance, likes to bring up (again and again) the example of Robin Cook, a writer of excellent thrillers.  She says that she once heard an interview with Cook, in which he said that before he wrote his bestselling thriller Coma, he analyzed other thrillers, figured out their formula, then simply applied it.  Bingo: instant bestseller!  Why, she asks, don’t I do that?

First off, I have no idea if Cook actually said any of this; I have a feeling that his actual position was a bit more nuanced.  But that doesn’t matter, because even if he did say it, the truth is that its adherence to formula is not what makes Coma a great book.  First off, not every thriller follows the same formula.  Accordingly, the formula that Cook (purportedly) discovered is likely his own invention.  Clearly it works for him, but the formula is not what sets Cook apart.  The basic demands of the thriller genre are not exactly a tightly-guarded secret.  Do a Google search for “how to write a thriller,” and you’ll get almost fourteen-million results.  Clearly, the “secret” to thrillers is out.  Why then have Cook’s books succeeded where so many others failed?  The answer is frustratingly simple: they are better written.  They have tighter plots, cleverer twists, more interesting characters.  And what’s the secret to all of that?  I don’t know the particulars of how Cook did it, but my guess would be lots and lots of work.

So if you want to write a great book, I advise throwing out all of the formulas.  Tthey only get in the way.  It can be hard to focus on what you should be doing—writing—while questing for the secret formula that will transform your novel into a bestseller.  But if you must have a formula then here it is: write, write, write, then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.  And if that doesn’t work, write some more!

What is historical fiction?  Is it history?  Is it fiction?  How real should it be?  An aspiring author recently wrote me to ask just these questions.  More specifically, he wanted to know two things.  First, do I research as I write, or do I research before I start the writing process?  And second, how do I deal with representing real historical figures in fiction; do I worry about putting words in their mouths that they may not (in fact probably did not) ever speak?  I’m glad he asked, as this gives me an opportunity to elaborate my (drum role please…) Theory of Historical Fiction.

First off, it is important to realize that there is no single style of historical fiction, any more than there is one type of pizza.  Some people like deep-dish, while others prefer a Mediterranean style with a thin, crispy crust, or a New York-style pizza that is best eaten folded over on itself.  A few (myself included, to my great shame) even enjoy pizza in its most capitalist form: Domino’s and Pizza Hut.  Similarly, there is literary fiction that uses an historical setting (Ismail Kadare’s The Siege, Barry Unsworth’s The Rage of the Vulture, and Iain Pears’s The Dream of Scipio are three of my favorites) and genre fiction such as historical romances, historical action adventures, historical mysteries, and historical military recreations.  And within each of these niches, the balance between history and fiction varies considerably.  The first great practitioners of the art—Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas—were not exactly slaves to historical accuracy.  Dumas couldn’t even manage to be consistent within his own rather creative version of history.  (Of course, consistency is hard to come by when you’re employing a team of writers as Dumas did.)  Lately, the balance has begun to shift towards historical accuracy, led by writers like Patrick O’Brian, who have done a wonderful job of combining great historical detail with rousing stories.  That said, the success of movies like Gladiator shows that the public still has a sizeable appetite for historical fiction that emphasizes the fiction.

None of these styles of historical fiction are inherently any better than the others.  I love Patrick O’Brian, but I also certainly feel that the world would be a poorer place without the works of Dumas, historical inaccuracies and all.  And while novels that get history wrong can be frustrating, I sometimes find novels that strive for total accuracy to be a little pedantic.  In the end, I think readers judge novels not by their accuracy, but their readability.  Novels that tell a good story are forgiven for playing fast and loose with history, or even just plain getting it wrong.  And no matter how accurate a book is, no one will care if it is not a good read.

