Tag Archives: Research

History Undusted: Atlantic Iron Age Souterrains

DCF 1.0A Souterrain is a type of underground construction mainly associated with the Atlantic Iron Age.  Built near settlements, they were used as storage for food or as a hiding place from raiders.  After being dug out, they were lined with flat stones and staircases down into their depths.  Of those excavated throughout the UK and Ireland, artefacts are rare, indicating that they were merely in use temporarily.  Some are very small, while others resemble passageways; my guess is that it would depend on the size required by the settlement, and how much time they had to prepare it.

Day 8, 1.146 - Souterrain, Loch Eriboll, 21 July 2012I came across a souterrain along Loch Eriboll in 2012, as I was in the area doing research for my novel, The Cardinal.  In these photos, you can see that, if you were walking out there at night or dusk, they could be very treacherous.  My husband crawled down inside to take a picture back out; it was roomy enough for him to stand once inside (in this particular souterrain even the ceiling was lined with large stone slabs), though the narrow stone stairs and proportions, in general, indicated a much shorter population than modern humans.  You can see from the photo of myself how overgrown the bracken and heather is; the entrance was nearly completely hidden; we were looking for it based on a geological map’s markings, but if we hadn’t known it was there, it would have gone completely unnoticed.

I needed a tunnel entrance in the exact location of the souterrain for the novel, so it enriched the story by fitting reality and the fantasy together perfectly!

Day 8, 1.149 - Souterrain, Loch Eriboll, 21 July 2012

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Google is a Verb

Recently I was chatting with a few friends, and the topic of finding information came up; I was surprised that it hadn’t even occurred to them that they could find such information online.  Time and again, I meet such people.  It is a modern phenomenon that we have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips; Google has become so ubiquitous with searches that it’s made it into dictionaries as a verb, and yet it seems that some people have still not realised its potential.

Granted, there is a lot of static out there:  Misinformation (whether intentional or unintentional), nonsense, and useless clutter (someone’s grandkid’s cousin’s uncle’s birthday party, or videos that need massive editing before they’re much use but they’re online nonetheless).  But if you know how to search, there’s a world of information out there to be had; you need to use discernment, and – especially if using the information as a basis for an article, or in writing a novel – you need to get cross-references and confirmation.  But I’ve found that the people I’ve talked to on this topic can’t seem to get past the static and therefore seem to have difficulty in viewing cyberspace as a serious information source.

The downside of so much ready knowledge with easy access is that people no longer need to memorise or learn information themselves – they can just grab their phone and look it up.  The upside of it is that, if people make proper use of it, they can learn so much more than previous generations ever even had access to.  The photo below, gone viral, is of a school class sitting in front of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”; while it appears that they are bored and inattentive to what is around them, they’re actually using the museum’s app to learn more about the photo and the painter as part of a school assignment.  Notice that they’re interacting with each other, and even helping each other.  Hopefully part of the assignment was also to study the painting with their eyes.

Teens using museum app

I do a LOT of research online; for some of my books, I’ve done odd searches which I’m certain mess with the algorithms of Google & co.  I’ve searched for the average size of a human corpse and the distinctions between a coffin, casket and cist (I started getting ads for funeral services after that); how to throw a kris dagger vs. a regular dagger; tide tables; sunrises, sunsets and moon phases in the 9th, 18th and 21st centuries; native flowers to Britain in the Georgian period; medicine at sea; the effects of various soil compositions on a corpse and artefacts, postmortem forensics, and dozens of other bizarre topics.  In my free time, I do a wide variety of crafts and cooking, and so my Pinterest pins multiply like rabbits in the dark!  Just click on my gravatar link to have a peek through my cupboards there.

If you put your mind to learning how to do anything, you can find instructions for it somewhere online.  A few weeks ago, I wanted to reupholster our office chairs (they are the kind that has a hard plastic frame at the back and underside of the seat).  I found a Youtube video that showed how to take them apart, and within an hour I had the first chair dismantled, reupholstered and reconstructed.  As Amelia Earhart said, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is mere tenacity.”  I find that, in talking with friends, they often don’t know how to begin searching, and I think that’s the key:  They don’t try because they don’t know how to start, and so they can’t learn how to do it – learning by trial and error.  Failure is merely success in progress, but the point is that progress requires action… movement.

