The Book Engine

Last week, I finished the first draft of the new novel I’ve been working on since November. Writing a book tends to be an obsessive process for me. Once the story begins to drive itself, at that wonderful locking-into-gear point somewhere in the first thirty pages or so, I don’t want to do much of anything but stay at my computer every day for as long as the words will flow.

With my earlier books, I’ve finished a first draft in three months, give or take. This time, Nicky True (working title) took over half a year. I’m relieved to reach “The End”…but…

When I’m not working, I tend to get mean (as I call it). On an earlier incarnation of this blog, I talked about challenges I’ve had with anxiety and depression; I might revisit those topics over the next few months, as I know many of us have similar challenges. I’m at my best when I’m writing, because the characters and stories fill my head and help muffle the constant doubts. Between projects, it gets a little too quiet, and the internal critic comes through loud and clear.

This is Alafair. She lets me share “her” chair when I’m writing.

Today I got up thinking about Fourteen Stones and all the wonderful joys and stressors of an upcoming book launch. As I think many many writers do, I started to feel scared. The “what ifs” line up in a parade: What if no one likes it? What if it’s too long? What if it’s not long enough? What if nobody gets it? What if, what if… All those things that we as writers have no control over, as we take this product of our imaginations, which by now is also woven tightly into our hearts, and put it in a canoe and send it out on the river to ride the current.

I think it’s especially tricky for introverts – which again, is a lot of writers, or we wouldn’t be so comfortable hanging out for hours at a time with no company but our characters – and for those of us who never were “cool kids.” As a young teenager, I was the uncool poster child. Thirty years later, I still struggle with the idea that the things that fascinate me might interest anyone else.

For me, writing a book is always about love. I have to love the characters, able to see them as whole humans with strengths and flaws and delights and secrets, and I have to want to spend countless hours in their company, letting them tell me their stories. When I’m working, I feel a surge of excitement in the morning, knowing I’m going to sit at my desk that day and see where the ribbons of story will lead. Sometimes I feel a joy so bright it can, at least for a while, shrink all the ordinary obstacles and annoyances of life down to dust-mote-size. Of course, there’s also plenty of frustration, discouragement, writer’s block, and confusion. But at its core, for me, writing a book is about the love of the process.

My books themselves also tend to be about love, one way or another. Not necessarily “love stories,” but stories in which characters have deep loves of their own, for the work they do, for the place they call home, and yes, for one another. At the end of the day, my stories tend to be about how those loves shape people and their actions. To Love A Stranger was like that; Fourteen Stones is too, though in a different way. As I think about it, love seems like a pretty solid basis for a story.

This is Fergus. He signs off on edits.

When my critic starts filling my head with chaos, it can help me to remember why I got into a project in the first place: where that driving love came from. Even if I’m not sure about the words themselves, or if I’m nervous about how they might strike anyone else, the engine behind the work has a song of its own that can quiet the other noise.

As always, thank you for visiting the blog. If you’d like to stay updated with book news, writerly thoughts, and other meditations, please consider subscribing. See you next time!

Welcome to Namora

Where’s Namora?

Right now, mostly inside my head. But when my book Fourteen Stones comes out this fall, I hope you’ll pay my favorite little country a visit. It’s a beautiful place.

San Andres de Teixido, Galicia, Spain: part of the real-world setting that inspired Namora.

Fourteen Stones got its start in the summer of 2015, when my husband and I visited the northwestern corner of Spain, traveling in the regions of Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria. It was my first time on the other side of the Atlantic. Our adventures there, the beautiful places we explored, and above all the incredible sense of history we encountered, inspired me to try writing fantasy. A very rough draft of a novel (then called From the Circle House) came out of that summer. Over the next few years, that project gradually evolved into Fourteen Stones.

While writing, I spent many, many hours in Namora, which I created using the memories of what we’d seen in Spain.

My rough map of Namora: it’s lived on my desk for a few years now.

