A surgeon’s advice…on how to write books

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May 1, 2019 carries the burdens and celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the 442nd Regiment heading off to fight in World War II. The 442nd was made up of the Japanese American men taken out of internment camps all over the west coast; they fought valiantly at home and in Europe to prove their loyalty to the US. By no coincidence, award-winning author and retinal surgeon Andrew Lam releases Repentance (Tiny Fox Press) on that commemorative day. I’m delighted to welcome Andrew to the blog.

A Surgeon’s Advice . . .  on How to Write Books by Andrew Lam

I’ll never forget the first time I had to tell a stranger their loved one had died under my care. I did it over the phone, in the middle of the night. The woman’s voice rasped; I’d woken her up. I didn’t tell her that I’d only met her father in the emergency room two hours before. I didn’t mention I was exhausted and only a few months out of medical school. I tried to conceal the truth—that I wasn’t sure what to say because I’d never done this before.

For a long time—years, in fact—writing my first book felt like that. I had no idea how to begin. I didn’t know if I would be any good at it. I worried I’d embarrass myself. I wanted to write a fabulous book, just like I wanted to be an excellent doctor, but in both medicine and writing, good intentions do not mean you’ll be any good at either.

No one starts out being a skilled surgeon or best-selling author. It takes years of practice, and lots of failure. I didn’t think about this back in college, when I chose to go to medical school simply because I wanted to help people. But now that I look back at all the ups and downs of my arduous training, and also have a few books under my belt, I’ve singled out five lessons that helped me succeed at both careers, and can be applied to almost any challenging endeavor.

Just do it. You never know how far you can go until you take the first step. It may come to nothing. It may mean taking a risk. But you only get one life and if you feel passionate about your idea for a book, screenplay, or other creative project, turn off the TV, carve out some time from your family, take a break from Facebook, and just start doing it.

Find fulfillment in the journey, not the end point. It is very difficult to excel at something you are not passionate about. Any goal worth achieving entails some degree of unpleasantness. Hard work. Long hours. Rejection and failure. The only way you will outlast these trials is to believe you are doing something truly worthwhile. There is no way I could have become a highly specialized retinal surgeon without enjoying what I learned in my psychiatry and pediatrics clerkships. I spent years learning things that have little to do with the surgical discipline I now practice; but they were necessary to hurdle in order to achieve my ultimate goal. As a writer, you may write an entire book and then scrap it before starting a new one that finds success. If you do not find joy in the process—if writing starts to feel too much like “work”—you should find another hobby or seek a different topic that inspires you.

Help others—they will help you. No author can do it alone. We all need teachers and friends to read and critique our work. There is simply no other way to improve. We need friends and connections to help us find agents and editors and more friends who are willing to attend events and leave book reviews. I am indebted to scores of surgeons who taught me how to save sight, and scores of others who helped my books succeed. And whenever I can help someone else, I try to do so if I can.

Gain trust by paying attention to detail. The most humbling part of my day occurs when patients who need an operation give me their trust within minutes of meeting me for the first time. That is an incredible honor and privilege. When I operate on a patient going blind from a retinal detachment, that person is trusting that I will be as meticulous with her as I would be with my own mother. In a similar way, authors consider it an honor whenever a fan takes the time to read their book. We are also asking readers to trust us. Nonfiction readers trust that the writer is an expert on the subject. With fiction, authors must write convincingly about characters, time, and place, because readers quickly see through anything less than genuine. So we should write about what we know, and convey details that make our prose authentic. I know about history, medicine, being a husband and father, and being Asian American. These are the themes I write about the most.

Find something that matters. When I chose a medical field, my most basic desire was to find one that mattered. I chose to be an eye surgeon because of how precious sight is to all of us. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I have to tell a patient they’ve gone blind and I am powerless to help. But I am always completely engaged because the stakes are so high. Writers must choose topics that matter to people. Stories that center on a controversial topic, an important historical event, or a way to help others improve their lives are all more likely to succeed. If your book isn’t about something important, it won’t be important to readers. Make sure it matters.

