As some of you know, I contribute monthly to a very informative writers’ blog called From the Write Angle.  Today is my day to post there, and I am blogging about two subjects near and dear to my heart – the pressing desire of debut authors to avoid being “one book wonders,” and professional self-discipline.  To wit, I argue that as a writer exercises of  self-discipline are required to build an audience and keep them coming back for more.

So if you came here for your daily dose of Sophie only to be disappointed (yes, you Mom), head on over to From the Write Angle.

Barnes and Noble is the latest addition to a growing list of vendors accepting pre-orders for The Sister Queens.  So, those of you who are B&N members and have been patiently waiting to be able to use your free express shipping – wait no longer :)

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August 9th 1239 – Eleanor of Provence’s Ceremony of Purification after the birth of the Lord Edward features more than 500 tapers lit before the Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor.  The event is marred when Henry verbally attacks his sister’s husband, Simon de Montfort.

This post inaugurates a new series—Literary Sisters—giving me a chance to reflect (rather randomly) upon some of the great sister pairings from literary classics.  And what better way to start than with my favorite sisters of all time, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Why Jane and Lizzy?  Well, I will admit they remind me (strikingly) of myself and my own sister.  But narcissism aside, the way the Bennet sisters are portrayed by Austen—as caring, supportive, best-friends—offers a refreshing change from a large number sister depictions I’ve read more recently.  You know the type—bitchy sisters, sisters who steal each other’s boyfriends, sisters who are rivals first and fellow-family-members second (or not at all).

Now I understand there are many unpleasant sister relationships in the real world (and I thank Divine Providence daily that I do not have one) but for HEAVEN’S SAKE, I refuse to believe they represent the majority.  “Nasty” certainly doesn’t describe most of the sisters I meet as I move through life.  The majority of sisters I come in contact with love each other to death.  They would lend their sister their last dollar, or give their sister a kidney if she needed it.  And they are far more likely to drive to their sister’s boyfriend’s house and kick his butt for dumping sis than they are to steal their sister’s fellow (“do you think anything might tempt me to accept the man who has ruined, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”).  Certainly sisters fight (and those fights can be wicked, as they poke at every childhood sore), and yes sisters can sabotage each other occasionally, but most of the time they play on the same team.  Why then do writers (or perhaps it is publishers—after all they buy the manuscripts) assume only dysfunctional sister relationships are interesting to readers?

It’s the rule of conflict with a capital “C.”  Conflict is essential in fiction, that cannot be denied.  And nice is considered dull.  But there is no rule (none, I checked the rule book for writing good novels) that says the central conflict in a novel involving sisters has to be between those sisters.  It is possible to write a compelling “sisters versus the world” book.  Or a book in which the main characters are sisters and each face independent difficulties.  I would certainly argue that Pride and Prejudice is gripping and has conflict enough without Jane and Lizzy at each other’s throats.  I’ve read the book upwards of a dozen times and I am not tired of it yet. 

While Pride and Prejudice is not alone in offering a positive portrayal of sisterhood, there is room on the bookshelf for a few more books celebrating sisters as “comforter in chief,” in times of trouble and “celebrant in chief” in times of triumph.  And it is possible to write such books without whitewashing or over-simplifying the complex relationship between female siblings.

Why do I care so much?  Why do I pine for more books which, like Pride and Prejudice, give us positive models of sister relationships?  Because just as fiction imitates life, life imitates fiction (or rather culture in general). 

When our culture disproportionately depicts sister relationships that are riven by conflict or that are dysfunctional as they are daily lived, we imply that such relationships are the norm.  When something becomes normative we may, unwittingly, excuse people from trying to make bad behavior better.  Frankly, if (or when, because my kids sure aren’t perfect) I see my daughters behaving as some sets of sisters in books do, I will punish them and punish them severely.  I ask them to be Lizzy and Jane—to tease each other with love, to worry when they see each other looking pale, and to bust Mr. Darcy’s chops if he blights their sister’s hopes.  And in my library I keep a separate copy of Austen’s work for each, inscribed with an expression of my hope that they will find not only entertainment between the pages, but elucidation of what sisters should be.  After all, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood aren’t bad examples either.

Check out this marvelously comprehensive list of new historical fiction coming out during the rest of 2011 and start of 2012!  Guess whose debut novel is listed in March 2012 (hint, her initials are SP and you are reading her blog right now:)

Today I am the subject of an interview over at Dawn G. Sparrow’s Write Away.  Dawn is a friend from AQConnect and in addition to the usual “author questions,” she throws in a few zingers.  Come on over and find out something nobody knew about me . . . until now.

