In which Meredith interrogates Sherry on craft

Meredith: Look at any forum devoted to writing and you’ll find a few topics dedicated to the “standard questions” that writers get asked: Where do you get your ideas? How do you find the time?  How do you figure out what happens next?  How do you manage to actually finish a story?

These questions may be standard, but the answers are anything but.  Every writer seems to have a slightly (or drastically) different way of working.

Some of the methods I’ve come across make me white with terror.  For example, covering my entire living room wall with color-coded 8×6 Post It notes. Or outlining.  Others turn me green with jealousy (ahem: the Shitty First Draft).  All of them fascinate me. There may, in fact, be something a bit neurotic about the avidity with which I read explanations of methods that I know won’t work for me.  It reminds me of that phase in eighth grade when my friends and I used to get together to bake brownies, drink milkshakes, and watch exercise videos.

Anyway, there’s a specific reason that craft — and in particular, craftly excellence — is on my mind.  I’ve just reread Sherry’s new release, Not Quite a HusbandNQAH effortlessly blends superb prose, incredibly nuanced characterization,  sizzling chemistry, very hot sex, and other manner of high drama (rebellions! potentially fatal illnesses! death-defying treks! many whizzing bullets!) into a moving, dare I say epic romance that traverses a not-so-familiar but altogether fascinating part of the world.  It’s a tour de force, and since I share a blog with her, I get to ask how she does it.  Sherry, brace yourself for interrogation!

(Sherry: When I first joined RWA–after finishing the first draft of PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS–and heard people mention the RWA craft-loop, I used to think it was women more dexterous than me talking about their macramé.  That should tell you how much I know about craft.  So read at your own peril!)

Sherry, I understand that the idea for NQAH was sparked by a viewing of The Painted Veil.  How do you proceed once you’ve got the seedling of an idea?  Do you outline, do you daydream, or do you simply begin to write?

I am an epic fail as an outliner.   For doubters I submit the initial outline for DELICIOUS.  You need to break out a microscope find any similarity between that and the final book.

I do daydream.  And certain scenes of intense conflict play in my head.  I think that is one of the best things about the crafting of a story, daydreaming.  You see all the sparkling bits.  Everything works perfectly and seemlessly in theory.  And you conjure all these exciting scenerios.

And then you have to write it.

Many years ago, some friends of mine told me a joke about a first-generation translation software.  During the testing stage, the software performed satisfactorily in translating words and simple phrases.  Then someone got the bright idea to see how well it did with idiomatic expressions.  So in went the proverb “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

And out the other end came “The wine is good, but the meat has spoiled.”

I often feel like that when I put pen to paper.  My beautiful idea, it translates into spoiled meat.

Are you a fan of the “shitty first draft” approach — i.e., do you write without editing — or do you pause to polish as you go?

I used to sneer at the shitty first draft.  I edit and I polish and I spit shine.  And yet somehow I have always, without fail, ended up with an elegantly shitty first draft that makes my editor throw my contract onto a bonfire and drunk-shag her gay best friend.

Lately I have been reconsidering joining the shitty first draft club.

What does your writing schedule look like?  Do you write every day?  Do you have an actual schedule?  Do you write for long stretches, or in short, intense bouts?

When it’s not publicity season, I do write just about every day.  But I am terrible at time usage.  I write fifty words and I go visit a gossip blog.  Come back write another fifty words and check my mail.  Maybe another fifty words and then I’ll look at a romance review site to see what people are talking about.  (But that’s the great thing about writing: Once I have smoothed everything out, nobody knows it was written fifty words at a time. )

When the kids are in school, I work from 8 to 2:30.  When the kids aren’t around, I love to goof all morning (8 to 2:30, ha!) and then write till about ten in the evening.  (One of my sorely regretted shortcoming is that I can neither wake up early nor stay up late.)

If you could change one thing about your writing process, what would it be?  Also, how has your process changed since you wrote Private Arrangements?

I would love to stop writing when I don’t know what to do.  Just stop, and do something else until I have it figured out.  I was able to do that with PA in everyway: five years between first draft and second to learn what I need about writing, then stop and start as necessary.

What’s changed, obviously, is the arrival of the deadline.  It was worst with DELICIOUS, during most of the writing of which I was in grad school at the same time.  My first draft was pure filler, just me putting down words to get to “The End.”  And roundly rejected as such by my wise and strict editor.

