Researching a Novel The Old Fashioned Way

March 10, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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 Ciji at ABC RadioI spent more than twenty years as a working reporter (mostly at the ABC television and radio affiliate in Los Angeles) and as a magazine journalist—and my first instinct when I get an idea for an historical or contemporary novel is to go where the book is set.Ciji in front of Caerhays Caslte nr. Mevagissey - Version 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

With That Summer in Cornwall—a stand-alone contemporary sequel to my “time-slip” novel A Cottage by the Seathe action takes place a good decade after the ending of the contemporary part of the novel.  In my mind, there was no choice:  I had to return to the area because the premise of the new book was: “What ever happened to that babe in arms in the first book…and what’s Cornwall, England like some ten years, plus, later?”

IMG_6786 - Version 2Once I determined I was, in fact, going to do a sequel to the original novel set in Cornwall, I immediately called up my good writing pal, romance novelist Cynthia Wright with whom I’d made my first trip to Britain’s West Country to research the original book (and she, a couple of her own) and said, “Wanna go back to Gorran Haven and Mevagissey with me and see what trouble we can get into again?”  Her answer? “Absolutely, if we can also go to that seaside village, Polperro and Lansallos, where all the eighteenth century pirates hung out. I’m thinking of doing a couple of books that deal with smuggling…”IMG_6743

So off we went in October of 2012, retracing some of the same areas we’d visited in the late 1990s and heading off into new territory as well.  We still managed the six-mile “Hall Walk” a second time, and paused at the bridge at Pont Pill where we’d rented a Lime Kiln Cottage from the National Trust on the first trip.  For the research jaunt last autumn, we decided to rent a suite at Caerhays Castle near Gorran Haven, the model for “Barton Hall,”  an important element in both books set in Cornwall.

Image 2This contemporary novel centers on the story of Meredith Champlin—a cousin of Lady Blythe Barton-Teague who is the mistress of Barton Hall and the heroine in CottageMeredith wakes up one morning in her home state of Wyoming to discover she is the official guardian of an unruly “Beverly Hills brat” whom she’s never met and hasn’t a clue how to serve as the unhappy child’s surrogate mother. Her elegant cousin Blythe, now the mother of two thanks to her second marriage to the wonderful Sir Lucas Teague, urges Meredith to come to their shabby-chic castle on a remote cliff in Cornwall for the summer to see if they can’t transform this angry, difficult child (whose mother is Blythe’s estranged sister and has died in a private plane crash) into “a decent human being.”  For me, returning to actually reside within the castle walls allowed me to capture the unique atmosphere of the place local novelist Daphne du Maurier called “Enchanted.”Image 8

Not only did I call on my reportorial skills to capture the local color and feel of this special part of the world, but I also conducted a number of interviews about the amazing volunteer search-and-rescue work in Cornwall performed by highly trained dogs and their handlers who find “holiday makers” known for falling off cliffs, down abandoned tin and copper mine shafts, along with “despondents” who have wandered up on the moors to commit suicide.  The enigmatic hero, Sebastian Pryce, a British Army veteran of the Afghan War who served as a K9 specialist in a dog bomb-sniffing squad, persuades Meredith to co-found a dog obedience academy, with many unexpected consequences flowing from their decision to work together—including, of course, their falling in love.

Image 11I even managed to wangle an interview with the chief Dog Unit Manager for the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary (ie the police), Anthony Jordan, who walked me through police operations that coordinate the volunteer corps, Coast Guard, Royal Air Force, and other organizations that make up the network of the search and rescue community.

Their work was amazing and thrilling in so many ways, and I hope that my use of reportorial skills to capture the authenticity of their various activities shines through That Summer in Cornwall–while also telling a ripping good story!  Image-20-199x300

And if any readers are of a mind, a nice review posted on your favorite e-retailer site would be most appreciated.  You cannot image how hugely helpful reader reviews are to get out the word when a book is launched.  The print version will be available sometime later in March.

