Category Archives: Articles

Meet Author Shonna Slayton

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Shonna-Slayton-headshot-website

Shonna Slayton is a prolific writer of young adult historical fiction and fairytale reimaginings. Her books include Cinderella’s Dress (2014), Cinderella’s Shoes (2015), Liz and Nellie (2016), Spindle (2016), Snow White’s Mirror (2018), The Tower Princess (2018), Beauty’s Rose (2019), Cinderella’s Legacy (2019), Sleeping Beauty’s Spindle (2020), The Little Mermaid’s Voice (2021), Lessons from Grimm: How to Write a Fairy Tale (2020), and its companion volumes, the workbook (2020), the high school workbook (2020), the middle school workbook (2020), the elementary workbook (2020), Prompts from Grimm (Grades 7-12) and Prompts from Grimm (Grades 3-6). I am delighted that she agreed to be interviewed for ARHtistic License–she has so much to share with us.

Cinderella's Dress

ARHtistic License: Many of your books are YA historical novels and/or fairy tale sequels. Where do you get your inspiration?

Shonna Slayton: I’ve long been interested in writing historicals and in particular telling women’s stories. But I also have a bent toward fantasy. Why not combine genres? With fairy tales, the inspiration is already there in the original story, giving me plenty to riff from. Once I’ve picked a fairy tale and paired it with a historical time period, the boundaries are set, and I’m free to imagine how to merge these two ideas.

AL: How long does it take you to finish writing a book? What is your favorite part of writing a book? What is the hardest part of writing a book for you?

SS: Each book is different. My favorite part of writing a book is the part I’m not currently working on (!) At least, that’s what it feels like right now. I’m deep in the weeds of Act 2 right now, pushing toward Act 3 and the words are coming ever so slowly.

Snow White's Mirror

AL: Are you a plotter or pantser?

SS: As much as I would like to be a plotter, I’m more of a discovery writer. I know many of the plot points going in, but not how I’m going to get there. I rely on the characters to make those decisions, but the characters are not fully formed in the first draft…kind of the chicken or the egg scenario. I write in a spiral, moving forward, but often swooping back to earlier chapters to add more information as I learn it.

AL: Your first few novels were published by a publishing house. Did you have an agent? What was your submission process like?

SS: Yes, I was originally published through Entangled Teen. I’ve never had an agent. I went to a writing conference with plans of what classes I was going to take, but when Entangled publisher Liz Pelletier stood up to introduce herself and the sessions she was giving, I changed all my plans and went to her talks. At the time, she was working off of a different publishing model which fascinated me, and I wanted to be in on the experiment. I simply submitted my work directly to her a few days after the conference. She’s a smart business woman, and I was thrilled to work with her company for as long as I did.

Liz and Nellie

AL: Now you mostly self-publish. Sometimes readers assume authors choose to self-publish because they’re not good enough to get a book deal. That’s certainly not true in your case. Why did you decide to abandon traditional publishing?

SS: To be honest, traditional publishing abandoned me. My fourth book got cancelled, and while the company was willing to keep working with me if I changed what I was writing, I wanted to finish what I started.
Fortunately, when self-publishing started to take off, I thought it would be a good idea to have a foot in both publishing models. My first attempt at self-publishing (Liz and Nellie, about Nellie Bly’s race around the world) came out between my second and third traditional book. So, when my contract was cancelled, it wasn’t much of a leap to turn to self-publishing.

Looking back, knowing what I know now, cancelling my book was a smart business decision for Entangled and, it turned out, for me, too. My books didn’t generate enough revenue to keep a publisher’s interest, but when all the royalties come to me, I can make it work. Under a trad publisher, my books would have slowly died, but with the tools available to indie authors (such as paid advertising, newsletters, control over pricing, and a bit of courage to put yourself out there), I can keep a steady stream of readers finding my books.

Lessons from Grimm

AL: What’s up next?

SS: I’m working on an original fairy tale trilogy based on kelpie mythology. While set in a fantasy land, it’s got a Scottish flair.

I’m also in the process of producing audiobooks for my Fairy-tale Inheritance Series. The first audiobook, Cinderella’s Dress is out now. It’s been fun to work with a voice actor to bring the story to life.

AL: It’s been great to hear about your writing and publication journey. Thank you for sharing with us. I’ve read most of your books and enjoyed them immensely.

