Historical Fiction by Sara Donati

FAQs

 

General

Category: General

What’s the right order for the Wilderness novels?

  1. Into the Wilderness
  2. Dawn on a Distant Shore
  3. Lake in the Clouds
  4. Fire Along the Sky
  5. Queen of Swords
  6. The Endless Forest (the working title was Hidden Wolf)

The Waverly Place series:

  1. The Gilded Hour
  2. Where the Light Enters

Here are the other novels, written under my name instead of Sara’s:

  1. Homestead
  2. Tied to the Tracks
  3. The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square

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Category: General
New York City ambulance ca 1890

Best bet: the Sara Donati page on Facebook. Novels published under both Donati and Lippi  are discussed there on occasion in a dedicated chat room/discussion group (located here). You will have to register to participate. But please do.

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Wilderness novels

Category: Wilderness novels

Into the Wilderness came into being because I wanted to read stories of the women on the New York frontier in the post-revolutionary period. Since no one else seemed inclined to write those stories, I began to consider writing one after re-reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers. While I was pondering how such a story might be approached, I saw Michael Mann’s 1992 film adaptation of Last of the Mohicans, and that provided the spark: what if (as Mann implies at the end of his film) Hawkeye and Cora actually married and made a home for themselves in the wilderness? This was contrary to Cooper’s storyline for the Leatherstocking Tales, in which Hawkeye ends his days sad and disillusioned. So I gave Hawkeye and Cora a son, Nathaniel, and I opened the story almost forty years after the fall of Fort William Henry. But I needed a female character to challenge Nathaniel and the wilderness both, a woman who would come to see the endless forest with new eyes. I was re-reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion (I try to reread all of Jane Austen every year) when I began to wonder about her characters. What would Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice have done, how would she have acted, if Darcy had decided to pursue his future in the wilderness of the newly formed United States? What if Captain Wentworth, upon marrying Anne Elliot and taking her away from her obnoxious Kellynch family, had said “let’s see what adventures await, let’s get out of this genteel country neighborhood setting?” What about Jane herself, if she hadn’t come down with the disease that killed her at such a terribly young age, what if she had been given the opportunity to travel away? Of course, Jane Austen probably would not have given up her quiet home and family. But her characters, there was another issue. Thinking about them, eventually my Elizabeth Middleton took shape: a woman aware of the world and her role in it, and never quite resigned to either. She has some of Elizabeth Bennett’s insight, Anne Elliot’s curiosity about the world, Elinor Dashwood’s extreme rationality, her sister Marianne’s passion. But there is also a dash of Mary Bennett in Elizabeth: the book-obsessed young woman understood by none of her family. Mary Bennett has always seemed to me the one female character in Pride and Prejudice who gives away some of Jane Austen’s own weaknesses. Austen is unable to show any kindness towards Mary, and I have always wondered why. So this was my opportunity to take these women out of England, and to see them make their way in a different kind of world. Thus Elizabeth Middleton slowly took shape.

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The most common question I get about The Endless Forest has to do with Jennet’s death and the aftermath. After Jennet died, Luke returned to Manhattan alone, leaving the children behind to be raised in Paradise. Many readers have trouble with this.

It was very common until not-so-long ago that families traded children around after the death of a parent or because of some other family disaster. Exactly why Luke chose to leave the children in Paradise is a question with dozens of possible answers, for example:

  • Jennet told him she wanted her children raised in Paradise, or
  • Luke’s business concerns were failing, and he didn’t know if he’d have the finances to provide the staff and resources the children would need, or
  • Luke fell into a depression so deep he was barely able to take care of himself, or
  • One or more of the children developed complications after the infection that killed Jennet, and needed the kind of medical care they could only get in Paradise,

I’m sure I could come up with a couple dozen reasonable scenarios, but my job is done. I have to sit back and let the readers decide what happened and why it happened. An author who tries to explain a character’s actions after the fact comes across as somebody unsure of the story. I am very sure of my story.

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People seem to feel strongly about the epilogue at the end of The Endless Forest: they love it, or they really, really do not love it.

I wrote it because I personally needed to have some closure, and to say goodbye to my characters. The idea that they were wandering around out there in the world and having adventures without me just did not sit well.

There are people who like surprises, and people who don’t. I do not like surprises. I prefer to know. And thus the epilogue.

As to how I decided about each character: I often flipped a coin. Is person x going to die in his sleep in a happy old age, or die in his forties, unhappily?  Sometimes I just know — I know what happened to Simon, for example, but other times I need a push.  This is one of those odd things about writing that is hard to explain.