That said, all historical fiction should adhere to one fundamental rule: know your history, and if you are going to change it, have a good reason for doing so.  It’s also helpful to accurately portray the background details—clothing, food, architecture, weapons, etc.—but as a trained historian, I am ironically less fanatical about historical accuracy than most, for two reasons.  First of all, while historical fiction can and should inform readers, its primary role is to entertain, not to instruct.  Second and more importantly, I understand that total historical accuracy is an impossible and in many ways undesirable goal.  To explain, allow me to put on my academic hat for a moment…

As Hayden White points out in his wonderful article “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,” even academic history is not immune to fiction.  The narrative tropes that historians use to write history inevitably impose themselves on the facts, distorting and coloring the reality of the past.  And even if an historian managed to somehow avoid this insoluble problem, historical reality can still never be fully recaptured.  The weather, the smells, and most importantly all that goes on between the ears of historical actors can be recreated but never with certainty (otherwise historians would be out of work!).  And this is precisely where historical fiction enters the picture: it uses fiction to fill in the myriad little details that history cannot supply.  In novels, the author can tell us that the sun glinted off the barrel of a bronze cannon, without worrying about whether the sun was shining that day.  Historians can speculate about why Brutus betrayed Caesar or why Napoleon invaded Russia, but historical fiction can go inside their heads and give us answers, albeit fictional ones.

So fiction will always be part of historical fiction, and even real people—Caesar, Napoleon, Cleopatra, Jospehine—are necessarily fictionalized when they show up in novels.  Even if every action a character takes is a faithful reflection of their actual life (or what we know of it), the character becomes fictional the moment the author gives us insight into what is going on in his or her head.  This is all the more true the further back in history we go, because the worldview of people in the past was radically different from our own.  For starters, most people never traveled more than ten miles from the place they were born.  They had no notion of the scope of the world or the existence of different cultures.  They had no real notion of historical change.  Take a look at medieval or Renaissance paintings of scenes from the Bible: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Noah, David… they are all dressed in doublets and hose.  Medieval men and women truly believed that supernatural forces were active in their lives.  And their world was composed of roles, not individuals: it was not uncommon to give five or six children the same name as their father in the hope that one of them would live to carry on his role.

Their particular beliefs are strange to us.  Until quite recently, it made perfect sense to take a child who died before baptism to the local priest and pay him to briefly resurrect the child so that he or she could be baptized, then buried.  For the sixteenth-century Italian miller Menocchio (whose strange cosmology is beautifully captured in Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms), the following explanation of the earth’s origins was self-evident: “I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos … and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time ….” To us, Menocchio sounds crazy.  He was not.  As late as 1870, the villagers of Hautefaye in France killed, tortured, burned alive, and perhaps even ate a young noble in broad daylight.  These people were not crazy either.  But they were very, very different from us.

The great fiction of historical fiction, then, is that it almost always gives its characters a mentality that is at least partially modern.  Some authors strive harder than others to recreate the mindsets of the past, but while they often succeed in relating the flavor and differentness of past mentalities, they almost never even attempt to go all-out.  And this is a good thing!  Re-creating past mentalities is perhaps the most challenging field of history, and authors of fiction are well-advised to steer clear, because if an author ever did capture the mindset of the past, they would only succeed in creating a character that modern readers could not relate to.  In his Baudolino, Umberto Eco has perhaps gone as far in this direction as any author I have read.  And unsurprisingly, Baudolino, while brilliant, is also rather difficult to read.

All historical fiction, then, contains fiction.  The question is how much, and that is up to the author.  As for myself, I do a considerable amount of research to flesh out the historical context of my stories before I start writing.  I embed my story in the chronology of the time and get to know the major historical figures that will appear in my book.  When I write, I don’t change dates without a very good reason, and I tell my readers when I do so.  I try to be as accurate as possible in relating background details of clothing, food, architecture, local customs, and even body-language; I typically do a lot of research on these things as I write.  All of that said, for me the story always comes first, and this is, I think, the major difference between historical fiction and history, where the facts come first.  I use historical fact to flesh out the story and make it feel real, but what I right is fiction.  I hope you enjoy it!

Each year approximately 100,000 English-language novels are published.  This Thursday, my first novel Siege will join their ranks, making its debut in the UK.  It is a thrill to see my book in print… such a thrill, in fact, that I’m happy to sign any book that is sent my way—I’m currently working through a pretty tall stack—simply because it means I get to hold Siege in my hands.  (Also, signed books can’t be returned to the publisher; so as my agent tells me, a signed book is a sold book.)  I’m very proud of Siege.  I can’t wait for people to read it.

