Monday, September 27, 2010

Stephanie Laurens on the Historical Romance

Later in the day at the RWNZ conference, Stephanie Laurens gave a workshop on writing historical romances.

First, the good news is that the bad news isn’t so bad. When you ask a publisher how historicals are doing, he will say, “Sales are flat.” That DOESN’T mean historicals aren’t selling. In fact, they are. What he means is that the percentage of historicals being sold, compared to the whole spectrum of romance subgenres is the same as it has been. But, the whole romance market is getting bigger. In other words, if this year the publisher sells 100 romances and 30 of them are historicals, and next year he sells 200 romances, 60 of them will be historicals. The market is actually growing.

One of the big changes over the past five years, though, there’s been developing a bigger gap between the authors at the top and the rest of the crowd. This has to do with mass market distributors like Wal-Mart, etc.) They have a limited number of slots for romances, and only one goes for historicals. Naturally, that one slot is going to go to a top author “guaranteed” to sell. Now, Stephanie said that the other authors are doing well – because there are still lots of other outlets with more slots (in other words, book stores). But it’s the mass market distributors that push an author’s numbers over the top and determine whether or not a book is going to be a best seller.

On the other hand, it’s not harder to break in for a new author. In fact, with the advent of e-printing, it’s getting easier. Furthermore, (and surprising to me) the most voracious e-book readers aren’t the young kids, but the older reader. The average e-book reader’s age is 56.

OK, what is selling in historical romance? Stephanie said that medievals are not selling (Alex Logan of Grand Central Publishing, who also spoke at the conference confirmed this), unless you can put a kilt on it. What is selling right now is Regency – though that can be expanded to Georgian and Victorian as well. The boundaries are blurred. Editors are looking for story elements that stand out. Right now that’s families and groups (in other words, series), because readers love to return to familiar worlds. Stephanie suggests that you read widely; read bestsellers whose work is closest to yours. Read the best-selling lines.

One of the trends is historical romances are getting hotter.  Audiences today are looking for a higher level of sensuality.

Stephanie also shared with us some information on structuring a book around word count that I’d never heard before. Mass market and commercial fiction plots are structured around blocks of 40,000 words with a block of 5000 at the beginning and end. This is why publishers come up with the word counts you see printed in their submission guidelines.

For example a novella of 50,000 words looks like this:
5000 word intro (includes inciting incident )
40k development to climax
5k denouement

An 85,000 to 90,000 mass market looks like this:
5 k intro (with inciting incident)
40k development to central turning point/black moment
40k development to climax
5k denouement

At the end of every block, you have a major turning point. Stephanie said that in terms of structure, 100,000 words is a bad length. You have either a short book written too long, or a long book written too short.

What settings are selling? Right now, because of the economy, it’s almost impossible to get book publishers to take a risk. Stephanie says everyone loves Scotland and England, but editors are shy of exotic settings right now. She said if you want to use an exotic setting, ground your story in England, then move it offshore.

Stephanie was quick to point out, though, that historical fiction and historical romance are two different beasties. Historical romance, the romance is first and foremost and history is just the backdrop. In historical fiction, history is an essential part of the story. What this means is that historical accuracy for a romance isn’t particularly important. You can bend it a bit. A popular device is to put what you changed into an author’s note at the end. But for historical fiction historical accuracy is crucial.

The question about historical accuracy led to one about the "not nice" parts of the time period.  Tacky things like what women did when they had their menses.  Stephanie said that with a historical romance, you're creating an escape.  So leave those ugly things out.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stephanie Laurens and How to Be Successful as a Writer

When I stepped out of the elevator and turned the corner to the Friday evening cocktail party at the RWNZ conference, I didn’t need to be told the party’s theme – “Romantic in Red”. For a second, I thought I’d entered the dark room to a photo lab (for those of you who remember pre-digital technology.) Red upon red.

With a “This is Stephanie,” of my friends introduced me to a tiny, vivacious, dark-haired woman and left us on our own. As we chatted, my new acquaintance finally said, “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”

“Oh, my god,” I said. “You’re THAT Stephanie.” Stephanie Laurens. The best selling author and our keynote speaker. My mind flashed back to a rodeo in Florida where Phil and I had spent the first half talking with a friendly older couple who seemed to enjoy rodeo as much as we did. Until they realized we didn’t have the foggiest idea they were the stars of a very popular country/western TV show, and then turned us off entirely.

Well, Stephanie wasn’t at all like that. She just ignored my embarrassment and went on chatting about romances and writing – the stuff we both loved. Naturally, I had to pick her brain with the one question that’s been on the top of my mind lately, “How do you stay so productive?”