For writers, cyberspace is worth its weight in gold; no library could hold the amount of information available to us at our fingertips; no university could teach the wide range of topics available online; no video library could contain the staggering amount of documentaries, DIY instruction videos, and step-by-step how-tos.

What was the most recent thing you searched for online?  Was your search successful?  How much time did it take you to find what you were looking for?  Please describe it briefly in a comment below!

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Imagination vs Knowledge

Some say that imagination is more important than knowledge; to a certain extent, that may be true because imagination leads to new discoveries, inventions, and revelations.  But knowledge is often the basis for such discoveries; that which has been passed down by others who’ve researched, discovered, identified and recorded are the foundational stones upon which things are often built, whether in science, technology, or life in general.

beware-of-the-half-truth-wrong-halfIn this day and age, however, sometimes imagination overtakes knowledge (or simply ignores it).  An informed mind is a powerful tool; an uninformed mind can be a dangerous weapon.  This is true whether writing non-fiction, fiction, or passing on something on social media.  We should beware of the half truths – we may have gotten hold of the wrong half.

It’s now more important than ever to test the veracity of reports and even images; anyone can make an ass out of an angel, so to speak, with photoshop, et al.  How much misinformation is spread by simple carelessness or wilful misdirection (that includes, unfortunately, mainstream news media)?  Or by assuming that since something is from a trusted friend it must be true?  How often have you gotten upset by an article you’ve seen and commented on it, or passed it on, allowing it to form an opinion in your subconscious at the very least, and in your active thoughts at worst, only to find out later that it was a false report, a hoax, or sloppy journalism?

abraham-lincoln-internet-quote

As you probably know, I love to learn; I have a steel trap of a mind for little bits of trivia, like the fact that certain microbes concentrate and disperse (read “poop”) gold, or that all living creatures, including you and I, emit visible light (probably a byproduct of biochemical reactions).  As a writer of fiction that comes in handy; I can extrapolate knowledge and use it as a plot detail or a character quirk; but when I’m writing a blog, e.g. about a historical detail, I want to make sure I get it right.  A case in point was an article I wrote in 2014 about post-mortem photography in the Victorian period; it was by far the most popular post to date on that blog and continues to generate interest.  In particular, two points from the article were addressed, researched, and edited/corrected either in the article itself or in the comments and discussion that ensued.  Mistakes happen, but when I catch them, I will do my best to correct them!

For writers, it is important to cross-reference anything you find online, especially if you’re basing something significant on it such as character development, location, or plot.  Assumptions can also get you into trouble; I know that Geneva is part of Switzerland, but in writing 18th-century fiction, I need to be aware of the fact that it was merely an ally of the Swiss Confederacy from the 16th century, but only became part of Switzerland in 1814.  Any reference I have to it in my trilogy needs to reflect that fact.

I recently read a collection of short stories on Kindle, and on nearly every single Kindle page there were mistakes (that adds up to a lot of mistakes per manuscript page!):  Missing words that the authors assumed were there, typos, commas 2 or 3 words off-position, stray quotation marks, and countless words they assumed were the correct ones but obviously were not (e.g. catwalk instead of rampart for a castle).  This is where imagination overtook the writer, and knowledge gave way to ignorance…  I have understanding for one or two such errors in a manuscript of that length, but none whatsoever for several per page; that simply smacks of laziness and poor-to-no editing, and it boils down to an unintentional slap in the face to any reader who’s taken the time to read their story.

Knowledge without imagination is like a rusted hinge; imagination is the oil that makes the knowledge come to life, and the writer is the door handle that opens the door to new worlds, new ideas, new discoveries, and inventions. It sounds noble, doesn’t it?  But did you realize that many of the electronic gadgets we take for granted today were at one time birthed in the imaginations of men like Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek?  It inspired countless children who went on to become astronauts, scientists, and engineers, who made those science-fiction inventions become reality and discovered distant worlds (now known as exoplanets).  I’m waiting with bated breath for the transporter to replace airline security queues…

Those hinges are necessary, as is the oil, so that the door handle can do its job and get out of the way, allowing the world beyond to unfold.