I am still learning how to pinpoint in advance where my story is likely to go off-track.  It’s always hard to judge your own writing, it’s even harder judging it on a schedule.  The temptation is always there to just keep writing, instead of recognizing you might have to rework large chunks.

Do your characters ever “surprise” you?  Do you ever experience moments of serendipity when re-reading a draft — that is, do you discover things about the characters from re-reading sentences that you yourself wrote?  If so, what surprised you about Bryony and/or Leo as the story developed?

My gentlemen always surprise me.  Because I go into a book with the heroine much more fully envisioned than the hero, part of my journey is then to figure out who is this man who loves this rather spectacular yet also rather spectacularly troublesome/difficult/maddening woman.  I don’t know if I get inspired while re-reading.  It’s more likely to happen when I’m just thinking about the story, or when I’m actually in the middle of writing it.

For example, in PA, Camden, until I reached the chapter set in Copenhagen, was more an obstacle in Gigi’s way than anything else.  Copenhagen was when I realized his loss–and I went back and revised their interaction up to that point to reflect that.  In DELICIOUS, only in the third draft did I understand what manner of man Stuart was.  His sense of honor drove the story from that point on.

In NQAH, I wasn’t really completely sure of Leo until the scene with the microscope.  (Potential spoiler: On the day Bryony decided to speak to him about an annulment, he brought home a present for her, even though their marriage had been equally terrible for him.)  That spoke of his strength of character and his capacity for love.  That was the foundation of their future.

Imagine that you’re asked to guest lecture in a class on writing the novel.  The students write in various genres.  What aspect of craft would you choose to speak about, and why?

Conflict and conflict resolution. We are storytellers–or at least we should be.  As long as there is strong conflict and an equally strong resolution, we can have a good story.

There is an Austen-like quality to the openings of your three published novels, in which a wry, nameless voice comments sagely on the events about to unfold.  It’s charming and incredibly effective, as is the way you transition very skillfully into deep POV.  But what I’m curious about are your thoughts, as both a reader and a writer, on the first-person point of view.  Very few romance novelists have used first-person POV with success.  Do you think there’s something inherent to the genre — or perhaps specifically to historicals — which makes third-person POV more effective than first-person?

The biggest romance of our time has been written in first-person POV.  Yes, Twilight.  So there definitely has been phenomenal successes.  And when the generation of girls who grow up with Twilight move onto romance, I hardly think they will have much problem with first-person POV.

I myself am completely neutral.  When I saw that there are a lot of readers who don’t care for first-person POV, I was really surprised.  To me it’s like writing on paper versus writing on a laptop.  It’s just a way to write a story, a means to an end, not the end itself.

My own contemporary romance–completely a romance, with nothing remotely women’s fiction or chick lit about it–is in first person POV.  The beginning of the story had its origin in a quickie writing contest at Dionne Galace’s blog a while ago.  And it just so happened that I banged out those 200 words in first-person POV.

At various point, I’d considered whether to switch to third person.  Or whether to add to the narrative with scenes written from the hero’s POV, either first- or third-person.  But the more I write exclusively in the heroine’s first-person POV, the more I like it.  When a romance is written in the heroine’s  first-person POV, you experience the hero much more vividly and directly.   He is more mysterious and interesting and sexy, because you don’t get to know his secrets and his innermost thoughts except as they are revealed to the heroine.   I don’t ever fall in love with my heroes but I’m looking at this one with starry eyes.   Starry, starry eyes…

::wipes drool off keyboard; resumes professional demeanor::

As for why 3rd-person POV is almost universally deployed in historical romance, I think it is a reflection of the importance of the hero’s character development.  Thanks to the First Golden Age of Historical Romance writers, the hero’s arc is a huge part of historical romance.  And you cannot capture his journey properly from the heroine’s first-person POV.  You have to show it from his POV.

But, for instance, the secondary romance in Delicious was written entirely from the heroine’s POV.  That particular story could easily have been turned into a first-person POV narration, because the journey is largely hers.

So my 2-cents conclusion, when the H/H both have significant story arcs, you need to have both of their POVs.  When he doesn’t need so much of changing and growing up and whatnot, then heroine first-person POV should work just fine.

Writers of historical romance have to walk a tricky line between historical accuracy and effective communication with a contemporary audience.  Readers — and writers — want to be able to sympathize with their heroines and heroes, so writers have to wrestle with, and sometimes defy, certain historical probabilities (for example, the prevalence, in other time periods, of certain beliefs about class, race, and religion to which we no longer subscribe).  Diction also stymies me quite often.  (Example: the verb “stymie,” which I adore, wasn’t used to mean “to impede, obstruct, or thwart” until 1902.  Grr!)