She has a routine, writes daily, but the thing that stuck with me most is that all her books are planned. She knows where’s she’s going before she starts. She said it takes time to plan out the work, but the efficiency is worth it in the end. In fact, she told me she can’t afford not to plan.

End of my days of sitting down at a blank sheet of paper with an idea… At least I was headed in that direction anyway.

Stephanie’s keynote speech the next day was one of those “aha!” moments for me. Actually a bunch of aha’s. She talked about the publishing industry and the place of romance writers in it. She said that “fiction is a vehicle for the confirmation of the fundamental verities that underpin our society”. All stories, no matter what genre, are about a major theme that is important to humanity: love, justice, revenge, good against evil, etc. Underneath it all, whether “commercial” or “literary”, we’re all writing the same kind of story.

Popular fiction takes these themes and gives us affirmations that make us feel good. It moves readers at a visceral level, working under the audience’s radar.

Stephanie then gave us the history of publishing in a nutshell. What was interesting is that what we consider “mass market” publications go way back to the 18th century, with the production of cheap editions of books aimed at the general public. Charles Dickens wrote for a mass market audience. He wrote to entertain his contemporaries, not to be taught as literature in high school English classes a hundred years later.

And here’s where the light went on for me. We write books to entertain. Stephanie said, “If you want to succeed in genre fiction, engrave the word ‘entertain’ on your mind.”

“Most outsiders”, said Stephanie, “don’t get it.” They don’t understand that there are different types of fiction. The purpose defines how the author writes.

So where’s the difference?

Literary fiction is concerned with the arrangement of letters on the page and words in a sentence.

Genre fiction is about the subject. The author controls the story to best and most effectively convey what she wants to say about her subject.

Mass market (commercial) fiction is about the story. The story drives what the author writes and how she writes it. Language is important because language is the vehicle, but it's not the goal.

What’s good writing? Stephanie says there is a simple test: “Does the work achieve what it was intended to achieve?” If your goal is to entertain, you write for the mass market and you must NEVER forget that. If you keep your mind on entertaining, you are less likely to torpedo your own work.

Audiences of commercial fiction want a satisfying ending. That’s the author’s contract with them. They also have other expectations – a heroine they can identify with (one of the reasons very close third person POV works so well), a hero they can fall in love with, etc. Entertainment is all about experience. You want to express and heighten your audience’s experience. Stephanie said if you want to know what works, study the best sellers. “We are entertainers and the rules that govern entertainment are the only rules that apply.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sword Fighting throught the Ages - Part 3

Avast, me hearties! It’s finally time for those of you who write pirate stories to take the fore (deck). Today I’m blogging on Nic Harrison’s demonstration on sword fighting with a buckler. In other words, swashbuckling.

We’re up to the 16th century now.

1305 MS with Knight carrying a buckler on his hip

A buckle is a small shield, maybe about twice the diameter of man’s fist. It was normally carried strapped to your hip with your scabbard. It was used to deflect blows – the swash. The buckle part of the term comes from the response to a swash – you “buckle”. So the rhythm of a fight went swash, buckle, swash, buckle. The style of fighting goes back to the 13th century and continue right until the 18th.

Fighting with bucklers -- MS dates 1325

Swashbuckling descended from longsword technique. The sword was still a cutting weapon. But it was lighter, even though fighters were still using the sword itself to block opponents blows. The movement of the fight was still circular. As Nic put it, you followed the movement (the arc) of the sword. On the other hand, the pace of the fight had picked up. Blows fell a lot faster (which is probably why we enjoy watching those swashbuckler films so much.)

16th century swashbucklers -- with codpieces

Oh, about now I ought to mention cod pieces. They were not there to enhance a man’s sex appeal. Nic pointed out that all through the ages, men wore some sort of padding to protect their private parts. (Now you know what was REALLY under that kilt.) In a real fight, it was no holds barred. A blow to those parts, by sword or otherwise, could immobilize you and put your totally at the mercy of your opponent.

Viking Sword 9th century
At about this point in his sword fighting techniques demonstration for the Romance Wrtiers of New Zealand, Nic had his fighters through the ages come forward with their swords and let us compare them. The trend was obvious. Swords were getting longer and thinner. They were changing from cutting weapons to piercing ones. (Well, not entirely, but more on this in a bit.)
Norman Sword 11th century

Longsword 15th century

Part of this had to do with the fact that in the late 13th century, treatises began to appear on the art of sword fighting. By the 16th century, there were schools of sword fighting with masters running them. P lus income was affecting the type of sword a person used.