Fourteen Stones mainly stays in Namora’s eastern region, starting at about the midway point of the mountain range that separates it from its huge neighbor Lassar, and moving north to its coast. For all the time I’ve spent there, getting acquainted with that corner of it, there’s still a lot of the country that I haven’t explored. It’s fun to know it has much more territory to discover.

I’d like to tell you a little about my fictional country, starting with the capital city Sostavi, on the northern coast. Sostavi is an ancient place. Some Namorans believe that their goddess, Kenavi, lived there when she was a mortal woman. In those times, it would have been nothing more than a village, a huddle of small stone houses behind a guarding wall.

The Castros da Barogna, an Iron Age village north of Noia, in Galicia, Spain. This area inspired “ancient Sostavi.”

Modern-day Sostavi, which you can visit in Fourteen Stones, has changed a lot from its origins:

In Namora’s capital city, Sostavi, the Great Circle House rose above the clusters of white-walled buildings that clung like crystals to the high hills. Down below, the deep turquoise of the Vandeni Ocean met the shallower, silver-blue water of the harbor. The summer would see fleets of fishing boats leaving the harbor before dawn to come back in the evening riding low in the water, weighed down with their rich burdens.” – excerpt from Fourteen Stones

In future posts, I’ll share more about Sostavi, its “origin story,” and the real-life city that helped me sketch it. (That city is Cudillero, on Spain’s northern coast, in the Asturias region.) For now, to close today’s post, I’ll tell you a bit about my favorite place in Namora: Lida village, in Kalnu region, right up against the Senai Mountains that form the Namora-Lassar border.

A view of the terrain near Covadonga Lakes, Asturias, Spain. This area helped me picture the foothills of the Senai Mountains.

Lida is a farming village, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. The calendar year centers on two things: the major observances in honor of the goddess Kenavi, and the planting and harvesting months at the crux of the farming life. Here’s a snapshot of Lida in Derla, the harvest month:

“Lida’s craftspeople and tavern-keepers had their businesses clustered around the village square. Five roads, lined with wooden houses roofed with tiles of gray-blue Namoran clay, came out from the square like the spokes of a wheel. Banks of mint took over the sides of the road beyond the village, and the gravel gave way to dirt track through open fields. […]

The scent of the late-growing mint blended with the dry earthiness of fallen leaves and the cool clear taste you only found in the mountains. Past the outskirts of the village, birds sang and rustled in the tall grass, late insects chattered, and to the east, the gray peaks of the Senai reached up toward the cloudless sky. – excerpt from Fourteen Stones

Lida is also the hometown of my favorite character, a priest named Ribas Silvaikas. I’ll introduce him in a future post.

Meanwhile, I’ll close with a picture of the kind of view you might see from the little farming village:

The River Deva, near Sotres village in Asturias, Spain. The mountains here, the Picos de Europa, are the real-world version of the Senai.

If you’d like to see more posts about my fictional world, its people, and its real-world inspirations, please consider subscribing to the blog. Thanks for visiting!

Piano Thoughts

I’m no expert at blogging (as folks who’ve been following this blog know!). Getting back into the swing of it, I’m following random thoughts that might turn into a post…

Tomorrow I have a performance with the piano trio I joined right before Covid started. In the winter of 2019 (feels like a very long time ago, doesn’t it?), I was dealing with some personal challenges and had decided the best way to keep moving forward was to stay busy. Two friends of mine, a violinist and a cellist, wanted to form a group and perform together. In “saying yes to all the things” mode, I jumped in.

Balancing writing and music can be tricky. When I’m working on a big writing project, like a novel, I often don’t want to do anything but stay at my computer for as long as the words keep coming. Then, when the project ends, I can go for stretches without writing anything. Music needs a much more consistent approach. If I don’t play for a while, my fingers don’t cooperate and I have to build up strength and precision all over again. (Middle age is also a factor there…)

Our trio was ready to start performing in the spring of 2020. We had concerts lined up, and then Covid hit, and it all went away. Suddenly there was no music anywhere.