That night on the phone in the hospital, I stumbled through an explanation of how my patient had died—his initial presentation, our attempts to resuscitate him. The daughter was grief-stricken. It occurred to me that this conversation would be one of the most important of her life, a thought that gave me energy when I’d had none. We talked for a while, and I learned more about her family, and the way they’d loved the man I’d only known for the last two difficult hours. That was many years ago. Today I project the confidence of a surgeon who’s performed thousands of successful cases. The years between then and now were long and arduous, but it was entirely worth it and I’d do it again.

Writing books is just like that. Successful authors work hard, delay gratification, and learn from their mistakes. They take risks, never stop learning, and remain authentic. They enjoy the journey and know it is impossible to excel at something one does not find fulfilling. These qualities can be applied to any profession or goal. And those who adopt them may ultimately discover that their greatest satisfaction comes, not from the success they attain, but from the work and dedication that took them there.

What great life lessons, Andrew. Many thanks for sharing your journeys as surgeon and writer. Best wishes for Repentance. I’ve already put it on my TBR list.

Repentance by Andrew Lam ~~ France, October 1944. A Japanese American war hero has a secret. A secret so awful he’d rather die than tell anyone–one so entwined with the brave act that made him a hero that he’s determined never to speak of the war. Ever.

Decades later his son, Daniel Tokunaga, a world-famous cardiac surgeon, is perplexed when the U.S. government comes calling, wanting to know about his father’s service with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII. Something terrible happened while his father was fighting the Germans in France, and the Department of Defense won’t stop its investigation until it’s determined exactly who did what.

Wanting answers of his own, Daniel upends his life to find out what his father did on a small, obscure hilltop half a world away. As his quest for the truth unravels his family’s catastrophic past, the only thing for certain is that nothing–his life, career, and family–can ever be the same again.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

8 Tips on Writing Dual-Time Mysteries

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Source: Mexperience

As I mentioned on Tuesday’s post, I’m this week’s host over at American Historical Novels. I’ve had a great time talking with readers about the craft of writing and about Time and Regret. Today’s post at American Historical Novels is a condensation of the one below, which I wrote for Elizabeth Spann Craig’s blog.

What do The Ashford Affairby Lauren Willig, The Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian, The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro, and The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier have in common? Answer: they are all dual-time mysteries. I love reading stories like these. But writing one proved to be a significant challenge and demanded a different approach from my previous historical novels.

So what did I learn? Below are eight tips for crafting this type of story.

  • Are you telling two stories or one?You need to be clear on whether you are telling two stories or one. In other words, the links between each timeline, the character arcs, and essence of the mystery need to integrate seamlessly into one satisfying read. Each timeline must enhance the other. If you conclude that you are telling two stories, you really should write two books.
  • Both timelines have to engage the readers– finding the balance is critical. I once read only the present day portion of a novel because the historical portion was confusing and added almost nothing to the story. In another instance, my review suggested that the present day story was very thin and could have been eliminated.
  • Whether separated by fifty years or five hundred, your novel will have two protagonists, one for each time period. Readers must care deeply about both of them. Furthermore, the present day character should be more than merely a narrator for a story set in the past.
  • Each protagonist must have a distinct voice. Your readers should never be confused about who is in charge of the story at any given point. The thinking, inner dialogue, and perspective of each protagonist should set them apart.
  • Beyond the distinct voices of your protagonists, readers must be clear about which era they’re in at any point in the novel. This requires careful attention to setting, dialogue, behaviours, events of the time period, possessions, attitudes, and other elements that alert a reader to the era.
  • Plotting a dual-time mystery is even more complicated than a regular mystery. Clues will emerge from each time period. I developed a table to track every clue regardless of time period and its relevance to the overall mystery. And if you want your readers to puzzle out the mystery as they read, be careful that the earlier storyline doesn’t reveal too much of the mystery too soon.
  • Avoid jumping back and forth too frequently. Readers need to engage sufficiently in each story before you change the characters and time period. This piece of advice is particularly important in the early chapters when you are establishing characters and setting, creating hooks, and revealing the central questions the story will answer.
  • The rules of excellent historical fiction still apply. In a 2013 reader survey I conducted, readers said that the top three reasons they read historical fiction are: to bring the past to life, because it’s a great story, and to understand and learn without reading non-fiction. To augment that data, in 2015 readers chose immersed in time and place, superb writing, characters both heroic and human, authentic and educational, and the dramatic arc of history as the top 5 factors in favourite historical fiction. (You can find more survey insights on http://www.awriterofhistory.com.)

