Coffee and Writing

Whether or not it really enhances creativity or I just think it does doesn’t really matter – it’s just one of my rituals now.

Saturday and Sundays are my days to really focus on the new book, Empire’s Hostage.  These are the days I work at the university library for the afternoon.  I started this when I was still working and weekends were really the only time I could write; now it’s a combination of habit and the fact parking is free on the university on weekends (and expensive other times.) Plus, as I said in a different post on a different blog, I’ve been writing there for thirty years, and the environment is conducive to work.

The library incorporated a cafe last year – good and bad for me – it’s a Starbucks, which I really don’t like, but then again I want a coffee during my writing hours. But I’m also trying not to spend money unnecessarily now I’m retired (although I still have a Starbucks card that was a retirement present.)

Right now I don’t have the dilemma, because it’s still the summer and the cafe isn’t open on weekends.  The library opens at eleven, so even if I have a late breakfast before heading out, I’ll still want the coffee at some point.  I like coffee when I’m reviewing what I’ve written, or pondering the next scene…whether or not it really enhances creativity or I just think it does doesn’t really matter – it’s just one of my rituals now.

At this point in the year I have only one choice – to take a thermos with me.  The library (unusually?) has no restrictions on food and drink in the building, so I can drink my coffee at my study carrel.  Once the school year starts again I have a plethora of choices – there are a dozen places on campus to get coffee then.  But that means packing up my laptop and walking somewhere; that too has its positive side, movement being good for my body and the creative process, even if I just walk over to the University Centre, buy a coffee, and walk back to the library.

So will I give in to the convenience (and better taste?) of purchased coffee or stay frugal and drink thermos coffee?  Now I’ve set myself the goal of writing at least three thousand words a week of Empire’s Hostage I need all the rituals (and discipline) I have. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m also curious – what writing rituals do you have?

MOOCing along: the Pleasure of Learning for Free

I subscribe to a site called Lifehacker on my Facebook newsfeed. Originally I started reading it because it often had technology-related reviews, ratings and ideas, which I needed for work. But then some time last summer, there was a post about free, on-line education.  Intrigued, I looked at it, and found a link to FutureLearn. Associated with the Open University in the UK, this completely free educational site offers dozens of courses on subjects as diverse as Global Food Security, The Works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The European Discovery of China.  Universities from around the world are involved in the design and teaching of the courses. All you need to sign up is a computer and the internet.

I browsed through the course offerings, with, of course, an eye to courses that would increase my understanding of the Roman Empire, the historical template upon which the world of Empire’s Daughter rests. As I wrote in an earlier post, my understanding of my created world needs to be thorough, or I can’t write about it convincingly.   Two caught my eye: Hadrian’s Wall:  Life on the Roman Frontier, and, Archaeology of Portus:  Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome. These looked promising.  So I signed up for the Hadrian’s Wall course – we’d been there a couple of times, the most recent just a year before and in that case specifically for research for the book and its upcoming sequel, and I’d learned a lot from visiting the museum at Vindolanda, as well as just walking the Wall and thinking about what it was like to be a soldier there in the second century A.D., on a cold, damp, windy March day, waiting for your relations to send you more socks.

I’d taken on-line courses before, in relation to my work, so I was prepared for the basic format of readings, videos, questions to be answered and on-line discussions to occur. The course was well-designed and fun; I learned a lot, but the (for me) unexpected benefit was the literally hundreds of viewpoints that were expressed.  These courses are what are known as a MOOC – a Massive Online Open Course – and can have many, many participants.  Not everyone is very vocal, of course, but the wide range of experience, background, imagination and world-views of the participants who did express ideas made me think – not just about Roman Britain, but about my imagined world.  Some of what happens in the next book(s?) has been directly influenced by this community of learners (in both courses) who were willing to share their knowledge, ideas, and expertise with each other.

There are, of course, lots of other opportunities for free or low-cost learning. FutureLearn is just one place you can find free courses, and I’m waiting to hear if another on-line course that looked intriguing is to be offered again, this time through a different provider. (The Lifehacker link is a good place to start.)  My local Senior’s Centre…(yes, it appears I qualify, being over 55) offers a number of face-to-face programs this winter. I am, actually, overwhelmed by choice, and have to remind myself to stay focused on courses that will inform my writing…and leave me time to actually write.