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A Little Light Reading… Not

I will admit that I have quite odd tastes in reading, especially for a woman; I tend toward history, nautical, and obscure or long-forgotten books.  In writing my current manuscript, which is Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy, I’ve read more than a fair share of military history books, specifically covering the 18th century of the Royal Navy.  Once, on a research trip to London, I searched out a bookstore that specializes in military and transport books, even reputed to have remainders; I don’t think they’d seen a woman in the shop in years (who’d entered intentionally) by the looks I got; one of the men even said, “The beauty shop’s two doors down, love.”  When I asked if they had the out-of-print autobiography by William Spavens, a unique lower deck view of the 18th century navy, they froze as if they hadn’t heard me correctly.  The question must have been laced with catnip, because after that I had the entire shop of men eating out of my hand, and I spent nearly two hours in there being helped to the finest pick of naval history books (including the autobiography I was after!).  Sadly, the last time I was there the shop was gone, but I’ve since found the largest used book shop in London, Skoob, which is highly dangerous for a bibliophile with a private library…!

A few of the books I’ve read in the course of research for Asunder are fairly gory, like Medicine Under Sail (I’d bet my bottom dollar that the screen writers for “Master and Commander“, with Russell Crowe, read that book as they wrote the script) and “Poxed & Scurvied” – the story of sickness and health at sea, while others have been like reading a thriller, such as “The Seven Years War” by Rupert Furneaux  or “A Sailor of King George” by Captain Frederick Hoffman.

I devour history books like other people devour pulp fiction; but especially during the first draft of the book, I had to continually keep in mind that I was writing historical fiction, not a history book; the details that I included had to serve the plot and character development, and not visa versa.  Only a fraction of what I learned has gone into the book; but those rich details give salt to the waves, creaks to the ship, and whip to the rope (I’ve also spent hours aboard the Cutty Sark “filling in the blanks” of a docked ship, so to speak, but that’s another story).  I could have peppered the dialogue with so much naval slang you wouldn’t have been able to swing a cat (naval slang, by the way), but if readers were to get ripped out of the story trying to figure things out, then I would have missed the mark.

So, the next time you sit down for a little light reading, you might want to consider one of the books linked above; then again, if you don’t want gory dreams, rather go with “The Price of Freedom“, or “Redemption“, or “The Cardinal, Part One or Part Two“…  and enjoy!

third-rate-ship-of-the-line-diagram

One of my library posters

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The Thorny Issue of Horns

As an author and writer, I do a LOT of research.  I love history particularly, but then I could say the same thing about the topics of geology, astronomy, archaeology, science and technology, crafting, drawing, botany, and a dozen others.  As I apply my studies to my work, I am sometimes faced with the issue of horns – Viking helmet horns.

Real Viking Helmet

 

Accurate Viking helmet, reproduction.  Photo credit, Pinterest, unknown

 

While everyone seems to accept as a historically proven fact that Viking helmets had horns, the actual fact of the matter is that they didn’t.  While there were many horned helmets dating to before the rise of the Norse powers of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, most, if not all, were for religious or ceremonial purposes.  However, if I write a description of a Norse helmet and leave off the horns, someone will inevitably point it out.

Recently I spent a couple hours on Skype with one of my Beta readers for my current project, the third book in the Northing Trilogy (set in 18th century England).  Several of her comments were based on her knowledge of the 19th century as portrayed by Georgette Heyer, while others were based on her lack of historical knowledge that I, as the author, have amassed over time.  While some of that knowledge needs to seep into my writing to help the reader along, I have to continually remind myself (especially with this particular book in the trilogy, as it is centred around the Royal Navy) that I am not writing a history book but a novel, and anything I include needs to support the plot – the plot should never be forced to support a history lesson.  So it is that questions arose as to the behaviour and manners of the children of the time.

In any time period up until the mid-20th century, children in western societies matured far sooner than their modern counterparts, both out of necessity and out of cultural understanding of their roles in society.  Many families were dependent on the contribution made by the children in their household, whether it was housework, factory work, or working on the streets as beggars, shoe shiners, chimney sweeps, street sweepers, selling newspapers, or any other job they could earn money with (this is still true in many poorer countries of the world today).