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This question always takes me by surprise. I am reminded of myself at about age eleven, when I figured out about the relationship between sex and pregnancy. I was watching Johnny Belinda — a movie about a deaf woman who is raped and has a baby, a story set maybe in the forties or so — and I realized with huge surprise, disquiet and even disbelief that those people knew that sex led to having babies! I couldn’t believe it. I was positive this discovery must be very recent.

Elizabeth Middleton is no damsel in distress.

Women in the late 18th century were very much aware of their lot in life. Not all of them protested publicly (most of them did not have the means to do so); certainly not all of them had any objection to the status quo. But many did.

While the struggle was a hard one, women of the period wrote fiction and poetry and social commentary. Women were extremely active in the abolitionist movement (which began in Europe, not in the U.S.); they founded hospitals and schools. Mary Wollstonecroft was not alone in calling for a more reasonable and fair approach to educating girls. So no, Elizabeth is not at all ahead of her time. She is unusual, yes, but that’s why she’s interesting.

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Category: Wilderness novels

The truth is, sometimes details are not available no matter how hard you search, and you have to make logical jumps. I could find out a great deal about Mohawk village life, but not everything. When I couldn’t avoid the murky areas, I tried to extrapolate as cleanly as I could. For example, I never did find out with any certainty what materials were used for swaddling baby bottoms. I assume it was some kind of moss, as that is used for similar purposes, but it’s only an educated guess. As far as daily life for others — European types — there was more information available. I have hundreds of books on topics as diverse as lighting fixtures and household servants to the way in which a birchbark canoe is constructed, from the bottom up. I also had consultants — generous people with expertise in various areas. A surgeon who happens to be an expert on historical methods in hunting and trapping. A specialist in infectious medicine. An expert on the history of Scotland; people who do historical recreations of the French and Indian wars, and know first hand every detail down to how itchy the wool underwear can be. So I did my best — but I know, as any author who is honest with herself knows — that anachronisms will have slipped by me, and that it is almost impossible for me to really know what it is like to live in a world that is lit only by fire.

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James Fenimore Cooper wrote a series of books called the Leatherstocking Tales. His main character was Natty [Nathaniel] Bumppo (also called Hawkeye, and several other names), and seemed to be based on the legends that grew up around the real life character Daniel Boone. One of his novels was The Last of the Mohicans; another, set in Hawkeye’s later life, was The Pioneers. The Last of the Mohicans has been filmed a number of times, the last and most memorable by the director and producer Michael Mann. That is the movie staring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe. In Mann’s version of the story, Hawkeye’s real name was Nathaniel Po. I wasn’t so much interested in retelling the story of The Last of the Mohicans — that has been done often enough — but I was interested in Hawkeye’s later life. So I set out to do a few things: first, write a very loose retelling of The Pioneers (keeping some of the plot, some of the characters, and some of the themes, especially the environmental ones); second, to tell the story from the female perspective (Cooper was a fine storyteller, but he didn’t write women very well — they come across as idealized and two-dimensional); third, to put my own spin on the legend of the frontiersmen who populated the New-York frontier; fourth, to try my best not to contribute to the stereotypes rampant in literature about the Mohawk. I hoped to portray them as a people who survived in spite of great hardship. Because I wanted to put my own version on paper, I changed Hawkeye’s name yet again. Not Bumppo or Po or Boone, but Bonner. So I have a Dan’l Bonner and his son, Nathaniel Bonner.

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This from a sleepy reader:

Midnight and I can’t get to sleep until I ask this question: what’s wrong with Callie? I understand that she’s been abandoned by everyone she’s ever loved, but I just can’t get at the core of her, and it’s keeping me up at night! She’s so shut down, emotionally. She’s a volcano ready to go off. Can you please speak plainly about her? Thanks. My second or third time reading though the series and it’s new to me every time. Love, love, love these books.

It goes against the grain to answer questions like this. Generally it’s up to you, as reader, to interpret the story as you see fit. You might decide that Ethan has been replaced by an alien and is working undercover to arrange the destruction of mankind. I doubt you could convince me, but I couldn’t tell you you’re wrong. If that’s where the story went for you, then that’s the end of that.  You may have a theory I find hard to fathom, but that is your right.

So let’s look at Ethan and Callie.