And that’s just it: I want people to read it, lots of people.  As I wrote last week, just holding the book in my hands is not enough anymore.  If I want a career as a novelist, I have to sell.  The numbers here can be discouraging.  The average first novel sells around 400 copies in hardback.  5,000 copies is considered a modest success.  By comparison, a book has to sell about 4,000 copies a week to make the bestseller list.  So am I worried?  At the risk of offending the gods through my hubris… nope.  I think Siege has what it takes to sell: it’s a great story full of action, adventure, romance, and intrigue.  And my underground marketing campaign seems to be paying off.  (In stores now!  SIEGE! The last thing he wanted was a reason to live… Get your copy today!)  I made it up to number two on the most anticipated upcoming historical fiction list at amazon.co.uk.  My friends in the UK tell me that their neighborhood bookstores are carrying lots of copies.  I’m feeling optimistic, which leaves me time to ponder more important questions, such as: what will I do on Thursday to celebrate?

Such a momentous occasion seems to demand some sort of ritual to appease the literary gods, or at the very least to mark the official birth of Siege.  My wife and I have already decided that every time I sell the foreign rights to one of my books, we will dine at a restaurant that serves the cuisine corresponding to the country of sale.  So far we’ve been out to Italian, German, and Russian restaurants.  Something similar seems appropriate for Thursday, so perhaps I should carry on the dinner tradition and prepare a meal from my book.  Maybe a medieval Italian feast: a tartara of egg, cheese, and ground almonds, spiced with cinnamon and served with sweet white wine; fried sardines stuffed with marjoram, sage, rosemary, and saffron, accompanied with a sparkling Lambrusco; hare with a fennel and almond sauce and a full-bodied red from Montepulciano.  Or I could be even more adventurous and make a tasty Turkish dish like nirbach, a rich stew of diced lamb and carrots flavored with coriander, ginger, cinnamon, and pomegranate syrup.  Or perhaps I should really go all out and make one of the ridiculously complex dishes favored by the Ottoman court, like roasted duck stuffed with a chicken stuffed with partridges stuffed with bulgar.  Or maybe I should save myself all that trouble and do what Hemingway did: head to a bar and get roaring drunk.

On second thought, it’s probably bad form—not to mention bad luck—to borrow the celebratory rituals of someone who a) was one of the world’s great writers and b) committed suicide.  However, even though I do love to cook, I’m not quite sure I’m up medieval cuisine.  Stuffing sardines—or inter-stuffing ducks, chickens, and partridges—isn’t my idea of celebrating.  Pardon the pun, but it sounds like a recipe for disaster.  So perhaps I’ll celebrate by doing what I usually do on Thursdays: heading to the local coffee shop and writing.  After all, what better way to appease the literary gods than by writing?

Nah, that’s too boring.  I’m making the roasted duck-chicken-partridge.  After all, you only live once.  Hopefully I’ll still be alive after I eat it…

* * *

With the publication of Siege, my Under Siege blog is going on hiatus.  Instead, I’ll be bringing you more in depth information on Siege: travelogues for the locations in the novel; medieval recipes; more detailed background information on the janissaries; biographies of major characters like the sultan Mehmed, the emperor Constantine, and the hero of the book, Giovanni Giustiniani Longo; and history books to read for those who want to know more.  Next week, I’ll be writing about Longo’s hometown, and one of my favorite cities: Genoa.

Apologies are in order.  I have taken a nearly three week vacation from my blog: a blogation or a vaclog, if you prefer (which I do).  But I have not taken a vacation from writing, far from it.  I’ve been doing my best to fulfill every stereotype associated with writers: sitting in a log cabin in the woods of northern Michigan and working feverishly (at least for the first week… I got better) on my next novel about the Crusades: Kingdom.  Before you let your imagination run away with you, conjuring up romantic images of me at my typewriter, writing in a cabin that sits in the shade of tall white pines, a clear-blue lake sparkling in the background, you should know a few things: 1) I do not own a typewriter; 2) log cabins, while quaint, are not insulated; and 3) northern Michigan can be very, very cold in May.  This means I spend a lot of time feeding the fire and trying to ignore my dog Barley, who is constantly begging me to take him out to play.  Barley actually prefers a nice freezing rain to sunshine.  Me?  Not so much.

