9 June 2014

Guest Post ~ Gwendolyn's Sword by E. A. Haltom

Set in the midst of one of the most violent and vibrant periods of the early middle ages, Gwendolyn’s Sword answers the question, what if King Arthur had actually returned to twelfth-century England—as a woman?

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First I would like to thank Tony for inviting me to write a guest post. Tony is generous in his efforts to support new authors, and for that I am very grateful. Tony suggested I write about what inspires me to write and how I approach my writing, so I’ll do my best to give unvarnished, thoughtful answers.

As far as inspiration, I write all the time. I get distracted when I’m not writing; scenes, dialogue, and plot developments weave in my imagination while I’m trying to do other things. I’m not inspired to write as much as I’m compelled. But I didn’t finally decide to take myself seriously as a writer until I was much older. When I was thirty-nine, I read an interview with Stephenie Meyer, in which she described writing her debut, Twilight, during her kids’ naps, with a baby on her lap. I had a “what’s my excuse?” moment, and I got to work.

Conventional wisdom tells us to write about what we know. I know about being a woman in a world dominated—politically, professionally, economically, commercially—by men. I write what I wish was already out there for me to read: a tale of a cold-eyed woman warrior, in the best of the heroic traditions, with no romantic fluff, no soul-searching reflections or attention wasted on dress or social customs. She holds her own with a sword against the best knights. She is unapologetically capable and intelligent. She would risk her life to fulfill an oath, once given. Obviously, this woman belongs in late 12th c. England.

When I first set out to write my story, I researched the actual historical basis for many of the themes I wanted to include. I discovered a popular Welsh nationalist legend prophesying the return of Arthur to rout out all non-Britons (here the 12th c. Welsh may have set aside a generally known understanding that the Normans themselves were descended from clans of Britons that had fled to northern Gaul centuries back).

There was also a protracted campaign of propaganda by the Plantagenets to counter the Welsh prophecy, highlighted most notably by Richard the Lionheart’s sanctioning of Glastonbury Abbey’s claim to have discovered the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere on the abbey’s grounds (bearing no relation, of course, to the abbey’s desperate need to raise funds to rebuild after a devastating fire). The Plantagenets found further assistance in the writings of Chretien de Troyes, Gerald of Wales, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, to co-opt the legend of Arthur from the Welsh and make him their own. Delightfully, I even discovered a Ph.D. dissertation analyzing the Plantagenets’ treatment of Arthurian legend as an early example of political propaganda.

I am embarrassed to admit that none of this was known to me at the time that I initially conjured my tale of a woman heir to King Arthur, in England during the turmoil of Richard I’s reign. Happy coincidence followed happy coincidence as I began my research. And yet, the story that I eventually published is actually the second iteration of my tale. I benefitted from the criticism and feedback of an excellent reader and fan of the genre. He felt that I had taken more license than the genre will support with the historical facts of the time.

He also pointed out tactical combat errors my characters were making that, as seasoned warriors, they would have known to avoid. Fans of the genre would have spotted the inconsistencies immediately, and they would have been perhaps so put off as to not have been able to finish the story. So I dug quite a bit deeper into my research, and while I preserved the essential arc of the characters and the plot, in all other respects the story was completely rewritten. The geography of the tale was flipped, the politics of the time were brought into sharp relief, and fictional characters and locations were replaced by actual as much as possible. This is, I believe, a reverse engineering of the “proper” way to write historical fiction.

In my own experience, I found that having a writer’s group held me back. The criticisms were more to my voice (I remember one member saying, “I just don’t get it. I never think of tears as ‘hot.’”) than to my craft. Feedback from good readers is a must, but be selective. Your voice is crucial. It is what makes your writing unique. It gives your prose life. It gives your characters dimension. Find your voice. Fight for your voice. And be prepared to weather a lot of hard work and a lot of rejection.

There is a difference between “voice” and what I’ll call “fluffery.” The best advice on writing that I have received so far came from a journalist. He said that when he had written a sentence or turn of phrase that he was especially proud of, he knew that it had to come out. At the time that he told me this, I was flabbergasted by what he was saying. I was clinging to every clever turn of phrase in my manuscript like my life depended on it. But he told me that the emotional attachment was the signal that he had become enamored of his own deft style, and had departed from simply telling the story. In time I have come to recognize this flag for myself. Many distracting bits of “fluffery” that were more the product of my ego than the story have been axed—for the better.

If you have written but you are unsure if your writing is “good enough,” keep going. I don’t know that I’ll ever consider myself a “good” writer. I’m not even sure what that means. Even though Gwendolyn’s Sword won the Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest for Historical Fiction, I could not get an agent to sign me. Maybe the story of a sword-wielding woman with no steamy romance thrown in didn’t fit anyone’s idea of marketability. Maybe by writing a story that would normally have had a male lead with a woman lead instead, the professionals figured I’d also left behind any potential male audience. Thankfully, I haven’t found that to be true. I hired my own editor, hired an artist for the book cover, and I published myself. Most days I feel rather foolhardy to be now working on the sequel to a book that’s only been out a month. Blind persistence like this is necessary.

Best of luck with your own writing. 

E. A. Haltom

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About the Author

E. A. Haltom lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and kids and a minor menagerie of animals. Gwendolyn’s Sword is her debut novel. Before becoming a writer, E. A. Haltom was a prosecutor, a grocery clerk, a massage therapist, and a technology transactions lawyer. Visit her blog at http://smittenbythewords.blogspot.com and find her on Twitter at @eahaltomauthor and Facebook 
(FB page likes greatly appreciated!).

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