The Florida Chapter of the Historical Novel Society, of which I am a member, had its monthly meeting yesterday in Citrus County, Florida. The guest speaker for this months’s program was Historical Mystery Novelist, Judith Rock.
Judith Rock is the author of The Charles du Luc Historical Mystery series, which includes The Rhetoric of Death (Book 1) and The Eloquence of Blood (Book 2). A Plague of Lies (Book 3) is due out later this year, and Judith is just now beginning work on her fourth installment in the series.
Judith was a delight to listen to and was a very animated and interesting speaker. She began her presentation by talking about her journey to becoming a published author, which included a myriad of unique life experiences that all seem to have coalesced into fodder for her current novels.
As a young woman, Judith became a modern dancer and choreographer while living in California. She founded and co-directed Body and Soul Dance Company in Berkeley, and toured widely as solo dancer and artist in residence. In addition to her dancing, Judith also studied and earned a Ph.D. in Theology—now that’s a contrast!
Eventually she moved cross-country to New York City and continued to dance and teach. Once her knees “decided they’d danced long enough,” Judith spent several years as a police officer—again, an interesting departure from dancing and theology. Her time as a police officer led her to write a one woman show, Response Time, about a midlife artist hitting the street as a cop. Obviously Judith took to heart the well-known writers’ admonition to “write what you know.”
This one woman show proved to be a tipping point for Joyce and her future career as a writer, for it was then that she was approached by an agent who wanted to see more of her work. This ‘Cinderella story’ didn’t happen overnight, however, as it took Judith another ten years to work from agent to actual publication.
“The first call from your editor is like being 13 and on your first date,” was how Judith described her excitement with the publication process. She joked that at that point in time, if her editor had told her to make Charles (her protagonist) a vampire in order to get published she would have said, “I can do that,” she was so ready to be in print.
What the editor did tell her was, “Love it! Now cut twenty-thousand words.” Judith said that inside, all she could think was, “Over my dead body,” but that outside, she could hear herself responding, “I can do that.” In the end, Judith cut the twenty-thousand words and found that the novel, “became so much better” as a result, with the lesson being, “you are never the final best judge of your work” and that you need someone to give you honest feedback, “even if it kills you.” With that in mind she added, “Never erase what you cut—save it for something else someday.”
Judith continued to provide advice to the audience about writing and publishing, including, “Write what you love—what sets your heart on fire—not the trend. That’s the only way someone else will fall in love with it,” and “You have to find an editor who falls in love with your manuscript because these days they have to fight for it to be published.”
Judith was kind enough to participate in a question and answer session at the end of her presentation and it was during this time that she continued to offer insight and advice to the writers present. The following is a sampling of some of the kind of questions that were asked and Judith’s responses:
Where do your characters come from and how do you know if your story is going to work?
“It’s a mix of real and imaginary. A character turns up somehow out of nowhere and you don’t even want them or start to do what they want to do, not what you want to do, and they won’t listen—then you know the story is going to work. When something emerges like this, it means it’s deeply alive and creating its own world. It means it’s becoming a vivid world for your reader.”
When do you know to listen to your characters as they’re changing the story, or when do you ignore them and stick to your plan?
“If your characters are pulling you away from the plot, maybe your plot is flawed. Make sure your good with where you’re going. That first waking moment [after a night’s sleep when you wake up and thoughts are coming to you] is almost always right. Your characters might be telling you something.”
Judith added that she doesn’t have a lot of time to play around with a story and let the characters change it too much. She stated that she used to “write around in circles before KNOWING my plot” but that now as a published writer with expectations from her publisher and her readers as to sequels and when they will be out, she has a limited time for writing, editing, and proofing, and that she generally has only nine months from start to finish for a novel. Though she lets her characters help guide her through the story, now she has to really know in advance what the plot is and not let them run away with the story, as she doesn’t have time to follow their every whim. Good advice for all writers to think about.
Judith also gave her thoughts regarding writing, and writing historical novels in particular. “What fiction writers do is create secondary worlds—worlds that behave coherently, believably, and consistently within its own set of rules. The challenge for historical novelists is to create that secondary world within a real historical setting. [It has to be] vivid and believable so that the reader wants to come in and live there for as long as the reading lasts.”
So how does a writer build this world?
“The tool to build your world is language. It’s the only tool we have—and it’s enough.”
When asked what’s okay to make up and what’s not in historical fiction, Judith responded, “History is the record of what happened—sort of.” She said that all of history is really just different points of view—different people watching the same thing happening. Whoever is reporting it makes it different, based on their perspective. A historical novelist needs to use this to make her novel accurate, but still her own story.
“It’s the whispering of bones.”
Thanks so much to Judith for driving the several hours from her home (and back!) to give the Florida Chapter of the Historical Novel Society an informative and interesting peek into the life of a historical, mystery novelist. I’m sure everyone who attended came away from her presentation with nuggets to use in their own writing. I know I did.
For more information on Judith Rock, and to purchase her books, visit her homepage.