I realize that it is in poor form to complain about spending my days in a rustic cabin writing.  And to tell the truth, I don’t have any real grounds for complaint, because no matter how cold the cabin gets—I can sometimes see my breath—there is one truly wonderful thing about it: there are no distractions.  That is why I have come here to start each of my novels.  Beginnings are always hard.  I know this, and yet every time I start a new writing project, I forget just how hard it will be.  The first chapter always takes a couple of weeks to write, even though I always expect to dash it off in a matter of days.  Working my way into the story and immersing myself in the past takes time, and it can be frustrating.  So it’s nice to be somewhere where there is absolutely nothing else to do.  It keeps me focused.

And when I start feeling lonely—or when my feet get so cold that I start losing feeling in my toes—then I can always escape to the cozy coffee shop in the nearby town, Elk Rapids.  Elk Rapids is the sort of place that demands the use of words like “charming” and “quaint” to describe it.  Its main street—the length of a football pitch and lined with two-story brick buildings—looks much the same as it did a hundred-and-fifty years ago.  Back then, northern Michigan was crawling with Swedish immigrant lumberjacks—flannel, flapjacks, meatballs… good times—and Elk Rapids was at the heart of a lumber empire.  The big employer in town was the saw mill.  Nowadays the big draw is tourism, and the old lumber magnate’s home, which could easily be the Chase family manor from The Blind Assassin—it’s a sprawling affair set off from the rabble by a diverted stream that has transformed the hill on which it sits into an island—has become the town library.  Last year, Elk Rapids got its first coffee shop, and it is a great one: plate-glass, bay windows; a ceiling covered in stamped tin; exposed brick walls; good coffee; fantastic BLT sandwiches; and friendly service.

The people-watching is good, too.  Every morning when I arrive, four or five local farmers—hair ranging from gray to white—are already settled in, sipping at their coffee and discussing a wide range of topics: the cherry crop, the social dynamics of chickens, the variety show being put on at the town hall by the local Rotary club, or the movie currently playing at the local theater (Clash of the Titans… “Looks like a really good one”… no comment from my corner of the coffee shop).  Occasionally someone stops by my table to chat.  These conversations invariably follow one of two patterns: one typified by giddy excitement and the other by utter indifference.  Every fourth or fifth time that I tell someone in Elk Rapids that I am a novelist, there eyes light up like a little boy’s on Christmas Day.  They are clearly tired of discussing chickens and the cherry crop.  They want to discuss culture and art.  They are desperate to tell me—at length—about the novel they are writing or their acting with the local theater or their youthful experiences in Hollywood.  I can’t blame them.  I have lived in a small rural town before, and I know how hard it can be to find other literary types.  And besides, I must admit that I derive a certain satisfaction listening to people tell me how wonderful it must be to be a writer.

Most of the people I meet in Elk Rapids are not nearly so thrilled to meet a novelist.  When I tell these people that I am a writer, I can almost see the gears turning in their heads, processing the information and then depositing me in the appropriate set of mental bins: city-folk, outsider, intellectual.  The population of Elk Rapids more than doubles in the summer when people from Detroit, Chicago, and further abroad flood in to spend their days on the lakes and golf courses that blanket the area.  The locals welcome these vacationers, who are the lifeblood of the community, but they also regard them with a healthy dose of bemusement, if not disdain.  It seems like everyone I meet out here can fix their own car, do their own plumbing, and tell you how good the cherry crop will be that year.  Me?  I can pay a mechanic; I use plumbing; and I eat cherries.  I’m from a different world, one that the locals are not particularly interested in.  And perhaps they are right.  After all, they live where I am coming to vacation.  Clearly they are on to something.  And even if the locals are less than impressed by what I do, it’s still nice to see the same faces day after day.  I spend most mornings at the coffee shop, warming myself up before heading back to the cabin.

A few days ago when I got back, I found a package waiting for me.  Inside was a freshly-printed copy of my first novel Siege.  There is something nicely symmetrical, and inspiring, about receiving my first copy of my first novel while I am writing the first few chapters of my third one.  As I held the book in my hands, I thought back to only a year ago, when I had wanted nothing more than to simply hold a book that I had written.  I had thought it would be enough; that was all I needed.  But time has a way of changing things.  Just holding Siege wasn’t enough anymore.  Now I want everyone else to grab a copy, too.

But more on that next week, when I discuss selling the novel.  For now, it’s time to put Siege down and lay another log on the fire.  It’s getting cold in the cabin, and I’ve got writing to do.

