Rewriting history in response to today

This past Saturday, I woke at 5:30 AM, troubled by our political climate. As a hobbyist historian, I found myself wondering how we got here and what could have prevented such an ideological divide. The answer lies in studying, among other things, John Quincy Adams’s impact on the Gag Rules, the South Carolina Nullification Crisis of 1833 (the first time they threatened secession), and the Supreme Court rulings following the Reconstruction Amendments that opened the door for state-governed Jim Crow laws.

I was chatting with a co-worker the other day that the Union won the battles of the Civil War, but lost war of cultural change during Reconstruction. So, this picture is my attempt to “fix it.”

My historical fantasy is set in 1873 Columbus, Ohio. My city was doing a lot of good stuff for the education of the general public, including desegregation to deal with the rising population, opening a public library, and founding The Ohio State University (which had women and persons of color in their first graduating classes). However, the political history I mentioned above had an impact that cannot be ignored.

In my alternate history, I tweaked the Reconstruction Amendments to be more inclusive and with less caveats. I allowed Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas to not be so heavily swayed by South Carolina. I even play around with the idea that President Lincoln let’s South Carolina secede for a (very little) while.

In my story, slavery legislation is a state equality issue, where it’s unfair that states with larger populations of people who aren’t citizens (I’m looking at you, 3/5 law) get extra votes. Plus, there’s magic. More on that later.

In the meantime, I felt a little better after rewriting history for 90 minutes. I feel like maybe I can face whatever new sad news I’ll see today about the transition of power between the former and new president. I feel like we’re on the cusp of a new era of Reconstruction, this time perhaps a more focused attempt at bridging the ideological beliefs separating the 70 million who want things to stay as they are from the 74 million who push for equality and unity.

Finding Comfort in Tracking my Reading

I’m sure you’re as tired as I am of hearing about all the “uncertainty” in the world today. Let’s face it, the world has always been uncertain. Excluding the flabbergasting impact the pandemic has had on the total unpreparedness of the United States, 2020 is different only because there is more visibility on issues that already existed. Not to be a total downer here, but these issues aren’t going to go away in 2021 unless we all choose to do something about it.

All that said, I’ve been looking for things that bring a feeling of stability and predictability, such as revisiting favorite books from my personal library. Even if these are re-reads, I keep track of them in my reading journal.

Why keep a reading journal?

I have kept a reading journal since 2006. There’s something oddly comforting about looking over the years at the types of books I read. Some years, it’s clear I was doing research for a new novel. Some years, I was pushing my reader horizons by picking up a lot of fantasy or literary fiction. And some years, like this one, I revisited favorites either to dissect the narrative, or just to have something at hand that I knew I’d enjoy.

My journal follows a light version of bullet journal techniques, meaning I include a:

  • Key to indicate my opinion of the book
  • Index to locate each year (some years span multiple pages/spreads)

Journal key

Photo of my reading journal's "key"

In my reading journal’s key, I have special symbols for the following reading statuses:

  • Started or in-progress
  • “Meh” as in, it was OK but I’d probably not read it again
  • Disliked or hated
  • Liked
  • Quit
  • Loved
  • Try again, as in migrate this title to next year’s list because I didn’t get to it by the new year

And then I have two symbols for the format of the book, because I noticed that I started reading eBooks out of nowhere in 2011, with 2015 being the first year where I read more eBooks than print books.

  • Print book
  • eBook

Noticing reading trends

Photo of my 2006 reading list

This year, I’m back to only reading print books because I’ve been full-time work from home due to the pandemic. I have more than enough screen time with the job and doing DIY home improvement research on my phone, I just have no interest in reading books on my phone or tablet.

I wish I had started this journal back in high school instead of halfway through college. I’ve been seeking out books I liked at the time but didn’t have the money to buy, such as The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Some books I purchased in college, such as the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix, and some I’m now collecting through eBay to avoid spending too much money.

Photo of my 2020 reading list

Of course, I also have been relying on the local library for newer books, but the new books have been such a hit-or-miss that I’ve given up on new fiction for a while. If you’re concerned about the virus transmitting on shared materials like library books, check out the REALM project from OCLC, which is a study tracking how long the coronavirus lives on such items.