If they came from a wealthy family, children were educated, but as to what extent and to which form it took very much depended on their particular circumstances:  They were educated either at home by tutors, or sent away to a boarding school.  Leaving school might be anywhere between ten and twenty; Jane Austen finished her formal education at the age of 10 or 11, whereas Charlotte Brontë’s character Jane Eyre left school at 18.  Boys who were second sons were often educated (after their basic education in either a college or at home) toward the military or toward a life as a minister (if their families held a high status in society, they might be trained toward politics; first-born sons, heirs, were rarely sent to the military due to the inherent dangers).

Midshipman Henry William Baynton, aged 13 -1780 - Wikipedia.jpg

Henry William Baynton, aged 13 years, 6 months, midshipman on the Cleopatra.  Photo Credit, Wikipedia.

If their fathers could afford to do so, these younger sons were often bought commissions in the military so that they would start off their career with some smidgen of position, such as a midshipman in the Royal Navy; the younger they entered, the sooner they could rise through the ranks, and thus it was not uncommon for lads of 7 or 8 to enter the navy.  Aboard ship they were trained in various skills, which included not only practical skills to do with the day-to-day running of the ship, but how to read navigational charts and how to use instruments such as sextants. How fast or slow they rose to higher ranks thereafter depended on their skills, intelligence, connections, and luck.

If poor children were either abandoned or given to workhouse orphanages because their families could not afford to keep them alive, they were also trained:  The girls were trained toward becoming servants (paying back society for the privilege of being alive), and the boys were trained for a life in the military (ditto).  They were taught to read using the Bible, and were expected to live by its principles.  Unfortunately, religion was often used as a guise for abuse and heavy-handed tyranny, but as the characters in Jane Eyre portrayed, some were true Christians in their behaviour toward her, such as her friend Helen, or the kind apothecary.  If the girls were going to become governesses, they would also be trained in more refined accomplishments such as French, drawing, needlework, history, etc.

All of this is to say that, were I to include all of this kind of information in a novel (and believe me, there’s a lot more where that came from!), it would get boring rather quickly.  And so I need to pick and choose what is used in the organic flow of the plot and character development that both serves those elements and also helps inform the reader; sometimes it’s a tricky balance.  So when the 11-year-old boy acts far more mature than a modern boy, unless the reader is aware of the historical context, I will inevitably get feedback to that effect.  Sometimes I can help their understanding by including e.g. the subjects he might be learning with his tutor, such as French, sciences, or elocution, but more than that might drag the story into the realm of a history lesson.

There are many modern myths, like the Viking horns, that people have accepted as historically accurate, when in fact they’re not.  One of my pet peeves is Christmas films that inevitably portray three kings showing up at the manger along with the shepherds in Bethlehem.  I won’t go into that here – if you’re interested in the historical details, read my article on History Undusted, here.  Other urban legends include:  We only use 10% of our brains; the full moon affects our behaviour; lightning never strikes the same place twice; cracking your knuckles gives you arthritis, and antibiotics kill viruses.  If I rankled any feathers there, or you said to yourself, “But that one is actually true,” then I would suggest you do your own research on the issue… I’ve got my plate full at the moment with the 18th century.

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Odd Jobs #5:Deer Urine Farmers to Embalmers

I thought I’d switch gears for the weekend from my daily post challenge, to continue with an odd topic:  Odd jobs.  This batch has some doozies; people actually get paid to eat dog food, or smell a dog’s breath!  And while the deer urine farming sounds intrinsically disgusting, the purpose is even more dubious in my opinion:  To lure bucks to their deaths through hunting with the urine as bait.  Whatever happened to fair play… giving the buck a fighting chance?  I think I’d much rather prefer training dogs to surf, or wrangling ducks or training elephants; or maybe we could even come up with a job that combines all three!  Enjoy perusing the jobs below – just click on the links to learn more about each.