How to Build a Cottage in Your Mind

March 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Grandpa Ware stone cottage Carmel circa 1950s

I admit it:  over the years, I’ve become a rather obsessed “cottage collector.” Perhaps it’s because, at around ten years old, I began visiting my Grandfather Ware at the tiny stone cottage perched on a sand dune on Carmel Beach that he rented the same year we moved as a family from Los Angeles to the amazing village of Carmel-by-the-Sea.DSCN0267  My father, writer Harlan Ware, would escort me along the streets-with-no-sidewalks to the Forest, Studio, and Golden Bough theatres thriving in our town where I would perform in semi-professional plays when I was growing up.  We’d pass by cottage after cottage that could have served as illustrations in the Book of Mother Goose.  Cottage life, to me, seemed an idyllic way to live, even during the years when I dwelled in the cities of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

c10So, when I first walked through this gate fifteen years ago on the central coast of Cornwall, England on a research trip for A Cottage by the Sea, I knew this was the perfect spot to set this story and had in my mind  exactly how the fictional “Painter’s Cottage” should look.  It would be a stone structure with a slate roof and floor-to-ceiling artists’ windows facing the English Channel. However, on that day, all I could see across a broad field was a tiny structure clinging to the cliff on a curving bay between Nare Head on the West and Dodman Point to the East.

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As I picked my way across the loamy turf, I began to make out what was actually an abandoned “lookout” stone structure, a small, squat building–and in 1997, minus a roof.   Never mind, I thought, enraptured by the sweeping view and the sheep and Scottish Highland cattle dotting the slope, this was the place I would build my perfect cottage in my imagination.  On another research trip years later to prepare for the sequel, That Summer in Cornwall, the field’s owner—the Caerhays Castle estate–had recently restored the roof, perhaps in the hope they could add it to a list of estate outbuildings they offer to paying guests.  Luckily for me, I had that privilege last October at Bottom Lodge…once the gatekeeper’s cottage.

IMG_6352Talk about a novelist surrounding herself with the atmosphere of the place she would write about!  This is “Bottom Lodge” where visitors to Caerhays Castle (aka “Barton Hall” in my two novels set in Cornwall) can book into the left turret. I was “in residence” in October of 2012 and it was totally an experience of a lifetime!  I spent my days tramping all over the estate, reveling in what it must have actually been like to live here a hundred and fifty years ago, and also got a solid grasp of what a struggle it is in the modern world to keep these big houses solvent.IMG_6375 - Version 2

 

IMG_5654In the two, stand-alone novels (and certainly in my mind), I easily expanded the small structure I’d spotted perched on the cliff into a two-story cottage with a sleeping loft and a faintly baronial fireplace opposite windows facing the English Channel–and no cattle wandering in and out! (This cottage with the sailboat actually exists in Talloires, France–but I loved the fireplace and imagined it as part of Painter’s Cottage!)  On  my most recent trip to the environs of Gorran Haven in central Cornwall, I dared to get pretty close to those long-horned Scottish Highland cattle who’d made the old stone lookout hut their personal shelter…and what a view! Beyond those clouds, that’s Brittany across the English Channel…IMG_6534

The vistas through the abandon lookout’s glass-less windows were even more incredible. Imagine, I thought, if the Caerhays Estate eventually rehabs this stone lookout and allows their “paying guests” to stay here as they did with bottom Lodge?  But I loved the location so much, I decided as I was writing That Summer in Cornwall that the heroine would claim the “newly rehabbed” Painter’s Cottage for her own while she pitched in to help her Anglo-American cousins return the eight-hundred-acre estate to solvency.

Image-20-199x300I could easily imagine the overstuffed furniture in front of a cozy fireplace, surrounded by the magnificence of the Cornish coast.  To me, Painter’s Cottage truly exists as part of a shabby-chic castle clinging to a remote Cornish cliff–even if all you can see if you visit there this very day is a small, squat, abandoned stone hut that may one day see new life again.

In a novelist’s mind, anything is possible…

 

Making “The Lists”

September 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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Midnight on Julia StreetYou’ve heard the line “I was an overnight success after twenty-five years?”  Well, that certainly applied to yours truly when I received an email early in the summer from my publicist at Sourcebooks/Landmark .  “Great news!” chortled Beth Pehlke.  “Your book Midnight on Julia Street is going to be a Nook Daily Find August 24th!”  The price would be dropped to $1.99 that day as a way of encouraging new readers to discover a bargain novel by Ciji Ware…and hopefully  be inspired to buy my other books at full price.