What is something you’ve done recently for comfort?

Some friends keep a daily journal, just jotting notes about what happened that day. Some are keeping a specific gratitude journal. For me, it’s my reading and writing journals. Anything to keep me off another screen! I’m even considering going back to writing on legal pads since the thought of opening a word processor makes my skin crawl.

Best,
Belinda

Misleading Plots

I admitted on Instagram the other day that I’m at a crossroads as an author… Not only am I considering shifting genres from historical fiction to historical fantasy (gaslamp fantasy?), but I’m also taking a hard look at my recurring writing habits with an eye to improve.

While reading WRITING FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION by Orson Scott Card, Philip Athans, and Jay Lake, I realized a hard truth… my plots misdirect the reader. This would be ok if it were done with well-crafted intention, but of course, that is at the reader’s discretion about how well I’m doing that.

Now, clearly I’m improving or I wouldn’t have won the 2017 Self-Publishing Review award for THE LAST APRIL. Even so, I’ve been learning more about the types of stories that populate fantasy and sci-fi and instead learning more about how I should be crafting my historical fiction. Isn’t that funny?

The book mentions four story categories: milieu, idea, character, event, a.k.a. “there and back again,” “answer the question,” “character transformation,” and “bring the world back to order.” At least, that’s how I’m interpreting these to help me dissect my own writing.

Card mentions readers get frustrated when you start with one category yet end with another. This made me reflect on some of the criticism I’ve received for my published works.

For instance, HAUNTING MISS TRENTWOOD starts as an “idea” story. Mary’s father crawls from his grave and we end the first chapter wondering why she is the only one to see this or if she’s losing her mind. The question the story needs to answer, at least based on the set up, is why is Trentwood haunting his daughter? Those who have read the book know this is actually a character story, because the mysteries culminate in a couple character transformations, and while we solve the mysteries, the characters are the true point. I have readers who love this, and readers who felt misled by the gothic nature of the first chapter.

THE LAST APRIL also begins as an idea, but it is more apparent that is has to be a character story because anyone who knows anything about President Lincoln’s assassination knows it had nothing to do with anyone in Ohio. Or at least at this point in our understanding of historical events, that is true. Anyone who has never learned anything about that event will feel misled by the premise. Anyone who is aware will realize this book is about the characters and the feeling of being one small individual caught in the storm of national events.

So anyway, it’s making me wonder why I start my stories on an idea but end with character transformations. I’ve always said I’m a character-driven writer, I’m proud and excited by that fact. The obvious thing to do is stop writing “idea” beginnings and instead write “character beginnings.” Putting this into practice will certainly be a challenge.

Have you read a book that you felt misled you? Did it work for you, or were you left wondering what happened?

Plan Your Novel with Trello

Starting a new project, whether for NaNoWriMo or something longer term, is a great opportunity to seek out new tools and methods for planning your novel. When I worked on The Last April, I found a number of tools that helped me, and I want to use them again for a new project… with some tweaks.

Even though I write first drafts in a paper notebook, most of my planning and research is digital for quick reference. The Last April had spreadsheets for character details and motivations, plot timelines, and news media excerpts. It had book plan documents and plot diagrams. I had to bounce between too many documents to get the big picture.

I need to see my characters, plot, historical timeline, and marketing plan in one location so I don’t lose sight of the objective. Enter Trello.

Why Trello?

Trello is a powerful tool because it is so simple. You create an account, open a board, and start creating lists. Within each list, you create cards.

What do you do with the lists and cards? The lists could be family member names, while the cards are chores for the week. The lists could be phases of a project (to do, in progress, done, blocked) and the cards could be components of the project. The possibilities are endless, but here are some of the reasons why I chose Trello to plan the next book, whatever it may be.

Trello is…

  • Free, though you can pay for a subscription and get additional features
  • Both textual and visual planning
  • Accessed from any web browser and has a mobile app
  • Popular enough for some pretty cool extensions

The extensions are what really make this planning method shine. The default Trello experience is a series of columns in a single row. To combine my character sheets, story arc planning, marketing definition (book plan), timeline, and historical research into one board, I need rows of lists, preferably with a heading so the grouping is clear.