Things you know for sure:

  1. Ethan lived in Manhattan for two years because his uncle Todd’s will demanded it of him. He didn’t return to Paradise in  that time.
  2. He’s a friendly guy, and so he will have made friends. He sees Martha Kirby quite regularly, and tutors her. He’s very attached to the Spencer family, which is where Martha lives as the Spencers are her guardians.
  3. He leaves New York to return to Paradise quite suddenly.
  4. Once back in Paradise there’s no talk of friends in Manhattan, no overt sign of letter writing, no visitors.  He is, essentially, without immediate family though he always included in the Bonner family affairs as Elizabeth’s nephew.
  5. He dedicates himself, all his energy and resources, into putting the village back on its feet after years of decline. His small circle of friends includes Callie ad Daniel, Blue-Jay and Runs-from-Bears and Nathaniel.
  6. In all the time you’ve known him, he has never shown interest in the opposite sex.
  7. Martha is back in Paradise too, and eventually Jemima shows up ready to make trouble, as usual.
  8. Jemima lets it be known that she did some investigating in Manhattan and knows all about Martha’s sad little engagement. In fact, she visited Martha’s fiance’s mother and put an end to the whole ridiculous undertaking. Why she did this isn’t immediately apparent.
  9. About the same time Jemima lets it be known that she investigated Martha while in New York, she  says she did the same for  Ethan.  She voices this in a threatening way.
  10. Ethan lives on his own and is lonely. he sees Callie as someone he likes and admires, and someone who needs his help. Marriages have been founded on far worse foundations, and if he can get her to agree, they will both be better off.
  11. Because his experience is wider and he is lonely, he recognizes that same problem in her.
  12. Callie has never shown interest in the opposite sex, either.
  13. When Martha marries suddenly, Callie feels hugely betrayed and rejected.
  14. Ethan may recognize this reaction as founded in something other than sisterly affection.
  15. Ethan capitalizes on the opportunity: he couches his proposal in terms that Callie can live with, and offers her things that she needs and wants. Friendship not least among them.
  16. They marry and make a stable, peaceful, kind home where they raise Jennet and Luke’s children.  And they never sleep in the same bed.

So read through this list and then ask yourself the question: what was the basis of Ethan and Callie’s relationship?

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There’s a very detailed family tree you can consult, here.

 

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Waverly Place novels

I hear from readers who are confused or irritated by unresolved storylines in The Gilded Hour.  Specifically two storylines seem to raise the most questions.

  1. The Russo children (where was Tonino, and where is Vittorio?)
  2. The identity of the individuals who were responsible for the deaths of at least six women.

Here’s an email from Nancy.

Dear Sara I just finished your new book the Gilded Hour. I have a question. On page 696,after looking for a killer through most of the other 695 pages Oscar says, no reasons to give up now, in reference to finding the killer. Then there is not another word in the remaining 36 pages about finding the killer. What???? Who was the killer??? It turned out to be a very disappointing read I must say.

I am hoping for a reply .

This next email is from Sandra, who is also curious, but in more general terms.

Hi Rosina/Sara

I have never written to an author before but I had to write you. I loved The Gilded Hour and was heartbroken to finish it. When I saw on your webpage that “a new series was launched” I assume that means you are going to write more. Whew! I just have to know what happens to all these people. I am in love with them and am imagining futures for each one of them. I want to read more about Anna & Jack, Sophie & Cap, Rosa & her siblings, Ned, Aunt Quinlan, Margaret, Elise. I feel like I know them now so want to follow their lives.

My first thought:  It’s really uplifting to hear from readers, even when they are irritated. It means the story got under that reader’s skin. My second thought: I hate disappointing readers.   Then back to the first thought: These are people who have read the book I wrote and felt strongly enough about it to write to me. That’s good. That’s what I focus on.

There are only a few things I can say to this kind of letter from a reader: I’m sorry that the story didn’t work for you, and/or:   I’m writing as fast as I can, and I hope that the next novel will both answer your questions, and be worth the wait.

But there’s also one thing I need to say about the nature of storytelling.  As I see it, good storytelling never tells it all.  A well done novel  leaves questions open to be considered and answered by the reader.   So it is true that you haven’t heard in detail about what Tonino went through, and you don’t know where Vittorio is; his adoptive family is gone. You may never know some of those things; in the end they may be for you to decide.

The question about the murders is, of course, far more pressing. Some people raced through the last part of the book because they just had to know who was responsible … And then were disappointed.  Really disappointed. One star irritated.  [Edited to note that this question comes up in the comments, below.] An old friend pointed something out to me that I hadn’t considered: in the mystery genre, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll know who the guilty party is by the end.  I don’t read much mystery, or I would have realized that.  If I had been aware of that expectation, I’m not sure what I would have done differently.

Could I have written a better novel? Certainly.  I doubt there has ever been a novelist who is totally satisfied with a piece of work.  I know a writer with a t-shirt that reads IT’S ALL A DRAFT UNTIL YOU DIE.   It’s the nature of the beast, and still:  I don’t like disappointing readers, and I do hope that when the next book comes out, those I’ve irritated or frustrated will find that the answers they were expecting really were worth the wait. In the meantime, there are a lot of documents about the murders dragged from the archives of the police department, sitting over there at The Gilded Hour  site. You might well figure out the answer to this question on your own.