I figured that was very nice and put it in my electronic date book to remind myself to go online to have a look when the date rolled around and post something on my Facebook Author Page–and then promptly forgot about it.

Much to my astonishment, by noon on the 24th,  Midnight on Julia Street  (a book published originally in 1999 and reissued in June of 2011) “opened” in the #2 slot on the Barnes & Noble list that day…and a few hours later was #1!  I checked that title on Amazon, and lo-and-behold, the price had dropped to $1.99 there, too.  Now I had a nice “come on” book on both big online sites. It was exciting for an author who’d written eight books, only one of which made a few city lists like the Los Angeles Times for a few weeks, and another on an Extended List (above the 100 mark)–but never anything “national.”

Then, exactly a week later, my cell phone rang on Thursday, August 30th, and my editor, Deb Werksman said excitedly, “Julia Street has made the USA Today Bestsellers List at #54!” Soon my writer friend Peter Lerangis from New York posted on Facebook that I should definitely be doing the Happy Dance as this list is a “bar code” compilation of every book in America that was sold last week, including cookbooks, self-help, nonfiction, “coffee table books,” and–yes–fiction.  “This is serious stuff,” said he.

The following day, Friday August 31, my cell phone rang again, and I swear, when I saw it was Deb Werksman calling for the second time in two days, my heart stopped and I thought, “They made a mistake…I didn’t actually make USA Today…” and she’s calling to break the news.

“Why would your editor call two days in a row?” she asked, and I could hear the excitement in her voice. Not waiting for my guess, she announced, “Julia Street made TWO lists in the New York Times this week! You’re #18 on the New York Times Bestsellers e-book list, right after Stephen King and you’re #27 on the combined e-book and print list between James Patterson and Danielle Steele!”

What???!!!”

I was having coffee at Poggio’s–a wonderful trattoria that serves great Italian java in the mornings– with my dog walking group, and I think my screams shattered a few cups of foaming lattes, to say nothing of nearly scaring my Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Ensign Aubrey, witless. Fortunately, I was smiling and doing a jig, so everyone there assumed no one had died.  I told my walking pals what had just happened and they told everyone else while I danced around the outdoor bistro tables, trying to hear what else Deb was saying about such wonderful news.

Later that day, author pals from all over the country started posting my happy news.  Then the site Goodreads posted my announcement and a bunch of other readers and authors weighed in.

What struck me, when I finally calmed down, was that we are in a totally new world as authors.  For the first time in history, there is very little standing between an author and her readers and a book like Midnight on Julia Street never really “goes out of print” anymore. Here it is, eleven years after its first edition, making the all-important New York Times & USA Today lists for the first time!  Thanks to the Internet and online book sales, a novel that had a modest distribution in print back in the day can always–given a late-life electronic push–find new audiences that, in this case, were attracted by the price (a bargain); by New Orleans (the setting) during a week when Hurricane Isaac was bearing down on the Gulf Coast; by their love of good music and food (which play a secondary role in the plot); and by a media-based story (faintly autobiographical) about a tired, worn-out television reporter who successively gets fired from her on-camera jobs for –gasp!–telling the truth.

Talk about a shot-in-the-arm for a tired novelist and “recovering” TV and radio journalist!

Now, each morning since Deb Werksman’s calls, I cannot wait to put the seat of my pants on the chair and my hands on the keyboard. “Making the Lists” for the first time is truly inspirational for a writer who’s been in this game a very long time….

 

“YOU’RE A FINALIST!”

August 14, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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Every once in a while during my twenty-five years slogging away as a novelist, there are surprises that land on my doorstep–or in this case, via my InBox.

Today, the president of Women Writing the West, Suzanne Lyon (a novelist herself, of course) sent me word that my historical A RACE TO SPLENDOR was one of three finalists in the coveted (at least in my world) category of Historical Fiction for the 2012 WILLA Literary Awards, presented in October of this year for works published in 2011.

As I said today to several friends, “Being a finalist in the book world is a little like living in Hollywood until they hand out the Academy Awards. One finds oneself often saying:  ‘It’s an honor just to be nominated’ “–and in this case, that is absolutely a true statement!

Willa Cather, as anyone knows who had eighth grade English with Mr. Pritchard at Sunset School, was the Pulitzer Prize winning author of novels chronicling frontier life on the Great Plains in works such as O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark.