How do you negotiate these often-conflicting demands?  Or do you even see them as conflictual?  To put it another way, how do you articulate the distinction between historical fiction and historical romance?  What limitations — and possibilities — do you see within the genre with regard to critically exploring the less savory aspects of times gone by?

The limitations–and possibilities–within the genre with regard to critically exploring the less savory aspects of times gone by is, er, determined by what I can stomach?  And the distinction between historical fiction and historical romance is that I rarely read the former because their endings tend to suck?

LOL, seriously, Meredith, you cannot have asked this question to a person who has thought less of these things.   But just for you, I’m going to scrape together the few thoughts I’d had over the years.

As for critically exploring the less savory aspects of the past, my guide is PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.  What does it explore?  Nothing.  Do I love it?  I do.  And I also look at the present.  If I were to set a story in the present–and I have, my almost finished contemporary romance–would I be exploring the dark underbelly of American life?  Nope.  Am I aware of the dark underbelly of American life?  Yes, I’m a pretty avid consumer of news and investigative reporting.  Do I want to read about it in fiction?  Not at all.  And if I don’t want to read about it, why would I want to write about it?

But I think I answered a different question than you asked.  I think the darkness of history–history, period–holds more of a fascination for you than it does for me.    Then you can only use your own limitations as a test.  How much grittiness, pain, and inhumanity can you put into a romance before an optimistic new beginning is no longer possible for you to imagine for your characters?  Write to that limit if you would like to challenge yourself as a writer.  Half that if you want historical romance mainstream success.  Somewhere in between if you are hoping for both.

(Hey, nobody ever said it would be easy.)

(Or was that even what you were asking?!)

As for historical attitudes, I like to think I’m not writing bigots.  That even if my characters held views typical of their era, they would not let those generalized prejudices trump human decency and kindness.

Diction?  Well, diction can go to hell.  I look up just about every word I suspect isn’t old enough, even some I don’t suspect at all.  Still, a more modern word or two might slip through and I’m actually okay with that.  Think of it this way, do we expect our medieval authors to write in middle-English?  Even Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart contained only modified middle-English.  And a lot of Victorian idiomatic usage we wouldn’t understand at all.

Riffing on that last question, do you think that it’s inevitable and even *requisite* to write heroines who are, in some way or another, proto-feminists?  I ask, because I think you’ve done a great job of this; your heroines’ concerns and convictions feel familiar and sympathetic to me while at the same time feeling true to the period in which they live. How do you walk the line between creating a character who feels “progressive” for her time and a character who feels anachronistic or (to invoke a much-dreaded word) “feisty”?

I don’t think it is inevitable or requisite to write proto-feminists.  The trick to making a heroine’s concerns and convictions feel familiar, I think, lies in her struggle for more control over her life and her choices.  There is nothing remotely feminist about that primal human urge for freedom, security, and respect.  It is a universal struggle.  (What the feminists did was to force society as a whole to recognize that women had these same aspirations, that we deserved to have the same opportunities–the struggle itself is timeless.)

That line between creating a chracter who feels “progressive” but still true to her time and a character who feels anachronistic or even feisty, ummm.  Okay, assume your basic research is correct, you have the right feel for your era in your book, that line, I believe, lies in your heroine’s dignity or lack thereof.  Lizzy Bennet still feels fresh and modern as a character today.  Yet because of her dignity, intelligence, and restraint, she never comes across as wrong for her own time.  The feisty heroines are the ones with no understanding of the consequences of their actions, they are the Lydia Bennets of the world, blithely dragging everyone into trouble and expecting to be patted on the head for it.  Lydia, the original TSTL (too stupid to live) heroine, you will note, has no dignity whatsoever.

What makes a book an instant wallbanger/DNF (did not finish) for you?

Incompetence/stupidity on the part of the heroine. And I’m not talking about IQ, but EQ.  A woman without self-awareness and sound judgment is not going to be able to hold onto any kind of happiness.

But that’s usually a mere DNF.

If, however, the hero looks upon this paragon of TSTL and pronounces her extraordinary, then it becomes an automatic wallbanger.

Finally, name a plot that you would never write yourself, but you would love to see written by a fellow author of historical romance.  Why wouldn’t you write it, and why would you love to read it?

LOL, anything I want to read, I will write myself.  Stuff I wouldn’t write, menage for example, I am also not terribly interested in reading.