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Usually before an audiobook goes into production the narrator gets in touch with me to ask about pronunciations of unusual words and accents.  For some reason I never really understood, that vital step was missed for The Gilded Hour.

When I first heard the recording I was really taken aback.  Major character names were mispronounced, and the bits in Italian were not well read.  Worse still, the narrator gave Sophie a French accent, which made no sense at all. Sophie came to Manhattan at age ten.  At ten, a kid will adapt to the language of other children she comes in contact with, and lose whatever accent sets her apart.  This is not an opinion, it’s based on decades of research in child language acquisition.

If they had contacted me prior to recording I would have made this clear.  You may not be aware that I have a doctorate in linguistics, but that has a lot to do with how I write characters and describe their language varieties.  Changing the accent really rubs me the wrong way. It’s like a substitute hairdresser deciding to use a different color on your hair without consulting you first.

It was possible for the sound engineers to fix the pronunciation of names, but otherwise there was nothing to be done.

This was the first novel of mine produced by Blackstone Audio, and I was unhappy with many aspects of their process. I had given them the names of multiple possible narrators, but they did not contact any of them. So when it came time to record Where the Light Enters, I was insistent about a different narrator.  Working with Kate, she was in touch with me multiple times with the relevant questions.

Kate Reading did a fantastic job on the Wilderness series. If she had done The Gilded Hour I think there would be no reservations about her reading Where the Light Enters; it’s just that people get used to one voice and don’t like change. But I am very, very satisfied and happy with her performance.

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Characters

The most common question I get about The Endless Forest has to do with Jennet’s death and the aftermath. After Jennet died, Luke returned to Manhattan alone, leaving the children behind to be raised in Paradise. Many readers have trouble with this.

It was very common until not-so-long ago that families traded children around after the death of a parent or because of some other family disaster. Exactly why Luke chose to leave the children in Paradise is a question with dozens of possible answers, for example:

  • Jennet told him she wanted her children raised in Paradise, or
  • Luke’s business concerns were failing, and he didn’t know if he’d have the finances to provide the staff and resources the children would need, or
  • Luke fell into a depression so deep he was barely able to take care of himself, or
  • One or more of the children developed complications after the infection that killed Jennet, and needed the kind of medical care they could only get in Paradise,

I’m sure I could come up with a couple dozen reasonable scenarios, but my job is done. I have to sit back and let the readers decide what happened and why it happened. An author who tries to explain a character’s actions after the fact comes across as somebody unsure of the story. I am very sure of my story.

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This question always takes me by surprise. I am reminded of myself at about age eleven, when I figured out about the relationship between sex and pregnancy. I was watching Johnny Belinda — a movie about a deaf woman who is raped and has a baby, a story set maybe in the forties or so — and I realized with huge surprise, disquiet and even disbelief that those people knew that sex led to having babies! I couldn’t believe it. I was positive this discovery must be very recent.

Elizabeth Middleton is no damsel in distress.

Women in the late 18th century were very much aware of their lot in life. Not all of them protested publicly (most of them did not have the means to do so); certainly not all of them had any objection to the status quo. But many did.

While the struggle was a hard one, women of the period wrote fiction and poetry and social commentary. Women were extremely active in the abolitionist movement (which began in Europe, not in the U.S.); they founded hospitals and schools. Mary Wollstonecroft was not alone in calling for a more reasonable and fair approach to educating girls. So no, Elizabeth is not at all ahead of her time. She is unusual, yes, but that’s why she’s interesting.

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James Fenimore Cooper wrote a series of books called the Leatherstocking Tales. His main character was Natty [Nathaniel] Bumppo (also called Hawkeye, and several other names), and seemed to be based on the legends that grew up around the real life character Daniel Boone. One of his novels was The Last of the Mohicans; another, set in Hawkeye’s later life, was The Pioneers. The Last of the Mohicans has been filmed a number of times, the last and most memorable by the director and producer Michael Mann. That is the movie staring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe. In Mann’s version of the story, Hawkeye’s real name was Nathaniel Po. I wasn’t so much interested in retelling the story of The Last of the Mohicans — that has been done often enough — but I was interested in Hawkeye’s later life. So I set out to do a few things: first, write a very loose retelling of The Pioneers (keeping some of the plot, some of the characters, and some of the themes, especially the environmental ones); second, to tell the story from the female perspective (Cooper was a fine storyteller, but he didn’t write women very well — they come across as idealized and two-dimensional); third, to put my own spin on the legend of the frontiersmen who populated the New-York frontier; fourth, to try my best not to contribute to the stereotypes rampant in literature about the Mohawk. I hoped to portray them as a people who survived in spite of great hardship. Because I wanted to put my own version on paper, I changed Hawkeye’s name yet again. Not Bumppo or Po or Boone, but Bonner. So I have a Dan’l Bonner and his son, Nathaniel Bonner.