August 1240 – Henry III of England orders two halls at Westminster filled with the poor then feeds them at his expense, as offering for Eleanor’s safety in her approaching confinement.  Princess Margaret will be born safely on September 29th

My dear friend historical romance author Miranda Neville wrote an interesting piece at The Ballroom blog.  The gist of Miranda’s post is that writers have an incredible collection of historical real-estate to browse when creating settings for their historical novels (whether straight or romance), and at each location we can cherry-pick the very best parts and amalgamate them into something new.  For example, Miranda incorporated The Marble Saloon at Stowe into the fictional Mandeville House—setting for her just released The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton as well as two of her other romances.

Miranda’s post got me thinking about several additional points relevant to historical settings—specifically, pertaining to the use of real locations rather than locations created in the mind of the writer.

Timing is everything!  Great cities, great cathedrals, and houses (both great and not so great) change over time.  When an actual historical location is used in a novel we need to remember that—however iconic—that setting was not stagnant.  Whether you are describing the skyline of Avignon or Westminster Abbey you’d better know what period you are writing about before you begin waxing wane with descriptions.  And as a reader, you shouldn’t be too quick to expect certain locations to look certain ways (e.g., as they did when you visited, or in Aunt Irma’s postcards).

For example, Westminster Abbey is a true historic landmark.  Millions have visited it, and many more have seen it in pictures or movies.  What they’ve seen—and the images that rise to their minds when the Abbey is mentioned—is not the Abbey that existed when Eleanor of Provence was crowned Queen of England there in 1236.  In fact, Eleanor’s husband, Henry III, was responsible for a masterful renovation of the Abbey (leaving it dramatically changed for generations to admire), a reconstruction that took years.  As a result, the Abbey would have looked very different at various points in my novel, The Sister Queens.

Similarly, for much of its history (and today) the outline of the city of Avignon has been distinguished by the Papal Palace (gorgeous). But at the time of my novel, when Avignon was part of the Count of Provence’s territories, the great medieval palace seen in paintings and photographs didn’t’ exist.  Describe Avignon including the palace and get it wrong.  Read expecting to see the palace and it won’t be there.  This is why it’s a darn good thing that . . . .

Historical novels are NOT guidebooks.  While it IS important not to be anachronistic when portraying settings—making certain not to include features in an exterior or interior that didn’t exist in a particular time period—it is okay not to flesh out every corner of a room or every façade of a palace.  I certainly believe that an author needs to know the world of her novel in depth in order to move her characters through it convincingly, but, unless you are describing the maneuvers of troops in a battle, sharing too much detail is unnecessary.  A little era-setting detail often goes a long way.  Readers like to use their imaginations, or at least this one does.  When an author throws in too much description just because she/he has the research to support it, or when I feel he/she is showing me miniscule detail gratuitously (the details themselves are interesting or intriguing but in no way relate to the plot), I start to skim.  Skimming is bad.

Of course there ARE occasions when an infusion of detail can enrich the reader’s experience This is particularly true when we want readers to share the sensory experiences of a character—a young woman overwhelmed by the view from a chateau, or nearly dizzied by the incense-saturated air and soaring voices singing the Laudes Regiae in a magnificent abbey.  Nothing can draw a reader into the emotion of a moment more effectively than the purposeful inclusion of carefully selected details of the historical setting.  But note that I said, “purposeful inclusion” and “carefully selected.”  Filtering is a must.  Try to load the same level of detail into every scene in your historical novel and you ruin the effect.

Writers can also use setting itself as catalyst to move a scene forward.  Of course on the large scale this fact is obvious—pick any scene in a historical novel and move the setting as a form of exercise (from the gardens of a grand Château to its great hall).  The meaning of and physical movements in the scene are likely to change, even if you attempt to keep the dialogue the same.  But, setting as catalyst can also occur in small subtle ways in fiction as it does in real life.  Have you ever noticed something—on your desk, outside your window—that, serendipitously, makes your mind leap to a new place and to a particular idea or to action?  That can happen to characters too.  A mother picks up a bird’s nest and thinks of her children.  The pattern in a window reminds a character of a gown and thus of a particular partner from the ball the evening before.  I find as a writer I often want, even need, to place a certain scene in a certain setting in order to take advantage of elements of the architecture or décor that I know by my research would have existed in that place at that time.

What about you?  As a writer how do you handle the REAL real-estate that makes an appearance in your work?  As a reader how much detail is enough to make you feel immersed in the past?  Where does the amount of detail cross a line, leaving you bogged down?  Do you have strong feelings about the balance between real settings/descriptions based on research and locations/rooms created in the mind of the author?