Your question, however, makes me curious.  What is it for you?

Meredith: Oh, easy: a paranormal-ish romance set in Roman Britain.  At present, my knowledge of the period is so slim that I can’t imagine writing it.  But I’m thinking a starcrossed love between a Roman soldier (who  — naturally — was raised and trained by Druids before he was rounded up and shipped off to Rome, where he learned to disavow his formerly “savage” ways) and the proud Celtic lass whom he once loved, and who is now devoted to fighting the evil Roman overlords to whom he has sworn allegiance!  …I mean, just think of the fun possibilities.  He is fighting down the magical powers he has long since repressed.  She’s determined to reawaken him to his true self.

And on top of that… they used a lot of oil in those Roman baths…  😉

17 thoughts on “In which Meredith interrogates Sherry on craft

  1. What a great interview! I love craft discussions. Terrific questions and fascinating answers to think about.

    I have to say I’m also terribly envious of people who can write a shitty first draft (Didn’t Anne Lamott coin that in Bird by Bird/i>?). I just can’t do it. If a paragraph sucks, I have to fix it before I can go on. When I’ve tried to force myself to write an unpolished first draft, it just ruins the story for me, I fall out of love with it and then it becomes very dispassionate and rote.

    I go into a book with the heroine much more fully envisioned than the hero

    That is often true for me too. With the current WIP it took me forever to get a feel for the hero. I finally, in desperation, turned to a book called The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman. I still haven’t read the whole book, but the part that was really useful for me was the character questionnaires. There are two chapters’ worth of character questionnaires. The first chapter is called “Characterization:The Outer Life” and the second is called “Characterization: The Inner Life.” I didn’t even get to chapter two. In the first chapter, there was one page called “Medical Background” that was particularly helpful because it helped me envision a scene from the hero’s childhood, and that scene made me understand his relationship with his grandfather (the man who raised him) better than I had before. It humanized the hero for me. I went back and revised his interior thoughts greatly, and even though some of his actions didn’t change, he was much more sympathetic after that.

  2. You guys crack me up. What a great interview!! Great ‘uncommon’ questions there too!

    I am SO GLAD I’m not the only one who struggles with the Shitty First Draft! I’m an editor by profession, so it’s practically against my DNA not to edit as I go. I’m trying to force myself to let go of the editing reigns though as much as possible so I can stop editing and just finish writing the damn thing! Only occasionally do I succeed, though.

    Also, my heroine’s POV usually flows from my fingers into double digit pages but my poor hero gets truncated to two or three pages as I struggle to brings his POV forward.

    Great, great thoughts on process and – dare I say it? – craft! Thanks again ladies!

  3. Helen, Janine, Kiersten,

    Thank you!


    Roman Britain? Paranormal involving Celts and Roman soldier? What the…

    I never knew ye. 🙂

    You’d better beef up on Edward Gibbon and write it yourself because I won’t read it unless it’s got your name on it.

    (Whom do you read, btw, if your book is set pre-180AD?)

  4. Oh, I know, I know! (About the pre-180 AD question) – Lindsey Davis’ ‘Falco’ series! Some of my favorite books ever, meticulously researched, and even though they aren’t romance per se, there is a lovely, longlasting romantic story intertwined with the sleuthing and the Roman hero served his army duty in Britain, and revisits it later. I think that’s long enough of a run-on sentence, now.

    And: I was extremely impressed with ‘Painted Veil’ on many levels, especially how both protagonists got slammed out of their own preoccupations when confronted with people who have far more serious things to worry about than disappointing love life. Though it was clear to me from the outset that one or the other wouold meet a particular unhappy fate – didn’t seem anywhere else for the story to go, I thought, so I wasn’t surprised. I never figured out what the painted veil was, though. Something concrete? Symbolic?

    Hearing that the latest novel is inspired by this movie, though, makes it leap onto another level of anticipation, though. Which was already high, due to my niche preference for Indian-set stories (which Meredite, not to mention her mother, know all about).

    • Hi Maya,

      Here’s what Wikipedia said about the name The Painted Veil.

      The title is taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet which begins “Lift Not The Painted Veil Which Those Who Live/Call Life.”

      And ooh, you know Meredith’s mother?

  5. Great interview – I love to hear how people work through things. Researching (I do genealogy, and have come up with a couple of humdingers in the family vegetation) can be exhilarating and lead to so many unexpected places.

    As an aside, the look of your blog is great.

    • LOL, family vegetation! That’s a fantastic grouping of words.

