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A collection of snippets of the books I write and, occasionally, my life and the things that inspire my writing...

Monday, May 11, 2015

Ursula Hartlein: Tuesday Two Cents' Worth

Hello and welcome, dear readers. Today is Tuesday, and that means it's time for Tuesday Two Cents' Worth.

Welcome, Ursula Hartlein, historical fiction writer extraordinaire. And thank you for so generously taking the time to answer this question: If you could share one piece of writing advice with other writers, what would it be?

Thank you, Teresa, for inviting me to be on your blog!  One piece of advice I’d give to other writers would be to use your setting as more than just inconsequential window-dressing.  Weave it so deeply into the narrative it becomes like its own character.

One of the things which most strikes me about the earliest drafts of books I began when I was a lot younger is how the settings seem like little more than minor details.  I was guilty of the Gossip Girl in period clothes mistake I see too often now.  At least my excuse was that I was really young and didn’t know any better.  For some reason, my 18th and 19th century stories had much better worldbuilding, perhaps because I was more familiar with those eras.  It took a long time for me to get to that level with my 20th century historicals, and stop writing them as largely contemporary stories which just happened to be set in the past.

You should spend as much time as it takes getting familiar with the setting, so you know how to write it well.  Don’t just use a city, neighborhood, or era because you think it’s cool or required.  For example, not all stories set in England have to be set in London, not all stories about immigrants to the U.S. have to be set in the Lower East Side, and a story set during your childhood or teenage decade shouldn’t be a trip down memory lane to name-drop your favorite bands, TV shows, and fashions.

You also don’t want to overwhelm your story with so many details it feels more like a comprehensive history lesson or showing off your hometown or favorite city.  Pick the most important events, fashions, social movements, etc., of a given era, which make sense for your characters.  Even in a long book with an ensemble cast, what are the odds every single member of that family and circle of friends would be touched by all the events of the era?  It’s also overkill to have your characters constantly visiting all the city’s landmarks, name-dropping streets, and hanging out in trendy bistros and clubs.  Learning how much to season your book with is a delicate dance.  But you never want to give the impression this story could take place anywhere or at any time, and thus waste a great setting like Shanghai in the 1920s or Cairo in the 12th century.  This applies to sci-fi and fantasy too.  Even if it’s soft sci-fi or lighter fantasy, you still chose that setting for a reason.

Ursula Hartlein, who also writes as Carrie-Anne Brownian, is a proud native Pittsburgher, who’s lived most of her life in Upstate New York.  Her degree in history and Russian and East European Studies has been a great help in writing historical fiction, both intense and more light-hearted.  She dreams of one day earning a Ph.D. in 20th century Russian history, with a focus on GULAG and the Great Terror, and of having her own small farm on several acres of land.
As Ursula Hartlein, she’s the author of And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away, set from 1940–46 in The Netherlands, and You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan, a sweeping saga set from 1917–24.  As Carrie-Anne Brownian, she’s the author of Little Ragdoll, set from 1959–74 in New York, and has had work published in the anthologies Campaigner Challenges 2011, edited by Katharina Gerlach and Rachael Harrie; Overcoming Adversity:  An Anthology for Andrew, edited by Nick Wilford; How I Found the Right Path, edited by Carrie Butler and PK Hrezo; The Insecure Writer’s Support Group Guide to Publishing and Beyond; and The Cat Who Chose Us and Other Cat Stories.


http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OVGJ7NU (You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan)



  1. It's taken me an embarrassingly long time to start to get the hang of this, and it's still spotty. I'm currently making editing notes for a story I began only a year or so ago, and I just reminded myself that I need to come in and sit down in this jazz club with my characters, look around, smell and taste and hear and touch things...

    Lovely piece! Lovely picture, too! =D

    1. Thanks! I took it after I got home from the Wrapunzel event a few months ago. I loved the look and feel of having my hair covered, and hope someday I'll be able to do it all the time as a married woman.

      A lot of people have praised how dialogue-heavy my stories are, not excess time spent on over-describing stuff, but now I can look back and see I sacrificed a lot of world-building and character development because my stories were so dialogue-heavy. Being able to picture a time and place doesn't mean one has to revert back to the flowery style in vogue in 19th century American and British literature.