Mysteries are a favourite genre: 40% of participants in a 2015 historical fiction survey and 55% of participants in a 2018 broad reader survey chose mysteries as one of their top three types of stories to read. Write your dual-time mystery well and it will appeal to mystery lovers as well as lovers of historical fiction.

By the way – there’s a giveaway for Time and Regret over at American Historical Novels 

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Building a fictional character

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I’m hosting over at American Historical Novels this week – an opportunity to meet new readers and share a few aspects of my writing. An article I’m posting over there today is about building a character.

What does it take to create a character in a novel?With fictional characters, I feel it’s important to flesh them out to some extent in advance. For Grace Hansen, one of two main characters in Time and Regret, I borrowed a template from Elizabeth George, a well-known mystery writer. Below are some of the details:

Name: Grace Hansen Age: 42 Height: 5’ 6

Weight/Build: put on weight during marriage; because of divorce is back to her pre-marriage weight, relatively slim, a bit curvy in hips and breasts

Color hair/eyes: brunette, brown eyes

Physical peculiarities: blushes easily

Family: Grace is an only child; born in New York City; her mother Lily fell apart when her husband died in a plane crash so Grace was raised by her grandparents; Lily now suffers from Alzheimer’s; father David died when Grace was 5; grandmother, Cynthia Devlin (nee Gibson), whom Grace calls Grandmama; the two were often at odds when Grace was growing up; Cynthia is British born and grew up poor; she’s proper, a social climber, and likes the things money can buy; grandfather, Martin Devlin, Grace calls him Grandpa, profoundly affected by WWI, built a successful gallery, Grace has a very close relationship with him

Sexuality: fairly routine in her sex life with her husband Jim; only one other sexual relationship before marriage; now divorced, she’s ready to be more adventurous

Significant event that molded her character: loss of her parents and subsequent upbringing by her grandparents

Ambition: she has taken the safe path all her life, married relatively young, has two children, a well paying job, and what she thought was a good marriage until the night her husband asked for a divorce while out at their favourite restaurant; she has been self-sufficient and successful; but is now restless and unfulfilled, alone and lonely; feels the need to reinvent herself

Core need: to be loved for who she is

Wants: solve the mystery she discovered in her grandfather’s papers; learn how to live without Jim, her ex

When under stress: retreats into reserve and aloofness when under emotional stress

Gestures when talking: uses her hands and body a lot when talking; ex-husband used to tease that she must have Italian blood

Strongest character trait: dependability; puts needs of others ahead of her own

Weakest character trait: allows others to dominate, doesn’t assert herself

Philosophy: strength comes from adversity, nurture family and friends, enjoy small pleasures of life, be self-sufficient

What others notice first about her: warm, open demeanour; shapely legs

Educational background: despite her grandfather’s preference to have her work at the gallery he owned, she studied business at university and works for an insurance company; she’s been around art all her life

I create character sketches like this for all my significant characters and look at them frequently. I consider them a skeleton for what will ultimately become a flesh-an-blood character. Not surprisingly, the details evolve as I build the novel, but they’re always there to provide a reference for me as the chapters unfold.

You can find American Historical Novels either on Facebook or Goodreads

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.