All right, previously, even back in the so called “Dark Ages” income influenced the weapon you chose. Everyone had a knife, but you had to have money to have a sword. They were expensive (probably the reason why they got passed from father to son and why they were part of ceremonial burials like Sutton Hoo.) The style of sword changed little through the early part of the medieval period, but by the 15th century the speed of change accelerated. Styles of swords had changed so quickly that your father’s sword no longer was suitable for you.

About 1670, the first treatise on civilian sword fighting appeared. Fencing became “the noble art of self-defense”. (The word “fence” comes from “defense”.)

And the rapier appeared – the “Queen of Swords”. The rapier was long and elegant. It gave a skilled fighter the ability to place his thrust exactly where he wanted. But – and here’s the big “but” – learning to fight this way took time. It takes three years to train a person to “fence”.

Swashbuckling, on the other hand, can be learned in three days.

We now have two classes of sword fighters – the common soldier and the gentleman.

Sword from Rennaissance period with finger ring(s)

With the rapier, the style of fighting changed. One of the changes had to do with putting your finger over the “guard” of the hilt. This allowed you to have better control of the point of the sword, so you could direct your thrust. But you needed some sort of protection, or your finger would be cut off. The most basic was the finger loop. As time passed, wire finger guards become more and more elaborate.

Rapier (16th century) with wire hilt

Another change was the direction of the footwork. Up to this point in time, the action of a fight had been circular. Now it was back and forth – following the forward, piercing thrust of the blade.

How a fight looked was different, too. The fight starts with the two opponents’ blades circling each other – looking for a weakness. The movement is subtle, of the wrist, rather than the whole arm, in contrast to earlier fighting with the medieval cutting-type sword, where the posing at the beginning involved moving your whole arm into different positions as you probed your opponent’s defenses.

When the two opponents finally engage it is in close. The two blades press against each other, as each fighter seeks to “command” his enemy’s weapon and trust it aside. Since the stronger part of any blade is near its hilt, you want to get the lower part of your blade engaged with the enemy’s blade for maximum strength. That means your whole body needs to be closer to his. While skill is important, at this stage of the encounter, strength counts, as well. The stronger arm is more likely to take command.

This part, the pressing, can go on for several seconds, until one or the other weakens or figures out a way to break the engagement (often with a thrust). The press is usually broken with a swift movement or two (and possibly a defense or counter-thrust), a hit and a withdrawal.

The swordsman using a rapier might enhance his defense with a second weapon. From 1580 to about 1620 rapier and dagger fighting was common. (When you went out, you inevitably strapped on your sword. It was part of a gentleman’s dress. A personal knife had been a part of everyone’s dress even in the early medieval period.) Another variation was using a short sword alongside the rapier.

Swashbuckling, by the way, continued in popularity in the military right up to the eighteenth century. By the 1800’s, though, the saber had become a common military weapon in Europe. The weapon actually came to western Europe through contact with the Hungarian Hussars, and probably goes back to the curved blades of the Turks. It is the only sword that can be used for both slashing and thrusting, though according to Nic, it’s predominantly a cutting weapon.

The saber was adopted for use by the cavalry, but early in its introduction, it was scorned by gentlemen, who still preferred the rapier or foil It wasn’t until the mid to late 19th century, when firearms had long replaced swords, that the saber became popular among gentlemen.

Nic ended his demonstration showing us the corrosion on the blade of the Crimean War saber that began my discussion of sword fighting techniques through the ages.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sword Fighting Techniques Through the Ages -- Part 2

Last week I blogged on the demo on sword fighting I saw at the RWNZ conference. There was a heap of info, so I focused on what I learned about watching fighters using techniques from the Saxon and Viking periods (700-1100 AD.) Today’s topic is the next hunk of sword fighting history – the age of plate armor.

Plate armor appeared in the late 13th century. Nic Harrison, who’s one of NZ’s guru’s on authentic sword fighting (among other things he was the technical advisor for Lord of the Rings), said that plate armor was developed as a response to guns. I’ve heard elsewhere it was developed to protect knights from crossbows.  Nic showed us the tiny dent in a breastplate and explained it was the armorer's "proof of quality".  To test the strength of a piece of armor, the armorer would set it up and fire a bullet at it.  If the bullet went through, the armor got melted down and the metal reused.