Finding an authentic voice

This created world must be real and coherent and true to itself in my mind, or I can’t write about it convincingly.

Occasionally readers ask me why I do so much research – the world I have created in Empire’s Daughter is fictional, after all!  But it’s a thinly-disguised fiction, an imagined country based on Britain after the departure of the Roman Empire in the 4th century A.D.  While there are many many departures from whatever the reality of that time was (and if you are interested, I recommend Robin Fleming’s book Britain after Rome), this created world must be real and coherent and true to itself in my mind, or I can’t write about it convincingly.  I can’t, for example, suddenly introduce the internal combustion engine, or llamas.

In an earlier post I explained that I am currently on a side track – the history of the Empire that the character Colm gives to Lena in Empire’s Daughter becomes a key theme in Empire’s Hostage, and I realized I didn’t know what that history says, entirely.  I’ve started work on that history (which I plan to be included as an appendix in Empire’s Hostage, providing it isn’t too long in the end) but I’ve been struggling to find an authentic voice.  How would Colm write?

Discussing it over breakfast with my husband, we bounced around a few ideas.  What sort of history is it?  Is it a collection of stories, like the Scandinavian sagas?  (No.)  Is it a collection of facts and names and dates, like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?  (Also no.)  Is it a history like Tacitus’s Agricola, and Germany?  Yes!  And there was my model – Agricola, written by the Roman historian Tacitus in AD 98, and Germany, apparently also written in the same year.  Both books

agricola

discuss not just military history, but social and political as well.  Exactly what I needed.

My copy of the books, which are almost always published in translation together, is the fairly recent one by A.R. Birley, and the language is accessible while maintaining a formality of style. I won’t be copying it exactly, of course, but it will give me the rhythms and cadence and structure to make Colm’s history sound right. So, off to start re-reading Agricola, paying attention this time not to the facts, but to the style!

Conflicting Viewpoints: what is truth?

I am doing my best to remember the emotions generated when I first realized that two different peoples could see history in very different ways.

One of the dilemmas that Lena faces in Empire’s Hostage is seeing history from two sides, and attempting to sort out which version – or which elements of the conflicting versions – is true.  In her sojourn north of the Wall, she will be presented with quite a different history than the one introduced to her by Colm in Empire’s Daughter.

I am doing my best to remember the emotions generated when I first realized that two different peoples could see history in very different ways.  This occured when I read Zane Grey’s depiction of the historical character Simon Girty as a physically unattractive, filthy, greasy-haired ‘Indian Lover’, a traitor to his race and country, which stood in direct contrast to how I had learned about him:  as a United Empire Loyalist, compatriot of Alexander McKee, friend of Tecumseh and key player in the British victory in the War of 1812.  A hero, not a traitor.  There is (was?) even a memorial stone to him in Amherstburg.

I remember being confused by this, and angry, and those emotions giving way to understanding that history was written from the point of view of the beholder, and that there was not one truth.  I was a bit younger than Lena is when she confronts this, but I believe that she will react in much the same way – especially since she revered Colm, whose history is under question.  But she is also learning to respect her new teachers, so there is significant conflict generated – and it is in considering conflicting viewpoints and reactions that all of us – not just Lena – learn.

SG-stone
Simon Girty memorial, Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada

A challenge of history

A side track…which are never shortcuts.

As work progresses on Empire’s Hostage, Book 2 in the Empire’s Legacy series, I have an interesting dilemma.  The ‘History of the Empire’, written by Colm and given to Lena at the Winter Camp plays a larger role in EH….but I don’t know what it says. And I need to.  So, before I can continue with this section of EH, I need to write Colm’s history.

It begins “In the third year of the reign of Emperor Lucian…” – and that is all I know.  I’m not sure I even know quite how many years have passed between that time and Lena’s time. So…a side track…which are never shortcuts.  Once it’s taken some shape, I’ll post some of it – a timeline at least – here.  Until then, more research, more thought, more writing.