SS: Thanks for inviting me onto your blog, Andrea! I love how you focus on creativity in a variety of ways here.

Quilt Show and Tell

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My husband’s brother, Peter, was married to his first wife, Nikki, for over fifty years when she was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly after.

Peter didn’t expect to fall in love again, but then he met Joy, and soon they married.

We had been out of touch with Peter for a while, but when Greg had complications after surgery in March, 2020, I called Peter to let him know what was happening. Peter stayed in touch with us, and last July, he and Joy drove from their home in California to visit us in Arizona.

Greg immediately set to work making a rifle for Peter, a collector. (Greg makes reproductions of antique weapons from kits.) I wanted to have a gift for Joy, and making a quilt seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t really know her style, so I decided to make a lap quilt, rationalizing that she could always hide it in a drawer when not in use if it clashed with her decor. I made a scrap 4-patch and set the blocks so that they formed diagonal rows. I forgot to take a picture of the finished quilt before I gave it to her, but I did photograph it as I was laying out the blocks:

Joy's scrap quilt in progress

When Christmas approached, Greg got to work on a pair of pistols for Peter, and I thought about the Holly Jolly Christmas quilt I’d been dying to make–a perfect gift for Joy.

Holly Jolly Block

I’ve got to confess–it wasn’t ready for Christmas; I completed it January 2. It uses a paper foundation, and I’ve only done one foundation quilt before, a miniature many years ago. I forgot about all the trimming you have to do, and how tedious it is to remove the paper foundations. I totally underestimated the work involved. To quilt it, I stitched in the ditch around some of the diamond shapes:

Joy's Christmas quilt

For the backing, I used a cheater fabric and attached a border. It turned out nice enough that you could use either side:

Back of Christmas quilt

I have two quilts-in-progress right now. One top is complete, a baptism quilt for my former church; I just have to sandwich it and quilt it:

Sheep quilt

Unfortunately, the fabric I used for the sheep’s body is so pale that it doesn’t show up well against the white background. I am going to attempt quilting that section with wooly-looking swirls to make it stand out better.

Sheep quilt
About a year ago, I told my son Matthew I wanted to make him a quilt. I made him one when he was little, and he wore it out a long time ago–he deserves a new one. I showed him a couple of possibilities I had in mind. One was a log cabin made in Christmas fabrics, which he immediately liked. I said I could make it in any colors he wanted, but he said since he has sheets in solid burgundy, forest green, gray, and black, he liked the colors in the picture.

So red and green it is, but I looked for non-Christmasy fabrics. It’s still far from finished, but now that Joy’s quilt is done, I can get back to Matt’s. I love how the blocks progress every time I add a new “log”:

Log cabin
Log cabin
Log cabin
Log Cabin

I hope that before the end of 2022, I can show you the finished versions of these quilts.

So, fellow quilters, what are you working on? Share in the comments below.

ARHtistic License 2021 in Review

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2021

After 2020, I thought 2021 HAD to be better, but NOOOooo . . . six days in, a mob attacked our Capitol, trying to interfere with the certification of the election results. Then, many states enacted laws making it harder for people to vote. Covid almost dwindled down to nothing, but people tried to go back to normal too soon, and it came back with a vengeance. This time last year, I knew of only one person close to me who had had the virus. Now I know of seven, and two of them died. And my brother-in-law had 13 people over to his house for Christmas, and the next day two tested positive for Covid. We’re all sick of Covid, but if you’re not following the protocol, you’re spreading the disease. Please stay away from me in 2022.

As far as ARHtistic License is concerned, it’s been an okay year. I published 560 posts, not a record for me. I missed a few days here and there, and forgave myself. My average likes per post was 12.2, and that was a record for ARHtistic License. Thank you for the love! My followers grew from less than 1100 to almost 1300, not staggering growth, but I’m grateful for every one of you and hope to earn your loyalty.