Default Trello is a single row of lists

Trello comes with what they call Power-Ups to extend the experience, but I didn’t see anything that met my need. Plus, for free accounts, you only get one power-up. Enter browser extensions.

Set Up Your Trello Board

Create a Trello account if you don’t have one already.

  • Create a new board
  • Create lists to plan your novel, like
    • Characters
    • Eleven stages of a three-act story
    • References (setting, newspaper clippings, maps)
    • Timeline (my stories span a couple weeks)
    • Book plan (goals, market demographics, marketing plan)
  • If you know the content already, add cards to your lists

Create Your Swim Lanes

For this to work, you need the Chrome or Firefox web browser and its associated browser extension. These extensions only work on desktop/laptop views. I have Firefox, so the instructions at this point might differ for Chrome users.

Swimlanes for Trello is pretty simple. To make a new swim lane, or row, type the pipe character (the vertical bar) into the name of your list. To make a characters row in the screenshot below, I named the first list “Main |Characters.” I waited about two seconds, and the board shifted to having headings above rows of lists. That’s it!

Browser extensions make multiple rows of Trello lists

You will need to follow the instructions for List Layouts if you are on Chrome but I assume it is just as simple.

Success! What was multiple documents is now a single board. The fun thing about Trello is you can add labels to cards; I will like do this for the plot to chart where characters have pivotal moments. You can also add images , which I think will be useful for character sheets, setting, building references, etc.

Caveats and Disclaimers

This stacked list style only works on a Firefox desktop display. Since I write first drafts on paper, often with a mobile device beside me, it is easy to scroll the single list view if needed. When I’m in generative thinking mode and need the entire view, I’m probably on my laptop anyway.

If you make more lists after creating your swim lanes and have to move them around, it can confuse the extension back into a single row. If this happens, refresh the page and everything should return to the stacked view.

Those are the two glitches I’ve found so far, neither of which is a deal breaker for me.

I hope this tutorial helps; let me know in the comments how you set up your board or if you’re using a different tool to plan your novel. If after this post you realize you still prefer pen and paper, check out my Etsy shop where I have novel planning notebooks for sale.

– Belinda

THE LAST APRIL winner of the 2017 Self-Publishing Review Award!

I’m happy to announce that my latest book, The Last April, was announced the winner of the 2017 SPR Award. I would guess hundreds of books apply to this contest since the Self-Publishing Review (SPR) is a well-known and highly-valued resource for book reviews and editorial services.

SPR has been highlighted by The Guardian, The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Forbes, and Writer’s Digest as a reputable venue for vetting your work.

I am beyond honored and humbled by this award. As the first prize winner, I receive:

  • A GOLD Amazon Reviews Package (30+ Verified Customer Reviews)
  • A Lead Story Editorial Review on SPR
  • An author interview, shared with almost a quarter of a million readers
  • A virtual book tour of 1 week, with 15+ blogs
  • A Category and Keyword analysis for Amazon
  • Rosette artwork for the ebook and paperback book
  • And more!

Thank you so much to everyone who supported and contributed to the journey of The Last April, including my writer’s group at Wild Goose Creative, my beta readers, Ali and John, my editor, Cindy from Second Set of Eyes, and my cover artist, Jenny from Seedlings Design Studio. Most especially, my husband, who reminded me when to go to sleep when I burned the candle from both ends to meet my (self-imposed) deadline.

Stay tuned for updates on my first ever author fair experience, hosted by the Marion County Public Library in Central Ohio!

Happy reading,
Belinda

Dreaming of the Next Book

Now that I’m weaning myself off the honeymoon period from releasing The Last April, I’ve been dreaming of my next book. There always is “the next book” for authors. Kind of like how “there’s always a band” for The Music Man.

I was in our living room, cuddling with the mini-schnauzer while working on my November writing challenge from @pageflutter on Instagram, when I sat straight up with an exclamation.

Can’t see the embedded Instagram post?

