Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Great Writer and Friend Christina Pilz Gives Her Awesome Answers to Four Writing Questions

My friend Christina E. Pilz was my guest for the Four Question blog tour I participated in a couple entries ago. I love her answers, which she posted to her blog 6/30/14 here:

Christina's Answers

I liked her answers so much I'm also posting them here as well, but you get to see all sorts of other pretty pictures if you go to her blog as well.

I read Christina's long novel Fagin's Boy last March and I was very impressed. It's a wonderful sequel to Oliver Twist with an amazing attention to detail and, of course, my favorite thing: characterization. I feel she successfully captured a "Dickensian" tone in such a marvelous way, but you don't need to be a fan of Dickens at all to completely enjoy this book. All you need is a penchant for rooting for the underdog and this book will sweep you up.

Here are Christina's wonderful answers to the blog tour's four questions:

What am I currently working on?

I’m currently working on a sequel to Fagin’s Boy. This is because I feel that Oliver and Jack have more to say to me as well as to each other.

At the end of Fagin’s Boy, Oliver and Jack leave London by going south on Blackfriar’s Bridge, and I was curious as to where they were headed and what they would find when they got there. I wanted more time to figure Oliver out, and more time to hear Jack’s laid back replies to whatever issue Oliver is all fired up about. More time to dig into the muck of the lower classes of the Victorian Era. I also wanted more time to do cruel things to my characters.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

I write historical fiction with a focus on the early Victorian era.

My first exposure to historical fiction was through children’s books such as Faraway Dream (http://www.amazon.com/Faraway-dream-Jane-Flory/dp/B0006BW4ES) by Jane Flory (http://janeflory.blogspot.com/), The Little Princess (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Little_Princess) by Francis Hodgson Burnett (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Hodgson_Burnett), and of course the entire of the Little House (http://www.littlehousebooks.com/) series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Ingalls_Wilder). Through them I found a connection to characters whose concerns seemed more basic and essential than my own. Instead of being worried about running to catch the bus, Sarah is worried about slipping in the mud while out on an errand for Mrs. Minchin in the foggy streets of London, or that she might starve before she’s paid off her debt to the school. Maggie is concerned that the neighbor boy Seth will assault her while she’s drawing water from the pump, or that she’ll be thrown into the street for not keeping her mouth shut. Laura is concerned that the grasshoppers will eat all of Pa’s wheat, and whether there will be enough potatoes for everyone at supper.

The issue is survival, and the tools to provide it are almost medieval: a wicker basket and shoes where the leather sole has run down to the thickness of a sheet of paper; old boots that are sturdy but which instantly mark one as an orphan; a sunbonnet that cannot quite shield a young girl from the blazing sun of a grasshopper summer.

In none of these stories is a mystery solved, as can be found in the trendier examples of historical fiction of the Victorian era. In those very popular books, the streets run amuck with the daring do of Sherlock Holmes type heroines, who not only have the book learning and the knowledge to solve a string of bloody murders, they have the grit and fortitude to go out into the streets unescorted or dressed as a boy or whatever allows these stories to be, what seems to me, thinly disguised modern crime novels with a bonnet or a shawl thrown in to add verisimilitude. So when it starts to feel as though the heroine (or hero) could do the exact same actions, have the exact same conversations in the present day, and all without really changing anything (except for some clothes), then I’m actually looking at a modern crime or mystery novel (dressed up in Victorian garb), and my willing suspension of disbelief goes AWOL.

I’m not saying these books are badly written, because they are not. They are clever, and well-crafted and make for good reading if you’re in the mind for a mystery. Which I am, from time to time, but I prefer my characters to be attentive to the smaller details, the day-to-day issues. I want them pumping water from pumps that might be infected with cholera, I want them struggling to make it past Smithfield Market without gagging, I want them avoiding the streets with tanners and dye makers on the southern bank of the Themes because it smells so damn bad. I want them coughing into a handkerchief (a dirty one) because of the acrid coal smoke in the air. I want them worried about thieves and about tiny bits of ribbon that is their only valuable possession. I want them frying bits of bread in leftover fat in the pan that’s sat there unrefrigerated since yesterday and, along with a pint of warm, stale beer, call it supper. 

That’s how my novels differ from others in the genre. I don’t have coming out parties, debutants, no Real Person From History shows up unexpectedly in Chapter Five: At The Big Dance; mine aren’t books of manners, nor do they contain the posturings at an Elizabethan court. In my books, I want real people, living real lives. And if they happen to be one of the downtrodden, an orphan, say, or a bootblack, a scullery maid, or a crossing sweeper, so much the better.

Why do I write what I do?

I write what I do because I’m obsessed with my subject matter.

It started with the 1969 movie musical called Oliver! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver!), but really, it started before that. It started with the Disney-produced LP talking book of The Prince and The Pauper (http://www.gemm.com/store/06/item/DISNEY-WALT-PRINCE-AND-THE-PAUPER-LP/1417261868) by Mark Twain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain).

The basic story is that of two boys who strongly resemble each other. One is a prince, and the other is a pauper, and one day they trade places. The main plot points of the book didn’t interest me much; court intrigue is another well-trodden path in historical fiction that I’ve no wish to follow.

What got me was the image of the pauper; a sweet-faced boy dressed in rags, trying to survive on the rough streets of Elizabethan England. Almost as interesting was the identically faced prince who finds himself in pauper’s rags and tries to make a go of it.