Like last year, my most viewed posts this year were all articles posted before 2021. Part of me is a little hurt that my current articles aren’t getting as much attention. Most of my traffic comes from search engines, so I guess these articles have good search engine optimization (SEO). Here are the top ten (Have you read them yet?):

  1. Jan van Eyck’s Crucifixion and the Last Judgment: Painted by a Committee This 2016 article explores the painters’ workshops and apprentice programs of the Renaissance. It was viewed 673 times last year, for a whopping all-time total of 2,705.
  2. 10 Best Zentangle Sites on the Web I wrote this in 2018. 
  3. Video of the Week #274: Ben Pratt sings “River” This post first appeared in 2020.
  4. How to Practice Piano: Doh! Dohnányi I wrote this article about the unplayable exercise book that is the bane of every pianist’s existence in 2017.
  5. How to Make a Meme on a Mac Step-by-step instructions, first published in 2017.
  6. Ballet Feet They’re not cute and dainty. Ballet dancers literally suffer for their art. This article was written in 2016.
  7. Hawaiian Quilting with Pat Gorelangton was posted in 2018.
  8. Tangles for Christmas came out in 2019.
  9. Interview with Author Paul Mosier was written in 2019.
  10. Smarty Dance was originally written for Doing Life Together in April, 2015, and then reposted on ARHtistic License that October.

My most viewed posts of 2021 (written in 2021):

  1. October Challenges Don’t ask me why 80 people looked at this, more than any other article I wrote this year. Maybe creative people look for challenges?
  2. 19 More Best Zentangle Sites on the Web An update of the 2018 article above.
  3. Meet Donna Kramer, Blogger Extraordinaire If you like my blog, you’ll love hers, so take a peek.
  4. When Blogging Becomes Expensive What to do?
  5. Back to South Mountain Photographs taken in a desert park where I like to hike.
  6. Ideas for Valentine’s Day During the Pandemic Just a brainstormed list.
  7. OctPoWriMo2021 Day 9: Retirement A poem written for a challenge.
  8. Smell the Roses Photography
  9. The Sculpture of Donatello Art history lesson.
  10. Creative Juice #236 An edition of my weekly (Friday) curated list of links to articles on the web that deal with the arts, creativity, or something I find interesting or humorous.

In my opinion, this is a diverse list of articles, covering a variety of topics. I think I’m supplying something for everyone. I hope you’ll take the time to read a couple of these that maybe you missed before.

2021 wasn’t a total loss. Some good things happened in our family. My son whose job dried up when the pandemic started found a new job this summer, and he’s doing well there. And my daughter, who got engaged in 2019 and planned to marry in 2020, but, you know, Covid, finally tied the knot last week on December 28 (I hope to share more about that soon).

Katie and Michael kiss

What’s Your Writing Brand?

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What’s Your Writing Brand?

People will tell you that in order to market your creative work, you need a brand. So, what’s a brand[1]?

  • According to the American Marketing Association, a brand is a “feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”
  • Donna Antonucci says, “Brand is a known identity of a company in terms of what product and services they offer but also the essence of what the company stands for in terms of service and other emotional, nontangible consumer concerns.”
  • Jay Baer says, “Branding is the art of aligning what you want people to think about your company with what people actually do think about your company. And vice-versa.”
  • Paul Biedermann says, “A brand is the essence of one’s own unique story.”
  • Lisa Buyer says, “A brand is created and influenced by people, visuals, culture, style, perception, words, messages, PR, opinions, news media and especially social media. Like when a child is born and given a name, a brand needs nurturing, support, development and continuous care in order to thrive and grow.”
  • Margie Clayman says, “Branding is the encapsulation of a company’s mission statement, objectives, and corporate soul.”
  • Heidi Cohen says, “A brand creates perceived value for consumers through its personality in a way that makes it stand out from other similar products.”
  • Gini Dietrich says, “Branding is the identity of a product or service. It’s the name, the logo, the design, or a combination of those that people use to identify, and differentiate, what they’re about to buy. A good brand should deliver a clear message, provide credibility, connect with customers emotionally, motivate the buyer, and create user loyalty.”
  • Ashley Friedlein says, “Brand is the sum total of how someone perceives a particular organization.”
  • Seth Godin defines brand as “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”

Oh joy. Easy peasy. Coming up with an author brand should be a snap.

A lot of the time, an author’s brand is connected to their genre. You think of Stephen King, you think horror. Nora Roberts, romance. George R.R. Martin, fantasy.

But what if you write in more than one genre? That’s trickier. You need a focus that spans genre.

Think of the projects you’re working on. Who are the people who will want to read your books?

I love books that have an art tie-in, like Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. The artwork pulls me in.