Next week, I’m taking my dog and heading to northern Michigan, a chilly land of tall pine trees, cottages by the water, and tall friendly people, or as I like to think of it: Sweden II. I’ll be spending three weeks cut off from the world in a rustic cabin, feeding the stove with wood and getting started on my next novel, Kingdom. Solitude, dark woods, morning mist on the lake… it will be oh-so “writerly,” in a Hollywood sort of way.

I’m especially looking forward to the quiet, because one of my favorite places to work in DC—the second floor of the local Starbucks, a lofted space in a beautifully restored old building—has become almost unusable over the past few months… ever since the “crazy guy” arrived. I’ll call him Bob. Bob arrives at Starbucks as soon as it opens and stays until it is closed. He is there seven days a week. And to be clear, Bob is not crazy like the “wild and crazy guy” played by Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live. Bob appears to suffer from schizophrenia. Like John Forbes Nash, Jr. (the subject of A Beautiful Mind), Bob sees people who are not really there, and he carries on lengthy, very loud conversations with them. These conversations mostly consist of angry, profanity-laden attacks on the wide variety of people and institutions who have conspired to ruin his life: the government that first refused to let him kill the people he knew needed to be killed (Bob was, or believes he was, a contract killer for the CIA) and then betrayed him and left him to die in a foreign country; the companies—Microsoft and Apple most prominently—that stole his patents; the bookstores that refused to carry the book he wrote; even the Obama administration, which refuses to heed his sage advice. A sample: Bob flips open the paper and sees a story about bin Laden. His eyes widen. He shouts: “They should have killed that fucker! They should have let me kill that fucker when I had the chance.” (Waits for a response from invisible friend.) “No! I told you! I told you! I had him in the crosshairs. I could have taken bin Laden down.” (Waits for another response.) “Look, it’s all in my book. Didn’t you read the book?” If I were a character from one of my novels (all set in the Middle Ages), I would probably think that Bob was either possessed by or communicating with devilish spirits.

However, I like to think of myself as (if only slightly) more enlightened than that. I realize that Bob is suffering from a mental disorder, and I don’t want to make him seem like a bad guy. He’s actually rather congenial when he’s not talking to invisible people. And he’s smart. In his rants he displays an impressive knowledge of politics, world events, and business. That said, he is more than a little distracting. All his talk of murders and conspiracies can make it hard to focus on the murders and conspiracies I’m trying to write about in my novels.

So I’ve been faced with something of a moral dilemma. On the one hand, every time I go to Starbucks—which is less and less often of late—I sincerely hope that Bob will not be there, that he will have found some other place to haunt. On the other hand, I can’t bring myself to complain about Bob to the management. After all, he needs the Starbucks a lot more than I do. There are other coffee shops where I can write, but how many places welcome a schizophrenic guy who carries on a non-stop, profanity-laced dialogue with an invisible friend? I’m just glad that Bob found a welcoming place where he can get out of the weather and get some coffee. On the rare occasions when he stops talking and curls up into a chair to sleep, Bob looks downright happy. I wouldn’t want to take that away from him.

And so I’m off to Michigan, to fulfill another stereotype by writing in a lakeside cabin in the woods. I know it’s trite, but what can I say? It’s a good place to write. And the only crazy person I have to deal with there is me.

Next week: Californication (on what it’s really like to be a novelist)

When I tell people I’m a novelist (which even now, I still feel a bit odd/gleeful doing), their reply often goes something like: “Cool.  I’ve always wanted to write a book.”  Indeed, I have a suspicion that just about everybody who has ever read and enjoyed a novel has thought about someday writing one.  Here in the States, it’s part of the American dream: right up there with owning a house, winning the lottery, and becoming a Hollywood star.  I know that I dreamt of writing a novel long before I actually did so.  And while I was writing it, I couldn’t help but think how unbelievable it would be to someday hold the published version in my hands.

Well, it turns out that I should have been thinking about other things.  Writing a novel is all well and good, but if you want to be a novelist, then you will have to write more than one (writers like Harper Lee, notwithstanding).  If you even want to get your first book published, then it will help immensely to have a second book up your sleeve.  Agents and publishers are always looking for the next great book, but even more so, they are looking for the next great career.