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Category: Characters

Oh yes. The genealogy end of things has consumed me for some time.  There is an updated tree you can access here.

Please note:  These novels have been written over twenty-five years, and the first one was published before the internet made working without a library possible and even more relevant, before I had software to help me keep track of chronologies.  So you will find shifts in families. More or fewer children than you thought, different names. I welcome any questions about the tree that will help me (or better said, Polly Edwards, who did all the heavy-lifting/programming) fine-tune things.

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This from a sleepy reader:

Midnight and I can’t get to sleep until I ask this question: what’s wrong with Callie? I understand that she’s been abandoned by everyone she’s ever loved, but I just can’t get at the core of her, and it’s keeping me up at night! She’s so shut down, emotionally. She’s a volcano ready to go off. Can you please speak plainly about her? Thanks. My second or third time reading though the series and it’s new to me every time. Love, love, love these books.

It goes against the grain to answer questions like this. Generally it’s up to you, as reader, to interpret the story as you see fit. You might decide that Ethan has been replaced by an alien and is working undercover to arrange the destruction of mankind. I doubt you could convince me, but I couldn’t tell you you’re wrong. If that’s where the story went for you, then that’s the end of that.  You may have a theory I find hard to fathom, but that is your right.

So let’s look at Ethan and Callie.

Things you know for sure:

  1. Ethan lived in Manhattan for two years because his uncle Todd’s will demanded it of him. He didn’t return to Paradise in  that time.
  2. He’s a friendly guy, and so he will have made friends. He sees Martha Kirby quite regularly, and tutors her. He’s very attached to the Spencer family, which is where Martha lives as the Spencers are her guardians.
  3. He leaves New York to return to Paradise quite suddenly.
  4. Once back in Paradise there’s no talk of friends in Manhattan, no overt sign of letter writing, no visitors.  He is, essentially, without immediate family though he always included in the Bonner family affairs as Elizabeth’s nephew.
  5. He dedicates himself, all his energy and resources, into putting the village back on its feet after years of decline. His small circle of friends includes Callie ad Daniel, Blue-Jay and Runs-from-Bears and Nathaniel.
  6. In all the time you’ve known him, he has never shown interest in the opposite sex.
  7. Martha is back in Paradise too, and eventually Jemima shows up ready to make trouble, as usual.
  8. Jemima lets it be known that she did some investigating in Manhattan and knows all about Martha’s sad little engagement. In fact, she visited Martha’s fiance’s mother and put an end to the whole ridiculous undertaking. Why she did this isn’t immediately apparent.
  9. About the same time Jemima lets it be known that she investigated Martha while in New York, she  says she did the same for  Ethan.  She voices this in a threatening way.
  10. Ethan lives on his own and is lonely. he sees Callie as someone he likes and admires, and someone who needs his help. Marriages have been founded on far worse foundations, and if he can get her to agree, they will both be better off.
  11. Because his experience is wider and he is lonely, he recognizes that same problem in her.
  12. Callie has never shown interest in the opposite sex, either.
  13. When Martha marries suddenly, Callie feels hugely betrayed and rejected.
  14. Ethan may recognize this reaction as founded in something other than sisterly affection.
  15. Ethan capitalizes on the opportunity: he couches his proposal in terms that Callie can live with, and offers her things that she needs and wants. Friendship not least among them.
  16. They marry and make a stable, peaceful, kind home where they raise Jennet and Luke’s children.  And they never sleep in the same bed.

So read through this list and then ask yourself the question: what was the basis of Ethan and Callie’s relationship?

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There’s a very detailed family tree you can consult, here.

 

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Publishing

Category: Publishing

Any work published before 1928 is in the “public domain”.

Anybody can use the characters, retell the story, etc etc. if a work is in the public domain. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and James Fenimore Cooper fall into this category. So I am completely within the law by retelling Cooper’s The Pioneers and using some of his characters. There are hundreds and hundreds of books in the public domain that you can get for free over the web. A good list is maintained here.

Works that are still in copyright: no, you can’t just borrow the characters. You can’t write a novel about Captain Kirk and Spock on the Enterprise unless you first get written permission from the owner of that copyright — I think that would be Paramount, and I doubt they’d be receptive. So technically fan fiction is illegal, though I don’t think anybody has ever sued over it.