My still-unfinished mystical fantasy, The Unicornologist, has a tie-in to the Unicorn Tapestries in The Met Cloisters in New York City. They captured my imagination when I was in high school and haven’t let go. I was born to write a unicorn book; it will be my magnum opus.

Not everything I’m working on has an obvious art tie-in, but the main character in my mystery is a piano teacher. It wouldn’t be hard to weave a little bit of creativity and art into any storyline.

When I started my blog, I wanted it to reflect my brand. That’s why ARHtistic License focuses on the arts and the creative process. Also, I knew I’d be able to generate content along those lines, since art and music and crafts and creativity are my greatest interests. I want to build a following among all kinds of art lovers—musicians, puppeteers, dancers, doodlers, quilters, crocheters, freelance writers. They’re my peeps. My blog is a tool to help me connect with other people like me.

By the way, did you ever wonder about the weird spelling of my blog name? Do you think I did that by accident?

When I applied for my domain, artisticlicence.com was already taken. I was heartbroken. I loved that name. Then I thought about how I could modify it, make it mine with a minor tweak. My maiden name is Rannertshauser, and I use R as my middle initial. Sometimes I write my name as ARHuelsenbeck, especially when I’m submitting a piece of writing. So I came up with ARHtistic License as the name for my blog. (I could have used ARHuelsenbeck, Author, but I don’t have a book in print yet, so it felt like cheating.)

Now it’s your turn. Do you have a writing brand (or a brand for your artwork or your music or creative endeavor)? What is it, and how are you building it? Share in the comments below.


[1] Thank you to Heidi Cohen for collecting these and many more definitions of brand.

Vermeer

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Johannes (Jan) Vermeer (1632-1675) was one of the foremost Dutch artists of the 17th century.

Girl with a Pearl Earring
My favorite Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, which also inspired the 1999 novel of the same name by Tracy Chevalier, and the subsequent movie.

He remained relatively obscure during his lifetime and until the end of the nineteenth century, mainly because he produced only about forty-five paintings (of which thirty-six are known today) during his brief lifetime, primarily for a small circle of patrons in Delft. Most Dutch painters turned out hundreds of pictures for a much broader market.

The Milkmaid
The Milkmaid by Jan Vermeer

Vermeer’s father trained as a weaver but eventually became an innkeeper and art dealer. The art business exposed Jan to the formal conventions of past and current masters. Due to his father’s debts and death in 1652, Vermeer had to essentially train himself rather than study with a master. During most of his short career, his paintings earned high commissions and he was able to support his large family (he and his wife had eleven children), but the dismal Dutch economy of the early 1670s made his last few years challenging.

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid
Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid by Jan Vermeer

Vermeer’s paintings often feature a domestic world occupied mostly by women, whose postures, behavior, and expressions invite close study and sympathy. His works often hint at some connection between a figure and the viewer, making one feel like a voyeur.

The Astronomer
The Astronomer by Jan Vermeer
The Art of Painting
The Art of Painting by Jan Vermeer
Mistress and Maid
Mistress and Maid by Jan Vermeer. Oh, the light!
Vermeer
Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window by Jan Vermeer. This painting was recently restored, revealing a painting of Cupid on the wall behind the girl.

Images and information for this article came from Wikipedia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. If you’d like to go down a Vermeer rabbit hole, check out the Essential Vermeer website.

Oops! I Goofed.

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Oops! I Goofed.

I meant to post “Andrea in Song” today, but by accident it posted yesterday instead. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s here.

Claude Debussy

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Claude Debussy was born August 22, 1862, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. He was a highly influential composer of the 20th century. His melodies and harmonies did for music what the the Impressionist painters of his time did for art. He is sometimes called the father of Impressionist music, a title he distained. His major works include Clair de lune (“Moonlight,” in Suite bergamasque, 1890–1905), Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894; Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), and La Mer (1905; “The Sea”).

Listen to this piano roll recording of Debussy playing Clair de Lune:

Debussy showed his musical gift on the piano by the age of nine. In 1873 he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition for eleven years.

While living with his parents in a poverty-stricken suburb of Paris, he was hired by a Russian millionairess, Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, to play duets with her and her children. He traveled with her to her palatial residences throughout Europe during his long summer breaks from the Conservatory.

