I dedicated the month of September to read books about the art and craft of writing. It’s slower than reading novels – that’s for sure!
At least, that was my plan. I had it all mapped out, down to how many pages I’d read each day. Then, that online writing course I’m taking began on September 6, and my plans went out the window.
Studying historical novels and historical mystery novels dominated my reading time in September. Weekly online course assignments included analyzing various elements of novels in our chosen genre. My genre is historical fiction, with an element of mystery in my first novel – the manuscript I’m currently working on. At least, I hope this turns out to be my first novel.
Today’s blog post might appeal more to writers than readers but, since it’s definitely part of my journey as a writer, I feel compelled to share it with you.
I evaluated one book I’ve read and five books I haven’t read. I was looking for such things as scene length, chapter length, sensory detail, point-of-view, tense, noun and verb strength, microtension, high moment, amount of narrative, amount of dialogue, and the action-reaction-processing cycle.
Until taking this “8 Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful” online course by C.S. Lakin, I’d never tried to analyze the elements of a novel. I just read for enjoyment. I look forward to reading for enjoyment again someday, for I find analyzing novels a bit of a drag.
Even though today’s blog post takes a much different approach than my usual first blog of a month about the books I read the previous month, I hope you’ll bear with me a few minutes. My remarks about each of the following books might pique your interest, even if you’re not interested in the elements considered in the writing of a novel.
The War Nurse, by Tracey Enerson Wood
Published this year, I found The War Nurse to be an excellent example of historical fiction for me to evaluate. I’d read Tracey Enerson Wood’s first novel, The Engineer’s Wife, and liked it. The War Nurse is full of rich prose. She uses strong verbs and vivid adjectives. Writing like that has to be learned. It is hard work. I want to write like that. I wish I’d had time to read the entire book instead of skimming through it to look for specific writing techniques and elements.
The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom
This book was published in 2010. I read it in 2017. (See what I said about it and other books in my February 3, 2017 blog post, What I read in January 2017.) It was a novel that stayed with me for a long time and it’s one that still clearly comes to mind when I think back on historical novels I’ve especially enjoyed. I checked it out of the library last month just so I could analyze it in relation to my class assignments.
Like in The War Nurse, I found an Author’s Note, Acknowledgments, Book Club Questions, and “A Conversation with Kathleen Grissom” at the end of The Kitchen House. I think these are items that fans of historical fiction like to see – and expect to see.
Historical fiction readers like for Author’s Notes to tell them which characters and events in a novel are real and which ones are a creation of the author’s skill. I find myself reading the Author’s Note at the back of novels before I read the actual novel.
The Historians, by Cecilia Ekbäck
This is a 2021-published historical mystery. I didn’t get to read much of the book. I made note of how the book was organized and some of the features it included, such as a map of the setting, a preface, and “Cast of Characters.” All these were in the front of the book before the story itself began.
I found the list of 44 characters intimidating. I would never be able to keep up with so many people. The 19 or so introductory pages included sections like “Lapland, January 1943,” “Stockholm, February 1, 1943,” and “Blackäsen Mountain, March 31, 1943.”
The book is 431 pages plus a four-page “Author’s Note and Historical Background,” and a list of nine “Sources” in the back of the book.
Scenes varied from two to eight-and-a-half pages. Some paragraphs were half a page long. The story is told in an unbroken pattern of “Laura” chapters, “Jens” chapters, and “Blackäsen Mountain” chapters and ends with “Lapland, June 1943.”
The settings in this book are a refreshing change from all the World War II novels of recent years that have almost exclusively been set in France, Poland, or Germany.
I regret I didn’t have time to actually read this book; however, I was overwhelmed by the pages and pages of introductory material. One would have to be keenly interested in the settings and time period in order to read those 19 pages before getting to the story.
It was an eye-opening exercise related to the writing course I’m taking to analyze the elements of this historical mystery. This was the first recently-published historical mystery I analyzed.
An Irish Hostage, by Charles Todd
Charles Todd is the pen name for a mother-son writing duo. An Irish Hostage is the 12th novel in their Bess Crawford Mysteries. I haven’t read any of them. This is their 2021 novel, so I chose it to analyze.