I used Diana Gabaldon’s characters with her permission, both oral and written. Anybody else who wanted to publish a novel using my characters or hers would have to ask first — with the exception, of course, of those characters already in the public domain. So you wouldn’t have to ask me to have Hawkeye tramping through your novel, but you would have to ask me if he had a son called Nathaniel with a wife Elizabeth Middleton who lived in Paradise on the Sacandaga.

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Category: Publishing

I suppose I would call them (in fact, I have called them, when forced) historical fiction. That is, a lot of research goes into each one and a prime concern is making the era come to life. Beyond that, I hope to keep the reader turning the pages, interested in the characters and the plot. There is a lot of plot; some of it has to do with a love story.   I would not call them erotica simply because I don’t write gratuitous sex scenes.

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Category: Publishing
While we look to the dramatist to give romance to realism, we ask of the actor to give realism to romance. –Oscar Wilde
I don’t  mind if they are classified as romance. A love story is a love story, after all. I’d consider Pride and Prejudice and Taming of the Shrew romances, too. Of course, if you call them romance novels as a way to insult me or my work, I would have some problem with that.

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Category: Publishing

ITW was optioned once, long ago, but nothing ever came of it. The whole series has been optioned now. We will see.

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Category: Publishing

For some reason my publishers have been unable to get on top of this issue for the last three or four novels. It first happened when I submitted a long list of final corrections before the deadline for The Endless Forest, and somehow they just never made it in.

Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) have a big sticker on them saying that the text is not final and should not be used for quotations. This is because they put the ARCs into circulation before the final proofreading.

For Where the Light Enters, things really went wrong.  First Australia printed the ARC as the book, no corrections. The ebook versions will have the corrections, but not the hard copies are full of little burps. My heart fell when I realized this. I don’t know how it happened, but I am not pleased.

Then a whole list of corrections somehow — once again — didn’t get incorporated before the novel went to press for the hardcover edition here in the U.S.  Yes, those corrections were incorporated into ebook and audio editions, and they will be included in future hard copy editions, but if you spent a big chunk of money on the hard cover, I would much prefer that you get the final product.

I am notoriously bad at proofreading my own work, but the publisher still hasn’t quite grasped the depth of my text-blindness.  So apologies, all around. Mea culpa.

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Category: Publishing

My contract with Berkley/Penguin is for three novels: (1) Where the Light Enters (the sequel to The Gilded Hour, published in 2019); (2) a third novel in the Waverly Place series, as yet untitled and (3) and a novel set in the southwest in the years before the Civil War, titled Little Birds.

Kate, my editor, and my publisher were convinced I needed to do the second and third novels out of order, so I am now writing Little Birds. I realize this makes some readers unhappy, but I think in the end they will see the wisdom of this decision.

Little Birds focuses on two of Lily and Simon’s adult children (Callie and Nathan) who travel from New York to the New Mexico Territory in 1857.  Callie  has accepted a job as a nurse and midwife in Santa Fe, and Nathan travels with her to see that she arrives safely.  This novel will fill in some of the family history between the end of The Endless Forest and the Civil War.

The years before the Civil War were politically explosive. The term Bleeding Kansas might strike some bells from history class, and it was also during this period that the western tribes were fighting for their survival. Enough material for dozens of novels.

As soon as Little Birds is finished I’ll jump into the third Waverly Place novel.

 

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Author process

Category: Author process

I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited.

It is a great responsibility to read the work of aspiring authors, and it is also a delicate, involved, and time consuming one. When I have a piece of work in front of me, I hold a person’s hopes and dreams in my hands. The wrong word or approach could crush those aspirations.

This is true no matter what the relationship. I exchange work with my best friend, and we both step carefully even though we give each other honest criticism. Over tea I can say to her “This just doesn’t work for me,” or “The transition here falls short” and she will not be crushed, because she knows that I respect her and her work. She can say to me “You just can’t use that name, it evokes too many associations to X” or “You’ve used this image before” or “huh?” and I’ll just nod, because she’s right and I know she is.

But an author who is just starting out may need commentary on many levels. From how to open a story to where to end a paragraph, from word choice to dialog, from story to character. When I teach introduction to creative writing I don’t let my students write a whole story to start with, simply because they will give me ten pages that require so much commentary it would take me longer to comment than it did for them to write it.

I once had a graduate student in creative writing who was very talented. She was writing her master’s thesis — a collection of short stories — under my direction. She had a whole file of stories she said were “junk”, but I asked to see them anyway. She believed that they were junk because a previous teacher had handed them back to her with the words “not worth the effort” written on them. But in that pile of rejected stories (about seven of them) I found four that had wonderful promise. Strong characters in interesting conflicts, but the rest of the story was in poor shape and needed extensive work. Over a summer I worked with her on those four stories. Each went through ten or even fifteen revisions, and she worked them into something wonderful. But it took tremendous effort.