In 1884 Debussy won the Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata L’Enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Child). He was awarded a three-year stay at the Villa Medici in Rome to pursue his creative work. He fled from the Villa Medici after two years and returned to Paris. He associated with several women of dubious reputation. His first wife, Rosalie (“Lily”) Texier, a dressmaker, whom he married in 1899, shot herself, though not fatally.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun:

In the course of his career, which covered only 25 years, Debussy was constantly breaking new ground. He said that exploration was the essence of music. His single completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (first performed in 1902), demonstrates how Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work,” which encouraged artists to draw on different art forms to create a cohesive whole) could be adapted to portray subjects like the dreamy nightmarish figures of this opera who were doomed to self-destruction. Debussy and his librettist, Maurice Maeterlinck, said that they were haunted by the terrifying tale of Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher. In his seascape La Mer (1905) he was inspired by the ideas of the English painter J.M.W. Turner and the French painter Claude Monet.

Debussy’s work cannot be judged on the musical level alone. “One must seek the poetry in his work,” said his friend, the French composer Paul Dukas. There is not only poetry in his music; there is often an inspiration from painting. “I love painting [les images, a generic term that might apply to the whole of Debussy’s work] almost as much as music itself,” he told the Franco-American composer Edgard Varèse.

In 1905 Debussy’s illegitimate daughter, Claude-Emma, was born. (He had divorced Lily Texier in 1904 and subsequently married his daughter’s mother, Emma Bardac.) Debussy’s spontaneity and sensitive nature are particularly noticeable in his piano suite, Children’s Corner, which he wrote for his daughter, nicknamed Chouchou.

Seong-Jin Cho plays “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from Children’s Corner:

Debussy did not adhere to the harmonic practices of the 19th century. He formulated a “21-note scale” designed to “drown” the sense of tonality. Debussy also challenged the traditional way orchestras used instruments. For example, he rejected the idea that string instruments should be predominantly lyrical. The pizzicato scherzo from his String Quartet (1893) and the writing for the violins in La Mer, conveying the rising storm waves, introduce a new concept of string color. In fact, in his music, the conventional utilization of the orchestra, with its rigid woodwind, brass, and string departments, becomes deconstructed sort of in the manner of the Impressionist painters. Each instrument becomes almost a soloist, as in a vast chamber-music ensemble.

Le Mer:

Debussy’s life was cut short by cancer on March 25, 1918.

Information for this article came from the Britannica website.

Keeping Track of Submissions

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Keeping Track of Submissions

Writers, how do you keep track of your submissions?

In the 1990s, I used an Excel spreadsheet, but I never really grasped the functionality of the program. I constantly revised it, but it wouldn’t restructure itself the way I thought it should. It was tedious and unwieldy, altogether too much effort.

When I got serious about submitting my writing again after resigning from teaching, I started recording my submissions the low-tech way, in a steno notebook.

Around the same time I discovered Querytracker, which I use specifically for manuscripts that I submit to agents. (I’m still looking for a literary agent to represent me. Anybody out there interested?) Querytracker maintains a database of literary agencies and publishing houses and links to their websites so you can check out their submission guidelines and what they are looking for. At first I used the free option, and I liked it, but that only works well if you have a single project that you’re sending out. As soon as I had multiple projects, I invested in the subscription option. It’s well worth the $25 a year to keep track of all the places you’ve sent each manuscript and document when and how you sent it and what their response was.

I have lots of smaller projects that I submit to publications: articles and short stories and poems. I enter a lot of contests, and I submit to literary journals. All those I write down in my notebook. Some pages of my notebook are for miscellaneous submissions. I include the date of the submission, exactly which pieces I sent, the name of the publication, the name of the contest, when the deadline for submissions is, and when I can expect a response.

I go through these periodically and make sure that I’ve gotten a response for them. Usually, when I get an email about a piece, I’ll record the decision, and if it’s a rejection, I look over the piece again, see if there’s anything about it that I want to improve, and send it out to a different publication.

elements of fiction
Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

Poems are tricky. I usually send them out in bunches, and each publication has different guidelines and different fees. (Most contests have a fee; many literary journals also have a fee for non-contest submissions. This is customary, because they operate on a shoestring budget. Sometimes they’ll give you a subscription as well.) So sometimes I send one poem, sometimes three, or five, or ten, depending on the guidelines. Most publications will not accept poems that have been published before, even if it’s only on my own blog. So I’m constantly checking—have I sent this one (or this group of poems) to this magazine already, did I send it in a different grouping, did I post this one on my blog, etc.

