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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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biography

Review: Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

From the back cover:
“Turning away from the privileged world of the ’eminent Victorians’, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) explored, mapped, and excavated the world of the Arabs. Recruited by British intelligence during World War I, she played a crucial role in obtaining the loyalty of Arab leaders, and her connections and information provided the brains to match T.E. Lawrence’s brawn. After the war, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East and was, at the time, considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.”

I’ve been recommending this book right and left to friends, family and strangers. An excellent read about a strong, independent and intelligent woman who was ahead of her time, it’s also a timely book, given the current political climate in the Middle East in general and Iraq specifically. Interestingly, many of the obstacles Gertrude Bell faced with her British co-workers in relaying what she knew about the Arab tribes because of her gender are still being dealt with today.

I cannot stress how much I enjoyed this book. Although it takes place in the early part of the Twentieth Century, Bell’s experiences of others due to her gender still resonate today. Her sheer determination and an unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer lead her achievement in venturing into places no other person ever attempted. She not only learns the language, but takes the time to observe the hierarchy and customs, earning her the respect of the tribe leaders she meets.

Although much of Gertrude Bell’s work in the Middle East took place during World War I, it read as if it was happening in the here and now. Articulate, intelligent, educated and well-versed in the culture she chose to live in, Bell dealt with men in positions of power who chose not to listen to her opinions. She felt that the wisest course in giving the Middle East some stability was to put local tribal leaders in positions of power to run their own newly formed government, with British officers acting in supporting roles.

Instead of listening to her advice, Capt. Arnold T. Wilson, among others, followed his own agenda in holding power close to the vest. It would be too easy to dismiss it as being ‘of the time’, that women had no place in politics, either foreign or domestic. The personal conflict between Bell and Wilson reflected the external and volatile conflict between the natives of the Middle East and those who sought to control it.

Desert Queen is a powerful biography with an insightful look inside the Victorian age, the Great War and the Middle East of one hundred years ago. One is left with the personality of a strong and fiercely intelligent woman who defied convention and sought her destiny outside the narrow confines of what was expected of her.

Look for Desert Queen at your local bookshop or on-line.

This review is my personal opinion and mine alone.

So, one of the things I like to do…….

……when writing in a particular genre is to read as much of what’s been written before I decide to try my hand at it. It helps me to get a sense of style and word choice within a specific setting (one’s characters are not going to be speaking 21st Century slang in 31st Century society. Or 11th Century BCE society, either). It’s also helpful in seeing how other authors develop mood, setting and location, as well as character.

This goes for every genre, from the Western to the Mystery to Historical to Erotica, a genre that relies heavily on evoking a wide variety of sensations and emotions that lead to a specific….well, climax.

There is the argument floating around that reading works by others in the genre you want to write in is harmful in that it may ‘influence’ your own work. This is true, but not in the way you’d think. Reading the newspaper influences you. Reading poetry, or historical non-fiction, or biographies or archaeology or whatever you pick up to read is going to influence what you write. The more you read, the more  you learn about language, about style, about story and character and development.

Not reading the genre you want to write in only hurts your own work. Why? Well, in addition to not seeing what’s out there, you’d also fail to learn what works for you and what doesn’t. You’d never know how, with your own unique perspective, you could approach the Epic Quest Fantasy. Or the Space Opera. Or find a new twist on the Western or Mystery.

If you read enough (and I highly recommend reading everything you can get your hands on), you can see how similar the genres actually are. What makes them different is the emphasis – a mystery with a dash of romance could be the inverse of a romance with a dash of mystery. A historical novel set in real place could be, with just a few changes and a splash of magic, an epic fantasy. A Western is just an adventure on horseback, whereas Science Fiction is an adventure on a spaceship.

So read. Read the Ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, pulp fiction, genres you love and the ones you don’t like, authors you despise as well as the ones you admire. Read history and biographies and true crime, to learn how real people behaved and real events played out.

When you read, always seek to be entertained, but be conscious of how language, story and characters are handled.

What book and/or author was your greatest influence? Was it more than one? A specific genre?

So, meeting the characters in my stories…….

………is a lot like meeting people in life. I get the first impressions of who they are by how they present themselves in their manner of dress, hair and grooming. As I get to know them better, I learn how they think, what their views are, their likes and dislikes, their sense of voice and style and personality.

Sometimes characters, like people, are hard to pin down until they actually show up. Some are mercurial. Some are as they seem to be and others are duplicitous. The last type usually ends up being the villain because, you know, villains require duplicity to achieve whatever goal they may have.

Case in point: My second book, ‘The Pike Horse’ (2012).
Because I don’t want to spoil the reveal for anyone who hasn’t yet read it, I won’t be identifying the character by name. In my book, one of the characters gains the trust of the narrator, Josie March, and proceeds to manipulate her reality before betraying her in an ugly and violent manner.
This particular character did not start out to be such a nasty piece of work. But the more I worked on the story, the more I became aware that he was not who he at first appeared to be. It was more an intuitive feeling that grew into a conscious realization.

In my Current Work In Progress, another character has gone through at least seven name changes. In addition to that, his nationality went from American to British, which altered his speech patterns. This, in turn, influenced his mannerisms and even his coloring went from blond to dark. All this occurred before he even showed up in the story. It came out of my notes as the story developed and I got to know the character’s motivations and his ethics from the point of view of other characters.

Having detailed biographies of your characters, right down to the time of birth, can be helpful. I often give my characters birth dates, which can have some influence on their perceptions of the world, but I don’t often put a lot of thought into it, unless absolutely necessary.

Case in point: My Current Work In Progress.
I specifically designed an historical timeline and a family tree for this story, to keep track of a particular family and which generation some members came from. A supernatural-themed story, I’ve worked out a system of magic that can be seen in my first novel, ‘Secrets & Howls’ (pub. 2011; re-issued 2013).
I chose to have certain characters born in a month under a particular Zodiac sign that belongs to a specific element, which reflected their dominant skill. I’m only starting to see where this thread is leading and I’m agog with curiosity to see how it all plays out.

I actually prefer this not-knowing of my characters. I enjoy the discovery of how to get them into or out of situations that arise in the course of the story. It’s a completely organic process, where a thought will chase a thought and lead me to discover the answer that I’d been unaware I was looking for. To keep the discovery going, I keep a journal and jot down any questions that arise. There are always questions.
As I write and re-write, the questions will either change focus or be answered. I’ve always used the five W’s and one H of journalism to formulate these questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?), and they have served me very well.

Don’t be afraid to try any method in getting to know your characters, their wants and their goals. Borrow methods used by other authors and see if they work. Sometimes using another artistic method helps jog the writer’s block loose or opens a train of thought you hadn’t tried before. Don’t worry if one method doesn’t work for you. Find another and try that. Repeat as needed. Writing is a process and there is no one correct way to do it.

The only incorrect way to write is to not write.

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