Last fall, I had the opportunity to attend a writers’ conference for which the keynote speaker was bestselling author Tess Gerritsen. You might know her as the author behind the television series Rizzoli & Isles and several fairly brilliant medical thrillers that, if you are a fan of medical thrillers, you should probably read.
She is a wonderful speaker and had many insightful things to share, including this one bit I am holding onto particularly hard at the moment. Bestseller Tess Gerritsen confessed that during the course of reworking nearly every project she writes, there comes a time when she no longer believes the story is any good at all. Of course, her point in sharing this was that sometimes you just have to put your head down and keep forging ahead.
I find myself at this point with my current work-in-progress. I suppose I might call it writer’s block except I don’t think that’s really what it is. I’m not having trouble coming up with ideas or even getting words on a page. I mean, I am mostly working on short story and essay submissions and not my novel, but I am writing. I’m even writing some things I’m pretty proud of.
But when it comes to this historical novel, of which I have plowed my way through a terrible first draft and have completed a good portion of a hopefully somewhat less terrible second draft, I’m kind of just having a hard time finding traction.
Writer’s block of all forms has plagued mankind probably since the first cave dwellers agonized over whether a bow and arrow or an antelope would better communicate the inner transformative journey of the central stick figure. Fortunately, the condition has been widely studied.
And no one’s research has yielded more fruitful answers than that of Dennis Upper of Veterans Administration Hospital in Brockton, Massachusetts, whose findings were published in the Fall 1974 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. Dr. Upper titled his insightful paper “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block.’”
Other than the title, one footnote, and a single peer review response, the article is entirely blank. The footnote explains that findings in the paper had not been presented at a convention of the American Psychological Association. The review heaps praise on the concise nature of the article and recommends no changes, stating that the journal should find room for Dr. Upper’s fine work “perhaps on the edge of a blank page.”
The point of the “study,” of course, is that psychologists, if not always super helpful, are at least pretty funny.
But there is probably a lesson to be learned from the not-an-article, that really did appear in a respectable peer-reviewed journal, even taking up a full page, and not just the edge of one. The point, I suspect, is that leaving the page blank will clearly not solve the problem and, as Gerritsen suggests, there comes a time when you have to just put your head down and keep forging ahead.
Oh—I see what he did there. It turns out, psychologists, if not always super funny, are at least pretty helpful.
On March 19th, 1848 in the little town of Monmouth, Illinois, the gunslinger who would one day become the central figure in the famous shootout at the OK Corral, Wyatt Earp came screaming into the world.
But I’m not going to write about Earp this week. In fact, I’m not going to write about any historical figure at all, because a while back, a fellow blogger was kind enough to extend an invitation for me to participate in a writer’s tour.
So, first, I want to thank Camille Gatza of Wine and History Visited for including me on the tour. I have been enjoying Camille’s blog almost since I started out blogging myself. Her posts often detail her travels through the US including wonderful background on historic sites and national and state parks. Along the way she always seems to discover unique restaurants and wineries and over the years, she has taught me pretty much everything I pretend to know about wine.
So here are the questions put forward on the tour:
What are you currently working on?
I’m always researching for both my blog and my fiction projects. The blog jumps through time and space from week to week, through the stories that I find interesting at any given time, with really very little rhyme or reason. I find that kind of research, which is admittedly not always very thorough, to be kind of a refreshing break from the research I do for my fiction projects. That is thorough and time consuming and while interesting, doesn’t always yield the kind of lighter stories I like to share in this space.
Currently as a blogger, I am looking into the story behind LEGOS because this weekend my family and I will be attending the traveling LEGO Festival as it visits St. Louis. In my other “writerly” role, I am working through a first full draft of a novel that will hopefully serve as a companion to my first that was recently accepted for publication (!). As part of that process I am reading everything I can get my hands on about the Pennsylvania canal system in 1833, which, while interesting, and will supply wonderful historical details for the novel, is not exactly good material for this particular blog.
How does your work differ from others in your genre?
A lot of history blogs I read (and I do read a lot of them) are very information dense. Often they cite references and speak with a good deal of authority within a fairly narrow scope. I love that. And those kinds of blogs are exactly what history blogs should be.
But this isn’t that kind of blog. In fact I hesitate sometimes to even call it a history blog, because in some ways that’s not what it is. I do share stories from history, and I do spend a good amount of time (or at least some) researching my chosen topic in an attempt to provide readers with tidbits worthy of sharing at cocktail parties. But there’s also a lot of me on the pages of this blog. There’s a lot about my life and the things I find funny, or interesting, or just worthwhile. I try not to claim a great deal of authority in this space, because, frankly, I have none to claim.
But I do hope the posts are fun to read. I have a great time writing them.
Why do you write what you do?
When I was younger, history always seemed either dull or tragic to me. I’ve never been very good at memorizing dates and it seemed all I ever learned about in history class was how one group of people exploited another group of people to become the dominant people. And, really, human history can be boiled down to that if you let it be. But as I grew older and studied more literature, I began to see history through a different lens. When fleshed out with the little details that make up the experiences of individuals, suddenly each moment in history becomes many moments with many perspectives and far-reaching implications. In other words, it becomes a story. And a story, our story, is worth telling.
That realization led me to writing historical fiction, a genre that I fell in love with very quickly as a reader as well as a writer. And this blog is an extension of that. As this wonderful article in The Onionso eloquently points out, there are more stories within the history of human experience than I can possibly tell, or that any of us can possibly tell or ever know. But with this blog, each week, I get to take a stab at illuminating a little bit more.
How does your writing process work?
For the most part, I write what’s on my mind. If I have experienced or will be experiencing a particular event, I may use that as a jump-off for some historical research, and often the structure of the post itself will reveal that. Some weeks, something I come across in the news sends me down a trail I think might be worth sharing. And, of course, like anyone else, I have weeks when I struggle to find something to say.
Typically I start out with a very general idea of what I want to write and just start typing because I never know exactly what I’m going to want to write until I’ve already written it. After that I polish it up, trim the word count, insert what I hope are a few clever lines, throw in a few pictures, and post. Then I just sit back and wait for millions of thoughtful comments to come rolling in.
Well, okay, so that last part doesn’t really happen, but I realize that this blog is a little hard to categorize and it is sure to appeal to a fairly specific kind of reader. I am delighted that so many of you quirky, creative, thoughtful people have found it. Thank you!
And now on with the tour!
For the next stops on the tour, I’ve chosen two writers whose blogs I appreciate very much. They also both happen to be writers of historical fiction, but they each approach blogging differently than I do. I doubt they’ll be writing about Wyatt Earp this week either (although you never know). Still, I hope you’ll visit their sites, and maybe read their books as well, because it will be well worth the effort.
Samuel Hall grew up in the American Heartland. He lives with his wife near Salem, Oregon. Their three adult children continue to teach him about family relationships and authenticity, core subjects of his novel.
Sign up for the newsletter at www.ashberrylane.com to hear the latest about Sam’s book, Daughter of the Cimarron.
Adrienne Morris lives in the country, milks goats, chases chickens and sometimes keeps the dogs off the table while writing books about the Weldon and Crenshaw families of Gilded Age Englewood, New Jersey. Her first novel, The House on Tenafly Road was selected as an Editors’ Choice Book and Notable Indie of the Year by The Historical Novel Society.