The contrast between the two worlds was enthralling to me, particularly in the way the two lives differed in abundance. The prince had more water to wash with, more clothes to wear, more food to eat, and a nicer bed to sleep in than the pauper. Plus, I always found it amusing when the prince, having willingly traded places, shouts foul when he’s fed up with having to live in squalor. Less amusing to me was the struggles of the pauper, who knows basic Latin, but has no wit to do any verbal parrying with the rest of the prince’s court.

I stared at the cover of that LP cover for a long time. A long time. I was completely absorbed in every detail of the appearance of the pauper: his shaggy hair, the ragged hem of the neckline of his common brown shirt, the line of grit along his jaw. I remember, also, my sister Diane pointing at the prince with insistent stabs of her finger:

“Why are you so obsessed with the Pauper? Look! They’re the same boy, he’s played by the same actor! The Prince is better looking! He’s better dressed! What’s wrong with you?” (She was eleven at the time, and very disposed to marrying a prince herself.)

She could not understand why, when it was the same boy, why I didn’t prefer the better dressed, more well off, more powerful one. Why I preferred the pauper to the prince. But I didn’t.

I still, to this day, don’t know why. Perhaps I related to the pauper more in some subconscious way that I find extremely uncomfortable to examine too closely, I do not know. Except to say that it has always been thus: give me a prince and a pauper, and my eye, my very soul, is unerringly drawn to the pauper every time.

 How does my writing process work?

I’d like to say that I took up the advice of so many smart and experienced writers that I had a regular schedule for writing. That I get up at 5 a.m., rain or shine and pound out 2,000 words a day. Every day. That I produce at least four books a year, like clockwork.

But that would be a lie.

What I do is I get an idea, a sequel to Fagin’s Boy, for example. That’s the easy part because writers are full of ideas! Then I pen extravagant outlines, tweaking it this way and that until the final idea is crisp in my head and needs no adjustment. Then I write it as fast as I can between work and other Real Life Events. I write and write and write until it’s done. There is no balance here; I’m full out writing and the laundry and other chores go to hell, or I’m sitting in a chair with my head tipped back, staring at the play of the shadows from the trees across the ceiling and allowing myself permission to slip into a deep snooze. (I do wish I had better habits!)

And, as always. I do research. Writing historical fiction is a treasure for people who like to do research; research provides the small details that make the story come alive. Besides which, it is the Most Fun Ever. Plus, I get to look up stuff all the time! Stuff like:

Question: What is the name of the coach that goes from London to Exeter?
Answer: Did you know that the coaches in the Great Era of Coaching had names? I didn’t, but I do now! This particular coach is called The Comet.
Question: What time does The Comet depart London for Exeter?
Answer: I’ve researched this till my fingers bleed and my eyes are crusty with lack of sleep. The best I can find is that the mail coach leaves London at 1 am in the morning, but the regular coach, the one intended for people, leaves “in the early morning.” I can find no better record than that. Of course, someone might advise to have my characters leave London on the mail coach, since the details for that is more specific. Which I did think of, but then, my characters are kinda sorta wanted for murder, so getting on a Government Owned/Sponsored coach is probably not a good idea. So I’m postulating that The Comet leaves London at 5 a.m., which means that the boys will pick it up in Staines at around 7 o’clock in the morning. (After a quick breakfast of beer and brown bread and cheese, of course. Those taverns are horrible places for healthy food!)
Question: Does The Comet stop in Lyme Regis?
Answer: No it does not! The hill is too steep and the mail coach doesn’t go down into Lyme!
And here’s the funny story – I wanted my characters to have to get off The Comet in the middle of nowhere, perhaps at the top of some bleak and rainy hill so they’d have to struggle the last mile or so into Lyme, and arrive looking muddy and disreputable. As chance would have it, the hill above Lyme is so steep that not even the mail coaches will descend into the village. There are coaches that follow the lower terrain along the seaside, but no mail coaches, and no passenger coaches go down that hill into Lyme. (Think of the coaches that do go into Lyme along the coastal road as local hop-and-skip transports that hold about 1/3 of a regular bus’s capacity and I don’t think you’d be far wrong.) So what I wanted to have happen actually turned out to have a valid, historical reason! Isn’t serendipity wonderful?
Question: What is the name of the hill that provides such a terrible barrier to mail and passenger coaches descending into Lyme?
Answer: I don’t know! Each map I’ve looked at gives the hill a different name! I’ve found “Preston” and “Rhode Hill” and “Penn Hill” and “Colvey Hill” and “Quarr Hill.” I’m about to give in and contact the local historic for the area, who is surely waiting with baited breath for my minuscule inquiry for the name of the hill that might only be mentioned once or twice in and among 150,000 words.
Question: What type of fish was caught and salted in Lyme? Was it cod?
Answer: No, it was mackerel!
Question: What does mackerel look like?
Answer: I don’t know! Let’s google that Right Now!

So by the time I get to actually writing the sequel to Fagin’s Boy, I will be chockablock with everything I need to know about the local fishing industry in Lyme Regis in the year 1846. And why? Because the sequel (the working title of which is “Oliver and Jack”) is going to take place there. Oliver, the dear boy, will be gutting and packing fish to pay for his and Jack’s keep. As for Jack, he will be lollygagging and mocking Oliver every step of the way.

I thank Christina for her lovely words!

No comments:

Post a Comment