Like The Historians, this is an historical mystery. Although I didn’t have time to read much of it, this novel appealed to me more than the other book. That’s just personal preference, and not a criticism of Cecilia Ekbäck’s book.
It’s written in first-person past tense and is set in Somerset, June 1919.
The opening narrative paragraphs set a pleasant tone with such phrases as, “the long windows open to a surprisingly mild spring evening, and a bit of a breeze pleasantly lifting the lilac curtains just a little.” But then the mood suddenly turns with, “The only thing that spoiled this charming scene were the expressions on our faces.”
Of course, the novel being categorized as “historical mystery,” the reader should already know the tide is going to turn.
I found the style of writing to be more to my liking than the “heavier” Ekbäck book. Chapters ranged in length from around four or five pages to about 20 pages.
There is a page of acknowledgments and a two-sentence “About the Author” page at the end of the book.
The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell
This is another 2021 historical mystery. It’s set in February through June of 1893. It begins with “I. Requiem Æternam” and the five succeeding sections also have Latin names. That technique in itself gives the reader a hint about the mood of the book.
The opening paragraph introduces Esther Tull feeling “the first gentleness of the snow.” In the second paragraph, Esther extends “a gloved hand to the railing…. The pain was returning, but it was not yet more than she could bear….”
Interesting wording there. The inclusion of the word “yet,” adds a level of intrigue for the reader. Every word matters in a novel – or should.
This novel is mostly narrative, with scenes averaging six or seven pages. There’s an Afterword and Acknowledgments on page 401.
Murder on Black Swan Lane, by Andrea Penrose
When I searched for best-selling historical mysteries, I noticed Andrea Penrose’s name coming up repeatedly in the top 50 or top 100. I borrowed her 2017 novel, Murder on Black Swan Lane from the library. It’s set in Regency London, which appears to be Ms. Penrose’s favorite era and location.
I’m not a fan of prologues, but hers was just four pages and I wanted to get a feel for her writing style. Her rich language using strong verbs and spot-on adjectives drew me in. For example, the prologue opened with, “A flicker of weak light skittered over the stone floor, followed by the soft scrapes of steps and the whispered whoosh, whoosh of mist-dampened wool.”
The book’s 27 chapters range from nine to 16 pages in length, based on the seven I counted. They’re followed by a two-page “Author’s Note” and then the prologue and first chapter of her book, Murder at Half Moon Gate.
The biography on the inside of the back cover reveals that “Andrea Penrose is a pseudonym for an author who has also written as Cara Elliott for Grand Central and Andrea Pickens for NAL.” Perhaps you’ve read one of her books under those other names. I haven’t.
I look forward to reading or at least perusing more of Andrea Penrose’s books. The rich language skills she has are something I’d like to emulate.
Since my last blog post
I completed the fourth week of my eight-week writing course, and have been busy editing my novel manuscript. Trying to work in all I’ve learned in the last month isn’t easy. I’m into the third chapter now. There will be many more revisions in my future. I enjoy the process of fiddling with words.
I’ve also worked on the notes from my local history research. I still hope to get those notes in book form eventually.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read. I just finished reading Making Good Habits, Breaking Bad Habits, by Joyce Meyer. It was a nice diversion from all the books and scenes I analyzed for my class.
Now that the deer have devoured the leaves on the hydrangeas and other plants and shrubs in our yard, this week they started eating the azaleas. Now they’ve gone too far!
It’s officially autumn in North Carolina. There are spots of leaf color here and there here in the southern piedmont. Many leaves seem to just be dying and falling off. Of course, it won’t be peak fall leaf season here for several weeks. There’s a hint of fall in the air at night and in the mornings, but our daytime temperatures are still mainly in the low- to mid-80s.
It’s warmer than it was last week when I mentioned being cold. None of my southern hemisphere readers took the bait last week when I volunteered to go down under and visit for a few months. I guess they’re enjoying spring now. I will be, too, in six months!