Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Painful History: Part II

A while back I blogged about how painful research is for me. But recently I stumbled onto a few novels (and an autobiography in diary form) based in Oxford and the Bodleian, and scouring them for relevant details will be far from painful. At first, after finding Hazel Holt's The Cruellest Month, I hesitated reading it, not wanting to be influenced by a previously published work. But knowing I would be learning much about the library and the time period in which the novel takes place, I dove in.

As it turns out, a character in Hazel Holt's novel dies in the Bodleian in a very similar way that one of my characters does. (After all, how many ways can a person die in the midst of stuffed bookstacks?) But it wasn't the method of death I gleaned from the book, it was the details of the underground passages, lifts, stairwells and rooms as the characters maneuvered through the library.

Another book I picked up this week is A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, by Barbara Pym (edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym). The first part of the book takes place during Ms. Pym's time in Oxford (1932-1939). There are many scenes of her reading in the Bodleian and eyeing her longtime crush, Henry Harvey. I'm learning about the clothing they wore, punting on the Cherwell and sherry parties. There is even a quote which echoes a scene in my novel: "Wouldn't it be marvellous if you could give all your love letters to the Bodleian and then go and read them 30 years later!" Serendipity!

Reading through the diary over the weekend, my heart raced as I stumbled onto this entry, (which most fantasy writers--heck, most writers--will get a kick out of):

"10 October, 1933. An amusing lecture in the morning - Professor Tolkien on Beowulf." When I stayed at Exeter College, I was thrilled to learn that Tolkien's rooms were in the building next to mine. But reading Ms. Pym's words brought him back to life.

She also refers to the Bodleian as The Bodleiana. I've not heard this reference, but this might be the title I've been looking for.

I am anxiously waiting for the UPS truck to deliver the other Oxford-based novels I've ordered from Barnes & Noble:
Operation Pax, Michael Innes--The end scene takes place in the Bodleian stacks.
Jill, Philip Larkin
Death at the President's Lodging, J.I.M. Stewart

Lucky me! Pain has never been more fun.

Note to the editors: I've left the double "l" in Cruellest and marvellous to accurately depict the correct title of the book and the English spelling.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Big Top

My perfect day: Write, read, spend time with my family, sleep. Oh, and if I can break away from the computer long enough, exercise. Mine is a job with many perks and, aside from the teeny-tiny detail of not getting paid for my work, it’s a dream career.

My actual day: Catch up on email, write, research, email, read, blog, shuffle paperwork, eat, email, exercise, carpool, read, cook (I use this term loosely!), avoid the laundry, check the mailbox, stare at the phone waiting for an agent to call (not really), hang out with my family, write, read, email; a real circus.

Like many writers, I love to read. It’s part of my job requirement; part of continuing to learn. I study books on the craft of writing and the how-to of getting published or agent-ed. But mostly, I read fiction—literary, women’s, sometimes mystery. I’m supposed to read in every genre to broaden my skill set, but time is so limited, I tend to read what I enjoy. I make exceptions for audio, because this is how I tackle those books either too cumbersome or dry to read the traditional way—primarily classics I never read in high school or college, and most British fiction (or any U.K. fiction for that matter), not because it’s cumbersome, but because I adore listening to the stories in the accents in which they are written.

I don’t know how to classify the last book I listened to: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. Is it literary fiction? Possibly. Mainstream fiction? (In my opinion, a catch-all genre). Whatever it is, the book was published in 2006 but just hit my radar screen when one of my critique partners lent me the CDs. As I got deeper into the novel, I couldn’t wait to jump in the car to keep listening. Tollway, yes!

I’m not a skilled book reviewer, (the reviews on Amazon are fantastic and outline why it’s an amazing story), but in my opinion, from a writer’s perspective, the novel is brilliant. Every word, every scene, every character has a purpose. It has one of the most satisfying, perfectly crafted endings I’ve read and I never saw it coming. After I finished, my only comment was, “Of course.”

I will now buy the book to study each page. Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) was shouting in my ear as I read, “Keep throwing your characters in bad situations.” Over and over he said, “You might think it can’t get any worse than this. But it can.”

In Water for Elephants, the characters were all faced with tremendous conflict, and we cared about them, from page 1. Extenuating circumstances always stood in Jacob’s way when he was about to get the one thing he wanted so much. He couldn’t go for it, because someone close to him would be hurt. Over and over, he was pushed into terrible situations. He couldn’t act on understandable revenge, until a very cruel thing, masterfully set up earlier in the book, happened. And then, revenge was taken care of for him in a most unlikely, yet completely satisfying, way. Not since reading the Poisonwood Bible have I felt this strongly about the way a novel was written and crafted. A slight warning: it was gritty and crude and sometimes portrayed animals in heartbreaking situations, but it all had to be there. Tension on every page (hell, in every paragraph). And not a contrived word in the book. Impressive.

This novel was over the top in a good way—over the Big Top.