Enlightenment (Lynn Kerstan)

Star of Wonder

A while back, when I was invited to write a Regency Christmas novella, I enthusiastically agreed.  Twenty thousand words. How hard could it be?

The story idea came to life in my imagination in early January, when Pat and I were travelling in Montenegro. There, Christmas was celebrated two weeks later than in most places, so we were surrounded by the holiday spirit. Okay, I was also inspired by the extremely beautiful Montenegran men. Like the Wise Men from the East who followed the star, my handsome hero would journey to the Yorkshire Moors in search of, well, I can’t give everything away.

What I failed to realize, until I tried to write the novella, was the cost of not having written a story, even a short one, for nearly five years. Cancer and Killer Chemo had sucked away a lot of focus, concentration, and awareness. In my head, the story played out vividly, but finding the words that would bring it to life on the page was far more of a challenge that I realized. Even as I wrote the story and was failing to rise to that challenge, I failed to see what I was missing.

Enter a brilliant editor and an equally brilliant “line” editor, both of them friends. Deb Dixon and Lynn Coddington had the dubious pleasure of making me aware of my failures and steering me back to a road I used to travel with great confidence. At first, it was scary. Did this mean I could no longer write to a standard I could be proud of? If so, what would I do with all the stories spinning around in my head?

In fact, as they helped me realize, the major problem was failing to live up to reader expectations for a Christmas story, and in particular, a fairly short Christmas story. I’d written only three novellas in my life, and two were written in the early 90s. The third was really a Prequel to a trilogy of novels. I was all off base when it came to plotting the story in a limited space or keeping the essential focus on the emotional development of the romance, which kept getting buried under my intricate plot.

How lucky I was to have their help when I needed it! Honestly, this was the first time any one of my books or novellas received any editorial guidance whatever. In the past, I wrote it, the  editor liked it, and the publisher printed it. Pretty much just that.

I hope those days are over. If I’m off my game, if something I write needs improvement, I’ll be more than glad to hear about it. Which is not to say that I’ll always agree with everything I hear. Sometimes a good idea will take a story in a whole different direction, which is not the story I’m writing. Not this time.

But one thing is certain. Any recommendation that makes my story better, whatever the source, I welcome it with open arms.  So thanks, DebD and LynnC, for helping me rediscover what it is to write a story that turns out to be what it was meant to be.

Writer Making Sausage (Lynn Kerstan)

City Gates of Kotor, Montenegro

Writers already know this, and so do most readers: A lot of research goes into a novel, even one not based on history, technology, or anything requiring special knowledge. It’s still amazing to me how much time and effort I’ve devoted over the years to track down, say, what kinds of birds are found in England’s Lake District, or precisely what uniform a soldier in the 52nd Regiment wore in 1811.

I’ve explored most every place in England where I set scenes in a book and spent many days buying research books in Hay-on-Wye (Second-Hand-Book Capitol of the World). Research materials occupy about 25% of my small apartment. And I often spend many hours tracking down tiny details that do more to provide “local color” than anything of significance. I figure that if I’m transporting readers into an English Regency-era story, they should feel as if they are living the story with the characters.

I’ve spent lots of time (but never enough!) in England. On occasion, when I have scenes set in France, Spain, or elsewhere, I feel the need to go to those places myself. Most lately, Montenegro was “sited” for a Christmas novella, which will be published later this year.  

The scandalous George Gordon, Lord Byron

When writing “Star of Wonder,” just for the fun of it, I made notes about the specific topics I had to research and the answers I managed to track down. Except for the material needed for the timeline, nearly every topic on the list showed up as a sentence or two, more often a word or two, in the story itself. I’m not a fan of “Research Dumps”! So, just to show how I keep out of trouble, here’s an abbreviated list of Stuff I Looked Up.

Lord Byron never appears in person, but he befriended my hero protagonist (Kiro Radanovic), who was exiled from his home country and a stranger in a strange land. For that, I honor him. Even fictional Good Deeds count!

1. Lord Byron and the Bear     2. Timeline of Byron’s education and presence in England    3. Byron’s “activities” at Harrow and Cambridge

4. Lock Picking (tools and procedures).   5. Safes, locks, and keys in the early 19th century.   6. Christmas Carols known in early 19th century.

Regency-era Coach

7. What was the name of the place on a coach where the luggage was stashed? (Boot!)

8. Assuming two horses with the coach, which one would the postillion ride? 9. Foxes in winter.

10. Feeding motherless kittens.   11. North Yorkshire Dales.   12. Yorkshire name for a breakfast roll.

Rigel, in the Orion Constellation

13. Winter constellations in northern hemisphere.   14. Sheep behaviors.   15. Likely storm paths in winter.   16. Rustic wine-making.

17. Male surnames and given names in Montenegro.   18. Turkish for “Great Golden Star.”

19. Bonaparte’s French invasion of the Dalmation Coast.   20. Centuries  of Ottoman attempt to conquer Montenegro.  

Benedick and Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing)

21. Name of a powerful Ottoman commander in early 19th Century.   22. Battle of Piperi (1811)

23. “There was a star danced, and under that was I born.”

Quick Quiz: Which of the above pieces of research information do you think was most difficult to track down? 

P.S.  Blessed be Google. It has saved me sooooooo much time!