I’m wondering, though, considering the power of the swords at the time, whether the move to plate armor might just be a better way to protect yourself from your opponent’s sword. Remember I said in my last blog that the blade of a sword of that period was designed to cut. It couldn’t do that through chain mail, but the power of the blow could crush and create internal injuries. Well, as Nic showed us, a powerful blow to plate armor generally just bounces off. There’s no bruising, as the plate spreads the force of the blow. At this point, knights stopped using shields, as the plate was the shield.

There area a few vulnerable places, though. One of them is the plate of armor designed to protect the knee. A sideways whack to that could create a dent that would immobilize the knee mechanism, so your opponent’s knee wouldn’t bend. There were also various “cracks” in the armor – places where one plate joined another. These remained vulnerable.

King Ludwig III wearing prominent poleyns -- knee armor.  A
blow to the side of the knee would lock the knee.
With two knights plated up like that, the encounter could last longer. But plate armor is a lot heavier than chain mail, so its weight would have tired you out.

To damage a person, you had to get in close and “command his sword”. You could do this by hooking it with your sword, your arm or your elbow. The idea was to immobilize it while you got in with your sword.

Using a sword to block a blow.

Blows got more sophisticated, too. One of the things that surprised me was how a knight would actually place his hands on his own blade to direct it. For example, one of the vulnerable spots is at the base of the neck, at the top of the chest plate. A knight might get in close to his opponent, hold his sword by one or two hands on the blade, (rather than both hands on the hilt), and use the lower hand to direct the tip of his blade into the crack between the top of the chest plate and his opponents neck. The upper hand would add strength to the blow, driving the sword down into the enemy’s lungs.

Another effective blow was what the Germans called the “murder stroke”. In this the knight held the sword by the blade. The left hand held the tip, the right was positioned half way up the blade. The hilt was in the air, with no hands on it at all. This effectively turned the half of the blade near the hilt into a club, and that’s exactly how it was used. The fighter would push the hilt forward in an arc towards his opponent’s head and bring it down through the middle of his skull or use it to hook him.

The knight on the right is moving in for a murder stroke.

Here his opponent uses the middle of his longsword to block the blow.

Italians were known for a type of stroke that used the pommel (end of the hilt) of the sword. The knight held his sword with both hands – one on the hilt, the other towards the tip. As his opponent slashed at him, his blocked his opponent’s blow by catching it with the middle of his sword. He then heaved his opponent’s sword aside and at the same time stepped to the left, “inside” his opponent’s reach. As he stepped to the left, he brought the pommel of his sword up into the fragile area under the opponent’s chin.

A smaller opponent would try to go for his opponent’s legs, especially the knee. Tall fighters learned to “defend low”.

I’ve been talking a lot about fighters holding their blades in their hands. Yes, they still didn’t wear gloves. And, yes, the things could cut your fingers off. Nic said the trick was how you held your sword. You never gripped it hard. Instead, according to the treatises on sword fighting from that period, you “hold your sword as if it were a bird.” Blows are “thrown”, not chopped.

Also, when you held your sword, you never wrapped your hand around it the way you would an ice cream cone. If you did, a yank from your opponent would cut your fingers off. Instead, you held it with your fingers curled over one edge of the blade, and your thumb stretched along the side of the other edge. With this kind of grip, an opponent cannot pull the sword from you hand.

When it came to the actual encounter, there was still a lot of posturing and moving around to get into position. Eighty percent of the fight is footwork. The two knights were trying to get each other to expose a vulnerable spot. Once one of those was exposed, they moved fast, attempting to take command of the enemy’s weapon, thrust it out of the way and thrust their own blade into a “keyhole” in the opponent’s armor.

By the fifteen century the long sword appeared. The long sword was the first weapon that could both defend and attack. The concept of “garde” was everything. It meant the potential to attack and defend, and basically was built around footwork and balance. You wanted to keep your weight centered. A lot of the blows were aimed at the face.

Thanks to the laws of physics, long swords had a lot of power behind them. So you didn’t try to block a blow from a long sword. But the power came from the arc of the blow and the distance the sword covered through air, which would build its force. Not it’s weight.

People talk about long swords being heavy. Except for ceremonial swords that were never used in battle, they were not. According to Nic, a good weight for a long sword was under 3.5 pounds (about a kilo and a half.) To use the long sword, you had to be fairly acrobatic and needed to be fit.

So what did you watch when you were in a fight and wanted to anticipate your opponent’s move? Nic said, never look at the sword. A good place to look is your opponent’s eyes, as they often give away where their next blow will be aimed. Feet and hands can also signal what an opponent is going to do next.

Next week: Swashbucklers, rapiers and maybe the saber. (Depending on how chatty I get.)