“Hunting Miss Trentwood!” I shouted at my husband, who jumped, and then grimaced. No, that was too close to the title for the first book, Haunting Miss Trentwood. But I knew something was there, and abandoned my writing challenge to ideate on possible titles:

  • Hunting Miss Trentwood
  • Seeking Miss Trentwood
  • Seeking Mary
  • Hunting Mary Trentwood <– the tentative winner

In this proposed sequel (my first ever), we follow Mary and Hartwell as their relationship is tested by the pressures of London, Queen Victoria’s Jubliee celebrations, future mothers-in-law, Victorian spiritualism, and hey, Jack the Ripper might make an appearance (at least in newspaper headings).

I’m just starting to revisit my old written notebooks for my Haunting Miss Trentwood research, but the excitement for writing a book is returning!

Can’t see the embedded instagram post of my research notebooks?

Anyway, it’s a good way to end the year, I hope, dreaming about my next book.

P.S. I’m revamping my newsletter to a semi-monthly review of things I’m into that you should totally know about and hopefully be into as well. If you’re not getting my newsletters, you can sign up and read the archives here.

Happy reading,

Belinda

Howl-O-Ween Giveaway featuring The Last April & Haunting Miss Trentwood

This year, I’m giving away digital copies of Haunting Miss Trentwood and The Last April! Keeping it simple this year, you can tweet a message, visit my Facebook page, or post a comment below to win copies of my popular eBooks.

Thanks to The Kids Did It and The Mommy Island blogs for hosting this giveaway hop! If you’ve never done one of these, I’m part of a bunch of bloggers who all signed up to give away prizes. At the end of this post is the full list of bloggers giving away prizes.

1865 Civil War (2017)
YA Sweet Drama

1887 Victorian England (2010)
YA Gothic Comedy

I’m always looking for bloggers to review, so if you do happen to win, I’d love to see your thoughts on your blog, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble!

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You Should Watch “Pressing On: The Letterpress Film”

This past weekend I had the pleasure of watching Pressing On: The Letterpress Film. This was the result of a Kickstarter campaign and it is a lovely work! I’m a big DIYer and Maker in general, so this film was right up my alley regarding doing something slow and methodical with your hands to get a sense of accomplishment… while also collecting and sharing the history of letterpress.

It’s truly a lovely film and worth your time if you can get access to it. I seriously want a mini letterpress now in my home because of this film. I love paper, and have too many paper journals already.

Anyway, go see this film! I know I’ll be waiting for the DVD distribution!

Also, a lovely review for The Last April was written this past weekend by Emma Lucas, a book blogger and Instagrammer. I’ve included some snippets for fun:

CAN’T PUT IT DOWN RATING: 4/5
….It was educational, intriguing, and explained history to me through the eyes of Gretchen. The thoughts and feelings of both sides are exquisitely communicated through the use of dialogue and of newspaper articles, the issues surrounding ‘fake news’ (as often seen today!) were still prevalent all those years ago, with newspaper bias and genuine reporting mistakes, which led to wide struck panic and confusion and something that we can all understand.

….Overall, I would highly recommend this book, both to adults and young adults a like, for those with an interest in war fiction, of historical fiction or as an educational tool to learn. I would strongly suggest the book to any teachers who may be looking to educate students in an engaging way through story telling. Kroll’s writing is crisp and very easy to understand, and when I begrudgingly had to put the book down, it was very easy to pick it back up again.

Adults may find that the story is lacking in terms of gore, details on deaths etc, however as this is set for a younger audience this is more than understandable and did not in anyway impede my enjoyment of the book.

However, although the story is set in the past, unfortunately uncertain political times are a general constant somewhere in the world. The novella raises themes of hope, fear, and looking toward the future during these times, so will always have relevance.

I love following Emma’s book reviews because she always chooses a tea to correlate with her reading.

She suggests you read The Last April with Taylor’s of Harrogate Sour Cherry tea, because it’s “punchy as Gretchen’s attitude with a slight bitterness of Aunt Klegg, with the sweetness of Karl. Perfect accompaniment to this read!”