    2. Shan Jeniah, I like how you put it: "...sit down in this jazz club with my characters, look around, smell and taste and hear and touch things..."

      Carrie-Anne, your comment about reverting back to 19th century writing--I couldn't agree more. I just read an Arthurian tale that occasionally made my eyes glaze over. The flowery description really got in the way of the story.

  2. Replies
    1. It was my pleasure, Carrie-Anne! Thanks for taking the time to share your advice. :-)

  3. Setting is very important to me, and something I spend a long time trying to visualize before I write. I always reckon on having waaay more worldbuilding notes and images in mind than will ever find their way into the story. That way, the setting should feel solid, as if there's a real world beyond the character's immediate horizons.

    1. That's a wonderful approach, Ian. I've read your books, and it works well! :-)

    2. It's so important to take some time on worldbuilding, even if it's just in notes which never make it into the actual book. Once you know how this time and place functions, you can decide how to sprinkle in the most pertinent bits along the way.

  4. I was using my laptop all week and couldn't comment here (some blogspot blogs and my laptop just don't agree with each other... I don't know why)... but I really wanted to stop in and say how much I loved the way you put things, Carrie-Anne. (And for enlightening me about the Gossip Girl phenomena, as I'd never heard of it.... I'm really out of touch.)

    I love the way you note how historical details should be used--sparingly! One of the biggest turn-offs in a story is when someone tries to captivate me with beautiful prose about the surroundings without giving me a sense of the characters living in it. That said... a wonderful setting can create depth in all the characters at the same time.

    What a great smile! And the colors on your wraps are gorgeous.

    1. I agree, Eden. Carrie-Anne did a wonderful job here.

      I just read a book where the author went way overboard on description (delved into purple prose territory) and was a bit too light on the character building for my taste.

      Thanks for visiting!

    2. Ack! Sounds... well, wall-toss-worthy. That said, it depends on why I am reading a story... I'm more forgiving in certain instances.

    3. I kept hanging on, thinking the story would redeem itself. It was an Arthurian Tale--which I love. Might be my favorite trope. The whole time I was reading it, I kept thinking that without the extranaeous words, it would be a good story. And--like all books I read, I'm thinking about the review I'll write when I'm finished. I knew I'd struggle with this one. I have a decent vocabulary, but I had to look up words. I'm a proponent of "Why use a five dollar word when a ten cent word gets the job done." kind of thinking. At around page 450, Uther Pendragon dies, sacrificed to the gods of the old ways. At that point, I understood so clearly what was the problem with the story (for me). I should have been crying, but instead I plodded along looking up definitions of his big words. It was just another thing that happened in the story. That's all. I had failed to connect with the characters. The author was so engrossed in writing scenes and in his world building, that he left out far too much necessary character building. I think I've only ever left one review on Amazon that was less than 4 stars. It's my policy to not leave bad reviews. But in this case, I'm going to leave the review. The book was almost 500 pages long, and I think it's only fair to warn other readers before they invest precious time reading it.

    4. It's such a fine dance, learning how to bring a place and time alive without hitting the reader over the head with it. Though these aren't books, I think of the TV movies The '60s and The '70s as quintessential examples of how NOT to do historical. What are the odds every single person in those families and groups of friends would've been personally touched by all the major events and trends of each decade? It ended up feeling really cliché and lazy.

  5. Ooh... that's a touchy place to be. Unless I had made a contract with the author or some other person/group to actually write a review, I'd probably forgo making a public review and contact the author directly if possible about it (very diplomatically phrased of course). Possibly he had connected so personally with the characters that he had unconsciously filled-in the emotional pieces in his head during the edits without actually putting those things into the page....

    And... perhaps he just gets carried away with landscapes.

    Though, at 500 pages... it doesn't hurt to warn people that it's not at all character driven.

    (On the subject of $5 words as opposed to $.10 ones... why set such an arbitrary limit? I try to run the gamut of $.01 to at least a $2 bill, the later of course being like the actual currency... rare.)