I was one of the first wave of writers to join the then fledgling WWW.  A majority of New York editors in the early 1990s (and some currently) found any stories set west of the Hudson River and before WW II as “unlikely to succeed in the marketplace.”  SPLENDOR certainly was a novel that fell under that rubric.

In 2000, shortly after my husband and I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, I had begun to research a novel about the real life figure, Julia Morgan, the first licensed woman architect in California, restoring the devastated Fairmont Hotel in the wake of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.  My (then) agent clucked and nodded discouragingly when I submitted the book proposal.  My (then) editor was totally unenthusiastic about such a project. And when I went ahead and wrote the book anyway, my (then) publisher turned it down, flat.

This was, as all writers of fiction will recall, just about the time the publishing industry was seriously starting to implode in response to the Digital Revolution.  No New York publisher was likely to take a chance on anything other than another Harry Potter book, or perhaps allowing John Grisham to write a nice children’s story.

As is so often the case with books that ultimately find an audience, I had become one of those authors completely beguiled by her characters, the setting, and the drama of creating for a modern audience stirring events from the past. Writing with my hair on fire, I was literally unable to let go of an idea I believed deserved to see the light of day.  I would, by turns, hang out in the opulent lobby of the Fairmont atop Nob Hill, or dig into the archives to find pictures of the devastation that Julia Morgan faced, only 34 years old and fresh out of architecture school.

Looking back at this painful period, I suspect I did six or seven complete rewrites as different “publishing professionals” gave me their worldly-wise input. Finally, after a few more rejections, I put the book in a drawer and returned to my Day Job, writing nonfiction (as in Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matters Most, Hachette/Springboard Press, 2007).

Rightsizing Your LifeThis was, of course, a career move that helped me pay the light bill, and I am forever grateful to the wonderful editors Jill Cohen and Karen Murgulo who published that tome, and to the Wall Street Journal that dubbed it “One of the Top 5 Books on Retirement” the year it came out.

But meanwhile, my heart was yearning to return to writing historical fiction and my new agent, the fearless Celeste Fine, now of Sterling Lord Literistic, gathered all my rights from  the sadly-out-of-print Ware Oeuvre and pitched five historicals to the redoubtable Deb Werksman who, along with the amazing CEO at Sourcebooks, Dominique Riccah, were founding the historical imprint, Landmark. Deb knew my work, made a package deal to bring out reprints with some well-planned revisions and totally wonderful covers, and then asked the fateful question:  “Has she written anything new?”

“New?” Not exactly, but I searched my electronic files for the version of the newly-titled A RACE TO SPLENDOR I felt was truest to my original vision, and we emailed it directly to her, saying “It’s a draft, mind you, and needs some work.”

They bought the book!  And yes, thanks to some sage and insightful suggestions from the very experienced and tactful Ms. Werksman, I  did a 20% rewrite/tweak and the book was published with its fabulous cover in April, 2011 (the 105th anniversary of the 1906 cataclysm), given a spectacular publication party in the penthouse of the Fairmont — and received wonderful reviews, I’m happy to note.

And now it’s one of three finalists for the prestigious WILLA Literary Awards in the Historical Fiction category.

If that doesn’t give poor, benighted writers a sense of hope, I don’t know what will…    It took more than a decade from the conception of the idea to craft the fictional telling of the amazing early California women architects –until today’s announcement.

So on this particular novel, for sure, it is an honor “merely” to be nominated…and to have one’s name mentioned in the same sentence as Willa Cather.

 

 

Natchez Revisited on the Veranda…

March 11, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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My latest release from Sourcebooks Landmark, A Light on the Veranda, was March 1, and with it,  the usual “guest blogging” I’m asked to do on some terrific historical novel sites that I will link to below.  What has been such a joy is to have dug through masses of photographs that I took during the research period into the “Town that Time Forgot” for the stand-alone sequel to Midnight on Julia Street.

With every novel I have ever written, there is always a “story-behind-the-story” and with Veranda this certainly held true.  Rather than retell my various adventures, I thought I’d just post the guest blogs as they hit the Internet.

Here are links to the first three:

Passages to the Past

And Long and Short Reviews

And also Great Minds Think Aloud

 

If you enjoy these three, it would be terrific to let the blog hosts know!  And come visit me at Facebook:

 

 

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