Camp Chase Soldier Statue Toppled

Is it is surreal that I wrote a story about a Confederate soldier released from Columbus, Ohio’s Camp Chase prison camp given current events. I learned just now on Facebook that the cemetery I visited back in June, with mixed feelings I might add, had its soldier statue toppled.

What’s ironic about the Camp Chase cemetery and the existence of this statue at all is that it was raised by Union officer William H. Knauss, who led the first memorial and later wrote a book about the prison. His intent was to honor these Confederate prison fatalities as Americans, not Confederates, as labeled on the arch. Since Columbus has the largest Confederate cemetery outside of the former Confederate States of America, one might take a cynical view to Knauss’s efforts.

Was he just trying to make money? Did he want the fame and glory of a book tour? It doesn’t seem like it… he raised money to renovate the cemetery, to put walls around it, and to invite those with Union and Confederate leanings to remember that which made the United States a singular rather than plural noun.

That said, glorifying a piece of the past is quite dangerous. If there are statues depicting Confederate officers, then there should also be statues depicting the slavery they fought to protect. And not the minstrel song and dance slaves, but those which depict liberation. If the point is to “remember our history,” then let’s remember history holistically.

It’s a semantic quibble to argue whether the American Civil War was about slavery or states’ rights. The Confederate government went to war with the Federal government for their right to determine whether slavery was legal or not, which does, in essence, make the war about slavery.

Lest we forget, a number of the statues toppled so far were built during the heydey of Jim Crow laws and the anti-Civil Rights era to act as reminders that people died to keep slavery around, and that there are generations of families who might, if pushed, do so again.

It is time we reevaluate how we pay homage and how we hope future generations interpret such symbols of homage.

Sneak Peek into Our Next Adventure

I’ve never written a sequel before. It’s a terrifying thought. Which perhaps makes it all the more appropriate that the plot which often disturbs my dreams is a sequel to my young adult comedic ghost story, Haunting Miss Trentwood.

I haven’t been able to make it out to my writer’s group due to my hectic schedule, but I wanted to share a scene with you.

Image borrowed from the TV show Penny Dreadful because it is so perfectly matched. Penny Dreadful is not suited for children and some adults, nor is it safe for work. It has many triggers, so please do your research before watching this show.

– – – – –

It took the panicked prodding of the young miss beside Mr. Jasper Steele to yank him from his bored reverie. Their hands were clasped, and it took him a moment to remember where he sat.

“May I help you?” he hissed, his pale moustache twitching.

The little brunette, who reminded him a great deal of a former interest, squeaked and nodded in the direction she meant him to look. Mr. Steele looked up to find a fetching young lady floating above the round table as if lifted by her torso like a cloth doll. It was Miss Sewell, the daughter of their hostess. She rotated in air like a suspended top, rotating until stopping to face him. Her upside-down, unseeing stare sent chills down his back. The young lady beside him whimpered.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, for Mr. Steele, this was not his first haunting.

“Ah,” he said. He cleared his throat. “I do beg your pardon. I was… otherwise engaged. Might I help you?”

The séance participants, already on edge, inhaled in unison.

Miss Sewell blinked one eye, then the other. Her soft blonde locks began to fall from their careful coifs, the curls sweeping the table. “Jasper Ssssteele.”

Mr. Steele nodded. “You have the right of it, that’s my name.”

The girl beside him trembled so violently, they almost broke their handshake.

“Do not release his hand!” Dame Hartwell, their séance guide, said.

Jasper gripped the girl’s hand, glaring at her, daring her to let go.

“Jasper Steele,” Miss Sewell said again, far more clearly.

Mr. Steele’s mouth ran dry.

“You must help her,” said Miss Sewell’s unnaturally deep, echoing voice.

“Help whom do what?”

Miss Sewell blinked, her expression clearing, starting to show a moment of horror. “My sister,” she whispered. With a quiet gasp, she crashed to the table, unleashing everyone’s screams finally.

Lady Sewell rose from the table, trying to calm her guests, who all ran from the room as if on fire.

Mr. Steele frowned. He leaned forward. “You don’t have a sister,” he said to the prone Miss Sewell.

“I did,” she said before fainting.