      And thank you on the compliment to the appearance of the blog. May I be the first to say that Meredith had nothing to do with it. It was all me, me, me who accidentally came across this theme. And I have a sneaking suspicion that it is way too twee for Meredith’s hardcore soul. But I’m a lover of pastels so there you go.

  6. Hi.

    I don’t know if you’ll see this, as this is an older post, but I’m really curious about something.

    I’ve read Bound by Your Touch (AWESOME story by the way. No, really. Just spectacular), and I don’t understand why, if Sophie’s husband moved in to the Boyce’s house, he’s the head of the household. The Boyce’s father isn’t dead, so even though he’s away, he would technically still be the head, right? And Sophie’s husband came to Lydia to ask permission to marry Sophie, so that would suggest she had some authority. Is it just due to the laws of the time that she became someone they could kick out if it suited them? Or did they move and I just completely missed it?

    And the other thing. I have tried looking this up online, but everything I’ve read on the matter has confused the heck out of me. It’s about the rules of naming the peerage.

    You have James Durham, the Viscount of Sanburne who is the son of the Earl of Mooreland. That’s three last names. I can not figure out HOW that works. How does the peerage get its names? I read that sons of the peerage take on their father’s lowest ranking title, and is sort of makes sense. But not really. Why isn’t James Viscount of Mooreland, and why is his last name neither Sanburne nor Mooreland?

    I am not trying to say that you’re wrong. Because you know this stuff far, far better than I ever will. I’m just trying to understand. Can you help me?


    And, once again, FREAKING AWESOME BOOK!

    • Hi Britney,

      Meredith is on a tighter deadline than I am, so I’ll put in my two cents on the naming traditions.

      The oldest titles (earls and barons, I believe) used to indicate exactly what those lords were masters of. If you are the John Smith, Earl of Shropshire, for example, you are the King’s #1 representative in Shropshire. So the title is separate from the last name that way.

      The eldest son–not all sons, just the eldest, the heir–of a peer takes the peer’s next highest title (not the lowest) as his courtesy title. So if the Earl of Shropshire is also Viscount Lincolnshire and Baron Aberdeen (below earls, there is no “of” in the title), then the earl’s heir would bear the courtesy title of Viscount Lincolnshire. That does not make the heir a peer, however, as it is only a courtesy title.

      So if your are a peer, or a peer’s heir, you very rarely use your real family name. You are referred to by your title or courtesy title, as if might be. But if James had had a younger brother Bob, for example, then Bob would only be the Honorable Robert Durham, and referred to as Mr. Durham.

      If you want further clarification, read this excellent website, which gives examples on exactly how peers are addressed, along with their wives, sons, daughters-in-law, and daughters.

      Hope this helps.

  7. Hey Britney, sorry for the tardy reply. As Sherry mentioned, I’m on an uber-tight deadline, and I’ve been restraining myself from the temptations of the internet.

    Sherry’s masterful answer on the question of titles, I cannot supplement. 🙂 But as for your other question — I don’t think you missed anything, I failed to spell it out clearly. Lydia and Ana moved into George’s house after Sophie married him. (Lydia’s dad is not rolling in the money, as you probably gathered, so he was no doubt very glad to cut the expense of housing them.)

    Now, you may wonder, where/with whom were they living before Sophie married George? Most of all that got cut, but a single reference remains in the book to an “Aunt Augusta,” with whom they lived and who was their nominal caretaker before Sophie’s marriage. The remaining reference appears in the rooftop scene, in a stray thought by Lydia: “She had missed her sister’s wedding, left it to Aunt Augusta to organize, simply because she could not bear to look the groom in the eye.”

    George came to talk to Lydia in the prologue at Aunt Augusta’s house — Aunt Augusta was their chaperone and hostess during Lydia and Sophie’s seasons. As for why George approached Lydia rather than the aunt — well, Aunt Augusta (in the scenes that never made it into the final book) was a bit of a dotty old bat, and even before Lydia embraced spinsterhood, she was already very clearly her father’s man in England (as James dryly calls her at one point). In short, I think George *saw* her as a very masculine figure, and treated her accordingly. He also probably knew that Lydia was far more likely to get a response from her father than he was.

    Hope this clears things up! And I’m glad you liked the book. 🙂

  8. Oh, that helps SO MUCH! Thank you, ladies. That fog of confusion was just no fun at all. Thanks!

    So, Lydia moved in with George and Sophie because their aunt was… not all there… mentally, speaking?

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