For my larger projects (my poetry chapbook, for example) I have separate pages, so I can see at a glance all the contests I’ve already entered it in.

A lot of the contests and publications I submit to prefer to receive submissions through Submittable. I love that, because Submittable shows me everything I’ve submitted through their database, and what its current status is. Most of the time, the contest or publication will respond through email and also through Submittable, so if I miss the email (you know how emails accidentally get deleted or languish in your spam folder) I’ll eventually see the response in Submittable.

My system is not perfect. Sometimes I can’t locate what I’ve sent to a particular journal in the past, as happened just this past weekend.

Now it’s your turn. How do you keep track of your submissions? What features have you invented that work especially well for you? What tweaks would you recommend for me? Please share your experience and ideas in the comments below.

Research for Fiction Writers

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Research for Fiction Writers

When I was a high school student, research papers were my downfall. For weeks I’d diligently scour the reference shelves at the library and take copious notes by hand on index cards (these were the days before photocopiers), and long before I ever exhausted my sources, I’d realize I only had a day or two left to actually write the paper—and no idea how to distill all my notes into a cohesive narrative.

Research is one of the trickiest activities for fiction writers. It’s necessary, because if your details are inaccurate, it will tick off your readers-in-the-know, and give them a reason to dislike your work. (I know there are a lot of stupid people out there, but people who read are smart, mostly.) This is not an exhaustive list, but you might need to do research if:

  • You’re writing historical fiction. You’ll want to understand what the world was like during the period you’re writing about—the political climate, the fashions, popular culture, common names, what the setting would have looked like, etc.
  • You’re writing science fiction. Even though it’s fiction, it’s based on science. You have to know how the science works. Even if you’re creating your own world, in order to be believable, it will have to submit to the laws of physics, or you may have to provide an explanation of why it doesn’t or else risk losing your knowledgeable readership.
  • Your characters are using technology, current, future, or antique. Your readers will expect your characters to use instruments, devices, and terminology properly.
  • You haven’t lived in your story’s setting. Ideally, you should travel there and spend some time. If your situation won’t allow you to do that, you’re forced to depend on other persons’ descriptions and photographs, or create a fictitious but believable setting of your own.
  • Your characters have an occupation or belong to a specific organization. An FBI agent will have a different sort of workday and responsibilities than an elementary school media specialist. Don’t give them authority they do not have.

In order for your research to be successful, though, you will have to avoid these research pitfalls:

  • Over-researching. Do too much, and you’re just wasting time that could be spent working on your story.
  • Under-researching. Do too little, and your writing will lack authenticity.
  • Researching the wrong angles. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. You expect your research will uncover certain things, but it seems no one has ever documented them. And you’re in danger of bypassing the whole forest while hunting for the elusive tree.
  • Looking in all the wrong places. We are accustomed to depending on search engines online to find answers to our questions. Sometimes that’s all we need to do. But sometimes research demands we leave the comfort of our homes and travel to a destination. When that’s not possible, it might be necessary to interview, remotely or in person, someone who is familiar with the location or the issue we need to learn more about.
  • Getting side-tracked. Ah, this is the pit I fall into most often. While looking for background information about one thing, I often discover an equally interesting side-topic, one that spawns lots of what-if ideas that beg to be developed into the next shiny new story. This leads to huge detours where I read just one more article and just one more article until I’ve squandered my writing time and haven’t made any progress at the task at hand.

How to keep your research on track:

  • Set a limit. This can be either a time limit or a page limit. You might devote two weeks, or two months, or even a year or more, depending on the project. Or you might decide that as soon as you have 50 pages of notes, you will get on with it.
  • Make a list of specific items you need to find out about. Important events in the lives of prominent people who directly or indirectly impact your story. The year the trolley first ran down Main Street. What the temperature in your setting was during the winter of 1963. Headlines from the area newspaper during the timespan of your story. Write down everything that you think you might need to know. You won’t use everything you uncover (nor should you), but the more you know, the better prepared you will be to write. And if you do miss an important detail, you can always look it up later.
  • Where and how will you be most likely to find out what you need to know? I always start with a Google search. Choose your search terms carefully. If your search doesn’t yield fruitful results, tweak the terms. Also, if your local library has a research librarian, she can steer you to possible resources. Think about people you know who have knowledge about people, places, and things related to your story. They may be able to direct you to authorities on certain topics. Also, movie documentaries and even dramas and novels with elements in common with your story can reveal information you need to know.
  • Think about how your research will inform your writing. What path will your story take, depending on what learn? Maybe the ending you were planning won’t work, based on what you found out. You may need to re-map your idea. Maybe different complications will yield a more realistic outcome.
  • What to do with the interesting but unrelated stuff you unearth. If you find information that is sparking your imagination with ideas for new projects, by all means, write yourself some notes (or take a picture with your phone). But then put that information someplace else. Don’t keep it with the notes for your current project; it will be a constant distraction.

Happy researching!

Richard Wagner: Genius and Jerk

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When I was in high school and college, I disliked Richard Wagner. To me, his music felt very brass-heavy, thick.

Funny, isn’t it, how life changes you. A few years ago I discovered that Wagner’s music is exceptionally lush. Hearing it live in person gives me chills. This is my favorite:

Talk about strong, beautiful women!

Wagner (1813 –1883) was a German composer, theater director, and conductor best known for his operas (or “music dramas”). He wrote not only the music for each of his stage works, but also the libretto (story line and words). He was also notoriously opinionated, an outspoken socialist German nationalist and anti-Semite. His personal life included political exile, torid love affairs, poverty, and debt.

From childhood he loved opera and knew he wanted to write for musical theater. He pursued music lessons as a means to that end. He was particularly influenced by Beethoven’s music, which he studied and analyzed. He even transcribed Beethoven’s ninth symphony for piano.

Wagner married his first wife, actress Minna Planer, in 1836. In May 1837, Minna left Wagner for another man, but she came back the following year. Their marriage continued in this on-again-off-again manner, due to infidelity and financial problems.

Wagner finished his fourth opera (and first very successful one), Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), in 1843, and Tannhäuser in 1845.

Der fliegende Holländer is about a ghost ship whose ghost captain is cursed to roam the sea forever. The only way to end his everlasting voyage: Every seven years the waves will cast him upon the shore; if he can find a wife who will be true to him, he will be released from his curse. Listen to the overture, hear the waves:

Here is the Grand March from Tannhäuser, arranged for brass and percussion:

Wagner played a minor supporting role in a political uprising in Dresden in 1849, and when a warrant was issued for his arrest, he fled to Switzerland, where he remained until 1858. He had just finished Lohengrin, and he corresponded with his good friend Franz Liszt, begging him to have it staged in his absence. Liszt conducted the premiere in Weimar in 1850.

You may recognize this famous theme from Lohengrin:

While in Switzerland, Wagner conducted a sexual affair with the wife of a friend of a friend. He even planned to run off with her. Meanwhile, his first (and current) wife Minna lapsed into a deep depression. Later, after she discovered he was having an affair with yet another woman, Wagner and Minna separated.

In Switzerland, Wagner worked on Tristan and Isolde and three of the four great dramas that would become the Ring cycle, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Sigfried.

This is archival footage of Jessye Norman singing the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde in 1987, Herbert von Karajan conducting:

Wagner spent the next part of his exile in Venice and Paris, while Minna returned to Germany. She visited him in Paris, and they tried to reconcile, but were unsuccessful.

In 1862, Germany lifted the ban against Wagner, and he returned to Germany, settling in Biebrich. Minna visited him there one more time, but they parted for good. Wagner supported her until her death in 1866.

Wagner began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürmberg. He also tried to have Tristan und Isolde produced in Vienna, but in rehearsals it was deemed “impossible” to sing, and the opera never opened, which added to Wagner’s financial problems.

Wagner’s luck changed in 1864, when King Ludwig II succeeded to the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. An ardent admirer of Wagner’s operas, he invited the composer to Munich. Ludwig, who was homosexual, expressed his love for the composer, and Wagner feigned reciprocal feelings so he could milk the relationship for opportunities and benefits. Ludwig settled Wagner’s debts and proposed staging Tristan und IsoldeDie Meistersinger, and the Ring dramas. Wagner began work on his autobiography, Mein Leben, at the King’s request.