Odd Job - Dog Food Tester, Nancy Rica Schiff

Dog Food Taster – Photo Credit: Nancy Rica Schiff

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Writing Trivia: Earthen Floors

I do a lot of research online; sometimes it leads down the oddest of trails, and those are always the fun ones to follow – the road less travelled, and all that.  I keep a storehouse of “odds and ends” information, the trivial bits and bobs that might come in handy as I create a new world for a story.

I was recently writing an article for one of my other blogs (click here to read it), and came across an interesting article on the topic of earthen flooring; such an element could be used in historical fiction, science fiction, or modern eco-escapism fiction.

What I found fascinating is the way the writer describes her first experience of walking on such a floor:  The leathery softness, the warmth, the texture, and the creative possibilities this type of flooring allows.

Such things stir my creative juices, and I have to remind myself to finish my current manuscript before moving on!  But such an element will come in very handy for my next book, which is a science fiction story… and now, because I’ve shared it with you, I’ll know where to find it when I need it!

Click on the image below to read the article, and be inspired.  Keep writing!

Earthen Flooring

 

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Thoughts From Gibraltar and London

I just returned from a research trip a week ago; after the dust of “coming home” has settled, it’s time to sit down and get to work in earnest on my next novel.  I’m working on the third book in my 18th century historical trilogy, and to be honest, up until this trip I would have rather been working on a different manuscript!  My time away was research into the major section of the book which takes place in the Royal Navy aboard a ship of the line.  Part of the reason I think I’ve had “writer’s block” on this manuscript is that the military aspect of the plot is not my favourite topic to delve into from a writing aspect – I love reading about it, but condensing that down into dialogue and prose is not my forté.  But I know myself:  As with anything, if it’s not my strength I’ll work at it and hone it until it is.

The Cutty Sark 1

The Cutty Sark

A very important thing for me to remember in the midst of the research is that I’m not writing a maritime history book, but a novel; I’ve got to take the research, sift it for the elements that support my plot and leave the rest of the information aside as “nice to know”.  I’ve bought, read and taken notes on dozens of history books focused on the Royal Navy; I spent a day taking in impressions aboard the Cutty Sark (one of the fastest clippers from the days of Sail, on the right), and talking to curators both there and in the Maritime Museum, as well as the British Museum; I spent time on a clipper on the Thames, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, salt spray and tastes of the river.   My hotel was literally just round the corner from the largest used book shop in London (Skoob Books)… a very dangerous thing.  Trust me.  I found some great gems, from a history book on the Seven Years War (exactly in my time period), to a portrait collection of 18th century fashions – invaluable visual aids, with explanations of things like mob caps, waistcoats, etc.  If I’d had more time (and more room in my carry-on-sized luggage), I still would have had to leave hundreds of great books behind…!

Gibraltar - Barbary macaque 2

A Barbary Ape, with Spain in the distance.

Gibraltar itself was a special time:  I was there with my husband, who then took off for a 10-day bike ride toward Madrid on the day I flew to London.  Gibraltar was vitally important as a British Naval base for centuries, and you literally cannot walk down any street without being reminded of its military past:  Atop the Rock are the ruins of fortifications; St Michael’s cave was a strategic hideout; in the town are cannons everywhere; ramparts are now part of walled parks, and everywhere there are military street names, town square names, and military ships in the harbour; Spain is a spit away, and Morocco is visible even on a foggy day; it is literally the gateway to the Mediterranean.  Taking a cable car to the top of the Rock you’ll find Barbary Macaque (aka Barbary Apes, though they are tailless monkeys) everywhere; they were originally brought from Africa in the 18th century by British sailors.  A few of them escaped and set up house on the rocky slopes above the town, and now they run the show; tourists are lower down in the pecking order than they are, and if they get half a blink they’ll steal your food if you’re silly enough to take it outside.  They usually stay up on the Rock, but it’s still not wise to leave your hotel window open…

Gibraltar: The War Memorial with a Russian cannon in the foreground.

Gibraltar: The War Memorial with a Russian cannon in the foreground.