So while writing your first novel, be thinking about your second.  In fact, you should have a good idea of what you are going to write next before you start writing your first novel.  Why?  Because whatever you write first will influence what you write second.  As a beginning writer, you will need to carve out a niche by writing several books in the same genre and style.  This is how you build an audience.  Better yet, you can write a series—the most effective way to get readers hooked on your writing.

This means that you need to have thought about your career before you even write your first line of your first book.  Let’s say you have two great ideas: an historical fiction novel about the fall of Constantinople and a dystopian sci-fi mindbender set two-hundred years in the future (to pick two not-so-random examples).  Well, these are not going to be your first and second novels.  If you write the historical fiction novel, then you’ll be putting your sci-fi epic on hold—probably for several years—while you write more historical fiction.  And vice-versa.  And if you are choosing between a great stand-alone story and a series, then you should know that it will be easier to find a publisher and sell books if you go with the series.  All that said, the most important thing is that you be passionate about what you’re writing.  Still, it never hurts to plan ahead.  So don’t just pick the story you most want to tell.  Pick the genre you most want to write in.  And pick the story that is easiest to sell.

I was lucky in this regard.  I have more book ideas—from all genres—than I will ever have time to write, but I’m happy to have started in my favorite subsection of my favorite genre: mediaeval historical fiction.  I love writing these books.  But I have to admit that it was luck more than planning that got me here.  I just as easily could have started with that futuristic dystopian epic and landed in the world of sci-fi.  And while there is nothing wrong with sci-fi… I’m still very glad this didn’t happen, if only because while I have dozens of book ideas for historical fiction, I have exactly two for sci-fi.  I’ll write those two books someday, but that day likely won’t come for many years now.  And I’m fine with that.  But just know that when you sit down to write your first book, this is the sort of choice you are making.  You’re not just selecting a story; you’re selecting a genre and a tone.  So plan ahead, and make sure you pick the right one!

Yesterday, as I was heading to the coffee shop to do some writing, I passed a woman walking a golden lab.  When they reached the street corner, the woman asked her dog to sit, and when he did, she gave him a pat.  “Good boy, Zoloft!”  I couldn’t help but smile.  A dog named for an anti-depressant… brilliant!  After all, what better way to brighten your day than with a canine thereapy?

Last week left me feeling like I needed a little Zoloft—preferably of the canine, not the chemical variety.  (Unfortunately, my dog Barley is not nearly so nice a walker as Zoloft.  Barley thinks it is imperative that he chase—or strain mightily against leash in an attempt to chase—every squirrel that he sees.)  I was planning to write about sequels for last week’s blog.  I wanted to discuss the importance of planning ahead, of thinking of what comes next even before you finish your first novel.  However, before I got around to writing my blog, events intervened to change its course.  Ironically, it all happened because I failed to plan ahead…

The Thursday before last was a beautiful day here in DC.  The sky was clear, the weather warm, and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.  I woke up early and strolled over to my favorite coffee shop, Peregrine.  I got a delicious latté and sat down, ready to put in a great day’s work.  I pulled out my computer, plugged it in, and hit the start button.  The computer turned on, began to hum, and then… nothing.  The screen was black.

My chest tightened.  A knot formed in my stomach.  I took a deep breath and fought down rising panic.  I turned my computer off, then on again.  Still only a blank screen.  In normal circumstance, this is the point when I would have started cursing.  But I like Peregrine and wanted to come back, so I held my tongue.  I took a sip of coffee and forced myself to breathe.  I found myself wondering: when was the last time that I had backed up my files?  Two weeks ago?  Two months ago?  I had written hundreds of pages of notes and two chapters of the history book I’m working on since then.  I took a deep breath and tried turning on my computer one more time.  No dice.  This is when it would have been nice to have Zoloft (the dog) around.

I was facing a disaster of truly epic proportions.  (Well, not really, but that’s how it felt at the time.)  I’m not very sentimental about possessions.  Every time I move, I throw out most of what I own.  But my computer is different.  I spend most of my day with it.  My entire career is on it: notes on hundreds of books; outlines of dozens of stories; drafts of books.  Last month, the fire alarm went off in my building.  I took three things: my wallet, my passport… and my laptop.

I—like most people, it seems—have become ridiculously dependent on my computer.  I use it to find out how to get where I’m going, to keep in touch with my friends, to get my work done, to organize my pictures and music, to keep my schedule, to order everything from books to furniture to food.  I don’t have a television, so I even watch all my movies on my computer.  All in all, I spend a rather disturbing amount of time with it.