Tristan und Isolde premiered at National Opera Munich in June of 1865. The conductor of this premiere was Hans von Bülow, whose wife, Cosima, had given birth in April that year to a daughter, named Isolde (whose father was Wagner).

Cosima was 24 years younger than Wagner and was the daughter of the Countess Marie d’Agoult, who had left her husband for Franz Liszt. Liszt initially disapproved of his daughter’s involvement with his friend Wagner. The affair scandalized Munich, and leading members of the court were suspicious of Wagner’s influence on the King. In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich.

Ludwig installed Wagner at the Villa Tribschen, located beside Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. Die Meistersinger was completed at Tribschen in 1867, and premiered in Munich in June the following year. At Ludwig’s insistence, “special previews” of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were performed in Munich in 1869 and 1870, but Wagner dreamed of presenting his first complete cycle at a special festival at a new, dedicated, opera house designed to his specifications.

Meanwhile, Cosima begged Hans von Bülow to grant her a divorce, but Bülow refused. He consented only after she had two more children with Wagner; another daughter, named Eva, after the heroine of Die Meistersinger, and a son Siegfried, named for the hero of the Ring. The divorce was finally granted in July 1870. Richard and Cosima’s wedding took place a month later. The marriage lasted to the end of Wagner’s life.

864px-RichardWagner
Richard Wagner

In 1872, the Wagners moved to Bayreuth, where his new opera house would be located. The town council donated a large plot of land—the “Green Hill”—and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (“Festival Theatre”) was laid. Wagner initially announced the first Bayreuth Festival, at which for the first time the Ring cycle would be presented complete, for 1873, but since Ludwig had declined to finance the project, the start of building was delayed and the proposed date for the festival was postponed. To raise funds for the construction, “Wagner societies” were formed in several cities, and Wagner began touring Germany conducting concerts. By the spring of 1873, only a third of the required funds had been raised; further pleas to Ludwig were initially ignored, but early in 1874, with the project on the verge of collapse, the King relented and provided a loan. The full building program included the family home, “Wahnfried,” into which the Wagners moved in April 1874. The theatre was completed in 1875, and the festival scheduled for the following year. Commenting on the struggle to finish the building, Wagner remarked to Cosima: “Each stone is red with my blood and yours.”

Wagner created several theatrical innovations at Bayreuth; these include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience.

The Festspielhaus finally opened in August 1876 with Das Rheingold, at last taking its place as the first evening of the complete Ring cycle; the 1876 Bayreuth Festival  saw the premiere of the complete cycle, performed as a sequence as the composer had intended. The 1876 Festival consisted of three full Ring cycles (under the baton of Hans Richter). At the end, the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg thought the work “divinely composed,” but the French newspaper Le Figaro called the music “the dream of a lunatic.” Friedrich Nietzsche was bitterly disappointed by what he saw as Wagner’s pandering to increasingly exclusivist German nationalism. However, the festival firmly established Wagner as an artist of international prestige.

Wagner was far from satisfied with the Festival; Cosima recorded that months later, his attitude towards the productions was “Never again, never again!” Moreover, the festival finished with a huge deficit. The expenses of Bayreuth and of Wahnfried meant that Wagner still sought further sources of income by conducting or taking on commissions.

Wagner’s most important stage works continue to be performed at the annual Bayreuth Festival, run by his descendants.

Richard Wagner is the earliest composer most specifically associated with the concept of leitmotif. His Der Ring des Nibelungen uses hundreds of leitmotifs, short melodic or harmonic themes often related to specific characters, things, ideas, or situations. While some of these leitmotifs occur in only one of the operas, many recur throughout the entire cycle. This practice is used today extensively in movie soundtracks. John Williams is a master of leitmotif.

I have never sat through one of Wagner’s operas, though I’ve heard excerpts at the Phoenix symphony and seen scenes on TV and online. I’ve discovered that Opera North in England has filmed the entire Ring cycle and posted it on its website. I want to watch it. All of it.

I am seriously considering issuing a challenge to ARHtistic License readers to watch the entire Ring cycle. We’re all busy, so maybe we could do it in segments, one opera per month, and post our reactions. Would you be interested? If so, let me know in the comments below, and give me your suggestions about how we could do this. If by the end of June we have at least ten people who want to participate, we’re on!