The moral of that story is that the wrong reader can do a great deal of damage; the right reader is just the beginning of a long writing process.

I am sure that some or even many of the people who ask me to read their work are talented. They may need direction and help, and need it very sincerely. If I am not the person to provide it, what other choices do they have?

My strongest suggestion is to make connections to other writers around you. Community colleges often have classes in creative writing. Even if a new writer feels they are beyond the “introduction” stage, this can be a great way to make contact to others with the same interests and concerns. I found my first writing group (an excellent one) through a creative writing class. The other real advantage of taking such a course is this: it teaches you to accept constructive criticism gracefully, something that is often very hard for beginning writers, but absolutely necessary.

If for whatever reason it isn’t possible to take a course, then there are very good writing communities on-line. I highly recommend the authors’ forum at CompuServe, which includes sections where people submit and critique each other’s work, according to genre. CompuServe was very helpful to me when I was in the early stages of writing Into the Wilderness. Finally, I am always happy to suggest two books which were (and still are) helpful to me. The first one because it looks at the nuts-and bolts of putting together fiction with great insight, wonderful examples, and most of all, common sense; the second one because it is hopeful and wise and funny.

Jane Burroway. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. (new editions come out every two years or so) Addison-Wesley Pub Co.

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. October 1995. Anchor Books/Doubleday. ISBN: 0385480016

Writing is a demanding business, but a rewarding one. It’s hard for everybody; take comfort in that. And then get down to work.

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Category: Author process
We tell stories to make sense of the human condition, and we keep doing that because we haven’t yet figured it out.
Retelling stories is as old as the hills. West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. A Thousand Acres is a retelling of King Lear. Some people claim there are only twenty possible basic plots, and everything is a retelling of something else. We tell stories to make sense of the human condition, and we keep doing that because we haven’t yet figured it out. Stories — telling them, listening to them — seem to be an important part of the human psyche.

As far as the characters are concerned, some  are brought to life by a particular author with such stunning success that they outlive their creator. Hawkeye is one such character — so many people have been compelled to bring him back to life in one way or another. The Man of La Mancha is another — the underdog, always fighting windmills. He can be found in a hundred stories, under different names, in different places and at different times. I took some characters who mean a great deal to me to see what I could do with them; I invented others of my own, but even those owe a debt to all the stories that came before.

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Category: Author process

I met Diana through the Research and Craft section of CompuServe writers’ forum, where I used to visit regularly. R&C is a forum for discussion of matters having to do with technical issues (point of view, flashback, character motivation, etc) and research problems (how did a person light a fire in 1790? how long did it take a horse and buggy to travel ten miles on good road?). Diana and I had many of the same interests, as our characters were involved in some of the same historical events. One day the subject of the Battle of Saratoga came up and Diana mentioned that she had used the battle as a setting for a scene, and this happened just as I was writing a similar scene. I said (truly in jest) hey, I need a doctor over here for this boy with pneumonia, can I borrow Claire? To which Diana said, Why not?

Diana is one of the most supportive and generous people I have ever known, but still I was taken by surprise. I did write the scene and send it to her, but said that I would drop it if she had not been serious. She liked it, and so it stayed. The idea was simply a bit of an inside joke — characters wandering from one novel to another — and was never meant to be anything else. I have been called a Diana Wannabe, which of course is silly — who would not want to write such wonderful stuff as her Outlander series? But there’s only one Diana. I have my own stories to tell, in my own voice.

More on this subject, excerpts from an interview I did with Linda Richards of January Magazine when Dawn on a Distant Shore was published:

–Does your friendship  precede the books? Or is it through the books?

We met online and started conversing about our research and work. Then once in a while she’d show me something she was working on and I’d show her something I was working on. This was before Into the Wilderness sold. Diana was extremely supportive. I had an agent at the time that I wasn’t really happy with and she introduced me to the agent I have now.

The funny part is — and most of her readers will know — is that when I was doing the research [for Into the Wilderness] there’s a flashback to the battle of Saratoga which was a major battle in the Revolutionary War. I mentioned this to Diana and she said to me, “Hey my characters are in the battle of Saratoga too.” It was the first time our story lines intersected. And I said, “Well, I’ve got this sick boy over here and Nathaniel is looking for a doctor. Can I have Claire?” I was completely joking. And Diana said, “Sure. I’ll send her over.” So her characters show up briefly in my storyline.

–Oh how fun!

And it’s just meant to be an inside joke — you know it’s very short, it’s in flashback. It’s like two paragraphs, there’s no dialog between the characters or anything — they come and they go.

–Did readers catch it?