So last week was nice in a way, because I was forced to take a break from my computer.  It was very old-school.  I looked up movie times in the newspaper.  I consulted a map.  I even wrote with pen and paper!  And luckily, all was not lost.  I was able to recover the files off my computer.  I installed a new hard drive and voilà, my computer was a good as new.  Actually, it worked a little better than new.  A crisis was averted, and I was left with a new determination to break the chains that tied me to my computer (after I finish this blog, of course) and also to start backing up my files more regularly.  Because if I can’t have Zoloft, then I had better have backup.

Next week, I’ll get to Sequels (on planning ahead).  Until then, I encourage you all to step away from your computer for a moment… but only after you back up your files!

A quote from my guestbook:  Very exciting period in history. I know you will be a successful [writer] and perhaps compete with Dostoevsky my favorite writer.

First of all, I very much appreciate the sentiment!  More to the point for this blog entry, I’m glad that someone mentioned the connection between me and Dostoevsky, because it was bound to come up eventually.  The similarities are too obvious to miss.  Dostoevsky was Russian; I mention the czar in the epilogue to Siege.  Alyosha, the main character of the classic novel The Brothers Karamazov is an Orthodox priest; one of the main characters of Siege is an Orthodox priest.  In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker; in Siege, many, many people are murdered.  Dostoevsky was one of the founders of psychological realism; I am real.

Well, maybe we don’t have that much in common.  But there is one thing that I love about Dostoevsky, and which I strive to emulate in my own work: he is a great example of how even popular literature can address big questions.  Because make no mistake, Dostoevsky was popular in his day.  He wasn’t writing in an effort to plumb the depths of the human soul (or at least not primarily).  He was writing to make money.  Dostoevsky was a gambling addict who was often desperate for cash.  It is said that he dashed off Crime and Punishment in a frantic hurry after a particularly long losing streak left him penniless.

It often seems like genre fiction is the place where big ideas come to die.  Authors get so caught up in telling a good story that they forget that part of what can make a story good is that it gets people thinking.  Dostoevsky never lost sight of this.  In all his books, he struggles with important questions of morality.  While serving out a sentence in a Siberian labor camp, he had a conversion experience and remained a devout Orthodox Christian from that point.  But his faith was troubled by questions being raised at the time in Western philosophy.  Namely: if God exists and is just, then why must the innocent suffer?  Or, the inverse, if God does not exist, then is everything permitted?  Or at the very least, is it permitted to do wrong in the service of a greater good?  These are big questions, which Dostoevsky tackles most directly in The Brothers Karamazov.  One of the eponymous brothers, Ivan Karamazov complains that he cannot understand a God who allows children to die bloody deaths (an aside: Dostoevsky collected newspaper clipping of atrocities involving children) or why we must wait until the afterlife for justice.  Faced with the seeming contradiction of good people suffering, Ivan rejects God and declares that “everything is lawful.”  In Doestoevsky’s work, the failure of Ivan’s creed is shown though the failure of his life.  Still, perhaps the most frequently cited idea from this, Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, is the concept that if there is no God, “everything is lawful.”

I am fascinated with the questions Dostoevsky raises, which is one of the reasons that I too love his books.  And while my books aim to be rollicking adventures, not gripping portraits of psychological reality, I still think it is important to deal with big questions.  In particular, Siege, and even more so the Saladin Chronicles, address one of the same questions that bothered Dostoevsky: is it right to do wrong in the service of a greater good?  Or, to put it more precisely in the context of my books: is it worth sacrificing one’s honor to achieve greatness, or is greatness achieved precisely through adhering to one’s honor?

Now, don’t run and hide just because I’ve admitted that my books address a larger theme.  They are still fun to read!  In fact, I think they are more fun to read precisely because they grapple with questions larger than who is going to kill who.  I’ll go a step further and say that dealing with these sorts of questions is precisely what separates good from run-of-the-mill genre fiction.  All writers can’t be Russian gambling addicts obsessed with atrocities involving children (what a shame…), but we could all use a little Dostoevsky in our writing.

Next time: Sequels (on the importance of thinking ahead)

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Siege

"The greatest battle the world has ever known is about to begin!"

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