Like so many of us, I did some professional pivoting. The piano lessons I’d taught pre-Covid had stopped too, but I started teaching writing online, and found out that as much as I love my classroom, Zoom was kind of cool. In the spring of 2020, I gave Fourteen Stones a big overhaul, a joyful process that helped me stay sane. Through the next two years, I swung pretty much 100% over to my writer side.

When things started to open up again last summer, and the trio wanted to get back together, I hesitated a LOT. I didn’t feel “like a pianist” anymore, and I wasn’t sure I could give enough, mentally or physically, to make the music what it deserved to be. But we started playing again, and pretty soon we’d booked a few concerts. Our first one was at the end of March. The concert tomorrow will be our third.

It’s been a challenge. Going into the first concert, I didn’t remember how to get my brain into “performance mode.” For me, a good performance has always involved getting into a specific zone, mentally and physically, where I can get past chronic anxiety and focus on what the music needs and how to bring it to life. That first performance, I fell way short. From the first note to the last, it was a fight just to keep going. I came out of it feeling like I wasn’t a pianist anymore and shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

The second concert was a week later (good thing – if it hadn’t been so soon afterward, I might have faked a sprained wrist to get out of it). Luckily, it went a little more smoothly. I started to think maybe, possibly, the old skills were still there, pretty dusty but waiting to swing into action with the right push.

Yesterday the trio met to rehearse, and a cool thing happened: playing was actually fun. The pieces we’re doing, Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio (Op. 70) and Mendelssohn’s Trio in D Minor (Op. 49), are tough. The Mendelssohn, especially, has far too many notes, in this struggling musician’s opinion. Yesterday, though, I remembered why it can be fun to have a big, juicy, demanding piano part you can sink into, where you make the instrument sing and roar, and you share the ride and energy with your musical partners. I don’t know if it’ll feel the same tomorrow, but as I told my husband this morning, it would be so great if one performance could also be really, really fun. It can happen. Fingers crossed.

After the past two years, I think we’re all still figuring out how to deal with everything we went through. It doesn’t help that Covid is still such a presence, and we get a taste of normalcy and then take a step or two backwards again. I’m not sure what my new professional balance looks like, how much of a focus music will be now, whether I’m “still a pianist” just for these concerts or for some kind of longer run. For right now, the music is pretty amazing, and I’d like to enjoy the ride of playing it.

To give you a taste of Mendelssohn’s Trio in D Minor, which my friends and I will be playing tomorrow, here’s a video of the brilliant Zukerman Trio performing the first movement of it. This pianist gets far more of the notes than I do, but sometime I might post a video of our trio playing it too, just because. It’s an amazing piece.

Hope you enjoyed the listen! If you can spare some good energy for me and my friends tomorrow, it would be much appreciated. 🙂 Thanks for visiting the blog!

The Templeton Trio: me on the left, with violinist Robert Sorel and cellist Terry Shirley-Quirk.

The Templeton Trio’s namesake. He’s a softie.

New in 2022!

Relaunching the blog after a very long time. Hope everyone is hanging in and staying safe and well!

My second novel, Fourteen Stones, is forthcoming this fall from The Patchwork Raven, a brilliant indie press in New Zealand. I’m thrilled that this book will be out in the world; it was a project of love that got started in the summer of 2015, when my husband and I went to Spain, and our adventures inspired me to write fantasy for the first time. Here on the blog, I’ll share a little about the story and my process writing it, my inspirations for it, and the characters and the world they live in. It’s still pretty surreal to me that this beloved project is going to be a real thing, alive in the world. I can’t wait to share it with you.

Also on the blog, I’ll share other writerly/readerly stuff, and some musical stuff, and – crucially – cat pictures. Some of you know I’m mom (staff?) to three cats, who pretty much run the house, and of whom I take far too many pictures:

This is Fergus. He sits…even if he doesn’t exactly fits.
Philosopher pose.

I’ll close today’s “preview of coming attractions” with a short musical selection for your Tuesday afternoon. This is a recording I made of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G Major, Op. 126. Beethoven is one of my favorite composers, for many reasons I’m likely to write about in future posts, and this miniature piece (about two minutes long) is a delight to play.

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