Oh yes! Did readers catch it? Yeah! In fact there was this persistent rumor  that we were the same person. People were sometimes very insistent on that, and I know that Diana was sometimes irritated by the whole debate.

–The periods you write in are close but your stories and your styles are very different.

My novels are  not time travel and hers are; I write in third person, and she writes in first.  The beauty of her books — and it was a really masterful stroke on her part — is that since Claire is from the 20th century she can observe what’s going on in the past from a modern sensibility. So mine is a very different kind of story in every way.  It’s human nature to compare things, though, and there were some pretty heated discussions among readers about my work. Which was unfortunate, because I don’t consider myself in competition with Diana or with any other novelist. What we do is too idiosyncratic for that kind of comparison.

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Category: Author process

I write more than one kind of fiction. Two of my novels sold within a few months of each other, and one of the publishers was worried about “confounding reader expectation”. Thus was Sara born.

It was never meant to be a secret, you realize.  I answer to Rosina and Sara both.

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I hear from readers who are confused or irritated by unresolved storylines in The Gilded Hour.  Specifically two storylines seem to raise the most questions.

  1. The Russo children (where was Tonino, and where is Vittorio?)
  2. The identity of the individuals who were responsible for the deaths of at least six women.

Here’s an email from Nancy.

Dear Sara I just finished your new book the Gilded Hour. I have a question. On page 696,after looking for a killer through most of the other 695 pages Oscar says, no reasons to give up now, in reference to finding the killer. Then there is not another word in the remaining 36 pages about finding the killer. What???? Who was the killer??? It turned out to be a very disappointing read I must say.

I am hoping for a reply .

This next email is from Sandra, who is also curious, but in more general terms.

Hi Rosina/Sara

I have never written to an author before but I had to write you. I loved The Gilded Hour and was heartbroken to finish it. When I saw on your webpage that “a new series was launched” I assume that means you are going to write more. Whew! I just have to know what happens to all these people. I am in love with them and am imagining futures for each one of them. I want to read more about Anna & Jack, Sophie & Cap, Rosa & her siblings, Ned, Aunt Quinlan, Margaret, Elise. I feel like I know them now so want to follow their lives.

My first thought:  It’s really uplifting to hear from readers, even when they are irritated. It means the story got under that reader’s skin. My second thought: I hate disappointing readers.   Then back to the first thought: These are people who have read the book I wrote and felt strongly enough about it to write to me. That’s good. That’s what I focus on.

There are only a few things I can say to this kind of letter from a reader: I’m sorry that the story didn’t work for you, and/or:   I’m writing as fast as I can, and I hope that the next novel will both answer your questions, and be worth the wait.

But there’s also one thing I need to say about the nature of storytelling.  As I see it, good storytelling never tells it all.  A well done novel  leaves questions open to be considered and answered by the reader.   So it is true that you haven’t heard in detail about what Tonino went through, and you don’t know where Vittorio is; his adoptive family is gone. You may never know some of those things; in the end they may be for you to decide.

The question about the murders is, of course, far more pressing. Some people raced through the last part of the book because they just had to know who was responsible … And then were disappointed.  Really disappointed. One star irritated.  [Edited to note that this question comes up in the comments, below.] An old friend pointed something out to me that I hadn’t considered: in the mystery genre, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll know who the guilty party is by the end.  I don’t read much mystery, or I would have realized that.  If I had been aware of that expectation, I’m not sure what I would have done differently.

Could I have written a better novel? Certainly.  I doubt there has ever been a novelist who is totally satisfied with a piece of work.  I know a writer with a t-shirt that reads IT’S ALL A DRAFT UNTIL YOU DIE.   It’s the nature of the beast, and still:  I don’t like disappointing readers, and I do hope that when the next book comes out, those I’ve irritated or frustrated will find that the answers they were expecting really were worth the wait. In the meantime, there are a lot of documents about the murders dragged from the archives of the police department, sitting over there at The Gilded Hour  site. You might well figure out the answer to this question on your own.

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People seem to feel strongly about the epilogue at the end of The Endless Forest: they love it, or they really, really do not love it.

I wrote it because I personally needed to have some closure, and to say goodbye to my characters. The idea that they were wandering around out there in the world and having adventures without me just did not sit well.

There are people who like surprises, and people who don’t. I do not like surprises. I prefer to know. And thus the epilogue.

As to how I decided about each character: I often flipped a coin. Is person x going to die in his sleep in a happy old age, or die in his forties, unhappily?  Sometimes I just know — I know what happened to Simon, for example, but other times I need a push.  This is one of those odd things about writing that is hard to explain.

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Category: Author process

I write big books that need a lot of research. Also, it’s a creative process and I have a difficult muse.

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