So now that I’m back, I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into this new manuscript!  Sometimes it just helps to get away, get new impressions, percolate ideas, and become inspired.  If you’re stuck on something you’re writing, get out!  Go on a research trip, or if you can’t afford it time- or money-wise, then get out to a park, or somewhere different for a change; take your notebook, and let your mind wander.  You’ll find a way through the block!

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Archetypes: Aphrodite vs. Dionysus

Throughout literary history, archetypes have been used to help us relate to characters, their stories, the morals of the tale and the paths they choose and why.  Understanding the archetypes helps to figure out how to portray a particular character; it keeps you on the “same page” as you write, as you develop characters, and try to figure out what makes them tick and where that ticking will take you and them.  Today I’d like to take a closer look at Aphrodite and her male counterpart, Dionysus.  I’ll give examples of these characters from films and books, relatable to most whether you like to read or prefer the visual experience of film.

Kim Novak,  Vertigo

Kim Novak, Vertigo

Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, pleasure, beauty and procreation.  Like a coin, there are two sides to the character:  The Lover (or seductive muse), and the Femme Fatale.  On the Lover’s side of the coin, there are characters such as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or Ginger on Gilligan’s Island.  The positive side of this character motivates others to improve themselves.  The flip side of that coin are seen in Sharon Stone’s portrayal in Basic Instinct, Kim Novak’s character in Vertigo, or the Bible characters of Salome or Delilah.  On one side you have a character that is nurturing, attractive, seductive and at the core often good, while the Femme Fatale is seductive with often quite dark ulterior motives.  Sean Young’s character in Blade Runner is a good example of the Seductive Muse; she forces Harrison Ford’s character to examine his own sense of humanity by her mere existence.

Mr. Willoughby, in Sense & Sensibility

Mr. Willoughby, in Sense & Sensibility

Dionysus is her male counterpart:  His two sides are the Woman’s Man, and the Seducer.  Either way, Dionysus needs women in his life.  He loves women; on the positive side, he loves to make women feel loved.  The flip side is abuse in one form or another, with darker motivations behind his love.  Fifty Shades of Grey is a touchy topic right now; on one hand it’s immensely popular, and on the other very harshly condemned as glorifying abuse, violence and manipulation in the guise of relationship or love.  I tend toward the latter view, as did the main actor in interviews during his junket (he often found himself apologizing to his co-star after their scenes, which speaks volumes about his instincts of what’s right and wrong, and Shades definitely crossed that line for him and for a growing number of critics).  Other examples are Mel Gibson’s character in What Women Want – his character makes the arc from the negative side to the positive; Cary Grant’s character in An Affair to Remember makes a similar arc.  Leo DeCaprio’s Jack in Titanic sits firmly on the positive side of the coin, and makes for a memorable and loved character.  Count Dracula is a typical Seducer, as is Jane Austen’s character of Mr Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility.

There are many other archetypes; if you’d like to know more on the topic, check out Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters.

Keep writing!

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Writing Tip: Dealing with Boredom

boredomIf you’re bored with the subject you’re writing about, it won’t work to try and think your way out of it, or to convince yourself to write.  I know all too well that when that’s the case I can find a million things that are suddenly far more pressing, like cleaning out a (clean) cupboard or repairing a household appliance.  But often, boredom is an indication that we don’t know enough about our subject matter, and that our writing has simply subsided into going through the motions.

There’s a simple solution:  Find out more!  Read more on your topic; travel to the location; find maps from your time period; investigate the place with Google Earth Street View; go to a museum; ask questions; look for original documents; engage your senses to gain more knowledge and understanding about your theme.  As you find out more, write scenes to inform your work, or a dialogue between characters that will inform you about their situation, setting, personalities or role in the story as a whole.  Beware of your motives in extended periods of research, however:  Are you procrastinating, or percolating?

I look at it this way:  If I’m not getting anywhere with a manuscript, I can either give in and call it “writer’s block” and allow it to paralyze me, or I can proactively work against that block in what I call “percolating mode” – thinking around the problems that I’ve run into, and use the time to inform myself, learn about the time period, and investigate aspects of the story that I am interested in.  That block may be like a boulder in the stream’s path, but my writing, like water, will eventually find a way around it.

Let that boulder of a writer’s block make you stronger and more diversified – and keep on writing!

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